Indicative and Imperative

Ephesians 4:1

Audio Version

Two golfers stepped up to the first tee on the St. Andrews course at Ardsley, New York, one of America’s oldest courses. The elder one was a kindly man who played a thoughtful, deliberate game. The younger man was full of pride and impatience. On the first hole he sliced, lost his ball in the tall grass, shot another one, and had a score of eight instead of four or five. On the second tee he began to lecture the caddie: “Keep your eye peeled. I’m not here to do your job for you!” Thereafter, every bad shot was the caddie’s fault! At the end of the first nine holes, the young man was so enraged that he discharged the caddie and carried his own bag. “That caddie doesn’t like me,” he said to his companion, ” and I’m quite sure I don’t like him. He made me nervous. Thank goodness he’s gone!” After several holes had been played without a word, the older player broke the silence: “Several years ago a little kid from Yonkers came up here and was taken on as a caddie. He was a wonderfully sweet-natured boy; quick-witted, willing, and had a nose for golf. Everybody liked him. His name was William; he had a club foot. But that didn’t affect his quality as a caddie. It was a pleasure to go out with him. A certain famous doctor, a member of the club, became interested in William and took him South on a long trip. When William returned, he went back to caddying. The doctor, however, had to give up golf shortly after that because of his health. He died a few months later. One morning I was playing a round with William carrying my bag. Spring was running riot all over Westchester County and the fields and hedges were alive with blossoms. William gathered flowers until he had quite a bouquet. ‘Who’s the girl, William?’ I asked. ‘I haven’t any girl, sir,’ he said sheepishly. ‘They’re for my friend, the doctor–twice a week I take flowers to his grave.’ “You see,” the man went on, “the doctor took him down South that winter and operated on his foot. He made the boy whole again. And William never forgot the doctor’s act of kindness.” “Now that’s a caddie worth having,” the younger man said. “What ever happened to this William?” “He carried your bag today for the first nine holes.” This is a story about gratitude. What has God done for us? And what should we do in response? Those are the two questions we will seek to answer today.

To start to answer those questions, we need to look at these two words to see what they mean: indicative and imperative. The word “indicative” is referring to a way in which we can say something that means simply that something happened. It indicates that something happened. If I say, for instance, “There was a hailstorm last week,” I am indicating to you a statement of fact. That is called “indicative.” “Indicative” indicates something. You can readily see the difference between that and an imperative. The word “imperative” is another word for “command.” So, if I want to speak using the imperative, I might say something like this, “Close that door!” I am not stating a fact when I give a command. Instead, I am commanding that something happen. Now, for the first three chapters, we have been studying the indicative. That is, we have been looking at how God has saved us from our sins. The first part of chapter one tells us that we are united to Christ by faith, and that all saving benefits come from that union. Then we are told that Paul has prayed for the church that the church might have wisdom. God has given the church wisdom, answering Paul’s prayer. Chapter 2 at the beginning, tells us about becoming alive by the grace of God, whereas we were dead in our transgressions and sins before. We are saved by grace through faith. Works play no part in our new birth. Furthermore, this reconciliation with God has produced reconciliation with one another. Jew and Gentile are fellow heirs of the grace of the Gospel. God has revealed this mystery to us. That means that God can do infinitely abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine. So last week we finished the indicative portion of the book of Ephesians. What I wish to say today is that what God has done, this “indicative” is the foundation for God’s commands to us.

First God saves us, then He commands us. This is a pattern that we see throughout Scripture. We can see it in the Ten Commandments. What does the preface of the Ten Commandments say? “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of slavery, out of the house of bondage.” In other words, God is telling the Israelites there that He has saved them, redeemed them. And then immediately, God tells us the Ten Commandments. In other words, the reason why we obey God’s law is gratitude for salvation. Look at all of Paul’s letters. The doctrine always comes first in Paul’s letters. Then, in the second half (approximately), Paul goes into the practical applications of that doctrine. Romans 1-11 tells us about our sin, then salvation by Jesus Christ, applied to us in justification by faith, then sanctification, or the process of becoming more holy, then the sovereignty of God, which takes us right up to chapter 11. Then chapter 12 starts out with these words: “Therefore, I appeal to you brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodes as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your logical act of worship.” It is only logical that if God has done all of Romans 1-11 for us, that we should offer ourselves to God in response. The indicative comes first, and is the ground, or foundation, for the imperative. The word “therefore” also points in this direction. So, when we come to chapter 4 of Ephesians, we see this word “therefore” starting out the chapter. That word is huge. Remember, when you see the word “therefore,” always ask what it is there for. Why does Paul ask us to walk in a manner worthy of the calling? It is because of all that God has done for us which has been described for us in chapters 1-3. After all, if Jew and Gentile are members of one body, then obviously they should get along, which is exactly what Paul says in verse 2. If we are a body, then we should also grow like one, which is what Paul says in verses 15-16 of this chapter. If we are raised from death to life, then we must no longer walk as if we are still dead. Paul says this in verse 17 of chapter 4. Put off the old self and put on the new self. As a matter of fact, every application that Paul is going to give us in the last three chapters is based one way or another on what he has written for us in the first three chapters. And this is the way in which we will proceed: we will always notice the way in which the command is based on what God has done for us. It is vital for us to understand the proper relationship of the indicative and the imperative, what God has done for us, and what we must do in response. If we mess up here, then we have left the Gospel for something else.

This is what I mean. There are two main errors in which we can fall in the Christian life. The first error is to say that we get to heaven because of what we do. In terms of our categories here, they place too much stress on what we must do (imperative), and not nearly enough stress on what God has done (indicative). This is called legalism, the idea that we get to heaven because of what we do. We do not get to heaven because of what we do. We get to heaven because of what Jesus Christ has done for us on the cross. All we “do” is receive it by faith. And, as Paul reminded us in chapter 2, even that faith is something that God gives us. We actually do the believing, and we are called to believe. But we can only believe because of God’s grace. Legalism takes many forms. Most of the time it is very subtle. Someone might say, “I am a better person than that poor, dumb sinner over there. After all, I go to church, I listen carefully to the pastor, I do my devotions.” The motive here for doing those things is not gratitude in that case, is it? Instead, it is self-exalting, self-glorifying, self-idolatry. That is the result of legalism. We cannot get to heaven because of what we do.

The opposite, and perhaps more prevalent problem in the church today is antinomianism. That is a large word. Let me define it for you. Anti- means “against,” and “nomos” means “law.” So and antinomian is someone who is against the law. That is, they think that because they have been saved, that therefore they can do whatever they want to do. This is utterly rampant in mainline churches, and most evangelical churches, and even many Reformed churches. Often, they will even say, “Well, I have Christian liberty to do this, and that trumps every other consideration.” Or they will say, “Oh, that’s just an Old Testament law. We aren’t really bound to the Ten Commandments anymore. They really aren’t relevant to today.” Such people live like they want while calling themselves Christians, and they delude themselves. Gratitude for what God has done means that we will do what He says! Christ says, “If you love Me, then do what I command.” Antinomianism’s problem is that it over-emphasizes the indicative, or what God has done, and doesn’t ever get to the imperative, which is to do what God has commanded. So we can see that a proper understanding of this indicative-imperative relationship is absolutely fundamental to living the Christian life. If we understand this, then we will understand the law, and what the law means for our lives. And, we will be doing the right things for the right reasons. And this is so crucial. The young man in our golf story displayed no gratitude at all for what that doctor had been able to do for that caddie. He was very proud and selfish. The caddie was an excellent caddie, and yet the young man wanted to blame his terrible playing on anything but himself. Instead, he should have been grateful to have such a good caddie. Why do you do good things? Is it because you want God to let you into heaven because of them? Or do you do good things because God has done the greatest thing of all for you, which is to send His Son, born under the law, that Jesus might fulfill the law in our place, and take the penalty of law-breaking in our stead, and so our sins might be forgiven, and we might have eternal life, if we but believe that Christ has done this for us. Look at what God has done. And now look at what you must do in response. Do it out of gratitude.


  1. darel and patty said,

    July 22, 2007 at 6:46 pm

    Pastor, just wanted to let you know that we thought today’s message was one of the best you have ever given. you did a good job of showing the importance of obeying God out of gratitude for what he has done for us. Praise the Lord.

  2. thomasgoodwin said,

    July 22, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    Amen. Indicatio, Applicatio. John Carrick’s book on this is excellent!

  3. July 23, 2007 at 9:53 am

    Good to see you are on sermon audio Lane; I look forward to listening to you.

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