“I’d like to be baptized someday, but I don’t think I’m ready yet. I need more time.”
I’ve heard statements along these lines several times. Those who speak them wrongly believe that they must first be good enough before receiving the salvation that Christ offers them. Some have parents imposing this false belief on them.
Others grew up in congregations that focused more on how the Bible commands Jesus-followers to live, and less (or not at all) on what Jesus Christ has already accomplished on their behalf. In effect, these individuals believe they have to fulfill gospel imperatives without first embracing gospel indicatives.
If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, let me simplify them, based on the writing of Gary DeLashmutt and Dennis McCallum (Xenos Christian Fellowship):
Gospel indicatives: What God has already done on your behalf in Christ.
Gospel imperatives: What you are to do as a result of being in Christ.
The whole Bible points to Jesus Christ stepping in to receive the full penalty of our sins in our place so that through Him, we can be restored to God in righteousness and purity. This is an indicative truth — a statement of what is, of what God has already done for us through Christ. By placing our faith in Jesus Christ and receiving the restoration He freely offers, we also receive His grace that frees us to live obediently as righteous and pure disciples. Our obedience is the imperative. As DeLashmutt and McCallum say, it is what we are to do as a result of being in Christ.
Is there an order?
Indicatives precede imperatives. Who we are and what we do always come after who God is and what He has done. God, through Christ, initiates relationship with us. We, through Christ, respond to God’s initiation. We can accept it and then, restored in Christ, live transformed in His likeness. Or we can reject His initiation and continue to live for our own glory. But we cannot live obediently enough to save ourselves. We can never earn God’s favor, let alone eternal salvation (Romans 3:23, 24). We desperately, unequivocally need Jesus Christ for relationship with the Father, for salvation, and for obedience (John 14:6).
This divine order is critical. As Israel Steinmetz has explained to me, “It is a reminder that God is always the source, always the one who initiates. Every time we’re commanded to love, we should remember that God loved us first, an act that gave us the ability and urgency to love one another. God initiates; we are changed and respond. This is the significance of the indicative-imperative relationship. Regardless of which one is stated first [in a text, like Ephesians 5:1, 2] or even if we state them independently, they are intimately related to one another and the indicative always precedes the imperative in reality, even if not in our writing/speech.”
Is there a balance?
Is the indicative more important than the imperative? This is, perhaps, an even more controversial question among believers than the question of order.
Are gospel indicatives and imperatives equally balanced? No.
Because the indicatives always precede the imperatives, they are of greater value. God initiates (indicatives). This initiation, complete with His grace, enables His followers to respond through obedience to the imperatives.
In other words, without His indicatives, the imperatives are impossible and pointless (Galatians 2:16, 21). Instead of questioning their balance, let’s turn our attention to their inseparable relationship.
In his book Theology and Ethics in Paul, theologian Victor Paul Furnish explains this inseparable relationship between gospel indicatives and imperatives:
Paul understands these two dimensions of the gospel [indicative and imperative] in such a way that, though they are not absolutely identified, they are closely and necessarily associated. God’s claim is regarded by the apostle as a constitutive part of God’s gift. The Pauline concept of grace is inclusive of the Pauline concept of obedience. . . .
In Christ he has been engaged, renewed, and restored by the creative and redemptive power of God’s love. Moreover, in Christ he knows that redemption is not just deliverance from the hostile powers to which he was formerly enslaved, but freedom for obedience to God. For Paul, obedience is neither preliminary to the new life (as its condition) nor secondary to it (as its result and eventual fulfillment). Obedience is constitutive of the new life.
As a result of this relationship between gospel indicatives and imperatives, we know our proper place before the Lord. We are not to live in an attempt to earn His favor. Doing this either leads to prideful self-righteousness or fearful distance between ourselves and our heavenly Father. Rather, we are to live in response to God’s initiation through Christ, which means heeding gospel imperatives as a loving response to gospel indicatives. We obey God out of love because He loved us first. Even more, His grace operating in and through us enables our obedience.
When a person says that someday they’ll give their life to the Lord or be good enough to proclaim publicly that they have done so, this is the truth they need to know: Someday will never arrive. Today is the day because Jesus has already accomplished their salvation. He has finished the work. All they must do is respond to His initiation in faith. They can embrace gospel indicatives and proceed through His grace and in love to live out gospel imperatives. Christ is re-creating them, causing the old to fall away and the new to come.