To understand what it means to be who you are in Christ, you need to understand two concepts in Scripture: the indicative and the imperative.
The indicative informs us of an accomplished fact; it is what has already been declared about you. For example, “God in Christ has forgiven you.”
On the other hand, the imperative is a command or direction. In Ephesians 4:32, Paul gives us this command: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” The New Testament is filled with the imperative: we’re commanded to live changed lives.
THE MOTIVATION: WHAT GOD HAS ALREADY DONE
The beautiful balance between the indicative (who you are in Christ) and the imperative (who you’re becoming in Christ) is perfectly demonstrated in the verse we’ve been considering. The entire verse reads, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
The imperative, “Be kind, tenderhearted and forgiving,” is firmly anchored in the indicative: “you’re forgiven in Christ.” This verse demonstrates a beautiful synergy that not only tells us what to do, but also plants within our souls the only motive that will empower God-pleasing compliance: what God has already done. We’ve already been forgiven in Christ.
KNOW WHO YOU ARE
In some cases, the New Testament writers couple indicative statements with both negative and positive imperatives; commands to stop doing one thing and to start doing another. For instance, because such-and-such is true about you (the indicative), you should put off this kind of behavior (the negative imperative) and put on this kind of behavior in its place (the positive imperative). Colossians 3:1-5, 12-13 provides an example:
- If then you have been raised with Christ [the indicative], seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above [a positive imperative], not on things that are on earth [a negative imperative]. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory [the indicative]. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you [a negative imperative]. . . .Put on then [a positive imperative], as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved [the indicative], compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other [a positive imperative]; as the Lord has forgiven you [the indicative], so you also must forgive [a positive imperative].
So many of us cavalierly gloss over what he has done and zero in on what we’re to do, and that shift, though it might seem slight, makes all the difference in the world. Our obedience has its origin in God’s prior action, and forgetting that truth results in self-righteousness, pride, and despair.
As you study Scripture, remember that the imperatives are always rooted in the indicatives. God calls you to become who you already are in Christ.
This post is adapted from Because He Loves Me: How Christ Transforms Our Daily Life.