Gospel Indicatives And Imperatives: Where Is The Debate Anyway?

Many of you already know that on various blogs, including The Gospel Coalition, there has been a discussion concerning gospel indicatives and gospel imperatives in the sanctification process.  It is not difficult to see how this debate has significant influence in the realm of biblical counseling.

I would like to enter this discussion by first explaining, at least if I have understood the posts properly, what everyone already agrees about.

  1. Everyone agrees that the NT includes both indicatives and imperatives.  This means that no one is taking out their proverbial scissors and cutting out parts of the Bible.  Those who have emphasized gospel indicatives also believe that imperatives are important.  Those who emphasize imperatives also believe in the significance of gospel indicatives.  Some posts seem to want to prove there is a both/and in the Bible.  While I agree that there is a both/and, it seems that is not the location of the debate.
  2. Everyone agrees that the indicatives lead to the imperatives.  In other words, a person who has not yet understood the gospel is not in a position to obey the gospel.  A person may behave in some positive ways, but that does not mean they are behaving in a way that pleases or gives glory to God.  Again, any blog that suggests either side does not take seriously the importance of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is not being fair.

If the debate is not about either of those two issues, what is it about?

The crux of the debate seems to be the relative balance given to the communication of these two concepts in the sanctification process.

The crux of the debate seems to be the relative balance given to the communication of these two concepts in the sanctification process. The folks arguing for the indicative side of the equation might argue that 80% (I am making up the percentages for illustrative purposes only) of our communication should be focused on a theology of “remembering” or “appreciating” all that God has done for them in Christ Jesus.  “Preach the gospel to yourself everyday” seems to be one of the key phrases.  Their position is that the more God’s people meditate on the gospel in their daily lives, the more they will be motivated to put the commands of Scripture into practice.  Since the motivation is already there, the command section is not all that difficult.

Those who argue on the imperative side of the equation might strike that balance at a number of 30%–arguing that their counselees understand the content of the gospel, but that they fail to grasp what it “looks like” to live worthy of their calling.  They believe that what would be most helpful to their counselees is spending the bulk of their time focused on what the counselee must do in order to live out their calling.

How do we break the impasse?

I would like to suggest a few steps to help us dialogue on this issue.

1. Be careful of inflammatory rhetoric

Be careful of inflammatory rhetoric that comes across like this:  “If you don’t agree with me, then you obviously have never read your Bible, and I seriously question your love for Jesus.”  There may be a few people whose views are so variant from Scripture that this type of warning is necessary, but comments like this come across as prideful and rude.

2. Explain Terminology

The words “gospel” and “law” are used regularly, and I am not always sure I understand what a particular person means by them.

Gospel – Is “gospel” being used as the death, burial, resurrection, and eyewitness of Jesus as described in 1 Cor 15, or is the term being used for something more?  For example, does gospel indicative include regeneration, reconciliation, adoption, inheritance, sealing of the Spirit, and redemption?  I personally have no problem with people using gospel indicative in this broader sense, but at times I would like to know if that is what they are doing.

Law – Sometimes the word “law” is tossed around as if “law” equals any and every command in the Bible.  “Law” is used in the Bible to refer to several different ideas, and it would help if there was a bit more precision when using this word.  For example, in many passages, the law is the Law of Moses.  The use of the Law of Moses is a different debate and one that I doubt is really included in the current discussions.  Law can also be qualified by Christ (Gal 6:2).  The law of Christ might include the NT commands, and if so, I highly doubt that anyone really wants to ignore the law of Christ.  “Law” can also be used in a more general sense.  My point is simply that that law is not equal to the NT commands. I wonder if “law” is used in some blog posts to refer more to “legalism” than to a biblical definition of law.  It would be helpful if law were actually defined as these various articles are written.

3. Build your balance from Scripture rather than from reactions against others.

I know that I am prone to reactions.  I also know that when I react I tend not to develop my thoughts from Scripture but rather my thoughts come from whatever I am reacting against.  Some circles of biblical counseling may not have emphasized truths of the gospel (I am using gospel in a broader sense here to include the implications of the received gospel) as they should have, so the tendency is to speak about nothing other than the gospel truths.  Instead of reacting to these imbalances, allow the imbalances to drive you back to the text and find out what kind of balance the text of Scripture has.

I think the balance found is Scripture is an interesting one.  There are some books, like the gospel of John, which have very few commands given to the readers (most of the commands take place between the various persons in the various accounts).  John’s purpose is very clear according to John 20:30-31 – he wrote so that the reader would believe that the Messiah is Jesus and that by believing the reader would have life.  So the whole book is given to prove two points and those two points would encourage belief.  If I take my theology from John I would have to conclude that you give truth 90% of the time.  Why focus on application?  Why focus on command?  Give truth and the rest will come.

In the book of James, however, imperatives are found in 1 out of every 3 verses.  Apparently, James did not feel the same need to give long discussions of gospel indicatives before giving numerous commands.  Admittedly, gospel indicatives still form the foundation of the command, but the way that James commands is a bit different than we find in many other books.

The book of Hebrews includes commands in about 1 out of every 10 verses.  However, one must admit that the imperatives found in Hebrews are some of the most potent in the entire NT.  What Hebrews lacks in quantity is more than made up for in potency.  The ratio in Colossians is almost 1 in 3 verses (slightly less in Ephesians and 2 Timothy), while 2 Corinthians has an imperative to verse ratio of 1 to 15.  Why the diversity? Why is the balance in one of Paul’s book so high and in a different book it is very low?

While these stats do not tell the whole story, they do give us a clue into how Scripture might encourage us to strike the balance.  Maybe the Scripture demonstrates that there were different needs among the various peoples in various locations.  Some folks needed to be reminded of all that Christ had done, while others needed a bit more exhortation.  Maybe the wise biblical counselor will do the same.  The wise counselor will not only exegete the meaning of the text, but they will also exegete the people they are trying to help.  The balance of indicative to imperative is different depending on context.

Benefits from the discussion

The wise counselor will not only exegete the meaning of the text, but they will also exegete the people they are trying to help.  The balance of indicative to imperative is different depending on context.

I have personally benefitted from the discussion in several ways.

  1. This discussion has forced me to think about just how much of the gospel indicatives my counselees really understand and appreciate.  Do they really appreciate all that Christ has done?  Do they really understand that they were enemies and made friends, they were orphaned and now adopted, they were under punishment and now they are given the righteousness in Christ, they were powerless and now they have the power of God working in them?  Without those emphasizing the gospel indicatives, I am not sure I would have thought about these questions as deeply.  Many of us in the biblical counseling movement would agree that we should talk about the implications of the gospel far more.
  2. This discussion has reminded me of the importance of terminology.  At times, I have struggled to understand the referent of a term.  By clarifying what we mean by a term or phrase, all of us are in the proper position to evaluate it.
  3. This discussion has driven me back to ask the question from the text of Scripture – to ask Paul about his balance, to ask James about his, and the writer of Hebrews about his.

In the next article I will provide a few thoughts regarding what the communication looks like with a counselee.

Rob Green
Pastor Rob Green oversees Faith Biblical Counseling Ministries. A seasoned counselor, Rob also teaches others how to counsel--through FBCM's training conferences and Faith Bible Seminary's MABC program.