Communicating the Balance of Gospel Indicatives and Gospel Imperatives

In my last post (Gospel Indicatives and Imperatives: Where is the Debate Anyway?), I mentioned that the discussion about gospel indicatives (some like gospel directives) and gospel imperatives (some like gospel obligations) is really about balance. It is not fair for one group to accuse the other of not believing in both. It is fair to say that one person holds a different balance of indicatives and imperatives. I tried to show, however simply, that the various books of the NT were not uniform in how they addressed the question of the balance. In some books, the focus is almost entirely on belief, position in Christ, and the newness of being one with Christ. In other books, however, the task seemed to focus not so much on what they know, but on what they are doing with what they know (i.e. imperative). This idea led me to conclude that a wise counselor will have a healthy dose of gospel indicatives and gospel imperatives at his disposal and will know when it is most appropriate to use them. My focus now turns to the matter of communication and conversation.

What does it look like to communicate both gospel indicatives and gospel imperatives in a counseling relationship? Here are 3 ideas … I am quite sure there are many more (please post the ones that have helped you in your ministry so we can all benefit from your experience).

#1. Rather than assume, find out what your counselee understands about the implications of the gospel.

I think most of us understand that biblical counseling begins at conversion. There is not God-honoring change until there is a saving relationship with Jesus. But all too often, this is a 5 minute conversation and then off to the world of the imperatives the counselor goes. Some counselors, especially when they have not thought about this issue very long, assume that if the person is a genuine Christian then they have a good understanding of all that the gospel means in their life. That assumption is, many times, not true.

Counseling is a conversation–not an opportunity to finish a sermon or preach a sermon!

Therefore, taking the gospel indicative and gospel imperative debate seriously means that you will have conversations about adoption, redemption, union with Christ, regeneration, and reconciliation, and that you will give homework that helps your counselee grow in his understanding. In fact, we want our counselees not only understanding but even experiencing the joy found in Christ, the love that Christ has for us, and his power that works in us so that we might live to please and glorify him. What may have been a 5 minute discussion is now a discussion that may take several sessions just to get the basics. Remember counseling is a conversation–not an opportunity to finish a sermon or preach a sermon!

#2. When you give imperatives, reinforce the indicatives you have already discussed

I have found it helpful to remind my counselees that they are free to love their spouse because they are fully loved by God (Rom 8:31-39). In other words, even if one spouse is in the difficult situation of loving when it will not be fully reciprocated they can choose to love because they are fully loved by Jesus. I have found it helpful to tell my counselees who are parents about giving their children grace because of the grace that they have been given in Christ. Every conversation about the imperatives is in one way or another reinforced by what they have already in Christ.

A perfect example is found in the prayer of Colossians 1:9-14 where Paul switches between imperative and indicative several times. According to v. 9 Paul prays that the church would be filled with knowledge of his will, for it is in that will (according to vv. 10-12) that we will live a life worthy of the Lord for indeed (vv. 13-14) he rescued us, forgave our sins, and transferred us into the Kingdom of Jesus. May we in our ministries communicate with that kind of balance.

#3. As your relationship with the counselee continues, ask them to explain the process of sanctification, looking for the importance of both indicatives and imperatives (maybe commands would be a better word for some) while dependent on the work of God in their lives

As the crisis of the moment begins to subside and our counselees have begun to make solid progress, then one of our concerns has to be about the ongoing growth of our counselees after the formal counseling relationship is over. Will they continue to grow? Do they understand growth? Are they more committed to walk with Jesus than ever before? One additional way to emphasize all the implications of the gospel is to ask your counselees to explain sanctification. Does it fit the personal trainer model (just 5 more, 10 more, etc)? Does it have a “let go and let God” flavor? Or are you hearing union with Christ, indwelling Holy Spirit, the God is who at work in me, and the importance of living worthy of the gospel? In other words, does your counselee have the balance found in Phil 2:12-13? You may discover that despite your attempts your counselees did not understand it as well as you would have liked – so you need to spend more time together. Or you may discover, by God’s great grace, that your counselees not only understand growth but could be a great service to someone else as well.

These ideas are certainly not the only ones (please share yours). But I hope they put some teeth to this discussion. After all, the question of the balance of gospel indicatives and gospel imperatives should result in a commitment to emphasizing both in our ministries with people and specific ways in which we do that in actual ministry.

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.