The gospel has a kind of logic to it. According to Sinclair Ferguson, it always holds to one important rule: Divine indicatives (statements about what God has done, is doing, or will do) logically precede and ground divine imperatives (statements about what we are to do in response). Any actions God requires us to take are grounded in his own actions.
Simple, right? The trouble is that we are prone to reverse this order into a formula that says “If I do this then God will do that” or “If I do my part then God will respond to me and do his part.” This, of course, is how many unbelievers think of their salvation and, sadly, how many believers think of their sanctification. As Sinclair Ferguson says, “Christians often seem to fall back into bad spiritual grammar.”
As we read the letters of Paul we find he always frames things this way: “God has done this for you in Christ, therefore you should respond in the following ways.” “Thus the motivation, energy, and drive for holiness are all found in the reality and power of God’s grace in Christ. And so if I am to make any progress in sanctification, the place where I must always begin is the gospel of the mercy of God to me in Jesus Christ.”
Knowing our tendency to reverse the order of gospel logic, we are wise to study God’s Word until we are utterly convinced that indicatives always precede imperatives. What we do is grounded in what God does or has done. To grow in our conviction of gospel logic, Sinclair Ferguson proposes we take a little “indicative medicine.” Here, from his book Devoted to God, is how you can take your dose:
- Take an old Bible or download the text of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
- Have a pen or marker handy. For the medicine to work properly it is essentially for you to note the occurrence of a single feature of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
- Read slowly through the text of Romans chapters 1 to 11. As you do, have one object in view—it is very important not to lose your focus here: Mark every statement that occurs in the imperative mood—that is, every statement that is in the form of a command, telling the reader to do something.
- Note that Romans chapters 1-11 contains 315 verses.
- Write down the number of verses containing an imperative in these chapters. (Again, remember that imperatives are verbs telling the reader to do something, i.e. they contain commands.)
- Check your answer.
What answer should you find? Here’s what Ferguson says: “Of course we can draw all kinds of implications for and applications to our lives from these eleven chapters. But in terms of actual imperatives? You will find them in an English translation such as the ESV only in Romans 6:12, 13, 19; 10:4; and 11:18, 20, 22. In essence Paul devotes 308 of 315 verses to a sustained exposition of what God has done, and only then does he open the sluice-gates and let loose a flood of imperatives.” In fact, you’ll find 20 of them in chapter 12 alone!
What’s the point of the exercise? To understand this: “Clearly Paul believed in the necessity of exhortations, commands, and imperatives. And his are all-embracing and all-demanding. But the rigorous nature of his imperatives is rooted in his profound exposition of God’s grace. He expects the fruit of obedience because he has dug down deeply to plant its roots in the rich soil of grace. The weightier the indicatives the more demanding the imperatives they are able to support. The more powerful the proclamation of grace the more rigorous the commands it can sustain.”
Why don’t you consider taking this dose of indicative medicine—“Get this right and we have a strong foundation for growth in sanctification. Go wrong here and we may go wrong everywhere.” The stakes are high, the benefits are brilliant.