THE GRAMMAR OF GRACE

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.                         
Ephesians 2:4-7

Do you remember what your teacher taught about the difference between the “indicative” and the “imperative” in English grammar? I had forgotten the difference but then began to see and to appreciate the difference in the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Every language has verb forms expressing the indicative and the imperative. The indicative form of the verb expresses a statement of fact, a reality, such as “She is going for a walk.” The imperative, on the other hand, expresses a command, an order such as “You go for a walk.” The difference between the two is simple but critically important for understanding what it means to live in God’s grace.

You will note that the Bible is filled with indicatives, with statements of fact about what God has done for you and me. Then there are the imperatives that express what we do in response to all that God has done for us. It is significant that in the Bible God’s indicative always precedes the imperative. That is, what God has first done for us always comes before anything we do for God.

Notice, for instance, how the indicative-imperative dynamic plays out in God’s relationship with His people Israel: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery [indicative]; you shall have no other gods before me” [imperative] (Exodus 20:2-3). What God has done for His people in redeeming them out of bondage becomes the motivation for how God’s people are to live: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3). Of course people would want to live their lives for such a great God! If we post the Ten Commandments [imperatives] in public places it would be helpful to post them in the context of what God has done for His people [indicative].

The thrust of the Bible and God’s Good News is on the indicative, on God, and what God has done for us. It is always about God, and what God has done that becomes the reason for our grateful response. “We love God [imperative] because He has first loved us” [indicative](1 John 4:19). Rightly putting our focus on the Good News of what God has done keeps us from straying into legalism. Legalism says, “Do!” while the Gospel says “Done!”.

Note how today’s scripture from Ephesians is filled with the indicative Good News of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. It is often observed that the first three chapters of Ephesians are in the indicative, while the next three chapters are imperatives in response to God’s love and grace. The indicative always precedes the imperative.

I like to often take time to reflect on and to savor the indicative statements of today’s text:

  • “God loved us…
  • “made us alive together with Christ…
  • “raised us up with him…
  • “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…

Keeping the indicatives and imperatives straight opens the way for living in God’s wondrous grace and love. As the Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer pointed out, “The essence of Christian theology is grace; the essence of Christian living is gratitude.”

Thanks be to God for the indicative Good News!

A fellow traveler,
Tim

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