Surveying Sanctification: A Grammar Lesson

When we consider the Biblical doctrine of sanctification, it is important to recognize how the doctrine is often portrayed in Scripture. It is organized first around who we are and then second around how we should live. The Bible first establishes who the believer is in Christ and makes statements as to the objective reality. Second, the Bible uses that objective reality to motivate us and bring commands for how we should live. Theologians have called this pairing the “indicative and the imperative”.

Strictly speaking, indicative and imperative are grammatical terms. However, these terms point us to a larger reality of the work of God in accomplishing our sanctification. The terms provide an ordering structure to how the Bible portrays and commands sanctification. In grammar, the indicative mood is used to make statements and describe facts. “I am writing this essay” is a statement in the indicative mood. The imperative mood is the grammatical category used to give commands or instructions. My editor saying to me, “Write an essay on sanctification” is an imperative or statement of command. He did not make a statement of fact but gave instruction to follow.

In the Bible, the imperative to the believer gives instruction on how to live and walk. It is a part of sanctification. However, imperative commands are grounded upon indicative statements. “This is who you are [indicative]; now, live this way [imperative].” If we are going to understand the work of God in the gospel, we understand that the indicative always precedes the imperative.

If we make the imperative come before the indicative of who we are in Christ, we have a form of legalism or works based salvation. Even believers can fall into a trap of using instruction and commands in a legalistic fashion when they make the obedience of the commands determinative of who we are. Bringing the commands first can load up a heavy burden upon the person.

At the same time, others have so emphasized the indicative that they never bring the commands of Scripture to bear in their life. Whenever someone sees God’s commands as only ever burdensome, even upon the believer, contrary to 1 John 5:3, they do not understand the good and necessary role of the imperative as it flows from the indicative. “Who we are” in Christ should always lead to a “live this way” since you belong to Christ. This indicative/imperative relationship is why in the Bible sanctification includes more than simply “getting used to my justification” or “letting go and letting God.” God brings good commands that are to be lived out as one in union with Christ.

One of the most helpful chapters in the Bible where we see this indicative/imperative dynamic in Scripture is in Romans 6. Paul begins that chapter responding to those who might say because of grace and justification, we do not have to obey God but can live in sin.

Rom. 6:1-2 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?

In the passage, verses 3-11 are essentially one long series of indicatives telling us “this is who you are in Christ.” Let’s highlight a few key statements of the indicatives:

Rom. 6:3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?

Rom. 6:4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Rom. 6:6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.

Rom. 6:7 For one who has died has been set free from sin.

In verse 11, we see in particular the relationship between the indicative and the imperative. Paul brings an imperative: “consider yourself” but it is grounded on who he has been outlining the believer to be: because of their union with Christ, the believer has died with Christ and risen to new spiritual life in Christ.

Rom. 6:11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

We are to consider ourselves dead to sin because we are dead to the enslaving power of sin. We are, of course, not free from the presence of sin in our lives but the objective change that Christ has effected in us through the Holy Spirit in order to sanctify us is the grounds, power, and motivations for seeking to walk in the holiness of life and in obedience.

With verse 11, and the new section begin in verse 12, we are told with the imperative we are not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies. Sin has no enslaving rule over the believer (objective), therefore do not let it rule by yielding to it (imperative).

Rom. 6:12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.

Rom. 6:13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.

Here again this is grounded in the imperative: sin will have no dominion because of who we are by grace.

Rom. 6:14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Rom. 6:22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.

Throughout the latter half of the chapter, Paul’s primary objective is to exhort us to live a certain way. He brings the imperative to bear upon the believer.

The Bible never motivates us to holy living by arm twisting and manipulative emotional ploys. Rather it points to the finished work of Christ in the gospel. It points to the power of God in the gospel. This is why there is an aspect of the believers’ sanctification that is definitive and done: “But you were washed, you were sanctified…” (1 Cor. 6:11).

However, the Bible also does not leave the believer to live life however they want, wallowing in their selfishness. We are called and commanded: “be holy as I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16). We are being built into a living temple to be a holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5). We are to live this way now because that is also who we are in Christ (1 Pet. 2:9-10). Just as the ordering of indicative and imperative are dual aspects of sanctification so both tunes of this song should be balanced in our hearts: “this is who I am; now live this way.”

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary.  He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.

Tim Bertolet