The Theological Cart Before the Horse

In his now classic work, Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen declared that Christianity was a triumphant indicative before it was an imperative. Specifically, he noted, “Herein is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity – liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God” (p. 35).  What exactly did Machen mean by that? Machen simply meant that the Christian faith was not first of all a way of life but a doctrine that issues forth in a way of life. Classical theological liberalism had reduced the faith to experience and Machen was intent on reminding his readers that Christianity was about what God had done in Christ to redeem his people before it was a call to respond to what he had done. 

Machen was in fact addressing a perennial trap that Christians fall into when we attempt to put the cart before the horse.  What do I mean by putting the cart before the horse?  Simply this:  We need to pay careful attention to the theological order or relationship between the indicative and the imperative. These are essentially grammatical terms that are freighted with theological significance.  An indicative is a statement about what is. An imperative is a command. The indicative is about what God has done or is doing and the imperative is about our grace-empowered response to biblical commands.

My goal in this post is to consider each of these matters and to bring Scripture to bear to see how these relationships play out in key texts. Putting the cart before the horse can be practically problematic. By that I mean that misunderstanding and misapplying the relation between the indicative and the imperative in Scripture can be spiritually disastrous. How so?  Simply put, we cannot appropriately or adequately respond to the biblical commands (imperatives) unless we are recipients of God’s saving action (the grand indicative).

A consideration of the relationship of the indicative to the imperative in Scripture is related to other matters which we need to briefly consider as well:  the relation of doctrine to life, the historia salutis and the ordo salutis (or, in the words of Professor John Murray, “redemption accomplished and applied”), the nature of concurrence, and the objective and subjective elements of the faith.  These do not consist in absolutely identical relationships, but they do overlap at points. 

Doctrine to Life

Faith is not, as Soren Kierkagaard averred, a leap in the dark. Faith is a grace-enabled response to the proclamation of the gospel (whether heard or read). A person must be responding to a message, to doctrine. Many are put off by the idea of “doctrine.” This is unfortunate and unnecessary. The word doctrine is simply the English transliteration of the Latin word for teaching. Surely faith is a response to teaching. It is a reaction to truth imparted. Doctrine must necessarily come before life. That is, Christian doctrine is the foundation for the Christian life.  In other words, Christian doctrine is fundamental. How would we know how to live as Christians if we hadn’t already been exposed to Christian teaching? This ought not to be controversial. Consider how we grow up.  We spend over twelve years in school before we enter into adulthood. Schooling precedes life. What is true in life is true, by way of analogy, in the Christian life.

Christian doctrine is used by the Holy Spirit to bring a person to faith in Christ; and, it is used in growing a Christian in spiritual maturity. Paul says as much in Romans 10:9-15: “…because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” 

Historia Salutis and Ordo Salutis (Redemption Accomplished and Applied)

As I have already noted, J. Gresham Machen, the original warrior child for Christian orthodoxy, did not deny that the Christian faith involves divine imperatives. He was simply affirming that the indicative theologically precedes the imperative.  We can see this in the Exodus narrative and the prologue to the Decalogue (Exodus 20:1-17). Before God issues his commands he reminds the children of Israel that he has already rescued them from slavery, “And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:1-2). In other words, before God calls his people to live in a certain way, he reminds them of what he has already done. God was calling his people to live godly lives in light of the fact that he had already brought them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and now was set to constitute them a people for his own peculiar possession. In the same way,  this continues throughout redemptive-history. Redemptive-history is the foundation of the experiential application of what Christ has accomplished for us. What God was doing through promise and in typical and foreshadowing ways in the Old Testament, and what He has done in fulfillment in Christ in the New Testament, undergirds the application of that saving work to us.


The indicative/imperative relationship is not exactly identical to the relation of the history of salvation (historia salutis) to the order of the application of salvation (ordo salutis). The reason for this is that the indicative, what God does, also involves what he does in us by his Holy Spirit, which is either chronologically prior to or concurrent with our response. Consider Philippians 2:12-13: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” In this passage it is not as if God works 50% and we work the other 50%.  No.  God works 100% and we work 100%.  Let’s be clear that Paul in this passage is dealing with progressive sanctification—which has long been understood to be a synergistic work. As Jonathan Edwards said, “God does all and we do all.” The technical term for this reality is concurrence: “to work together.”

Objective and Subjective Work

Additionally, we ought not to confuse the indicative/imperative relationship with the objective/subjective distinction. For instance, regeneration, which is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, involves both objective and subjective aspects insofar as it is God (objective) working in us (subjective). In other words, the indicative embraces both the redemptive work of the Triune God for us and his work in us. Both of these are what God has done or does. The same is also true for sanctification. 

The Literary Relationship

While the indicative theologically always precedes the imperative, in Scripture the order may be reversed. In other words, literarily, a command may precede the grounding of the command in what God has done or is doing. It’s important that this not confuse us.  Let’s consider an example: 1 Peter 2:11-24:

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

Here Peter exhorts the scattered saints in Asia Minor to live a certain way because they had been called to live this way and had been given the example of Jesus Christ who suffered in order to save them. Literarily the imperative comes first followed then by the indicative; but it is Christ’s redemptive work that serves as the foundation for the exhortation. In other words, if there is no redemption accomplished, then there is no salvation and no example for the saints being addressing.  So, while theologically the indicative always precedes the imperative, literarily the order may be reversed.


In sum, the indicative is what God does or has done and the imperative is what we are called to do. What God does may be a matter of something done in the past which is complete (although its consequences may continue into the present and go on into the future) or it may be something He is currently doing and what we are to do is a response enabled by grace (due to the fact that Christ is risen, ascended, reigning and mediating for us and working in us).

Whatever else way be said, we need to be clear this: We must never put the cart before the horse theologically (i.e. we must not put the biblical imperatives before the biblical indicatives). If we get the order wrong we will either land ourselves in a works-righteousness or we will end up spiritually frustrated. We might even end up living a life of complete hypocrisy. This is totally unnecessary as God has accomplished redemption for us in his Son, applies it to us by his Holy Spirit and we are called to respond to the message of what He has done in faith and obedience by His grace.


Related Resources

John Murray Redemption Accomplished and Applied

Sinclair Ferguson Gospel Indicatives and Imperatives (video)

Sinclair Ferguson Preaching Christ from the Old Testament

Nick Batzig "The Imperative of the Indivative: Preaching Christ from the Gospels

Jeffrey Waddington