In Pursuit of Morality

What indicative and imperative grammar moods tell us about God’s role in Christian ethical transformation.

In David Brooks’ The Road to Character, the NY Times columnist examines the way to develop character. By character, Brooks refers to “eulogy virtues,” which are characteristics that are talked about at funerals in remembrance of “whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful.”[1] Brooks wrote his book in order to personally “save [his] own soul” and to “build inner character,” but also to assist the reader.[2]

In his book, Brooks demonstrates a deep desire for personal ethical transformation–to be transformed into a person of character. Brooks desire is not exclusive to himself; it is universal. For example, the desire for transformation is also shown in the lyrics of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” a song about a man who sincerely looks to “make a change” in his life, one that will “feel real good,” “make a difference,” and “change the world.”[3] Like Brooks and Jackson, many people desire to live an inspired, good life, a life that will subsequently change the world for the better. In this pursuit, they continually ask themselves “How can I become a better person?” Often people will look to the world’s religions for guidance in answering this question. Christianity is often approached with this attitude where Jesus is reduced to a moral teacher, the Bible a moral handbook, and the Church an institution to teach ethics, to help me change myself and become a “better me.”

However, I disagree with this understanding of Christianity. Christianity, although it gives moral law and ethical instruction, does not merely create rules. Furthermore, Christianity teaches that it is not by one’s own strength and ability that one is able to become more moral, it is only through God’s power. The theologian G. C. Berkouwer said, “Grace is the essence of theology and gratitude is the essence of ethics.”[4] If gratitude should fuel ethical behavior, what does this gratitude mean? By “gratitude” Berkouwer refers to part of the larger overall response a Christian has to God’s work in his life. Grace and gratitude reverse the expectations for ethical action. To demonstrate this, I will investigate the structure of indicative and imperative grammar moods in the New Testament of the Bible. The indicative and imperative grammar moods convey the fundamental truth in Christianity that how a person becomes more moral is through the foundational work of God transforming the person.

What is meant by grammar mood? In the simplest sense, mood presents the verbal action or state with reference to its actuality or potentiality. Mood shows the speaker’s attitude to the verbal action, how certain he thinks it is, whether it is actual or potential. There are four moods in Greek: the indicative, subjunctive, optative, and imperative.[5]

In general, the indicative mood is the mood of assertion, or presentation of certainty of what is or has happened.[6] In contrast, the imperative mood is the mood of intention. It is the mood furthest removed from certainty and associates with human will and possibility.[7] Thus, commands are often given in the imperative mood. In the New Testament, the indicative and the imperative frequently appear together. They do so in particular sequence and structure that gives insight into how and why Christians can be ethically transformed.[8] For a clear example, in the apostle Paul’s epistles indicatives and imperatives describe the new life that one has in Jesus Christ.

Indicative and imperative grammar structure, fundamentally, describe the believer’s relation to Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. Essentially, the indicative describes that “those who are in Christ,” Christians, have died to sin and are alive in Jesus Christ.[9] Nevertheless, the indicative does not stand alone but sets up the imperative command to “sin no more.” Colossians 3:1-5 illustrates this relationship between the indicative and imperative with regard to Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection:[10]

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.[11]

Paul first establishes the reality of the indicative, that the believer has been raised with Christ. This reality, in the indicative mood, gives reason for following the imperative as indicated by “since.” The imperative command is that the believer should now “set” his heart; he should desire to live for Christ. Verses two and three, and four and five, are similar. The reality is that “you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ,” and the subsequent command is to “Set your mind on things above.” In verse five, the believer is commanded to “put to death” sinful desires in future expectation of being glorified with Jesus. The reality of having died with Christ is the reason for not sinning. It is because the believer has been changed that he should change.

The most obvious and definitive example of this grammar structure and its relation to why one pursues sanctification is in Philippians 2:12- 13:12:

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”

The command to “work out your salvation” is founded upon the assertion that God works within the person, as indicated by “for.” Therefore, the reason the believer works is because of God’s work in the past and in the present. It is not the other way around where God works because the believer has already worked. This order that the imperative follows the indicative is consistent and is not reversed in the New Testament.[13] As the Dutch theologian Herman Ribberdos said, “The imperative is grounded on the reality that has been given with the indicative, appeals to it, and is intended to bring it to full development.”[14]

The reason for pursuing the imperatives has been discussed, but now through what means can they be attained? The answer to this question can also be found in Philippians 2:13: “for it is God who works in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (emphasis added). God works within the believer so that he will have the desire for work and will work. He accomplishes this through the Holy Spirit.

The indicative and imperative are distinct. They pertain to different aspects of ethical transformation in Christianity but are intertwined. The indicative is the basis on which the imperative stands; however, the imperative is the maturation of the indicative and an indicator that the indicative is true in the believer’s life.[15] If there is a common characteristic between the two, it is that they are both rooted in the Gospel which manifests itself in a person’s life through faith. Faith fastens these two to the reality of one’s life. It is by faith that one has salvation: that the indicatives become indicatives, actual reality in one’s life. Once one is saved, through faith by grace, one subsequently receives the Holy Spirit and it is by the Spirit that one has new life. And it is by faith that one obeys God in light of his future promises and in full trust of his goodness.

In conclusion, the indicative and imperative grammar mood structure in the New Testament reveals that Christian moral transformation depends primarily on the work and power of God, but involves human volition and cooperation.[16] Furthermore, the reason for pursuing morality is “gratitude,” response to, or natural continuation of the new life one has in Jesus Christ.

Save for all the discussion about morality and becoming a more moral person, Christianity is not merely about becoming a better person. As the British author and apologist C.S Lewis wrote in his essay “Man or Rabbit,” “Mere morality is not the end of life.”[17] Morality, although absolutely necessary and desired, should not be the ultimate goal for which Christians strive.18 While God intends for a believer’s ethical transformation[19], the reason this is his will is because it is the absolute best for the believer. Morality is the best for him because it is how God intends the Christian to live as it allows him to grow deeper in his relationship with God. Consequently, the Bible is not a how-to-guide to use to satisfy man’s moral cravings. Instead it is a love letter, intended to help the reader know the lover more. Christianity is not about morality or a set of ethics, it is about a whole new reality.

Christianity holds a reality in which a sovereign, all powerful God loves us enough to sacrifice his son; his son, Jesus Christ, who, fully God and fully human, perfectly fulfilled the law that we could never do, and took the punishment for our sin so that we may be redeemed; and his Spirit helps us to have the best life possible, where we love God and grow closer to him as beloved sons and daughters. When this reality is experienced in faith, it radically transforms the individual’s life. And it is only when the individual is transformed by the love of Christ that he can truly love God and obey His commandments, the imperatives, the law empowered and guided by his Spirit. It is in the context of the indicative, the reality of Christ, that we can look at the man in the mirror and truly change.


1 David Brooks, “The Moral Bucket List,” New York Times, April 11, 2015, accessed February 10, 2016. opinion/sunday/david-brooks-the-moral-buck­et-list.html.

2 Ibid.

3 Michael Jackson, Man in The Mirror, MJJ Pro­ductions Inc., 1987.

4 Michael S. Horton, “The Indicative and The Im­perative: A Reformation View of Sanctification,” Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (1996), ac­cessed February 10, 2016. http://web.archive. org/web/20000603061020/www.alliancenet. org/radio/whi/commentaries/­dicImper.html.

5 Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. (Michigan: Zondervan), 443-448.

6 Ibid., 446.

7 Ibid.

8 Ethical transformation can be understood, to some degree, as sanctification in the Christian context. Sanctification is the process of becoming more in the likeness Jesus Christ, who for Chris­tians is the ultimate example of a moral person. It is the process of becoming holy or set apart for God. Sanctification is God’s will for every Chris­tian.

9 Romans 6 or Galatians 2:20 see http://www. for further description of “death to sin, alive in Christ.”

10 Colossians 3:1-5 (ESV)

11 For easy identification of imperatives and in­dicatives: Underlined denotes indicatives, bold the imperatives and italics transition words.

12 Philippians 2:12-13 (ESV)

13 Herman Ribberdos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard De Witt (Michi­gan: Wm. B. Eerdmans 1975), 254.

14 Ibid., 255.

15 Ibid., 256.


17 C.S. Lewis, “Man or Rabbit?” in God in the Dock. (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans 1975), 108- 113.

18 Ibid., 112: “Morality is indispensable: but the Divine Life, which gives itself to us and which calls us to be gods, intends for us something in which morality will be swallowed up. We are to be re-made.”

19 Otherwise known as sanctification.


Joshua Jeon ’19 is from Fairfield, CT. He is a Biology Major.

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