Passive Imperatives in the New Testament

Embedded in the grammar of the New Testament is a fundamental principle in God’s economy—God’s operation and our cooperation. One way the writers of the New Testament conveyed this fundamental principle was through the use of the passive imperative.

The Imperative—the Mood of Kings

Harvey Dana and Julius Mantey explain the significance of the imperative in this way:

The imperative is . . . the mood of volition. It is the genius of the imperative to express the appeal of will to will.

A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 174

The imperative is essentially a command. It penetrates past the endless reasonings of the intellect and the fluctuating passions of the emotion (which we may use as excuses for action) and directly addresses the decision making core of our being. We often founder in, “Should I?” and, “Do I feel like it?”. The imperative says, “Do this.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim and to say, Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near. –Matt. 4:17

The very first word of the Lord Jesus in His public ministry was an imperative—”repent”. The imperative is the grammatical mood of kings. It introduces a crisis into your life and thrusts a decision upon you. It is a line in the sand that determines, based on your response, your subsequent relationship to the throne.

In this way, the imperative possesses an extremely fitting characteristic for a book of divine authority. After all, if we regard these words as divinely inspired and infallible, the “only rule of faith and obedience”, and “complete and sufficient for leading people to salvation and for guiding them into glory according to the good pleasure of God’s will”, then you would think there would be plenty of injunctions. Here, there would be outlined not just some tentative proposals, but the specifics of what God requires of man. (This isn’t to say that the Bible addresses every topic specifically. Where society has surpassed the specific teaching of Scripture, we still have major governing principles. A good example of this is the four principles of conduct Paul gives in 1 Corinthians- 6:12; 10:23, 31)

Law (Effort of the Flesh) versus Grace (Supply of the Spirit)

There are many active imperatives in the New Testament, such as “always rejoice, unceasingly pray, in everything give thanks” (1 Thes. 5:16-18). As impossible as these may seem, they are not mere suggestions, but apostolic directives for the Christian life. And since they are charges, they must be possible. However, the Christian is not under law with its reliance on the power of the will (through the flesh). There is a quantum difference between the commandments of the Old Testament and those of the New Testament.

This only I wish to learn from you, Did you receive the Spirit out of the works of law or out of the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? –Gal. 3:2-3

The Recovery Version explains:

The law is related to the flesh and depends on the effort of the flesh, the very flesh that is the expression of the “I” [in Gal. 2:20]. Faith is related to the Spirit and trusts in the operation of the Spirit, the very Spirit who is the realization of Christ. In the Old Testament the “I” and the flesh played an important role in the keeping of the law. In the New Testament Christ and the Spirit take over the position of the “I” and the flesh, and faith replaces the law, that we may live Christ by the Spirit.

Recovery Version, note on Gal. 3:3

The radical difference in the two Testaments is that in the New Testament, God fulfills His own requirements on man, as grace within man. God operates IN the believers “both the willing and the working for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). However, God does this without violating or compromising man’s free will. Man is not passive in sanctification. However, neither is man required to activate the effort of the flesh. The believers’ responsibility is to “let” (Col. 3:16). This boils down to being open to God’s operation in us.

The Passive Imperative—the Mood of God’s Economy

This “synergism” is conveyed through the use of the passive imperative.

The passive imperative is a command directed to you in which you are not the active doer, but rather the cooperator and recipient of someone else’s doing, and yet you still retain responsibility. A classic instance is Paul’s command in Romans 12:2 to “be transformed”:

And do not be fashioned according to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and well pleasing and perfect.

C. E. B. Cranfield explains the meaning of this passive imperative:

The use of the passive imperative μεταμορφοῦσθε [be transformed] is consonant with the truth that, while this transformation is not the Christians’ own doing but the work of the Holy Spirit, they nevertheless have a real responsibility in the matter—to let themselves be transformed, to respond to the leading and pressure of God’s Spirit… The transformation is not something which is brought about in an instant, it has to be continually repeated, or, rather, it is a process which has to go on all the time the Christian is in this life.

Romans 9-16 (International Critical Commentary), p. 607

Thus in the passive imperative our responsibility lies in being open to God’s operation, the Spirit’s working, and Christ’s indwelling.

Witness Lee, in commenting on the passive imperative, calls this grammatical mood, “the basic principle of God’s economy”:

This is to be active-passive; it means: “I am here, Lord, to let You do it.” “Let” shows the active, but “You do it” shows the passive. To the Lord it is active, but to me it is passive. We must be an active-passive person… This is the basic principle of God’s economy…

Perfecting Training, p. 238

Ten Passive Imperatives in the New Testament

Since this mood seems to be so critical to our ongoing experience of God’s salvation, I decided to do a search through the New Testament to see where I could find other instances of the passive imperative. All these instances below are true passive imperatives (in contrast to many other phrases that still convey the sense of God’s operation and our cooperation, i.e. Phil. 2:12-13), which means that in Greek they are represented by one word- a verb in the passive voice and imperative mood. Thus, no matter how your preferred Bible version translates these phrases (ESV has “save yourself” for Acts 2:40, which does not accurately convey this tension), they should be understood as a command directed to you, yet not enacted directly by you. So the verb should be past tense in form (although not necessarily past tense in meaning; in Romans 12:2 the passive imperative is in the present tense, so it could be translated as “be being transformed”).

  1. Be saved—Acts 2:40
  2. Be transformed—Rom. 12:2
  3. Be reconciled—2 Cor. 5:20
  4. Be enlarged—2 Cor. 6:13
  5. Be separated—2 Cor. 6:17
  6. Be perfected—2 Cor. 13:11
  7. Be filled—Eph. 5:18
  8. Be empowered—Eph. 6:10
  9. Be humbled—1 Pet. 5:6
  10. Be sanctified—Rev. 22:11

Thus the passive imperative preserves in the grammar the most fundamental principle of God’s economy, that is, that God is the One who operates in us and yet we are responsible to open to His operation, to allow Him to operate, and to cooperate with His operation.

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3 thoughts on “Passive Imperatives in the New Testament

  1. Thank you for posting this. I’ve been studying some Biblical Greek recently, and I am being impressed and enlightened on how God has used the Greek language to express how He wants to relate to man. Understanding what it means to be an active-passive Christian is sometimes difficult in practice, but it makes the Christian so much more meaningful and personal with God. It is our cooperation with God’s operation that allows Him to carry out His sweet transforming work in us. It is amazing how even the grammar of the word of God can help us understand how to enjoy the riches of God’s operation in and on us.

    • That’s good to hear. I always wish I was stronger in Greek. If you are looking for some insightful commentaries, Kenneth Wuest and A. T. Robertson are both very accessible and have lots of good nuggets. Cranfield’s Greek commentary on Romans is very thorough, although a bit more advanced. You can get A. T. Robertson’s Word Pictures and a few other helpful things all for free in an app called Pocket Sword. Good luck!

  2. Be encouraged!

    I have a newfound appreciation for this wonderful mood and for the original Greek. Interesting how the verb is past tense(at least in form), yet also spoken in the present, and applicable to the future since it refers to a continual process of “being”, of cooperating. Truly the grammatical mood of kings. Our King said it, now you have to do it (of course by grace), and actually He has already done it.

    How closely related is “be preserved” in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 (passive-optative) to the passive imperative.

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