The normal order of a sentence is 1) subject of an action, 2) action, 3) object of an action. Christians construct many sentences about our religious experiences and perceptions of God and ourselves, but it seems that we often focus on an order that is not the Bible's focus. This is a cause for concern and needs a corrective so that we think better theologically.

Consider the many statements lifted from the Bible that put human beings in the Subject position of sentences.

  • People worship God.

  • I trust God.

  • I follow Jesus.

  • We take up our cross.

  • Christians resist the devil.

  • People serve others.

  • We glorify God and we extend his kingdom.

  • We pray, study, meditate, listen, and give ourselves to God in various ways.

  • I need to work on my relationship with God. (This is what 80% of students tell me.)

All these statements are connected to biblical passages and normal to Christian discourse. I wonder what proportion they fill up in our talk and thought compared to statements that put God in the Subject position, with human beings in the Object position, such as these.

  • He made them male and female.

  • God saves us.

  • He justified us.

  • He loved me and gave himself for me.

  • God guides his people.

  • God predestined us in Christ.

  • [Jesus speaking] I will send the Spirit to you.

  • I am sending you.

  • He will give you what you are to say.

  • He caused us to be born again.

The difference of this second set of statements is the heavy repetition of God in the position of Subject operating upon human beings. The many emphases in the Bible on human responses subtly shifts people into the position of prominence and neglects God’s priority as the Subject. All human actions are secondary to God’s initiatives (except our failures and other evils). All the Christian’s good works are predestined and accomplished by God (Eph 2:10), noted as the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). Jesus pointed to human inability apart from God’s activity (John 15:1-8). Jesus even highlighted God (the Father) in the Subject position for his own human activity, noting that all his teaching and works were the Father’s actions in him (John 14:10-11).

What difference does it make to see my entire life in the Object position in relation to God holding the Subject position? He authored and perfects me. He is a loving Father who cares for me. My Object position calls for the posture of humility, dependence, and responsiveness. This Object position fits with the model of operating as a child in relation to God. The posture is empty, powerless, weak, incapable, and vulnerable. It’s honest and realistic. If ever I think of myself in relation to God as Subject instead of Object, then I guess there is some sort of distortion allowing me to see things that way. Grammatical re-ordering can help me here.

Sinclair Ferguson also notes this problem of the way Christians frequently reverse the grammar of the gospel. He gives examples of what people think commonly: “If I do this then God will do that…If I do my part then God will respond to me and do his part.”[1] As a correction, Ferguson distinguishes between divine indicatives and divine imperatives. Many biblical passages tell what God has done or is doing, to be distinguished from what human beings are to do in response. Even if the passage tells the human part first in word order in a sentence, the divine part always is the theological initiative and basis that precedes the human part as a response. Ferguson summarizes the New Testament pattern: “Paul’s thinking is always: God has done this for you in Christ, therefore you should respond in the following ways. Sanctification — being devoted to God — is always the fruit of his setting us apart in and through Christ.” [2]

Another way to catch this distinction (Subjects & Objects, indicatives & imperatives) that keeps the order of things right in the gospel for ongoing Christian experience is Martin Luther’s grasp of the difference between Law and Gospel. By Law Luther meant the requirements of God for human performance, showing the standard of a perfect life that all people fail to fulfill (except Jesus). Law refers to the responses that people should make but cannot. God’s requirements are intended to bring people to despair of their ability to perform for God. The Law is to bring a death to the illusion of self-sufficiency.

By Gospel, Luther meant the promises of God to justify sinners and enable them to live from God as their new life. Luther insisted that attempting to fulfill the divine imperatives without God is impossible for us. God’s initiatives of providing salvation come prior to our responses in living as God calls us in love for others. Once he has reconciled us to himself in Christ, God subsequently expresses the fruit of the Spirit in the life of the Christian. False teaching is to view human performance as access to God’s grace, which is like saying humans are the Subject and God is the Object (or that by fulfilling the divine imperatives we may gain the divine indicatives).

In short, God saves us. People do not move God to save them.

He is the Subject who provides salvation for us as the Object.

We may pray always, “God, what do you require of me by way of response here?” knowing that God enables our response by his initiative.


[1]  Sinclair B. Ferguson, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification, (Banner of Truth, 2016), 33.

[2] Ibid., 35.