Eternal Life, Now and Then
By Fred Zaspel
As important as the word “salvation” is in Scripture and dominant as it is in our own vocabulary in describing the benefits we enjoy in Christ, it is surprising to us when we discover how little our Lord used this word himself. We do not find it at all in Matthew or Mark and only once in Luke and John. We find the verb, “to save,” roughly a dozen or so times in the Gospels (taking parallel accounts into consideration), and that’s it.
What we find instead is Jesus’ clear preference for this term “life,” or the fuller expression, “eternal life.” This was Jesus’ favorite term, especially prominent in the Gospel of John. John’s purpose in writing his Gospel is couched in this term — he writes that we may find “eternal life” in Christ (John 20:31). Jesus uses this word to describe the purpose and goal of his mission, to give “life” to his people (John 10:10). Repeatedly he describes what we more commonly call “salvation” in these terms also. “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:35). And so on. Add to this the references to “living water” and the verb “to live” or “come to life [i.e., resurrection]” and the point is still more obvious. In Jesus’ thinking, “life” was what he had come to accomplish for and give to his people.
I do not question that we should continue to speak of “salvation” in Christ, of course! It speaks wonderfully of rescue, rescue from sin and its consequences. But this preference on Jesus’ part for the term “life” should make us consider that our salvation brings with it much more than rescue (if you can imagine!). Our salvation is not only from sin. Our salvation is unto eternal life. That is to say, there is a blessedness in Christ that is beyond that of deliverance. Salvation entails not just rescue but abundance of blessing also.
Significantly, “eternal life” is in the Scriptures a term bound up with eschatology. It is a standard expression describing the life of the age to come. It describes the life of the resurrection (Dan. 12:2), the result of eternal judgment and entrance into the blessed presence of God (Matt. 25:46; cf. Mark 9:43, 45; John 5:29; 12:25). Eternal life, very simply, is an eschatological hope, a blessedness the redeemed are to experience in glory.
But what is striking is that Jesus tells us that he has come to bring the life of that (coming) world into this world, into the present experience of his people. Jesus summarizes this perhaps best in John 5:24-25 —
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”
Notice in Christ we have passed from death to life. The hour of resurrection is now here.
Now of course Jesus has not lost sight of the future. In John 5:28-29 he speaks just as clearly of the bodily resurrection that we will experience in the last day. That day will come! Just as Christ himself was raised from the tomb, so we with him will be raised — to eternal life in the age to come, when Christ returns for us. But what Jesus is stressing is that in him the blessedness of that age is ours today. The blessings of that day have been brought into this day. Or, to change the figure, we have been brought to enjoy the age to come ahead of time.
There are massive implications here regarding the eternal safety of the believer. We will “never perish,” of course, precisely because we already have the life of the age to come (John 10:28-29). It is no longer a question of whether we will make it — we are already there! Already we have been brought in Christ to the glory of that age which he himself entered in his resurrection.
But the point of this is not simply that of our eternal safety. Of course it is “ever-lasting” life, by the nature of it. But the point is not the duration but quality of life. What life is it we have in Christ? Answer — it is nothing less than the blessed life of the age to come. In Christ we have begun already to taste and experience the glory of that coming age.
And just what is it that makes that age so blessed? It is nothing less than this: in that day we will dwell in the very presence and fellowship with God. We will “know” God — we will be his people, and he will be our God. That fellowship with God that Adam lost for us all will then be ours. And so Jesus says, “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
Created in the image of God we have a God-given capacity to know him. But in sin that knowledge of God enjoyed by our Father Adam is but a faint memory. We know of him — from that we cannot escape! But we cannot know him. This, the highest goal and blessedness God’s image-bearing creatures could possibly know is no longer within our reach. The desire for the satisfaction this knowledge of God alone can bring remains. But in sin we are “lost.” Like Adam we have run and hidden from God. Alienated from him the natural mind is futile and unable to find that which he alone can give.
Then there was born this hope that God would come to his people and be their God, that they would at last be restored to fellowship with him and the knowledge of him. The prophets spoke of it. Israel longed for it. And Jesus makes this bold announcement that in him the knowledge of God, the very blessedness of the age to come, may be ours.
But may I say it? This is not Jesus’ claim only. This is the testimony of every believer. We have found ourselves that Jesus comes good on his promise. We feel ourselves that we have entered into “life.” Anchored though we are in this present evil world we feel ourselves being pulled heavenward, and we have tasted of the glories of the coming age. “Things that are higher, things that are nobler, these have allured our sight!” And so deeply settled is this new-found joy and satisfaction in Christ, knowing God, we have found that external conditions matter less and less. We have learned to be content in whatever state. The love of God is so shed abroad in our hearts that we can glory even in tribulation and persecution. The world pursues its trivia and looks on us with pity, and we shake our heads in disbelief — they have no clue the joy we have come to experience in Christ. We have life. The world may glory in its riches, its wisdom, its power, but we, rather, glory in this — that we know God!
The world may think that to be a Christian we must trade in a good life in order to have a good life later. But we on this side of it want desperately to tell them how mistaken they are. We have traded in a poor, tawdry, unfulfilling existence for a life of glory that grows and increases throughout this life and forever. Like fat, contented sheep who go in and out and find pasture, we have come to experience that “abundant life” (John 10:10) found only in the knowledge of God through Jesus Christ.
Yes, there is a better day coming, a day of greater glory still. And we long for it. But our testimony is this: it is only in association with the Lord Jesus Christ — who died to give us life and who himself rose out of death into eternal life — that “life” may be found.
Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is also the author of The Continuing Relevance of Divine Law (1991); The Theology of Fulfillment (1994); Jews, Gentiles, & the Goal of Redemptive History (1996); New Covenant Theology with Tom Wells (New Covenant Media); The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010). Fred is married to Kimberly and they have two grown children, Gina and Jim.