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My Dear Globdrop,
Words fail to express how pleased I am that your man attended his uncle’s funeral, after all. You did well to heed my counsel, nephew, despite Screwtape’s unsolicited “advising to the contrary.”
Last week your great uncle and I engaged in a lively dispute concerning the question at hand: Is encouraging the humans to attend funerals advancing our war efforts or not? In full view of all our Master’s Senior Tempters, we dined most sumptuously and howled most fiercely. Although the soul had plenty of meat on the bone, and the shrieks filled the cup to the brim — the meal was tasteless to me — the occasion was a stunt to bid me “come to terms.” Screwtape and the others are most mistaken to treat me as a schoolboy.
Screwtape, quite predictably, lectured that one cannot be too careful in such places. Seeing one of their own — so unanimated, cold, lifeless, mute — excites unpredictable consequences. Clearly, the smelling salt of death can startle their squeamish sensibilities and pierce through the delusion that death no longer devours. It drags the monster from the shadows. “Should we, of all guides” — his remark dripping with sarcasm — “lead them through our own fog?” More than a few have stared at the box inching so conclusively below only to pace about toward terrible things: What now? Is there more?
But as I hoped you would be keen enough to see, we have much more to gain than to lose, granted our favorite commentator is put to good use: the minister.
Screwtape underestimates how mushy the spirit of the day has become. He came of age in sterner times. He does not see how much sentiment has stolen from them. Factless, thoughtless, heartless well-wishings abound. Like a room full of dancers who continue on with their steps though the music has stopped, decorum holds sway.
It matters little how one lived, what one believed — whether or not he was the Enemy’s — all shall rest in peace. It’s the automated reassurance, the polite response. All make it upstairs. Death, that great escalator, now leads each victim upward to “a better place.” My mouth waters.
Enter then, the minister. See him there, staring over the casket to the mourning living? He wishes to relieve their grieving, not add to it. This compassion, so loathsome in the Enemy himself, is what we must exploit. Remind him: This is not the place for theological particularities, a spiritual autopsy, a kicking of a corpse in the name of religion. They need comfort, not heartless facts. Besides, they can’t know if he didn’t scurry under the Enemy’s ranks in his last breaths. Why not round up? “Hope all things!” Preach him into heaven.
Get him to this place, Globdrop, and he will most beautifully stamp a life of known unbelief and apathy with heaven’s insignia, preaching the cordial — but unconverted — through the pearly gates. This blurring of distinctions during this time of earnest contemplation whispers to their quiet uncertainties, Peace, peace — when there is no peace.
If they should ask, “Is there more?” he is there to answer: If there is, the better place is, in essence, for all. This, my dear nephew, lends great advancement to our cause.
Here is where things get delicious. Not only does this remind the hearers that it remains their personal preference which road one chooses to the inevitable rest; it affords us to inflict an unusual torment.
To illustrate, I requested that Headquarters dig up a transcript, made centuries ago, of a pastor’s eulogy given in the hearing of five of his brothers:
Rich in life and now rich in death, our beloved Gad went to be with his Maker last night. He who the Lord blessed so manifestly on earth went to take his seat in the afterlife. He has crossed the river Jordan.
Our Scriptures say quite plainly, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children” (Proverbs 13:22). He did just that. This good man, who himself feasted lavishly, left barns full and fields pregnant for generations to come. His family is not left with meager memories of him — which fill no child’s stomach on cold nights nor any man’s glass on happy occasions — he left them his wealth, his “strong city” — as the psalmist said.
Now, he had his faults — as we all must — he was only a human in the end. We all know Gad was a sinner — but who here can cast the first stone? He leaves behind a beloved wife and daughter as well as five dear brothers — all of whom mourn with us today. Be cheered, friends and family: although sorrow lasts for the night, joy comes in the morning. He has riches now that moth and rust cannot destroy.
As an understudy, I was assigned to one of those five brothers (all of whom are safe now with us) and delighted to have him attend (Luke 16:28). But the true prize, the tastiest torment, was hearing another man — unheard by any of the living — weep and gnash his teeth between screams of protest: Gad himself.
From the night he first dined with our Master below, this Gad showed himself pitiful. How he pled with “his father” Abraham: “I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house — for I have five brothers — so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment” (Luke 16:27–28).
He was refused — to our lively cheers and yelps. He who bribed the courts on earth had nothing to bargain with from his pit. Naked. Alone. Cursed. And across the fixed chasm. No saint, no angel could go for him. But we sent someone, didn’t we? Oh, what a delicacy to feast on the horror of a man who finds a plague in his own eulogy. Perhaps it is a dish, my dear Globdrop, that great uncle Screwtape has never tasted.
“Do not follow in my footsteps!” Gad tried to scream over the glad tidings. “Don’t listen to that liar — I find no rest here!” he howled through sobs. “Turn around, turn around, before it’s too late!” As the minister’s flattery took wings, he tried ever so pitifully to strike it down — all to hell’s riotous laughter.
The humans dispersed from that funeral, as all did this past week, unaroused, unprovoked, unexamined. Beyond this, they traveled home positively confirmed in the presumptions: “If he is safe in the afterlife, so too shall I. The way that leads to life must be broad — and many travel upon it. Surely only the Hitlers of the world cannot find it.” They leave assured of the very thing they assumed coming in: They do not need the Enemy after all.
We eagerly wait for them all to rest in peace.
Your esteemed uncle,
Disciple-making is, at its essence, humbly helping other disciples to faithfully follow Jesus. As disciples, our commission is to help others understand what it means to be part of his family and teach them to obey all that he has commanded us (Matthew 28:18–19).
This means that we call others to find rest in the Savior of our souls. It means waging war against sin for another like we wage war against sin for ourselves (Hebrews 3:13). Disciple-making is ultimately the fulfillment of the Golden Rule — doing for another as you would hope another would do for you (Luke 6:31). The more we grow in Christ, the more we long to see others grow in Christ.
But just like our own maturation as Christians, disciple-making is fraught with difficulties. There are setbacks, disappointments, sleepless nights, times of confusion and hurt. In the lives of others, as in our own, progress towards Christlikeness can seem glacially slow. Sometimes weaknesses become lifelong handicaps. It is easy to lose heart and shift our focus to places where our efforts produce clearer results. And perhaps no period in life presents this challenge more prominently than middle-age.
In our twenties (and even into our thirties), our most abundant resource is time. Early in our careers or in our marriages before children, there is often substantial freedom and few demanding commitments. It is easy to schedule early morning Bible studies, weekly coffee with a younger Christian, time for walks or workouts, or to linger together late into the evening over a meal.
But as we settle into families and careers, time becomes more precious and more challenging to steward. The demands of our job grow as our responsibilities increase. Meanwhile, the challenges of disciple-making do not diminish. We are tempted all the more to avoid the messiness inherent to challenging (and being challenged by) others to be conformed to Christ. Take it from demons, who know how to challenge our faithfulness in middle-age.
You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it — all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.
Screwtape, the eponymous senior demon of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, is instructing his trainee on how best to keep his charge from being useful in the cause of the Enemy. While Lewis’s insight applies to our lives as disciples, it has clear implications for our calling as disciple-makers.
If, on the other hand, the middle years prove prosperous, our position is even stronger. Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is “finding his place in it,” while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of really being at home in earth, which is just what we want.
The danger we face is succumbing to the “sense of really being at home in earth” — letting the world find its place in us rather than remembering that we were created for another world, altogether. Screwtape tells his junior that the aim must be “unraveling their souls from heaven and building up a firm attachment to the earth,” attacking the conviction that we have been destined to life in “[God’s] own eternal world.”
This conviction — that we were made for Christ and for an eternity of delight in all that he is, all that he has done, and all that he has made — is reinforced in our earthly life by joy. We experience joy when we connect truth, goodness, and beauty with their ultimate source and purpose — in the one who is the eternally happy God (1 Timothy 1:11), the fountainhead of all satisfying, replenishing, life-giving grace, our true friend and home. Earthly joys resonate with and point to the Joy of heaven.
And the New Testament puts disciple-making at the head of this list. Consider how Paul describes the joy he experiences in seeing others follow Jesus:
Now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? (1 Thessalonians 3:8–10)
God has designed us so that there is something exquisitely happifying in seeing other people whom we love find their joy in Christ. The exhilaration of seeing others progress in their walk with Christ motivates, emboldens, and heartens Paul amidst the many trials and demands of his extraordinarily full life (2 Corinthians 1:24; Philippians 1:25).
While discipleship bestows immense joy, Paul was also candid about the setbacks, disappointments, and discouragements he experienced in the process. Some in Corinth thought his ministry too afflicted to be apostolic. The Philippians began to doubt that he’d made the right decision to go to Rome in chains. Some fellow workers flirted with settling into the path of least resistance (Galatians 2:11–14).
Some of his closest friends, in whom he had much invested, turned away (2 Timothy 1:15) or gave up altogether (2 Timothy 4:10). At his most crucial hour, none of those whom he had discipled came to his defense (2 Timothy 4:16). But the surpassing joys of disciple-making kept Paul going. It lessened his attachments to the earth by heightening his anticipation of the age to come:
What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy. (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20)
The apex of Paul’s joy before Jesus at his coming is the apex of ours, too. The fellowship we have experienced, the joys of co-laboring for gospel faithfulness, the shared delights of seeing the beauty of Christ in all of his works and ways will be enhanced and deepened and clarified at his appearing. And that joy will be compounded as we see it in the eyes of those in whom we have invested.
This is not a minor theme. The joy that results from the discipleship of others is also what fuels John’s letters. “We are writing these things,” John exclaims, “so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:4). It is not hyperbole for him to write, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4).
And while we may be tempted to think that this diminishes the present joys of food or sport or film or literature, the reverse is actually the case. Having our eyes set on the joys to be found in heaven heightens our experience with others of earthly joys by providing their context and aim. They are the foretaste of the joys to be experienced together, forevermore.
Take it from a demon, middle-age is a great time to make a living when you might be making a life. The most fruitful way to overcome the gravitational pull toward the self-centrism and diminished gospel ambition of middle life is to pour ourselves out for joy in disciple-making. And what would be more foolish than saying we can’t make more time for joy?
“To the praise of the glory of his grace” summarizes the purpose of Ephesians, your life, and history.
Extrabiblical sources can help fill in some details of our Bible study, but all the gold we need to mine for life and godliness is in our English Bibles.
Our love grows soft if it is not strengthened by truth, and our truth grows hard if it is not softened by love. —John Stott
John Piper has tried to capture this reality with the term “brokenhearted boldness.” The word boldness is self-evident, connoting truth and confidence and courage and strength. The word brokenhearted is not quite as obvious. It refers to a spirit of contrition, trembling, sympathy, and gentleness. People who are “brokenhearted” put on “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).
Brokenhearted boldness is not a phrase you will find in the Bible. But once you have eyes for it, you’ll see the concept everywhere. I would like to point to a few places where it emerges in the teaching of the apostle Paul.
Before we turn to Paul, however, it may be helpful to reflect on how these two things — boldness and brokenheartedness — are often combined.
For instance, Aristotle proposed that reason should take two virtues and locate the golden mean between them. If you have too much courage, you’ll end up with recklessness. If you have a deficit of courage, you’ll end up with cowardice. It’s when you have the right proportion of virtues — just enough courage and just enough humility — you’ll end up with a balanced scale of true virtue.
Another tactic for putting together the virtues — one more common to Christians — is to think of each of them as being fitting for different seasons or occasions. On this approach, Christians could paraphrase chapter three of Ecclesiastes, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be brokenhearted, and a time to be bold.” Yes, God calls us to be both. But not necessarily at the same time.
A better way to put the two together is to see the call to brokenhearted boldness as a desirable steady-state description of the Christian life.
This looks different than the 50/50 approach of Aristotle, because the Christian ethic has a different calculus. Instead of aiming for an abstract ideal formed by reason, it seeks to conform to a Person — one who is both a lion and a lamb (Revelation 5:5–6), who is infinitely transcendent but became incarnate to dwell among us. We follow the whole Christ, full of grace and full of truth (John 1:14).
It also looks different than the call for us to be brokenhearted at times and bold at different times. Of course there is some truth to this. Funerals look and feel different than weddings. But Paul spoke of his own life and ministry “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). He said that we should speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Our truth-speaking, he said, should “always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6). Paul was never ashamed to preach the gospel (Romans 1:16), and yet he was quick to identify himself as “the very least of all the saints” (Ephesians 3:8), “the least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:9), and even the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
We readily associate Paul with no-fear boldness:
This is the muscular Christianity of the apostle — shipwrecked, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, mocked, and absolutely undeterred. Nothing could stop him from proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.
Less noticed, however, is the spirit of love Paul intended to permeate every act of gospel courage and correction. For example, immediately after writing, “Stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong,” he adds, “Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13–14).
John Stott wrote, “The truth is that there are such things as Christian tears, and too few of us ever weep them.” Whatever else may be said, we can at least say it was not so with Paul. Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:31, reminding them that for three years, day and night, he would “admonish every one” — that’s the bold part we know so well. But he did this hard work of admonishment “with tears” — there’s the brokenhearted spirit we tend to miss.
In Acts 20:19, Paul notes that he endured “trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews” — there’s the stiff backbone. But he did it “serving the Lord with all humility and with tears” — that’s the lowly spirit.
Reflecting back on his painful visit to the Corinthian church and a hard letter he had written them, he claimed, “I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Corinthians 2:4).
Even Paul’s harshest language — used against false teachers when the nature of the gospel was at stake — is enveloped by this theme.
Right before he warns against the evil teachers of Philippians 3:2 as “dogs,” he says that the church should “rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1). Immediately after the comment, he meditates on his own imperfection and why he has no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:4–16). He calls upon them to imitate him, noting that “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18).
Paul was bold enough to identify and call out enemies of the Christ; he was tender enough in spirit for it to pain him to the core, so that tears wet his face as he sought to fight back the wolves.
In the book of Galatians, where he says that the Judaizers who think they can be justified by circumcision should just “cut themselves off” (Galatians 5:12, my translation), he says a few verses later that anyone caught in a transgression should be restored “in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1).
Critics of what I am identifying here often dismiss this as the “tone police.” But Paul himself told the Galatian church that he was perplexed by them and longed to see him face to face so that he could change his “tone” (Galatians 4:20). Speaking hard words was not at the heart of who he was, even if he had to do it at times. Critics often point out that niceness is not a fruit of the Spirit. But I would remind them that kindness and gentleness are (Galatians 5:22–23).
Paul recounts to the church in Thessalonica his shame-filled suffering and says, “We had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict” (1 Thessalonians 2:2). He aimed to please God, not man (1 Thessalonians 2:4). But he also notes, “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7).
When Paul wrote his Pastoral Epistles, he explained that gentleness was a requirement to be an elder (1 Timothy 3:3). He told Timothy to pursue both steadfastness and gentleness (1 Timothy 6:11). He told Titus “to avoid quarreling” and instead “to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2). Even when a pastor is required to correct false teaching with a sharp rebuke (Titus 1:13), it should be done from a heart of gentleness and with a longing for God to grant the gift of repentance (2 Timothy 2:25).
This is not a man who delighted in the cleverness of his sarcasm, satire, and mockery. When he had to use harsh words, they were meant to keep at bay the ravaging wolves, not to beat up on the wandering sheep. Paul sought to imitate “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:1), urging his readers “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:1–2). The words that come out of our mouths, he said, should be “only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
No one doubts that Paul was bold. But we often forget that he was also meek. Jonathan Edwards wrote that “Religious sorrow, mourning, and brokenness of heart are . . . frequently spoken of as a great part of true religion. These things are often mentioned as distinguishing qualities of the true saints, and a great part of their character.”
This certainly describes what we see in the letters of Paul. And we would do well to imitate his brokenhearted boldness today.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” —Blaise Pascal (1623–1662)
It’s a sweeping claim, but it might just be the kind of overstatement we need today to be awakened from our relentless stream of distractions and diversions. How hauntingly true might it be, that we are unable to sit quietly? Four hundred years after Pascal, life may be as hurried and anxious as it has ever been. The competition for our attention is ruthless. We not only hear one distracting Siren call after another, but an endless cacophony of voices barrages us all at once.
And yet, long before Pascal, Jesus himself modeled for us the very kind of habits and rhythms of life we need in any age. Even as God in human flesh, he prioritized time alone with his Father. Imagine what “good” he might otherwise have done with all those hours. But he chose again and again, in perfect wisdom and love, to give his first and best moments to seeking his Father’s face. And if Jesus, even Jesus, carved out such space in the demands of his human life, shouldn’t we all the more?
We may have but glimpses of Jesus’s habits and personal spiritual practices in the Gospels, but what we do have is by no accident, and it is not scant. We know exactly what God means for us to know, in just the right detail — and we have far more about Jesus’s personal spiritual rhythms than we do about anyone else in Scripture. And the picture we have of Christ’s habits is not one that is foreign to our world and lives and experience. Rather, we find timeless and transcultural postures that can be replicated, and easily applied, by any follower of Jesus, anywhere in the world, at any time in history.
For two thousand years, the teachings of Christ have called his people into rhythms of retreating from the world and entering into it.
The healthy Christian life is neither wholly solitary nor wholly communal. We withdraw, like Jesus, to “a desolate place” to commune with God (Mark 1:35), and then return to the bustle of daily tasks and the needs of others. We carve out a season for spiritual respite, in some momentarily sacred space, to feed our souls, enjoying God there in the stillness. Then we enter back in, as light and bread, to a hungry, harassed, and helpless world (Matthew 9:36).
Before rehearsing Jesus’s patterns in retreating for prayer and then reentering for ministry, we should observe the place of Scripture in his life.
Jesus did not have his own personal material copy of the Bible, like almost all of us do today. He heard what was read aloud in the synagogue, and what his mother sang, and he rehearsed what he had put to memory. And yet throughout his recorded ministry, we see evidence of a man utterly captivated by what is written in the text of Scripture. And like Christ, we will do well to make God’s own words, in the Bible, to be the leading edge of our own seeking to draw near to him.
At the very outset of his public ministry, Jesus retreated to the wilderness, and there, in the culminating temptations before the devil himself, he leaned on what is written (Matthew 4:4, 6–7, 10; Luke 4:4, 8, 10). Then returning from the wilderness, to his hometown of Nazareth, he stood up to read, took the scroll of Isaiah (61:1–2), and announced, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Jesus identified John the Baptist as “he of whom it is written” (Matthew 11:10; Luke 7:27), and he cleared the temple of moneychangers on the grounds of what is written in Isaiah 56:7 (Matthew 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46). He rebuked the proud by quoting Scripture (Mark 7:6; Luke 20:17). At every step of the way to Calvary, over and over again, he knew everything would happen “as it is written” (see especially the Gospel of John, 6:31, 45; 8:17; 10:34; 12:14, 16; 15:25). “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him” (Mark 14:21), he said. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished” (Luke 18:31).
Even though Jesus didn’t have his own Bible to page through in his quiet times, let there be no confusion about the central place of God’s written word in his life. He lived by what was written. What an amazing opportunity we now have today, with Old and New Testaments in paper and ink (and with us, everywhere we go, on our phones), to daily give ourselves to the word of God.
For Christ, “the wilderness” or “desolate place” often became his momentarily sacred space. He regularly escaped the noise and frenzy of society to be alone with his Father, where he could give him his full attention.
After “his fame spread everywhere” (Mark 1:28), and “the whole city was gathered together at the door” (Mark 1:33), Jesus took a remarkable step. He slipped away the following morning to restore his soul in “secret converse” with his Father:
Rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. (Mark 1:35)
What a ministry opportunity he left behind, some might say. Surely some of us would have skipped or shortened our private disciplines to rush and bless the swelling masses. To be sure, other times would come (as we’ll see) when Jesus would delay his personal habits to meet immediate needs. But how many of us, in such a situation, would have the presence of mind, and heart, to discern and prioritize prayer as Jesus did?
Luke also makes it unmistakable that this pattern of retreat and reentry was part of the ongoing dynamic of Christ’s human life. Jesus “departed and went into a desolate place” (Luke 4:42) — not just once but regularly. “He would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16).
So also Matthew. After the death of John the Baptist, Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself” (Matthew 14:13). But even then, the crowds pursued him. He didn’t despise them (here he puts his desire to retreat on hold) but had compassion on them and healed their sick (Matthew 14:14). Then after feeding them, five thousand strong, he withdrew again to a quiet place. “After he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray” (Matthew 14:23).
What was written animated his life, and when he withdrew, he went to speak to his Father in prayer. At times, he went away by himself, to be alone (Matthew 14:23; Mark 6:46–47; John 6:15). “He went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12). His disciples saw him leave to pray, and later return.
He also prayed with others. The disciples saw him model prayer at his baptism (Luke 3:21), and as he laid his hands on the children (Matthew 19:13), and when he drove out demons (Mark 9:29). He prayed with his men, and even when he prayed alone, his men might be nearby: “Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him” (Luke 9:18; also 11:1). He took Peter, John, and James “and went up on the mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28). On the night before he died, he said to Peter, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:32). All of John 17 is his prayer for his disciples, in their hearing. Then they went out from that upper room and saw him pray over and over in the garden (Matthew 26:36, 39, 42, 44). He not only modeled prayer, but instructed them in how to pray. “Pray then like this . . .” (Matthew 6:9–13).
And he not only assumed they would pray (Matthew 21:22; Mark 11:24–25; Luke 11:2) but commanded it (Matthew 24:20; 26:41; Mark 13:18; 14:38; Luke 21:36; 22:40, 46). “Pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). “Pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28). “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest” (Matthew 9:38; Luke 10:2). Pray without show and without posturing (Matthew 6:5–7). He warned against those who “for a pretense make long prayers” (Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47). “He told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
And to accompany prayer, he not only modeled fasting (Matthew 4:2), but assumed his men would fast as well (“when you fast,” not if, Matthew 6:16–18), and even promised they would (“then they will fast,” Matthew 9:15; Mark 2:20; Luke 5:35).
Jesus didn’t only retreat to be alone with God. He also taught his disciples to do the same (Mark 3:7; Luke 9:10). In Mark 6:31–32, he invites his men to join him, saying, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” Mark explains, “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.”
So also, in the Gospel of John, Jesus, as his fame spread, retreated from more populated settings to invest in his men in more desolate, less distracting places (John 11:54). In his timeless Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught all his hearers, including us today, not only to give without show (Matthew 6:3–4), and fast without publicity (Matthew 6:17–18), but also to find our private place to seek our Father’s face: “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).
And how today might our Father reward us any better than with more of himself through his Son?
In it all — in receiving his Father’s voice in Scripture, and praying alone (and with company), and at times, when faced with particularly pressing concerns, adding the tool of fasting — Jesus sought communion with his Father. His habits were not demonstrations of will and sheer discipline. His acts of receiving the word, and responding in prayer, were not ends in themselves. In these blessed means, he pursued the end of knowing and enjoying his Father. And so do we today.
We don’t retreat from life’s busyness and bustle as an end in itself. “To sit quietly in a room alone,” in Pascal’s words, is not an achievement but an instrument — an opportunity to open up our lives and souls to him for whom we were made. To know him and enjoy him.
Over and over in the Bible, God says that he saves us in order to draw attention to himself. Why did God design salvation that way?
In the aftermath of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, some American Christians began to feel newly like exiles in their own country. All at once, it seemed to them, the nation’s highest court cast Christian morality outside the walls of American culture, where it became the victim of a strange new vocabulary: intolerance, bigotry, antigay, hate speech. America, which some once imagined as a kind of New Jerusalem, was showing itself to be more like Babylon.
The truth, of course, is that American Christians have always been exiles. We were exiles in the 1950s, and we are exiles in the 2020s. We were exiles under the Defense of Marriage Act, and we are exiles under Obergefell. We were exiles under Barack Obama, and we are exiles under Donald Trump. For some, it seems, it just took the Supreme Court to remind us.
Election season is as good a time as ever to remember again. If we are in Christ, we are “exiles,” “sojourners,” “people . . . seeking a homeland” (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11; Hebrews 11:14). America is not our true home. It never has been.
What does the life of a Christian exile look like? The word exile itself may evoke images of obscurity — of hermits, monks, and communities cut off from the rest of the world. Nothing could be further from the Bible’s description of the exilic life.
As Edmund Clowney puts it, Christians “are transients and aliens, but they are also ambassadors. They reject conformity to the city, but they accept responsibility, living as law-abiding citizens and honouring their rulers and their fellow residents” (The Message of 1 Peter, 42). We are not only exiles, but ambassadors. For the road to Zion does not go around the walls of Babylon: it runs right through it.
Life would be simpler if we were merely exiles — if we needed merely to hunker down in the desert while the world burned. But the life of exilic ambassadors is not so simple. As John Piper once preached:
Perhaps no book of Scripture explores this complex calling as thoroughly as 1 Peter. There, we read how Christians live, speak, relate, and hope — as both exiles and ambassadors.
Good works are woven into our identity as Christians. Having been born again to know God (1 Peter 1:3), we also have been born again to do good (1 Peter 1:22–23; 3:13). The good works Peter has in mind, however, defy easy categories.
On the one hand, as exiles, Christians give ourselves to the kind of good that our society doesn’t recognize — the kind that invites scorn from those who “call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20; 1 Peter 3:17). So, we defend the rights of the unborn, draw clear lines between manhood and womanhood, and challenge the besetting sins of both the left and the right.
On the other hand, as ambassadors, we do the kind of good that our neighbors value — the kind that “[puts] to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15). Christians not only hold signs outside abortion clinics, but also adopt children. We not only provide alternative education options that teach a biblical worldview, but also create tuition programs so that poorer families can participate.
Our good works are not fully Christian unless they create a curious mixture of offense and admiration. Some neighbors will detest the good that we do. Some will silently commend it. And some, God willing, will even “be won” (1 Peter 3:1).
Christians not only do, however; we also speak. And our words bear the same stamp as our works.
As exiles, Christians speak a message that stirs up hatred in the unredeemed heart. We preach a Christ who suffered for sinners and will one day return in judgment (1 Peter 1:13; 3:18). We call people to turn from “futile ways” and submit themselves to God (1 Peter 1:17–18). We claim to have the only hope that won’t fail in the end (1 Peter 3:15). These are words with edges on them; if spoken faithfully, they cut. And as exiles, we don’t dull the blade.
As ambassadors, however, Christians also do everything possible to remove unnecessary offenses. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver,” the wise man tells us (Proverbs 25:11). So we labor to wrap the gold apple of the gospel within the silver of “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15), with “honor” (1 Peter 2:17), and, after we have spoken, with silence and submission (1 Peter 3:1–2).
Christians exist to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). And as we proclaim his excellencies, we strive to do so with excellence, speaking even the hardest truths with a heavenly accent.
The pattern of serving and speaking that we find in 1 Peter assumes a particular relational context: Christians, though deeply invested in the community of God’s people, remain embedded in a web of relationships outside the church.
As exiles, our earthly allegiances are fundamentally different than they once were. We enjoy a closer kinship with those in Christ than we do with our political allies, our ethnic group, and even our blood relatives. Understandably, then, we stay close to other exiles on our homeward journey, longing to reflect together the ways of the kingdom where we are citizens (1 Peter 1:22–23; 3:8; 4:8–11). We would rather rub shoulders with Christ’s poor exiles than sit on the world’s highest throne.
But even though Christians are free from worldly identities, we are “subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13). As ambassadors, we bring the salt of the earth into our families, workplaces, neighborhoods, and even political structures (1 Peter 2:13–3:17). Too often, Christian exiles so distance ourselves from our unbelieving neighbors that we effectively put a basket over the lamp of the kingdom (Matthew 5:15). God calls us, however, to live near our neighbors: near enough to be reviled, slandered, and maligned (1 Peter 4:4), yet near enough to make our hope visible (1 Peter 3:15).
Ultimately, the complex calling of Christ’s people cannot be fulfilled by following a program of cultural engagement. The lifestyle of good works, speech, and relationships that Peter writes about is a supernatural lifestyle, born from a supernatural hope.
In one sense, this hope waits for us in the future. Our “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” inheritance is not now in our possession, but is “kept in heaven” (1 Peter 1:4). Christians are waiting for the day when our exile ends: when eternal glory dawns, when sorrow and sighing flee away, when God makes all things new (1 Peter 5:10). For now, we “set [our] hope fully on the grace that will be brought to [us] at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).
And yet, in another sense, we carry something of heaven with us wherever we go. Peter writes, “Though you have not seen [Christ], you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” — or more literally, joy that is inexpressible and “glorified” (1 Peter 1:8). Our joy, though only a fraction of what it one day will be, already glimmers with the coming glory. “The Spirit of glory” himself already rests upon us — especially in our suffering (1 Peter 4:14). Heaven is not only future; it is, in part, present in the glorified joy of Christ’s ambassadors.
This is what the world needs from Christ’s people: not only good works, not only gospel truth, not only upright relationships, but joy. Joy when slandered. Joy when suffering. Joy when in the minority. Joy that makes little sense to our adversaries. Joy that beckons them to march with us toward the coming glory.
ABSTRACT: For now, Christians live in a great theological tension: we already possess every spiritual blessing in Christ, but we do not experience the fullness of these blessings yet. In one sense, we are already adopted, redeemed, sanctified, and saved; in another, these experiences are not yet fully ours. Underneath this theological and practical tension are the two comings of Christ. In his first coming, he inaugurated the last days; in his second coming, he will complete them. In the meantime, we live for now in “the overlap of the ages.”
My wife and I have been married for sixteen years, but I can remember our engagement like it was yesterday. It was an unnecessarily long engagement — a year and seven days, to be precise. Yet I have no one to blame but myself. The ring burned a hole in my pocket.
I hastily popped the question before meeting my father-in-law’s demands: college degrees in hand, full-time jobs, and $5,000 in the bank. So, it meant a longer engagement. I was hasty because we knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. But once the excitement of getting engaged wore off, I grew increasingly impatient.
It felt as if we were already married, with her ring symbolizing that long-term commitment. The reality symbolized by the ring, however, was not yet a present reality. It was a certain hope in the all-too-distant future.
The Christian life is a lot like that. It is an already-but-not-yet sort of existence, where believers are caught within what Oscar Cullmann calls “the dialectic of present and future.”1
What do I mean? According to Scripture, believers are
We live in a theological tension. By faith in Christ, all of these spiritual blessings are ours already, but the full enjoyment of these blessings is not yet ours. This is the life of faith: “the assurance of things hoped for” in the future, and “the conviction of things not seen” in the present (Hebrews 11:1). This is life between the times.
Underlying this theological tension is a theological structure: the already–not yet framework. It is, according to Cullmann, “the silent presupposition that lies behind all that [the New Testament] says.”2 The New Testament authors thought, wrote, and lived through the grid of this biblical framework or mindset. It determined the way they spoke about God’s dealings in this world in light of the world to come.
If we don’t understand this mindset, the theological tension we live in will become a theological disaster. We will inevitably misread Scripture. And if we misread Scripture, we will live misled lives. To give one example, not understanding the already–not yet framework might lead a person to think that there are two ways to be saved. Initial salvation depends entirely on God (Ephesians 2:8), but final salvation depends entirely on us (Romans 5:9), with the practical damage being a legalistic mindset devoid of the gospel.
Theology and Christian living are not oil and water; they are organically connected like seed and tree. So, if we long to think God’s thoughts after him and live for him, then we must follow the way his inspired apostles thought theologically and lived practically. What follows in this essay is not a mere theological exercise. The mind must be informed, but just as importantly, we need our hearts and lives to be transformed. We need to see how this robust theological framework is deeply practical for Christians living between the times.
To grasp the New Testament’s already–not yet mindset, we need to begin with four foundational pillars: eschatology, christology, soteriology, and redemptive history.
You may be thinking, “Eschatology? Doesn’t that deal with the end times?” That’s right. Eschatology means “the study of the last things.” But in the New Testament, eschatology refers not chiefly to millennial views or the timing of the tribulation. Eschatology became more of a mindset on how the future relates to the present. This is especially true of eschatology in Paul’s letters, which will be our primary (though not sole) focus.3
Pauline eschatology relates primarily to christology (“the study of Christ”). The two are inextricably connected and mutually interpretive. As Herman Ridderbos notes, “Paul’s ‘eschatology’ is ‘Christ-eschatology.’”4 Christology completely redefines what we mean by eschatology, and vice versa. For Paul, the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ were eschatological events accomplished in history. That is, they were redemptive-historical events — divine actions whereby God revealed himself in word and deed, in time and space — and these redemptive-historical events connected the present with the future; or, perhaps better, they brought “the age to come” into “this age.”5
For example, the outpouring of the Spirit is considered an end-time event in Joel 2, but this end-time event occurred after Christ’s ascension on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. The future came into the present through the person and work of Christ. This dynamic is often referred to as inaugurated or realized eschatology.
But Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection are not merely eschatological events. They are also salvific events. Christology and soteriology (“the study of salvation”) are inseparably interwoven with eschatology.6 This means that Paul’s eschatology is not only about the future entering the present, but also the present determining the future. The salvation that Christ accomplished and the Spirit applies has present and future implications for believers. This is where the practical payoff of the already–not yet framework emerges, though we’ll return to these implications later.
These foundational pillars — eschatology, christology, soteriology, and redemptive history — support Paul’s (and the New Testament’s) eschatological framework. But we should pause to consider how drastically different this framework is from the framework Paul affirmed before his conversion on the road to Damascus. A comparison between the two more accurately reveals how the person and work of Christ radically reconfigured time itself.
Before Paul was blinded on the road to Damascus, he saw “this age” and “the age to come” much differently.
Think of redemptive history as divided between this age and the age to come, with a midpoint in between that separates the two.7 The midpoint of redemptive history, from the perspective of the Old Testament, is the coming of the eschatological Davidic Messiah,8 the latter-day outpouring of the Spirit,9 and the general resurrection of the dead.10 These are some of the major events that would usher in “the last days”11 and mark the eschatological turning point from this age to the age to come.
Nevertheless, Paul’s mindset was radically altered after seeing the light of God’s glorious gospel (Acts 9:1–19; 2 Corinthians 4:4, 6). He now could see clearly that the redemptive-historical line had been divinely reconfigured. Time itself was reconfigured.
The Messiah was no longer he-who-is-to-come but he-who-has-already-come. And Jesus, the one who had already come, was the one who, through his death and resurrection, became “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). The resurrection of Christ completely redefined Paul’s Jewish expectation of the general resurrection.
We see this shift particularly in Acts. Luke records how central the resurrection is to Paul’s ministry.12 Again and again, Paul stands before judges, being tried for proclaiming the resurrection. As he explains to Felix, “It is with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you this day” (Acts 24:21; cf. 23:6; 26:6). Later, in Rome, he says that “it is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain” (Acts 28:20).
What is the hope of Israel? It’s spelled out in Acts 24:15: “. . . having a hope in God . . . that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.” Israel’s hope was the general resurrection of the dead — the end-time event that would usher in the age to come.
But Paul makes it clear that Israel’s hope of general resurrection and salvation hangs on the resurrection of Jesus Christ: “I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22–23).
“It is clear,” writes Brandon Crowe, “that the resurrection is not simply one event among many but is the quintessential way that Scripture is fulfilled and is the means by which Jesus as Messiah is Lord of all. The resurrection, in short, is the ‘hope of Israel,’ and this hope has broken into history through Jesus of Nazareth.”13
Whereas once the general resurrection of the dead was the decisive turning point of time, Paul now considers Jesus’s resurrection to be the great turning point,14 moving us from this age into an overlapping of the ages where we presently experience the age to come.15 The midpoint of redemptive history is therefore expanded, bookended by the first and second coming of Christ. These are the “times” between which we live.
The age to come has come upon this age. That’s why Paul describes Christians as those “on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). This is why Peter, after witnessing the outpouring of the Spirit, adds the words “in the last days” (Acts 2:17) into his direct quotation of Joel 2:28–32.16 This is why Peter also declares that Christ died and rose again “at the end of the times” (1 Peter 1:19–21 author’s translation). And this is why the author of Hebrews highlights God’s speech through the Son “in these last days” (Hebrews 1:2), who “appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
“It is already the time of the end,” writes Cullmann, “and yet it is not the end.”17 Christ’s first coming marks the beginning of the last days. Christ’s second coming will mark the end of the last days. And Christians presently find themselves living in the last days,18 in the overlapping of the ages, where salvific benefits are ours already and not yet.19
Anthony Hoekema provides a helpful summary:
The nature of New Testament eschatology may be summed up under three observations: (1) the great eschatological event [i.e., resurrection] predicted in the Old Testament has happened; (2) what the Old Testament writers seemed to depict as one movement is now seen to involve two stages: the present age and the age of the future; and (3) the relation between these two eschatological stages is that the blessings of the present (eschatological) age are the pledge and guarantee of greater blessings to come.20
How does the already–not yet framework inform the way we live in the tension between Christ’s first and second coming? While there are several aspects one can highlight, I want to draw attention to four ways the glorious resurrection of Christ — that time-changing event in redemptive history — relates to our practical Christian living.
As mentioned earlier, the Jews in the Old Testament looked forward to the resurrection of the dead. Christians, however, must look back to Christ’s resurrection before they look forward to their own. The reason for this shift in perspective is simple yet profound: the resurrection of Christ is closely united and organically connected with our own resurrection. More specifically, our future physical resurrection is determined by our present spiritual resurrection with Christ.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26). Notice that Jesus calls himself “the resurrection,” the very reality Jews eagerly anticipated. Quite shockingly, Jesus presents himself as the full embodiment of Israel’s resurrection hope. But he’s not only the resurrection; he’s also life itself, which, in John, refers to eternal life (John 5:24, 26).
He is “the resurrection and the life” only to those who believe in him (John 11:25). And those who do believe in him will live, even though they die. They will be raised from the dead at the end of time (John 5:28–29).
So, faith in Christ secures our physical resurrection in the not yet, but faith in Christ also results in spiritual resurrection in the already. The two are inseparable. Jesus explains, “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” (John 5:24–25).
When we believe in Jesus Christ as the resurrection and the life, we are raised spiritually now (“has passed from death to life”) and can, with confidence, await our physical resurrection in the future (“those who hear will live”). We will enter eternal life then because we have eternal life now. And the source of our confidence comes from the undeniable fact of Christ’s physical resurrection.
Paul connects Christ’s resurrection to ours in 1 Corinthians 15. After proclaiming that “Christ has been raised,” Paul describes the resurrected Christ as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20; cf. Colossians 1:18). “Firstfruits” entail the beginning of a harvest — in this case, a “resurrection-harvest.”21 There is a close unity and organic relationship between the resurrection of Christ and our future physical resurrection.
Commenting on this close relationship, Richard Gaffin insists that Christ’s “resurrection is not simply a guarantee” of our physical resurrection but “a pledge in the sense that it is the actual beginning of the general event.”22 When Christ was raised from the dead, he inaugurated the end-time event of the resurrection, but this event unfolds in two phases for his people: spiritual resurrection with Christ first, then physical resurrection (as we saw in John 5).23
Paul depicts our spiritual resurrection with striking language in Ephesians 2:4–6: “God . . . made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Of course, we didn’t physically accompany Christ into the age to come or the new creation, but we were rose spiritually with him because we are in him.
“If anyone is in Christ,” Paul says, “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Notice that I didn’t quote the ESV, which says, “he is a new creation.” The Greek simply says, “new creation” (kainē ktisis). Believers are individually transformed into new creations, but they also enter into the new creation through union with Christ. They enter into a new world.24 As J.C. Ryle notes, “There is a glorious dwelling place provided by Jesus Christ for all His believing people. The world that now is, is not their rest: they are pilgrims and strangers in it. Heaven is their home.”25
Our spiritual resurrection in the already makes our physical resurrection in the future certain. As one Puritan prayed, “My heaven-born faith gives promise of eternal sight, my new birth a pledge of never-ending life.”26
But why is this the case? Because Christ has been raised! He is “the fountain-head of the resurrection.”27 “For,” Paul writes, “as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:21–23).
Our future is certain because the risen Jesus, the hope of Israel, is our hope.
When Christ was raised from the dead, he was declared by God to be righteous. After all, he was sinless (2 Corinthians 5:21), obeyed the law perfectly (Matthew 5:17), and bore the sins of his people on the cross (1 Corinthians 15:3; Galatians 3:13). Christ’s resurrection was therefore his justification. He was declared to be in the right with God. As Geerhardus Vos notes, “Christ’s resurrection was the de facto declaration of God in regard to his being just. His quickening bears in itself the testimony of his justification.”28
Of course, Jesus’s justification (or vindication) differs from ours in one unique way: he never sinned, never needed forgiveness, and never lacked righteousness. Instead, he is our perfect representative who bore our sins, absorbed God’s wrath, and merited the righteousness that comes to us by faith.
When it comes to Jesus’s resurrection as his justification, 1 Timothy 3:16 is a key text: “[Christ] was manifested in the flesh, vindicated/justified [edikaiōthē] in the Spirit” (cf. Romans 1:3–4). Dikaioō is the Greek verb Paul employs frequently to speak of our justification. But here, he applies it to Jesus, with the Spirit playing a critical role in raising him from the dead (Romans 8:11; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:45; Romans 8:9; 2 Corinthians 3:17–18).
As with resurrection, our justification is closely tied to Jesus’s justification/vindication. We see this in Paul’s description of Jesus as the one “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification [dikaiōsin]” (Romans 4:25).
Gaffin describes this connection vividly: “A dead Christ is an unjustified Christ, and an unjustified Christ means an unjustified believer.”29 Conversely, a raised Christ is a justified Christ, and a justified Christ means a justified believer. We are raised in him and justified in him. And that righteous verdict can never be overturned. It has no expiration date. It is the same verdict rendered to Christ, which is his forever. Through our union with the Beloved, what is his is ours (Song of Solomon 2:16; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Philippians 3:9; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 10:14).
In fact, the righteous verdict we receive in Christ is eschatological. It comes from the future. It is the verdict that will be rendered on the final day when the dead are raised, and God judges the just and the unjust from the throne. Hence, Paul can declare, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:33–34; cf. Romans 3:21–26).
The person and work of Christ, applied in the present, secures our future salvation. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9). So, it makes sense for Paul to exult in the certain hope that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
And yet, because we’re in the not yet, he can also say that “through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness [dikaiosunēs]” (Galatians 5:5). Paul is not speaking out of both sides of his mouth here. It’s not as if he is saying we have a righteous standing, but we’d better hope that we keep that righteous standing in the future. Instead, Paul is situating the believer’s justification in the already–not yet framework. The righteousness of Christ is ours by faith (Philippians 3:9), but we eagerly wait for that hidden verdict to be manifested openly on the last day (Galatians 5:5).
Everything said up till now puts Christian judgment into perspective. Scripture does teach that Christians will stand before God’s judgment seat to give an account of what we have done in the body (Romans 14:10–12; 2 Corinthians 5:10; cf. 1 Corinthians 3:12–15). But we must remember that Christian judgment is in accordance with our good works and never on the basis of our good works (Psalm 62:12; Proverbs 24:12; Job 34:11; Jeremiah 17:10; 32:19; Matthew 16:27; John 5:28–29; Revelation 20:11–13; 22:12). Our salvation is on the basis of nothing other than the person and work of Jesus Christ alone.
Since we have been justified in Christ and spiritually raised with Christ now, we will stand before the judgment seat as righteous then. As Gaffin argues, “If believers appear at the final judgment as already resurrected bodily, then they will appear there as already openly justified.”30 To be sure, everyone will be resurrected bodily on the last day. The major difference is that believers, having been raised spiritually and declared righteous by faith, will have that hidden verdict of righteousness become a public verdict when physically raised from the dead. We will be “openly acknowledged and acquitted” on the day of judgment,31 because we have been already justified in Christ.
James Buchanan explains this clearly: “Justification, considered as the pardon of a sinner and his acceptance as righteous in the sight of God, is by faith; but judgment is according to works; and it is not a second Justification — as if there might be two — the one by faith, the other by works — it is one and the same Justification, which is actually bestowed in the present life, and authoritatively declared and attested at the judgment-seat.”32
In the meantime, we wait eagerly for the certain hope of righteousness, and can confidently sing the end of that great hymn “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less”:
When I shall launch in worlds unseen,
Oh, may I then be found in him;
Dressed in his righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.33
On that day, we will stand faultless in the faultless One, who loved us, who gave himself up for us, and who was raised for our justification — never to die again (Romans 6:9).
Though our future is certain, our sanctification can be turbulent. Sanctification is an ongoing battle. Sometimes we win; sometimes we lose. We’re constantly in flux. We have mountaintop experiences before lying defeated in dark valleys. We take three steps forward before quickly taking two steps (or four steps) back. In the midst of this distressing battle, viewing one’s sanctification through the already-not yet lens keeps you from feeling spiritually double-minded and powerless. What do I mean?
The spiritually double-minded are Christian versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, only they oscillate between the old self and the new self. In their thinking, they are living in the new man when they resist temptations to sin. But when they sin, they revert back to the old man. Two men or two selves are warring within them, and they feel spiritually double-minded as they constantly transform from one man to the other. When this happens, some even think they are moving in and out of a state of salvation.
This sort of unbiblical thinking is detrimental to one’s spiritual vitality. It’s a classic case of bad theology ruining good Christian practice. You can’t fall in and out of salvation, and you certainly can’t oscillate between the old self and the new self.
We need to recall biblical indicatives — true statements about believers in the already. You are definitively sanctified through union with Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30). You have “been set free from sin” (Romans 6:7). “Sin will have no dominion over you” (Romans 6:14). “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The list could go on and on. These things are true of you now, but they are not yet fully experienced.
This reality about our sanctification may sound like a contradiction, but it’s actually a theological paradox. Paul can say, “You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self” (Colossians 3:9–10), and, in the same breath, he can say, “Put to death . . . what is earthly in you” (Colossians 3:5), and “Put on . . . compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).
Why do we need to put off something we’ve already put off and put on something we’ve already put on? This is the paradox of the already–not yet life. We are new creations in Christ, but indwelling sin will remain in us this side of glory. It’s not a battle over which self ultimately will overcome us and determine our eternal destiny. We’re either in Adam or in Christ (Romans 5:12–21). If you’re in Christ, then you’ve been raised with him and seated in the heavenly places. And if you’ve been raised with Christ, you can be neither spiritually double-minded nor spiritually powerless.
If we are to live biblically in between the times, we must trust indicatives and obey imperatives. Biblical indicatives are another way of expressing the already: “You are holy!” Imperatives express the not yet: “Be holy!” Solely trusting in indicatives will lead to antinomianism (discarding God’s law because we are saved). Merely obeying imperatives will lead to legalism (obeying God’s law in order to be saved). Grace in the gospel opposes both.
Paul declares that Christians are “under grace” (Romans 6:14). That means we are no longer enslaved to sin (indicative; Romans 6:6). But that also means we don’t let sin reign in our mortal bodies (imperative; Romans 6:12). How do we do that? We let indicatives fuel our obedience to God. Recall what is already true in order to be obedient in the not yet.
Suppose, for example, that you’re feeling spiritually lethargic one day. After seeing or thinking about something tempting, you sense sin in your heart being aroused in your mortal body, and you long to satisfy its demands. Sin wants you to satisfy your longings with its cheap thrills and empty offers of satisfaction. And in the moment, you think that sounds like a great idea.
What do you do in the midst of temptation? At that moment, remind yourself of what is true of you in Christ. Pray God’s word over your sin-stricken soul. Say, “The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, that spiritually raised me from the dead in him, dwells in me powerfully (Romans 8:11; Ephesians 1:19–20)!”
Think about that reality for a second. You have divine power at your disposal. You have access to a storehouse of strength for the battle. God doesn’t leave you to fend for yourself. He equips you for the fight (Philippians 2:12–13). The Spirit that raised our Lord from death enables us to “put to death the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13). And so, we fight.
We don’t claim perfect victory, but we also don’t claim utter defeat. In between the times, we rest on what is true of us in Christ, and we fight until that day when faith becomes sight, and everything in the not yet becomes ours.
The resurrection of Christ is central to Christianity (1 Corinthians 15:12–19). There is indeed no hope without it. But Christ’s resurrection is also central to Christian living in the last days. It is a time-changing event that reconstitutes where we live and how we live. We live “in Christ” and we live for Christ in the overlap of the ages. His defeat of death has ushered in the age to come, and we now get glimpses of the future — foretastes of the heavenly world we call home (Hebrews 6:5).
He is risen. And that means we can be certain of our physical resurrection. We can be convinced of our righteous standing before God. We can be calm on the final day of judgment. And we can be courageous in our fight against sin.
Living between the times is riddled with theological and practical tension. But adopting the already–not yet mindset will better equip saints to read the Scriptures faithfully and live out the gospel powerfully, all the while giving thanks to the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and brought the future into the present.
Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time: The Primitive Christian Conception of Time and History, trans. Floyd V. Filson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1950), 146. ↩
Cullmann, Christ and Time, 146. ↩
Geerhardus Vos hailed Paul as “the father of Christian eschatology” (Pauline Eschatology [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994], 175). ↩
Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard de Witt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 49. ↩
In speaking of how heavenly realities come to bear on our earthly lives, Vos says of the latter, “The higher world [i.e., heaven] is in existence there [i.e., on earth], and there is no escape for the Christian from its [i.e., the heavenly world’s] supreme dominion over his life. Thus, the other world, hitherto future, has become present” (37–38; my emphasis). ↩
Vos says, “Not only the Christology but also the Soteriology of the Apostle’s teaching is so closely interwoven with the Eschatology, that, were the question put, which of the strands is more central, which more peripheral, the eschatology would have as good a claim to the central place as the others” (Pauline Eschatology, 28–29). ↩
I have slightly adapted Oscar Cullmann’s diagram in Christ and Time, 82. ↩
See 2 Samuel 7:12–16; Psalms 21; 72; 89; 110; 132; Amos 9:11; Isaiah 9:6–7; 11:1–9; Ezekiel 37:24–25; Zechariah 6:12–13; 12:7–8. ↩
See Joel 2:28–32; Isaiah 32:15; 44:3; Ezekiel 36:27; 37:14; 39:29. ↩
See Job 19:26–27; Isaiah 26:19; Hosea 6:2; Daniel 12:1–2. ↩
See Genesis 49:1; Numbers 24:14; Deuteronomy 4:30; 31:29; Isaiah 2:2; Jeremiah 30:24; Daniel 10:14; Hosea 3:5. ↩
See Brandon D. Crowe, The Hope of Israel: The Resurrection of Christ in the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020). ↩
Crowe, Hope of Israel, 85–86. ↩
“We must think of Christ’s death and resurrection as the central event that launched the latter days. This pivotal event of death and resurrection is eschatological because it launched the beginning of the new creation” (G.K. Beale, “The New Testament and New Creation,” in Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect, ed. Scott Hafemann [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002], 163). ↩
According to Hebrews 6:5, we taste “the powers of the age to come” on earth. ↩
The additional words “in the last days” occur only one other time in the LXX, Isaiah 2:2. More than likely, Peter is alluding to that text. For a closer analysis of Old Testament and New Testament texts where the phrase “last days” appears, see Vos, Pauline Eschatology, ch. 1; and G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), ch. 3. ↩
Cullmann, Christ and Time, 145; emphasis original. ↩
See 1 Timothy 4:1–3; 2 Timothy 3:1–5; 2 Peter 3:1–7; James 5:3; Jude 14–19. ↩
Interestingly, this is how Luke eschatologically structures the book of Acts. As the disciples watch Jesus ascend into heaven, “two men . . . said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven [first coming], will come in the same way [second coming] as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:10–11). Before this happened, they asked Jesus if this was the “time” when he would “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6), but Jesus simply responds, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). Time is restructured into times. This sets the scene for the foundational work of the apostles in between the times. ↩
Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 21–22. ↩
Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987), 34. ↩
Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption, 35. ↩
Gaffin writes, “The unity of the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of believers is such that the latter consists of two episodes in the experience of the individual believer — one which is past, already realized, and one which is future, yet to be realized. In the period between the resurrection and parousia of Christ, any believer is one who has already been raised from the dead, and is yet to be raised. . . . His resurrection is both already and not yet” (Resurrection and Redemption, 60). ↩
Vos writes, “For the one who has undergone this experience of having become ‘in Christ,’ not merely individual subjective conditions have been changed, but ‘the old things are passed away, new things have come into being.’ There has been created a totally new environment, or, more accurately speaking, a totally new world, in which the person spoken of is an inhabitant and participator” (Pauline Eschatology, 47). ↩
J.C. Ryle, “Heaven,” Helmingham Tract Series 14 (Stirling, UK: Drummond’s Tract Depot, n.d.). ↩
The Valley of Vision, ed. Arthur Bennett (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1975), 301. ↩
Vos, Pauline Eschatology, 10. ↩
Vos, Pauline Eschatology, 151. ↩
Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption, 124. ↩
Richard Gaffin, By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, 2nd ed. (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 113; emphasis original. ↩
Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 90. ↩
James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification: An Outline of Its History in the Church and of Its Exposition from Scripture (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1867), 238. ↩
Edward Mote, “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less” (1834). ↩
Christ’s blood not only purchases our forgiveness, but our obedience. We were not only redeemed from guilt, but from our futile ways of living.
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