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What is Eternal Life?
By David A. DePra
If you were to ask people the question, "What is eternal life?," the most common answer would be, "life that goes on forever." Obviously, this is correct. But it is not a complete answer. Eternal life DOES go on forever. But that is only one aspect of what eternal life really is.
Another answer to the question, "What is eternal life?" is, "Going to heaven when I die." Again, this is correct. But again, it is not a complete answer. If you have eternal life, you ARE "going to heaven." But eternal life is much more than that.
Actually, the first answer, "eternal life goes on forever," is a bit of a contradiction. The very word, "eternal," in the Greek NT really speaks of TIMELESSNESS. So even though, from our present human perspective, eternal life goes on and on, it really is a QUALITY of life which is not bound by time at all. Eternal life cannot be measured by time. It exists independent of it.
As far as "going to heaven" is concerned, we must see that "going to heaven" is the OUTCOME of eternal life, not merely eternal life itself. In other words, we have to understand that eternal life is not something you will receive some day. If you are in Christ, you have eternal life NOW. You have ALREADY passed from death to life NOW. Going to heaven is simply the outcome of this fact.
Eternal life really denotes a KIND of life Ė rather than just a duration of a life. It is a KIND of life which we possess in Christ Jesus NOW. Eternal life is resurrection life. It is salvation. It is the life which we obtain through the NEW BIRTH. Understanding eternal life will open up other avenues of Truth as to Godís plan and purpose for His people in this age, and in the ages to come.
And as they thus spoke, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and said unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them. (Luke 24:34-43)
It might come as a surprise to some people, but the Jesus Christ who walked out of the tomb on the first Easter Sunday morning, did not merely return to what He was before His death. It was the SAME Jesus, and there was an absolute one-on-one correspondence between the body that died and the one that rose. But something had changed. Something very wonderful.
Now, I am talking about a difference between the HUMAN aspect of Jesus. The DIVINE could not change because that was always eternal. But Jesus was a man. The KIND of life which emerged from that tomb, with reference to a human being, was not the same as was before.
From Luke 24, we see clearly that Jesus was not a ghost or spirit, but had "flesh and bones." He also ATE. So Jesus was physical. But there were also spiritual attributes because He was able to appear and vanish at will. The point here, however, is that when Jesus died and was raised, it was not simply a matter of God REVERSING death. Rather, Jesus PASSED THROUGH death and won a victory over it. The body He had after the resurrection reflected that. It was above and beyond the body He had before His death.
Everyone else who had ever been raised from the death had been raised because their death had been reversed. And then they eventually died again. But not this time. Jesus passed through death and conquered it. It no longer had any power over Him. He had victory over it. He would never die again.
Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dies no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he lives, he lives unto God. (Rom 6:9-10)
Herein we find a fundamental Truth about eternal life Ė which IS resurrection life. It has VICTORY over death.
This is important because most of us think that eternal life is the result of God "removing" or "lifting" death from us. We think God took away the death penalty because Jesus died, and so we donít have to die. But the Bible says otherwise. It says that we must die in Christ, and then be raised in Him. Thus, because Jesus won total victory over death through His resurrection, if we are raised IN HIM, we have that victory through Him.
For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dies no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he lives, he lives unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 6:5-11)
Notice how the Bible never says you and I are given eternal life independent of being IN Christ. No. Our life IS Christ. We are "planted," or "engrafted" into Him as the branch is in the Vine. Our union with Him through death and resurrection is why we are free from sin and death, and have resurrection life. That is the ONLY reason. So the life He has, we have, for He is in us, and we in Him. And that life is eternal life Ė with full victory over death.
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. (1 Cor 15:53-54)
When we read the phrase, "freedom from death," it is easy to limit this merely to the fact that those who are raised in Christ will never suffer eternal death. That is true, but there is more. Eternal life is incorruptible life. It cannot be reversed, harmed, or corrupted by death or the things of death.
Practically speaking, if you are in Christ, you have in you something that is eternal and incorruptible. Nothing of death, or the realm of the enemy, can touch it. Why? Because it isnít YOUR life Ė it is the life of Christ. And His life has already conquered all of those things.
Christ in Us
Much about eternal life is explained once we understand that our life IS Christ. We only have eternal life because He has us. Paul says, "Christ in you, the hope of glory." (Col. 1:27) That is Christianity in a nutshell, and the only life we have.
The Bible approaches this Truth from a number of different angles. Not only are we told that Christ is in us, but it says that we are in Christ. We are likewise told that we are members of His Body Ė which carries resurrection life. We are also likened to branches which are IN the Vine, and partake of His life. Paul also says:
But of him are you in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: That, according as it is written, He that glories, let him glory in the Lord. (1 Cor 1:30-31)
What we are being told here is this: We are ONE with Jesus Christ through His Redemption. All that we have, and are, is because of Him. Eternal life cannot be separated from the One who is the Source. As Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and THE LIFE." (John 14:6)
This is especially important to realize because there has been a certain train of thought down through Christian history which diverts us away from this fundamental Truth. That train of thought dominated reformed theology. It is the suggestion that all salvation really is boils down to a "legal imputation" that God gives us of the obedience, and death, and righteousness of Christ. God simply takes what Christ did, and by grace, imputes it to our account. This is said to give God just reason for justifying and forgiving us.
There is a certain Truth to this, of course, from the legal standpoint. But if that is all God did, then it where is a REAL new birth? There isnít one. Where is any change at all in the one to whom righteousness is "legally imputed?" There is no change. If eternal life is merely a legal classification, it isnít life at all.
It gets worse. If all God did was take a big red rubber stamp and stamp us on the forehead, "forgiven," then something has happened which is terrible. This would mean that you and I are just as much sinners as before. You and I have no change of nature and no actual freedom from sin. God has, in effect, SANCTIONED sin. He has forgiven the sinner without doing one thing to address sin itself.
This is NOT the Truth. Eternal life is not merely a new legal classification. It is a NEW BIRTH. It is Jesus Christ IN US Ė His resurrection life and power. It is a new creation which is free from sin actually, and which will begin to walk in that freedom progressively. God does more than "impute" to us what Christ has done. He literally makes us one with Christ HIMSELF!
Eternal life is Christ in us. Jesus won victory over death. Jesus was raised. Only if Christ is in us do we partake of these realities. There is no other Christianity spoken of in the Word of God.
Eternal life, of course, is simply another term for SALVATION. But how many of us have really understood that salvation is LIFE? Many of us have simply thought of it in terms of being saved from death Ė sort of like "salvation" is a condition of having escaped the penalty for sin. Well, it includes that by default. But salvation is LIFE. It is life which is the result of belonging to, and being IN, Jesus Christ.
The bottom line is: If you are in Christ, you have LIFE Ė His life. Thus, we can see that LIFE isnít something God hands to us Ė which we then possess independently of Him. Life is God. All life is in Christ. It is something we possess only if we belong to God; abide in Christ. You cannot divorce life from God. There is no life outside of Him.
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abides in me, and I in him, the same brings forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)
For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: (Rom 6:5)
And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. (Rom 8:10)
For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. (Col 3:3-4)
Eternal life is not something which enables us to live independent of God. Hardly. "Living" independent of God is SEPARATION from God. That is the very definition of death! Indeed, rather than say God gives us an ability to live independent of Him, what God does is tell us we must surrender our life to Him. He takes us and plants us into a union with Himself through Christ. Then Ė we are one with LIFE Himself.
When all is said and done, eternal life is the result of God giving us HIMSELF. God gives us Himself when we give Him ourselves, by faith in Jesus Christ.
Much Christian teaching bounces back and forth between heaven and hell. But the Bible talks more about life and death. Indeed, if we truly understood it, we would see that we are going to be in heaven, if heaven is first in us. That heaven IS Jesus Christ. And we would likewise see that we are going to be in hell, if hell is in us. In the Bible, it is always our spiritual condition which determines our eternal location. And our spiritual condition goes back to whether we are in Adam, or by faith, in Jesus Christ.
A New Creature
We have seen that eternal life is not merely life that goes on and on and will never die. Rather eternal life is a KIND of life which is free of death, which carries a victory over death.
There was no such eternal life BEFORE the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not even the life of Jesus before His death and resurrection was that kind of life Ė because before His death and resurrection, there had been no actual victory over death. There is only victory over death if Jesus dies and conquers death through His resurrection.
Jesus was God become man. He lived a perfectly sinless life as a man, and died on the Cross. But at that point, He had not conquered death. Not experientially. Once He did, there was ushered in a NEW CREATURE Ė one that had never existed before. That is the Person which walked out of that tomb Ė the resurrected Christ.
Again Ė through Christ death was not merely reversed. It was conquered. The new creation in Christ Jesus has all victory over death.
Paul expresses this in his epistle to the Corinthians:
For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made aliveÖ.So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the Last Adam was made a quickening spirit. (1 Cor 15:21-22, 42-45)
Resurrection life is incorruptible. It is eternal. It is unable to be touched by death, or the things of death. Again, through Jesus Christ, eternal life is a KIND of life which has victory over death.
Get that. A KIND of life. Not just a length of life. Eternal life is the KIND of life which cannot be corrupted, and which has victory over death. This is what Jesus Christ won for us.
This is why the Bible is able to say that, "if any man be in Christ he is a new creature." The life you have within isnít the same as before. It is brand new. You werenít born with it. Even Jesus wasnít born with it. He WON it, and we enter into it through death and resurrection.
The Bible talks about TWO men Ė and only two men, as representatives of their respective race. It speaks of Adam, and it speaks of the Last Adam. Adam was the original head of the human race, and died because he separated himself from God. The Last Adam, Jesus Christ, is the head of the new creation. The first Adam died in Jesus Christ, and Jesus was raised from the death unto newness of life. His "race" is the new creation in Christ Jesus; the new man in Christ.
You and I, right now, are either IN ADAM, or in Christ. Paul writes:
For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor 15:21-22)
Now notice: The way you "get out" of Adam, and "into Christ", is not by "getting religion." There is only one way: Through death and resurrection. You have to DIE to Adam, and be raised in Christ.
How do we do this? Well, we are talking here about conversion. You must come to the Cross of Jesus Christ, for it is there that "our Adam" was crucified in Jesus. Paul says:
For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. (Rom 6:5-7)
Our "old man" Ė our "body of sin" Ė is that old life in Adam. But donít think of this death as merely the canceling of our "historical sin record." Donít turn Paulís words into mere poetry. Paul is saying that in Christ there is an actual DEATH. Our entire old life Ė the life with which we were born Ė is crucified in Him. Of course. Werenít all of our sins placed in Him? Didnít Jesus BEAR all sin?
Too often we think what Jesus did was merely bear what we have DONE. But He bore what we WERE. He bore the nature of sin Ė not just our acts of sin. Unless that is true, there is no freedom from the nature of sin. Unless that is true, you cannot have new life or become a new creation.
Paul said it best:
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20-21)
Here we see death and resurrection Ė in Christ. Our "Adam" has to die in Christ, so that we might live in Him through the resurrection. This IS eternal life.
If there is one tenet of Christianity which we must never forget, but which is often forgotten, it is this: The life of Christ comes only if Adam dies. In short, if you donít come to the Cross and surrender your life, unconditionally into Godís hands, you have NO salvation. Unless "your Adam" is surrendered to the Cross of Christ, there is no resurrection for you in Christ, and no eternal life.
This is why any denial of the Cross is so serious. Deny it and you are denying Jesus. You are denying the only way OUT of this old creation into the new creation. Thus, any teaching which provides a way to be born again BEFORE, or to the exclusion of, personally coming to the Cross and surrendering to Christ, is heresy.
The Cross of Jesus Christ is not merely our "get out of jail free card." It is the death of the old creation. It is the death of Adam in us. And while the Cross is death, and not life, it is through the death of the Cross that Jesus was raised, and through it alone that eternal life becomes ours through the resurrection in Him.
Can You Lose Your Salvation?
Now hereís a common question: Can you LOSE your salvation? The question itself is flawed. Why? Because it suggests that you WON it. The fact is, if you canít earn salvation by works, you canít lose it by works. If you didnít WIN it through YOUR victory, you canít LOSE it through YOUR defeat. You are saved only if you surrendered your old life, and place your faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ.
Ok. But can I lose that? Can I "unbelieve" my way out of salvation? Well, letís think this through. If you are saved solely by Godís grace through faith, then it follows that you could only be "unsaved" Ė i.e., lose your salvation Ė by deliberately rejecting and walking away from the Christ you once surrendered to by faith. You would have to reverse your faith and reject Godís grace. Right? Sure. But the problem with this idea is that you canít go back to what you were before! You canít. It is impossible. Why? Because having received the Truth, and having embraced it, and having become a new creation in Christ Jesus, you are not the person you were before you were saved. LIGHT has come to you, and you embraced it. You can never say you didnít have light, or didnít embrace it. You did.
What Iím getting at it this: You cannot be "born-again backwards." You have already passed from death to life Ė a life which is incorruptible. You have crossed the bar and there is no possibility of going back.
But here is what IS possible: Having been born again, and having seen the Truth, and having passed from death to life, and having become a new creation, you CAN neglect your salvation. You CAN grieve the Holy Spirit. You CAN be deceived. You CAN fall into various sins. You CAN live as if you arenít saved Ė if you really want to. You can make choices to yield yourself to unrighteousness, rather than to God. In short, the new creation in Christ that you are, while it cannot die, can be smothered and stunted in growth to the point where how you turn out isnít to Godís glory. ALL OF THAT is possible. But that isnít "losing" salvation. It is you, by choice, refusing or neglecting to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling." (see Phil. 2:12) And while there are some terrible consequences for this, both temporal and eternal, one of them isnít that you LOSE your salvation.
We have examples in the Bible of people who were saved Ė their salvation is not once questioned Ė but who are being corrected for falling short of Godís purpose. The Corinthian and Galatian churches are prime examples. Terrible immorality and unbelief. Legalism. Deception. But not once does Paul ever suggest they are not saved. Indeed, he says they are.
Incidentally, eternal security is NOT the product of Godís "unconditional election." That is not why we are eternally secure. That doctrine is unbiblical, for it states that we are saved by Godís eternal decree, and our faith is merely the product of THAT. The Bible says we are eternally secure because of the Redemption of Jesus Christ. By the life of Christ in us. If we were once saved, we are new creations. Despite all of the terrible negative things we might choose to do, we remain new creations. Nothing can change that.
People who appear to have "lost their salvation" are either in a condition of unbelief AS saved people, or never were saved to begin with. There are people, "who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come." They "tasted" these things, but never SWALLOWED them. They were "partakers" of them, but went back before they actually surrendered to the Truth. These people are in serious trouble. If "they shall fall away, (it is impossible) to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame." These are people who have Ė not LOST their salvation Ė but who have seen the Truth and said NO.
People who seem to have LOST their salvation are usually those who never surrendered to Christ, but who instead surrendered to a doctrine, teaching, or religious concept. There may have never been repentance. God knows. But you cannot lose your salvation. By definition, it isnít in the category of something you can lose. Thatís because it isnít a THING. It is Jesus Christ in us.
Working Out Our Salvation
Salvation is LIFE, eternal life. Life is never a static thing. Life always grows. The eternal life within is no different.
One of the terms God uses to express spiritual growth is "sanctification." Sanctification means that the holy life within me Ė eternal life Ė begins to invade the rest of me. Sanctification means "to be set apart for Godís use," or to put it more clearly, it means to be in a process of becoming HOLY.
Now, of course, if we are saved, we are already HOLY Ė solely due to Christ in us. But that doesnít mean our thinking, works, and living necessarily reflect our true identity in Christ. We have to have our minds renewed, and be set free by the Truth, and obey God. Then we will start to live as the new creations we are.
God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, undertakes this work in us. But notice carefully how Paul explains this to the Philippians:
Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12-13)
Paul says, "God will work in you both TO will, and TO do, of His good pleasure. Paul does not say that God shall WILL FOR YOU, or DO FOR YOU. No. God does a work. He brings illumination, understanding, and gives grace. But we must choose, by faith, to yield or not yield.
This could not be said plainer than Paul said it to the Romans:
Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. (Rom 6:11-14)
Paul is telling us that we have a new identity in Christ. It is real. We have the life of Christ within us. We are in Christ and Christ is in us. Now, Paul says, God is going to be showing you how to live in accordance with this reality. But YOU must choose, when God does reveal, to yield to God. God wonít do that for you.
Either that is so, or Romans 6 is nonsense. The whole chapter speaks of the finality of what Christ has done, but of our need to BELIEVE it, and then OBEY because we believe it.
So we see that sanctification is NOT something God "does" to you. It is Christ in you growing Ė and you and I yielding ourselves to Him. If we doubt that, we need only turn to an amazing passage from Paulís first epistle to the Corinthians:
But of him are you in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: That, according as it is written, He that glories, let him glory in the Lord. (1 Cor 1:30-31)
Notice: Christ IS our wisdom, righteousness, SANCTIFICATION, and Redemption. Sure. And as He increases, and we decrease, these things will be made manifest through us.
Do you see that ALL OF THIS is eternal life Ė the life of Christ in us Ė coming to be manifest through us through a process of spiritual growth? It isnít us. It is Him in and through us.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor 4:7-11)
Out of This World
Eternal life doesnít belong to this realm Ė it is out of this world. If we are in Christ, we are new creations, but are only able to experience a "down payment" of our full inheritance in this life. Only in Godís realm can the fullness of it be released. Only after we are released from this flesh and blood temporal body.
In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, Which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory. (Eph 1:13-14)
Now, once we realize that eternal life within us is Christ in us, and thus, holy, and not of this world, we should have a great reverence toward it. To revere means to ascribe great value to. What could be of more value than life eternal in Christ?
To revere Christ in us means that we realize and try to live as if we donít belong to ourselves. Why? Because we donít! We belong to God. That is what the term "saint" means.
A "saint" is one bought with a price, the Blood of Christ, who no longer belongs to himself, but to God. He is supposed to live in this Truth and try to live like it.
Of course, there will always be a struggle. Even if we donít want there to be a struggle. Paul writes:
This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that you cannot do the things that you would. (Gal 5:16-17)
Paul is here promising conflict and inner warfare, the flesh fighting against the Spirit of God, but the Spirit of God never giving up. He says WE determine the outcome by either yielding to the flesh, or by yielding to the Spirit.
Notice: You had better have this struggle. Why? Because if you donít have it, either flesh or Spirit isnít in there. Or one has surrendered. And we can be sure the flesh is there, and wonít surrender. Thus, this warfare is normal and natural for a faithful Christian.
God promises us that if we continually, by faith and obedience, seek to yield to His Spirit Ė to His eternal life within Ė that there is no possibility for us to lose. Why? Because the victory is already won. We arenít called to win the victory. We are called to stand in it by faith.
Life eternal is the result of becoming one with Jesus Christ through His death and resurrection. It is HIS LIFE in us. It will never decay or be corrupted. It cannot die, for Jesus has victory over all death. Eternal life is resurrection life.
Have we really grasp the significance of these Truths? Doing so is part of what it means to be set free by the Truth.
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