--The ‘already’s and ‘not yet’s of the Gospel--
I read an article this week by Tim Keller [If you haven’t encountered his books, do look up some reviews. He’s a pastor in NYC making inroads for the Gospel in a tough place and doing lots of thinking and writing in the process, books and articles arguing for the relevance of the Gospel. The Reason for God is one in my collection, waiting for a long sea voyage in order to get read!! ] Anyway, in a long article entitled: “The Centrality of the Gospel”* he talked about the ‘already’s and the ‘not yet’s of the Gospel and how a thorough understanding of the Gospel in its present and future implications will impact the individual and nurture the church.
Can I whet your appetite with an example? With regard to doctrinal distinctives he says (and I very much needed to hear) this:
‘The “already” of the New Testament makes us bold in our proclamation. We can most definitely be sure of the central doctrines that support the gospel. But the “not yet” requires charity and humility in nonessential beliefs. That is, we must be moderate about what we teach except when it comes to the cross, grace, and sin. In our views, especially our opinions on issues that Christians cannot agree on, we must be less unbending and triumphalistic (believing we have arrived intellectually). It also means that our discernment of God’s call and will for us and others must not be propagated with overweening assurance that our insight cannot be wrong. (Unlike pragmatists, we must be willing to die for our belief in the gospel; unlike moralists, we must keep in mind that not every one of our beliefs is worth fighting to the death for.)’
How does that set with you? I want to argue. But I have been meditating on the traits of the ‘wisdom from above’ this week and I find that it’s meek, “pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:17,18) What’s more, ‘a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace’. I had occasion to need a peacemaker this week. I need these sorts of reminders to keep the Gospel central and operate in spiritual wisdom!
Tim Keller goes so far as to conclude that:
‘All problems, personal or social, come from a failure to apply the gospel in a radical way, a failure to get “in line with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). All pathologies in the church and all its ineffectiveness come from a failure to let the gospel be expressed in a radical way. If the gospel is expounded and applied in its fullness in any church, that church will begin to look very unique. People will find in it both moral conviction yet compassion and flexibility.’*
Wow! The article goes on to describe the power of the gospel as it applies to a host of areas in sharp contrast to either a merely ‘religious’/moral or a relativistic/hedonistic approach to life.
But it was that concept of the ‘already’s and ‘not yet’s of the Gospel that grabbed me. I’m reading I Samuel these days. Saul’s been rejected as king for running ahead of God on his own steam instead of obeying. God has searched out a ‘man after his own heart’, David of course, and sent Samuel to confirm his choice by anointing him to be King of Israel. He’s come straight from the sheep pasture. And presumably, gone right back there to wait God’s timing on this amazing turn of events! Chosen, but not yet crowned.
Next thing you know, Saul’s tormented by a bad spirit and someone suggests he find a musician to soothe him. Turns out that David, the shepherd boy, is also a skilled musician (lots of practice time with his lyre in the hills) noted for his valor, prudence and ‘good presence’. He is recommended to the king with the observation that: ‘the Lord is with him.’ (I Sam.16) And so the king-to-be, already selected and anointed, becomes armor-bearer and part-time musician to the king-who-is-but’s-been-rejected. Not yet, David, not yet.
Well, you know the story. Next thing recorded is he’s running back and forth from sheep pen to battle front delivering baguettes and cheese to his brothers and getting the latest news for his dad. Pretty humble position for a king. And yet, he is the anointed king; it’s already been declared. But first the training. This is the ‘not yet’ of God’s timing in David’s life. Pretty soon, he takes the tricks of his trade—smooth stones and a sling—and uses them in a new context; what’s the difference between a lion, a bear, and an uncircumcised Philistine if God’s calling the shots? David sees none. His training as a shepherd stands him in good stead and next thing you know he’s put in charge of Saul’s men of war (and his dad’s got to find another shepherd for his flocks).
Already anointed, but not yet king. The story goes on for a long while yet. This training to rule is no quick process. And that makes me ponder the ‘not yet’s of the Gospel. Believers are called “A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR GOD’S OWN POSSESSION” (I Pet.2:9) but in the next breath referred to as: ‘sojourners and exiles’. Our kingdom hasn’t come yet.
We are said to be ‘seated in the heavenly places with Christ’ having been ‘raised up together, and made [to] sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus’ but it’s a reality that will come to fullness “in the ages to come” (Eph.2:6,7).
On the one hand we’re called sons of God, joint heirs with Christ and given eternal life! On the other we ‘groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies’ (Rom.8:23) and the fact is we must part with these earthly bodies in order to be with the Lord, “knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord.” (II Cor 5:6).
So we’re given God’s own Spirit to indwell these makeshift tents as a guarantee of the life to come (IICor.5:5). Like David, we’re ‘anointed’ so to speak, appointed as ambassadors, invited to speak in Jesus’ name, with His authority. These things are true and yet we find ourselves for the most part subject to the physical laws of nature, decay and corruption, waiting for the ‘not yet’ of future glory that is to be revealed in us (Rom.8:18). Could it be we are in training?
David was. Had his been an instant coronation think of the Psalms we’d be without--those ones that give us hope when the world is harsh and our circumstances unintelligible, the ones that remind us that the enemy will not win, that God is indeed good, that He is a refuge we can trust no matter what…the ones that contain words Jesus Himself uttered from the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
The Gospel fully comprehended in its ‘already’s and ‘not yet’s will transform the way we live and what we hope for. It is enough in sickness or in health, for richer or poorer but the really good news is that nothing, not even death, will part us from the King of life in this world or the next, and we shall reign with Him. It’s already true, but not yet fully realized. There’s an order to things, a victory that’s won but some mopping up to do first.
“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. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
There were folks in the church in Corinth who lost sight of the significance of the resurrection. They claimed life was about ‘now’ and denied that there would be anything more. Paul had to set them straight. Christ died for our sins, and was buried, and was raised, making the power of the Gospel effective beyond this lifetime. In fact he said, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” I Cor.15:19 After all, the gospel isn’t only for unbelievers, to turn them into happy healthy church folk in the here and now. It is the good news ‘by which we are being saved.’ Christ not only died for the unbeliever’s sin and restoration to fellowship with God. He lives so the believer can start living an eternal quality of life in the here and now, triumphant in the midst of pain and suffering and death, knowing the ‘fellowship of His sufferings’.
Maybe our generation, at least in the Western world, is not so very different than the Corinthians. Hoping and planning for comfort in the here and now is after all a pretty obsessive priority in our culture, even our Christian culture. Larry Crabb in his recent book, God’s Love Letters to You, in reflecting on Colossians says that when we place our hopes in experiencing satisfaction in the here and now, we are actually “shifting away from the hope held out in the gospel”, disfiguring the Christian life and blurring and discounting what Jesus accomplished in His death and resurrection. He is in us as our HOPE of glory, not our ‘opportunity to experience glory now.’ (95). He suggests that God might well be saying to us: “You are not alive in this world in order to experience Me or to enjoy the blessings of a comfortable life. If that were My purpose, I’d have brought you into My Presence in heaven the moment you were forgiven and adopted into My family.”
“Your purpose until you die is to reveal a new attitude toward suffering and a new agenda in prayer that flows out of your new purpose in life that makes sense only if you claim your new hope of resurrection…”(74)
Tim Keller concurs with this perspective when he says: “The cross shows us, however, that God redeemed us through suffering. God suffered not that we might not suffer but that in our suffering we could become like him.”
I don’t much fancy this suffering stuff, but Paul called it a fellowship and expected it to make Him like Jesus (Phil.3:10). He told Timothy it was a fact of life: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” II Tim.3:12. And the Hebrews 11 folk who had their share of it were commended for their faith and said to be ones ‘of whom the world was not worthy’. Could be it’s part of the process of preparing us to reign?
“The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful-- for he cannot deny himself.” II Tim.2: 11-13
So we live between what’s been accomplished already and what’s not yet come. We rejoice in the grace we’ve already been shown, the grace that is sufficient still and the grace that will yet be revealed when Christ returns. “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" I Cor.15:54,55. And that’s News worth getting excited about!
“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens…so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” (II Cor. 5:1-5)
Tim Keller quotes are taken from his article “The Centrality of the Gospel”
Copyright © 2000 by Timothy Keller, © 2009 by Redeemer City to City, available in its entirety at: redeemercitytocity.com
Larry Crabb quotes are taken from God’s Love Letters to You (Thomas Nelson, 2010) For a review of this book see my blog: “A Few Good Books”