WHAT IS “ETERNAL LIFE”? Throughout my life, I have heard ministers say that we receive “eternal life” the moment we go forward and give our lives to Christ. The first time I stood up to receive Christ into my life, I was 5 years old. My family and I were attending a small Pentecostal Church of God church at the time, and it was at the end of a sermon, and I remember there was a small group of us that stood together. I stood there among the rest as the pastor said something, and then he led the group in prayer.
But the moment that stands out in my mind the most happened 9 years later. I was attending a Christian school at the time, and that spring, all the 8th graders and their teachers went on a 3-day retreat at a nearby campground. We were broken into groups, and each group was assigned a cabin, and in the center of the campground, there were two main buildings: one building was for the showers, and the other was the main building where we met and had our meals.
And each morning, before coming to breakfast, we were to go off alone and spend time with God in prayer, called “15 with Father.” It was during one of these moments that I had gone out to the lake, away from everyone else, and I prayed and committed my life to Christ. It was after this prayer, that lines to a song started coming to my mind, and before the end of the sessions that day, I had all the words to the first song I had ever written, called “A Message from Paul.” It was also after that life-changing prayer that I felt God beginning to direct me into doing things I would have normally not done on my own. In this case, it was to play this new song in front of the entire 8th grade class. This was the beginning of many such directions and changes that would occur within my life.
But what was this ETERNAL LIFE that I had received when I asked Jesus to come into my heart and life? After awhile, I developed this image in my mind that “eternal life” was like a “gift” I received at Christmas, and that once I received it, it was my responsibility to do whatever was necessary to hold on to it until my time of judgment. It was like my Free “Get into the Kingdom Card.” But the problem is that the image I had of it growing up is NOT what the Bible actually teaches. So as I searched the Scriptures to see what it had to say about ETERNAL LIFE, I discovered a number of things about it that I did not know.
ETERNAL LIFE – THE UNENDING LIFE OF GOD
The phrase ETERNAL LIFE is the English translation of the Greek phrase zoe aionios, which refers to the “eternal life of God.” It was this same “life of God” that had been in the original Adam when God created and formed him from the dust of the ground, and then God breathed into his nostrils “the breath of life,” and then “man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).
But when Adam and Eve sinned against God, not only were they chased out of the Garden of Eden (a picture of God’s Kingdom), but the “eternal life of God” inside of them had become damaged, distorted, parts of it lost, and Adam and Eve had died spiritually that day. But when we receive Christ as our Lord and Savior, that “eternal life of God” is again restored to us, and it begins to mold and shape us again, and to change us into “the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:26-27). As we are taught in the Scriptures,
lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the LIKENESS OF GOD has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth. (Ephesians 4:22-24)
In other words, the ETERNAL LIFE that Adam and Eve lost in the Garden, Jesus has restored to us through His death and resurrection, and this life is breathed into us again through the Holy Spirit, and it begins working on the inside of us to mold and shape us into the image and likeness of Christ. It is God’s desire that we begin to think and act like Christ in how we interact with God, with one another, and even in how we minister to others. For as God teaches us in His word, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5)
“ETERNAL LIFE” – ANOTHER MEANING
Although we are promised ETERNAL LIFE when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, I discovered that “ETERNAL LIFE” is not a thing to be possessed, but it is a WHO. In John 17, Jesus Himself provides us with the definition of ETERNAL LIFE:
And this is ETERNAL LIFE, that they might know You, the Only True God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. (John 17:3)
What is “Eternal Life”? It is an intimate relationship with God and His Son Jesus Christ. It is through Christ, and what He did for us on the cross, that we are able to have and develop an intimate relationship with God. You see, God is “ETERNAL,” and He is the source of all life, so He is “ETERNAL LIFE.” In fact, several times in the Gospels, Jesus tells people, “I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me.” So then, ETERNAL LIFE is to be found in Christ:
And this is the record, that God has given to us ETERNAL LIFE, and this life is in His Son. (I John 5:11)
But not only is ETERNAL LIFE to be found in Christ, but since Jesus Christ Himself is also God incarnate, He is also ETERNAL LIFE:
For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that ETERNAL LIFE, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us. (I John 1:2)
It is Jesus Christ who is the “ETERNAL LIFE,” who was “with the Father” and “was manifested unto us.” Later on in his epistle, John makes it clear that Jesus Christ is not only “the True God,” but that He is “ETERNAL LIFE” as well.
And we know that the Son of God is come, and has given us an understanding that we may know Him that is true, and we are in Him that is true, even in His Son Jesus Christ. This is THE TRUE GOD and ETERNAL LIFE. (I John 5:20)
Consequently, since ETERNAL LIFE is not something that we can personally possess, since it is not a “thing,” but it is an intimate relationship with God and His Son Jesus Christ, then as long as we continue to build and to develop that relationship, we have ETERNAL LIFE.
ETERNAL LIFE – THE “GIFT OF GOD”
Not only is ETERNAL LIFE an intimate relationship with God, but in Romans 6, we learn that this “intimate relationship” is freely offered to each of us as God’s “gift.”
For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is ETERNAL LIFE through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
In this verse, the phrase “the gift,” or in some translations “the free gift,” is the Greek word charisma. In the “Lexical Aid to the New Testament,”
Charisma, derived from charis, grace, and the suffix -ma, indicating the result of grace. A gift of grace; an undeserved benefit from God. (1768)
As this definition shows, the root word of charisma is charis, or “grace,” and charisma is the same word that’s used to describe, for example, the “gifts of the Spirit,” like “the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, the gift of faith, gifts of healing, the working of miracles, the gift of prophesy, the discerning of spirits, different kinds of tongues, and the interpretation of tongues” (I Corinthians 12:8-11).
The “gifts of the Spirit” are likewise called a “gift” (Gk. charisma), and yet, God maintains His control on these gifts. For example, in I Corinthians 12, God tells us,
But all these [gifts] works that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as He will. (I Corinthians 12:11)
If God maintains the control of these gifts, and divides them out as He will, then why do we believe that another “gift” (Gk. charisma), which He gives to us, it is ours to possess? As stated earlier, ETERNAL LIFE is a relationship with God that He offers to us freely; this is why it is called “a free gift.” It is not something that we can just hold onto or keep in our room somewhere. It is something that needs to be strengthened and developed, just like we would try to strengthen and develop our relationship with any one that we loved.
I sincerely believe that most Christians have the wrong image of this “gift.” Not only do they see it as something that they now possess, but they have the view, like I did, that it is their own private “Free Entry into the Kingdom card.” However, if they don’t begin to see ETERNAL LIFE as a relationship, rather than a thing, I’m concerned that they will waste their opportunity to build their relationship with God and Jesus Christ; but instead, they will spend all their time pursuing “the American Dream,” and when they really need that relationship, they’ll discover that God does not enjoy being abandoned, anymore than a spouse.
ETERNAL LIFE – WE MUST CONTINUE TO ABIDE IN HIM
We not only receive ETERNAL LIFE initially when we accept Jesus into our hearts and lives as Lord and Savior, but this initial step is where ETERNAL LIFE begins; it does not end there. God does not give us things “up front,” since He knows our typical behavior. If He did give us things “right up front,” we would say “thank you,” and then leave Him and go on to live our own lives our own way. Therefore, God knows that the only way we will keep coming back again and again is if He does not offer everything to us all up front, but that He offers it to us a bit at a time. “Line on line, line on line, a little here, a little there” (Isaiah 28:10). For example, let’s look at John 3:15-18, and I’ll show you what I mean.
That whoever [continues to] believes may in Him have ETERNAL LIFE. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever [continues to] believes in Him should not perish but have ETERNAL LIFE. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. He who [continues to] believes in Him should not be judged; he who does not [continues to] believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
Four times in these four verses, John wrote “believes” as a present participle. In other words, he wanted to emphasize that we had to do more than believe one time to acquire “ETERNAL LIFE.” Instead, we needed to “repeatedly” or “continue to” believe in order for us to have “ETERNAL LIFE.”
Let’s examine another passage. In John 8, Jesus is speaking to “those Jews who had believed Him” (John 8:1), and yet look what He tells these “believing Jews,”
IF YOU CONTINUE in My word, THEN are you My disciples indeed; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:1; Emphasize Mine)
Jesus did not tell these “believing Jews,” “Great job, guys, you started with Me. That’s awesome! You are all set for heaven now.” No, that was not His message to them. Jesus’ focus is NEVER on whether someone starts with Him, but whether or not they CONTINUE. That was His focus. So when we meet someone, we not only need to know whether they went forward at some point in their life and got saved, but if the answer is yes, then the very next set of questions should be the same questions that Jesus Himself would ask:
“Where are you now in your relationship with God and Christ? Are you continuing to grow and develop? Are you continuing to see changes in your life, or have you plateaued or stopped growing completely?”
Let’s look at what Jesus taught in John 15,
I am the true vine, and My Father is the husbandman (or gardener). (15:1)
Now the “gardener” is always greater than the “vine” within the garden. Notice that Jesus places His Father and Himself on very different levels. Now let’s look at the next verse:
Every branch in Me that [continues to] bear not fruit He takes away: and every branch that bears fruit, He purges it, that it may bring forth more fruit. (15:2)
Now He says that if “a branch” [a believer in Him] does not “continue to” bear fruit, God the Father [the gardener] “takes [it] away.” The very fact that the verb “bear” is a present participle means that it just doesn’t bear fruit once or twice, but God has tried a number of times to get this branch to bear fruit, but there will come a point, Jesus says, where God will finally remove the “branch” from the “vine,” His Son Jesus Christ. But those branches that do “bear fruit,” He says that God will “purge” or trim away things from their life, so that they will “bring forth more fruit.”
THE ANALOGY OF THE OLIVE TREE
In Romans 11, Paul makes a similar point in his “Olive Tree” analogy. In this portion of his epistle, Paul is directly addressing us non-Jewish believers in Christ. Beginning with verse 11, Paul writes,
And if some of the branches [some of the Jewish people] be broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, was grafted in among them, and with them partake of the root and fatness of the Olive Tree; boast not against the branches. But if you boast, you bear not the root, but the root you. (Romans 11:17-18)
Notice that God was willing to break off some branches from the tree, and that as non-Jewish believers (or Christians), we have been grafted in among the people of Israel. And with them, we partake of “the root and fatness of the Olive Tree,” which would be the teachings of the Old Testament and God’s Presence. But we are warned against boasting against them, because it is not the church who bears “the root,” but “the root” bears us.
Then look to see what Paul writes in the next three verses:
You will say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest He also spare not you. (Romans 11:19-21)
Notice the reason the “natural branches” were broken off was because of unbelief. I have heard Christians brag that although God cut off the Jewish people, that a Christian never has to worry about God “cutting them off” because of the cross. However, such a belief directly contradicts Paul’s teaching here. In fact, Paul tells us as non-Jewish believers to “fear.” Why? Because he says, “if God spared not the natural branches,” if God was willing to “cut off” some of the Jewish people because of unbelief, then we need to be aware that God could just as easily “cut off” Christians or churches from His tree as well.
Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but towards you, goodness, IF YOU CONTINUE in His goodness: otherwise you also shall be cut off. And they also, if they abide (or continue) not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and was grafted CONTRARY TO NATURE into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree? (Romans 11:22-24)
How do we continue to be a part of the “True Vine” or the “cultivated olive tree”? We must CONTINUE to grow and develop, or if we quit producing fruit, just like Jesus’ own analogy of the Vine, we will be “cut off.” Not right away, but there will come a time where God will “cut off” those who have stopped believing.
Why did I show these examples, to scare you? No, but I do believe that there are many Christians who do need a reality check. There are many Christians who believe that because they went forward when they were a child that they can go around and steal, kill, lie, commit adultery or lead sexual immoral lives, and then when they die, they think that they will still go to heaven, because they made that decision years and years before.
THE TRUTH ABOUT REPENTANCE
The reality is that No, they will not go to heaven, but they will end up going to hell. They did not continue; they stopped, and instead of living in obedience to God, they chose to live in sin instead. Repentance does not just work one way, but it works in two directions. For example, look at the following passage:
But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he has committed, and keep all My statutes, and does that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he has committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he has done he shall live. (Ezekiel 18:21-22)
We like this view of repentance. We repent of our sins, and then begin living in obedience to God, and God promises that ALL of our transgressions and sins that we’ve committed will “not be mentioned” or remembered again. Awesome! However, repentance also works the other way:
But when the righteous turns away from his righteousness, and commits iniquity (sin), and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All his righteousness that he has done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he has trespassed, and in his sin that he has sinned, in them shall he die. (Ezekiel 18:24)
If we as Christians quit living godly lives, in obedience to the Scriptures, and we start living like other sinners who don’t even know God, or don’t care about him, then God says that however long we had lived in obedience to Him, those years of righteousness “shall not be mentioned” (or shall not be remembered, but will be forgotten), and the only thing God will remember are the years of sin we are now living after we’ve stopped living for Him.
I am sure there are people who will probably respond to this the same way that ancient Israel did:
Yet ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal. Hear now, O house of Israel (and church); is not My way equal? Are not your ways unequal? (Ezekiel 18:25, 29)
But the truth is that “the way of the Lord” is equal. That’s what we don’t like about it. I know that some will say, “But this is in the Old Testament, we don’t follow that anymore.” However, if you reject the Old Testament Prophets, then you are in disobedience to the New Testament.
Now therefore you are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are BUILT UPON THE FOUNDATION OF THE APOSTLES AND PROPHETS, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom all the building fitly framed together growing unto a holy temple in the Lord: in whom you also are built together for a habitation of God through the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)
ETERNAL LIFE – A PROCESS?
ETERNAL LIFE is not a thing to possess, nor is it simply an event, but it is an ongoing relationship. However, there’s a part of ETERNAL LIFE that we acquire by living in obedience to the word of God and by the leading of the Holy Spirit. For example, let’s look at Romans 6.
Know you not, that to whom you yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants you are to whom you obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? But God be thanked, that you were the servants of sin, but you have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, you became the servants of righteousness. (Romans 6:16-18)
Notice that it was our “obedience” that resulted to “righteousness,” and as a result, we “became the servants of righteousness.” But what is “righteousness”? The Greek word that’s used here is dikaiosune (“righteousness”), which is the opposite of anomia (or “lawlessness”). in I John 3:4, the word anomia is translated into English as “the transgression of the law.” If anomia is translated as “the transgression of the law,” and anomia and dikaiosune are opposites, the dikaiosune should be understood to mean “to keep or obey the law.” One who lives in obedience to God’s word is considered to be “righteous.” This is what John writes in his epistle,
If you know that He is righteous, you know that every one that does righteousness is born of Him. (I John 2:29)
Little children, let no man deceive you: he that does righteousness is righteous, even as He is righteous. (I John 3:7)
In both of these verses, “righteousness” is something that we do; it is not something that we just “believe” or “accept,” but something we do. In this case, it is us keeping God’s commandments with Jesus as our goal in view. If we are empowered by the Spirit, and live in obedience to the commandments with Jesus in view, or as our destination point, that is what is meant by “doing righteousness.” We don’t live this way to “get saved,” but because we love God and are already in a relationship with Jesus Christ. We do it merely as an expression of our love for Him.
But it doesn’t end with “righteousness.” Look at verse 19.
I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as you have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness. (Romans 6:19)
So we started from obedience to righteousness, and then from righteousness to holiness. God’s commandments have never been about “getting saved,” or “justification,” but it is God’s instruction manual on what it means to live in “holiness” (i.e., “sanctification”) before the Lord. But now let’s complete the process in verse 22.
But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, you have your fruit unto holiness, and the end EVERLASTING LIFE. (Romans 6:22; Emphasis Mine]
Notice that “EVERLASTING LIFE” is the end result of holiness, and in Hebrews 12:14, we learn that “without holiness, no man shall see the Lord.” We need to learn to live “holy” lives before God in these last days. God is a “holy God,” and He will not accept anything less.
ETERNAL LIFE – A FUTURE HOPE?
Not only do we receive ETERNAL LIFE when we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, and not only does it continue to work in our life, to mold and change us as we continue to build and develop our relationship with God and Jesus Christ, but it is also something that we will not experience the fullness of it until the time period of the resurrection and God’s Kingdom here on earth.
And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that has left house, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for My sake, and the gospel’s, but he shall receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and IN THE WORLD TO COME ETERNAL LIFE. (Mark 10:29-30)
Even though God will bless him for his sacrifices for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s, ETERNAL LIFE is something that he will experience IN THE WORLD TO COME (the next life).
Even as far back as the prophet Daniel, ETERNAL LIFE is seen to be something that we will experience after the resurrection of the dead:
And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to EVERLASTING LIFE, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12:2)
And this same idea is also seen by Jesus in Matthew 25:46,
And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into LIFE ETERNAL.
Other references regarding the future aspect of ETERNAL LIFE can be seen in the following:
And this is the PROMISE that He has promised us, even ETERNAL LIFE. (I John 2:25)
In HOPE of ETERNAL LIFE, which God that cannot lie, promised before the world began. (Titus 1:2)
That being justified by His grace, we should be heirs according to the HOPE of ETERNAL LIFE. (Titus 3:7)
Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against THE TIME TO COME, that they may lay hold on ETERNAL LIFE by Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:21)
Notice the language that’s used to describe ETERNAL LIFE: promise and hope. If the disciples received it when they accepted Christ, then why is it still a “promise” and a “hope”? And what is this future aspect of ETERNAL LIFE? I believe it is, at least in part, our new immortal bodies. Until we receive them at the time of the resurrection, we do not have everything that God has planned for us to have as part of our ETERNAL LIFE.
I also believe that it entails our new life in God’s Kingdom. I believe that it will finally be complete when we hear the Lord tell each of us:
Then shall the King say unto them on His right hand, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34)
Then, and only then, will we be able to say that we have received all of our ETERNAL LIFE, yes, everything that God had planned.