The Reign of the Servant Kings
By Joseph C. Dillow
Chapter 7—Inheriting Eternal Life
The positive side of our great salvation is eternal life. By this, of course, our Lord did not mean merely eternal existence but a rich and meaningful life that begins now and extends into eternity.
Given Freely as a Gift
All readers of the New Testament are familiar with the tremendous gospel promise of the free gift of eternal life. That this rich experience was obtained by faith alone was one of the key insights of the Reformation:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. (John 5:24)
And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:40)
Eternal life can be ours, now, on the condition that we believe in Him, and for no other condition. Yes, eternal life is ours on the basis of faith alone.
Earned as a Reward
The phrase “eternal life” (Gk. zoen alonion) occurs 42 times in the New Testament. Its common meaning of the free gift of regeneration (entrance into heaven on the basis of faith alone) is well documented. However, many are not aware that in 11 of those 42 usages (26%), eternal life is presented to the believer as something to be earned or worked for (Matthew 19:16; 19:29; Mark 10:17, 30; Luke 10:25; 18:18, 30; John 12:25, 26; Romans 2:7; 6:22; Galatians 6:8). For example:
To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, He will give eternal life (zoen alonion). (Romans 2:7)
For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life (zoen alonion). (Galatians 6:8b)
He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (zoen alonion). If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor. (John 12:25, 26)
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life (zoen alonion). (Matthew 19:29)
Just as there are two kinds of inheritance, two dimensions to salvation, there seems to be two sides to eternal life. Eternal life in the Bible is not a static entity, a mere gift of regeneration that does not continue to grow. It is a dynamic relationship with Christ Himself. Jesus taught us that when He said:
And this is eternal life (zoen alonion), that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. (John 17:3).
He explained elsewhere that this life was intended to grow and become abundant: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). But growth is not automatic; it is conditioned upon our responses. Only by the exercise of spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, obedience, faith, study of the Scriptures, and proper responses to trials, does our intimacy with Christ increase. Only by continuing in doing good does that spiritual life imparted at generation grow to maturity and earn rewards.
This is what the apostle Paul referred to when he challenged Timothy to “lay (take) hold on eternal life”:
Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. (1 Timothy 6:12)
Possessing eternal life is one thing, but “taking hold” of it is another. The former is static; the latter is dynamic. The former depends upon God; the latter depends upon us. The former comes through faith alone; “taking hold” requires faith plus obedience (6:14). Those who are rich in this world and who give generously “will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19). Eternal life is not only the gift of regeneration but is also “true life,” which is cultivated by faith and acts of obedience.
This should not surprise us. On page after page of the Bible the richness of spiritual life is conditioned upon spiritual obedience. Israel was instructed in this manner (see Deuteronomy 4:1; 4:40; 5:29, 33). Spiritual obedience and the spirituality of the Old Testament religion lift life far beyond mere material prosperity in Canaan. It is a rich fellowship with God. The writer of Hebrews confirms this when he says:
Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:9-11)
He explains that the life that comes from responding to divine discipline is nothing less than a harvest of righteousness and peace and is sharing in God’s holiness. In Deuteronomy 30:15-30 life and prosperity are associated and contrasted with “destruction.” If they love the Lord their God and walk in His ways and keep His commands, they will “live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.” If they follow other gods, they will not live long but will be destroyed in the land they are entering.
Habakkuk 2:4 refers to the life of faith of the justified believer.
. . . But the just shall live by his faith.
The Hebrew word for faith is emunah, and it means “firmness, faithfulness, fidelity.” Its basic sense is “to be steady” or “have firm hands, be dependable, stable, etc.” This meaning fits the context of Habakkuk as well. Faced with the inexplicable tardiness of God in dealing with the corrupt nation and the surprising revelation that He will bring an even more corrupt nation to judge them, the prophet is instructed to be faithful, steady, and to endure. Thus, Blue comments:
A righteous Israelite who remained loyal to God’s moral precepts and was humble before the Lord enjoyed God’s abundant life. To “live” meant to experience God’s blessing by enjoying a life of security, protection, and fullness. (Habakkuk, by J. Ronald Blue)
This meaning is uniquely appropriate to the readers of Hebrews who were similarly in need of patient endurance in the face of many trials. For this reason the author quotes it in application to their situation in Hebrews 10:38, “But My righteous one will live by faith.” The justified man must live by faith from beginning to end; he should endure. But if he shrinks back and denounces his profession of faith, God’s judgment will be upon him. The judgment here is apoleia and can refer to either eternal condemnation or, as this context requires, a temporal judgment (compare Hebrews 10:30 where the judgments mentioned are from Deuteronomy 32:36 and Psalm 135:14, which refer to God’s judgments on His people in time and not in eternity).
There is no reson that the reference in Romans 1:17 should be taken any differently. He has just explained that the gospel is based upon faith “from first to last” (Romans 1:16). It is therefore appropriate to quote a passage that refers to the continued endurance in faith of the sanctified man to demonstrate that “last” part of the life of the justified man.
[Reviewer’s comment: The author then proceeds to show the same meaning for the phrase “the just shall live by faith” in Galatians 3:11. In light of verses 3 and 10, the reviewer believes this to be a contextual given.]
The Old Testament doctrine of the afterlife and rewards is very vague. But the idea that obedience could be related to the acquisition and growth of a rich spiritual (as well as material) life is clear. We should not therefore be surprised to find such an equation in the New Testament. And we do find that equation in the references to eternal life being conditioned upon obedience. It is important to note that in every place where eternal life is presented as something that can be obtained by works, it is contextually always described as a future acquisition. Conversely, whenever eternal life is described as something in the present, it is obtained by faith alone.
In Galatians 6:8, for example, eternal life is something earned by the sower. If this passage is speaking of final salvation from hell, then salvation is based on works. A man reaps what he sows. If we sow to please the Spirit, we will reap (future tense) eternal life. Paul calls it a harvest “if we do not give up.” Eternal life is earned by sowing to the Spirit and persevering to the end. It is what we get if we do good works. There is nothing here about the inevitability of this reaping. It depends upon us. We will reap, Paul says, “if we do not give up.” Eternal life is no static entity but a relationship with God. It is dynamic and growing and has degrees. Some Christians have a more intimate relationship with their Lord than others. They have a richer experience of eternal life.
Bearing this in mind will help solve another interpretive difficulty: the problem of Romans 2:5-13. In this passage, like in Galatians 6:8, receiving eternal life is conditioned upon works. The section is introduced by a general principle: God will reward each man according to his works. It is then applied to the regenerate in 2:7 and 2:10 and to the unregenerate in 2:8-9. The literary structure of the passage make 2:8-9 parallel and 2:7 and 2:10 parallel. The main problem in the passage, of course, is that vs. 7 and 10 promise eternal life on the basis of works, which is in complete contradiction to Paul in 3:19-22, a contradiction IF eternal life means “go to heaven.”
Once the consistent use of eternal life in the future as a reward to works is accepted, a much simpler solution is evident. It is absolutely true in Pauline thought that no unjustified man can obtain eternal life on the basis of works. But it is also true that the justified man can!
In this future time, the time of “the day of God’s wrath when His righteous judgment will be revealed” (2:5), God will judge all men, Christian and non-Christian, on the basis of their works. The general principle in vs.6 is that each person, saved and unsaved, will be judged according to their works in this future day. This principle is taught all over the New Testament; Christians and non-Christians will have their lives examined.
The Christian will stand before the judgment seat of Christ where he will be judged accord to his works (2 Corinthians 5:10). The non-Christian will stand before the Great White Throne where he will be judged according to his works (Revelation 20:11, 12). The outcome of the Christian’s judgment is either rewards or loss thereof. The outcome of the non-Christian judgment is always the lake of fire because his works are not adequate to redeem. The Christian who perseveres in doing good works can obtain the reward of eternal life, an enriched experience of that life given to him freely as justification through faith alone. It is true that no unjustified man can obtain rewards in heaven by works, but the regenerate saint can. The unjustified can never earn honor, glory, and peace, but the justified can if he shows “persistence in doing good” (2:7).
Experimental Predestinarians are sometimes perplexed by the fact that in the Partaker position “distinctions crop up everywhere.” They are concerned that any view that has two kinds of heirs, two kinds of eternal life, two kinds of salvation, and two kinds of resurrection is intrinsically unlikely. Surely, they think, a hidden agenda is working behind the scenes that introduce numerous distinctions that do not appear to be “natural” (a term they often use in reference to their interpretations).
No doubt they would also be mystified to note many other distinction as well, such as two kinds of:
Words are constantly being used in different ways in different contexts. To be baffled at “distinctions” betrays a wooden concept of language typical of many Experimental Predestinarians with their penchant for the illegitimate totality transfer. Making all soteriological references to these words refer to our entrance into heaven requires, if we let the text speak plainly, that the entrance into heaven be based upon works. But if these words often refer to something else, something conditional in the believer’s experience—his victorious perseverance and subsequent reward—no “theological exegesis” is necessary to make them consistent with the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone.