It seemed like a simple assignment. I asked my class to write a short essay (2 pages, double-spaced!) answering the question, “What is eternal life?” Eternal life is obviously a very important part of our faith. It is the promise of those who place their faith in Jesus Christ. It is the essence of arguably the most well-known verse in all the Bible: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). When the essays were turned in, the answers had a few variances; but the consensus was that eternal life is essentially what you get when you die. Undoubtedly, there is a futuristic part of eternal life, but is that all? Interestingly, John 3:16 doesn’t present eternal life as something only in the future, but rather as possessing something now: the one believing “should not perish, but have eternal life” (subjunctive present). What does it mean to have eternal life? I wonder how many members in our congregations really understand what it means?
Although probably never stated in this way, eternal life is often simply conceived as a “get out of hell” ticket, something that you can carry in your pocket and produce at the pearly gates after you die. But such an understanding greatly diminishes the reality of what eternal life is. Eternal life is life in the present; it is the life of the age to come planted into the hearts of the redeemed. I think one of the greatest explanations of eternal life came from the 17th century Scottish preacher, Henry Scougal. He spoke of true religion as “the life of God in the soul of man.” I believe this life is exactly what Paul pointed the Corinthian believers to when he said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…” (2 Cor 5.17).
If eternal life is the creation of new spiritual life within the believer, then it is absolutely essential to understand the nature of that life. Life, whether physical or spiritual, is not static; it is dynamic. It has to be nourished and fed; it ebbs and flows; it can be strong or weak. What Christian hasn’t felt the ebb and flow of the spiritual life within them? At times it is strong and vigorous. Other times it is faint and weak. The dynamic nature of spiritual life within the believer is why the means of grace are so important to the believer. God has provided means of nurturing and sustaining that life He has created with in us.
A proper understanding of eternal life and the means of grace are so vital to almost every part of the Christian life. A proper understanding of these truths leads to the proper understanding of the importance of the church. A believer shouldn’t just go to church or attend a service. Church is to be the experience of the communion and fellowship of the saints; a fellowship that feeds our souls and encourages our faith. Each believer is given a gift designed by God to be used for the encouragement and edification of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:7). We gather as the body of Christ to “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thess. 5:11). Believers who forsake the assembling of God’s people weaken that dynamic of spiritual life within them.
A proper understanding of eternal life and the means of grace lead to a proper understanding of the importance of preaching. The preacher’s primary responsibility on Sunday morning is not to just deliver a sermon. He is the instrument divinely appointed by Christ Himself to “feed” His sheep. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?…Feed My sheep” (John 21:17). The word “pastor” comes from the Latin noun pastor which means shepherd or feeder. The Latin verb for pastor, pascere, means “to lead to pasture, set to grazing, cause to eat." The life and soul of God’s people is nourished and sustained by the preaching of His word.
When you understand the true dynamic of eternal life and the importance of the means of grace that God has provided for its sustenance and nourishment, a verse like 1 Timothy 4:16 comes alive with a sobering gravity: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Maybe we should ask our congregations to write a little essay answering the question, “What is eternal life?”