One hears the term “over-realized eschatology” to describe someone who brings into the present age those things that belong only to a future one. Sometimes this has to do with the eradication of all suffering and want here and now. Prosperity gospel preaching falls into this class. For others, it is the belief that the kingdom of God has already arrived in its fullness. Theonomy, with its desire to set up the rule of God among sinful nations, may be a manifestation of this.
However, there is also the danger of an under-realized eschatology, a denial that salvation in Christ brings any change or victory. I saw a display of this recently when someone insisted “If you think that you’re able to keep yourself from sinning (even with God’s help) you are kidding yourself.” I pressed for further clarification, in light of Paul’s statements that believers are not under the rule of sin (Romans 6:14) and of the myriad statements in every New Testament letter that believers are to pursue holiness and greater Christlikeness. My interlocutor doubled down: “We walk in the Spirit. In the promises. Not in the flesh, by sight. What we do is neither here nor there. Because of Jesus.”
Discipleship as an Either/Or
The mistake of this view is to present the Christian life as an either/or prospect. We either follow Jesus in perfect discipleship, or our efforts are nothing more than pitiful attempts at self-improvement. This is where an under-realized eschatology enters in. It denies that believers can expect any spiritual growth, that we have any freedom from the power of sin while we await the consummation of our salvation. But slogans are not exposition of the text of Scripture, and so we must look at what the New Testament says, what it exhorts believers to do.
It is hard to know where to start, since the exhortation to discipleship and to conformity to Christ is everywhere. Even the New Testament postcards of 2 and 3 John do not lack such counsel. Romans 12-14 is a chain of imperatives the apostle gives, telling believers things they should do: “Bless those who persecute you”… “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all”… and also what they should not do: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy”… “if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.” These are but a few examples from one epistle. Every letter contains them.
These exhortations came after Paul has given specific teaching about the standing of believers, that is, that they are included in the body of Christ, and they are heirs of eternal life, solely by grace through faith. There is no question of an increased standing before God by doing any of these things. When we discipline our children, we do so because they are our children. When we instruct them how they are to behave we do so not with the idea that after a time their obedience may win them a place in the family. On the contrary, we do so because they already are part of the family. Because that is so, they should act like it.
Discipleship as a Because/Therefore
Instead of an either/or of perfect discipleship or self-aggrandizing works, the New Testament presents a because/therefore. This is evident at the end of a chapter where Paul has given specific guidance on how believers are to live. “For you were bought with a price. Therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor 6:20) A reading of the New Testament that dismisses such counsel as irreconcilable with the truths of our finished and accomplished salvation is a misreading of the evidence. For some, this error is the result of a strict dichotomy between law and grace, such that any exhortation falls under the category of law. This deals with the New Testament evidence too naively. (For those interested, I recommend Brian Rosner’s “Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God” as an excellent discussion of how believers are completely free from any obligation to law, yet have clear apostolic teaching on how we are to live.)
It is an “under realized” eschatology that suggests Christians can expect no victory whatsoever over sin’s power. It diminishes the work of the Holy Spirit by denying the ministry of sanctifying us, even as this is not fully realized in this age. It is a confusion of standing and state. The former, unalterable because of the death and resurrection of Christ, but the latter, changeable. State never improves standing, but it is untrue to say that God is therefore indifferent to our state, that he is unconcerned whether we walk worthily, lovingly, or wisely in the Lord—three things Paul exhorts in the Ephesian epistle. We need not embrace the false dichotomy of all or nothing in the Christian life. Rather, let us acknowledge that because we are his, therefore live in light of this.
Matt Ferris lives in Wheaton, Illinois and is involved in Bible study ministry in his local church. He is also active in children's ministry and has written a number of hymns. His books include Evangelicals Adrift: Supplanting Scripture with Sacramentalism, If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life and Losing Religion, Finding Jesus: Moving beyond Cultural Christianity. He and his wife have been married since 1987 and have four adult children and six grandchildren. He blogs at gentlemantheologian.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ferrismattic.