ABSTRACT: For now, Christians live in a great theological tension: we already possess every spiritual blessing in Christ, but we do not experience the fullness of these blessings yet. In one sense, we are already adopted, redeemed, sanctified, and saved; in another, these experiences are not yet fully ours. Underneath this theological and practical tension are the two comings of Christ. In his first coming, he inaugurated the last days; in his second coming, he will complete them. In the meantime, we live for now in “the overlap of the ages.”
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked David Briones, associate professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, to explain the New Testament’s already–not yet framework.
My wife and I have been married for sixteen years, but I can remember our engagement like it was yesterday. It was an unnecessarily long engagement — a year and seven days, to be precise. Yet I have no one to blame but myself. The ring burned a hole in my pocket.
I hastily popped the question before meeting my father-in-law’s demands: college degrees in hand, full-time jobs, and $5,000 in the bank. So, it meant a longer engagement. I was hasty because we knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. But once the excitement of getting engaged wore off, I grew increasingly impatient.
It felt as if we were already married, with her ring symbolizing that long-term commitment. The reality symbolized by the ring, however, was not yet a present reality. It was a certain hope in the all-too-distant future.
The Christian life is a lot like that. It is an already-but-not-yet sort of existence, where believers are caught within what Oscar Cullmann calls “the dialectic of present and future.”1
Already, Not Yet
What do I mean? According to Scripture, believers are
- alreadyadopted in Christ (Romans 8:15), but not yet adopted (Romans 8:23);
- alreadyredeemed in Christ (Ephesians 1:7), but not yet redeemed (Ephesians 4:30);
- alreadysanctified in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:2), but not yet sanctified (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24);
- alreadysaved in Christ (Ephesians 2:8), but not yet saved (Romans 5:9);
- alreadyraised with Christ (Ephesians 2:6), but not yet raised (1 Corinthians 15:52).
We live in a theological tension. By faith in Christ, all of these spiritual blessings are ours already, but the full enjoyment of these blessings is not yet ours. This is the life of faith: “the assurance of things hoped for” in the future, and “the conviction of things not seen” in the present (Hebrews 11:1). This is life between the times.
Underlying this theological tension is a theological structure: the already–not yet framework. It is, according to Cullmann, “the silent presupposition that lies behind all that [the New Testament] says.”2 The New Testament authors thought, wrote, and lived through the grid of this biblical framework or mindset. It determined the way they spoke about God’s dealings in this world in light of the world to come.
If we don’t understand this mindset, the theological tension we live in will become a theological disaster. We will inevitably misread Scripture. And if we misread Scripture, we will live misled lives. To give one example, not understanding the already–not yet framework might lead a person to think that there are two ways to be saved. Initial salvation depends entirely on God (Ephesians 2:8), but final salvation depends entirely on us (Romans 5:9), with the practical damage being a legalistic mindset devoid of the gospel.
Theology and Christian living are not oil and water; they are organically connected like seed and tree. So, if we long to think God’s thoughts after him and live for him, then we must follow the way his inspired apostles thought theologically and lived practically. What follows in this essay is not a mere theological exercise. The mind must be informed, but just as importantly, we need our hearts and lives to be transformed. We need to see how this robust theological framework is deeply practical for Christians living between the times.
Four Foundational Pillars
To grasp the New Testament’s already–not yet mindset, we need to begin with four foundational pillars: eschatology, christology, soteriology, and redemptive history.
You may be thinking, “Eschatology? Doesn’t that deal with the end times?” That’s right. Eschatology means “the study of the last things.” But in the New Testament, eschatology refers not chiefly to millennial views or the timing of the tribulation. Eschatology became more of a mindset on how the future relates to the present. This is especially true of eschatology in Paul’s letters, which will be our primary (though not sole) focus.3
Pauline eschatology relates primarily to christology (“the study of Christ”). The two are inextricably connected and mutually interpretive. As Herman Ridderbos notes, “Paul’s ‘eschatology’ is ‘Christ-eschatology.’”4 Christology completely redefines what we mean by eschatology, and vice versa. For Paul, the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ were eschatological events accomplished in history. That is, they were redemptive-historical events — divine actions whereby God revealed himself in word and deed, in time and space — and these redemptive-historical events connected the present with the future; or, perhaps better, they brought “the age to come” into “this age.”5
For example, the outpouring of the Spirit is considered an end-time event in Joel 2, but this end-time event occurred after Christ’s ascension on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. The future came into the present through the person and work of Christ. This dynamic is often referred to as inaugurated or realized eschatology.
But Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection are not merely eschatological events. They are also salvific events. Christology and soteriology (“the study of salvation”) are inseparably interwoven with eschatology.6 This means that Paul’s eschatology is not only about the future entering the present, but also the present determining the future. The salvation that Christ accomplished and the Spirit applies has present and future implications for believers. This is where the practical payoff of the already–not yet framework emerges, though we’ll return to these implications later.
These foundational pillars — eschatology, christology, soteriology, and redemptive history — support Paul’s (and the New Testament’s) eschatological framework. But we should pause to consider how drastically different this framework is from the framework Paul affirmed before his conversion on the road to Damascus. A comparison between the two more accurately reveals how the person and work of Christ radically reconfigured time itself.
Before Paul was blinded on the road to Damascus, he saw “this age” and “the age to come” much differently.
Think of redemptive history as divided between this age and the age to come, with a midpoint in between that separates the two.7 The midpoint of redemptive history, from the perspective of the Old Testament, is the coming of the eschatological Davidic Messiah,8 the latter-day outpouring of the Spirit,9 and the general resurrection of the dead.10 These are some of the major events that would usher in “the last days”11 and mark the eschatological turning point from this age to the age to come.
Nevertheless, Paul’s mindset was radically altered after seeing the light of God’s glorious gospel (Acts 9:1–19; 2 Corinthians 4:4, 6). He now could see clearly that the redemptive-historical line had been divinely reconfigured. Time itself was reconfigured.
The Messiah was no longer he-who-is-to-come but he-who-has-already-come. And Jesus, the one who had already come, was the one who, through his death and resurrection, became “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). The resurrection of Christ completely redefined Paul’s Jewish expectation of the general resurrection.
We see this shift particularly in Acts. Luke records how central the resurrection is to Paul’s ministry.12 Again and again, Paul stands before judges, being tried for proclaiming the resurrection. As he explains to Felix, “It is with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you this day” (Acts 24:21; cf. 23:6; 26:6). Later, in Rome, he says that “it is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain” (Acts 28:20).
What is the hope of Israel? It’s spelled out in Acts 24:15: “. . . having a hope in God . . . that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.” Israel’s hope was the general resurrection of the dead — the end-time event that would usher in the age to come.
But Paul makes it clear that Israel’s hope of general resurrection and salvation hangs on the resurrection of Jesus Christ: “I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22–23).
“It is clear,” writes Brandon Crowe, “that the resurrection is not simply one event among many but is the quintessential way that Scripture is fulfilled and is the means by which Jesus as Messiah is Lord of all. The resurrection, in short, is the ‘hope of Israel,’ and this hope has broken into history through Jesus of Nazareth.”13
Whereas once the general resurrection of the dead was the decisive turning point of time, Paul now considers Jesus’s resurrection to be the great turning point,14 moving us from this age into an overlapping of the ages where we presently experience the age to come.15 The midpoint of redemptive history is therefore expanded, bookended by the first and second coming of Christ. These are the “times” between which we live.
The age to come has come upon this age. That’s why Paul describes Christians as those “on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). This is why Peter, after witnessing the outpouring of the Spirit, adds the words “in the last days” (Acts 2:17) into his direct quotation of Joel 2:28–32.16 This is why Peter also declares that Christ died and rose again “at the end of the times” (1 Peter 1:19–21 author’s translation). And this is why the author of Hebrews highlights God’s speech through the Son “in these last days” (Hebrews 1:2), who “appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
“It is already the time of the end,” writes Cullmann, “and yet it is not the end.”17 Christ’s first coming marks the beginning of the last days. Christ’s second coming will mark the end of the last days. And Christians presently find themselves living in the last days,18 in the overlapping of the ages, where salvific benefits are ours already and not yet.19
Anthony Hoekema provides a helpful summary:
The nature of New Testament eschatology may be summed up under three observations: (1) the great eschatological event [i.e., resurrection] predicted in the Old Testament has happened; (2) what the Old Testament writers seemed to depict as one movement is now seen to involve two stages: the present age and the age of the future; and (3) the relation between these two eschatological stages is that the blessings of the present (eschatological) age are the pledge and guarantee of greater blessings to come.20
Living Between the Times
How does the already–not yet framework inform the way we live in the tension between Christ’s first and second coming? While there are several aspects one can highlight, I want to draw attention to four ways the glorious resurrection of Christ — that time-changing event in redemptive history — relates to our practical Christian living.
- Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time: The Primitive Christian Conception of Time and History, trans. Floyd V. Filson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1950), 146. ↩
- Cullmann, Christ and Time, 146. ↩
- Geerhardus Vos hailed Paul as “the father of Christian eschatology” (Pauline Eschatology[Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994], 175). ↩
- Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard de Witt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 49. ↩
- In speaking of how heavenly realities come to bear on our earthly lives, Vos says of the latter, “The higher world [i.e., heaven] is in existence there [i.e., on earth], and there is no escape for the Christian from its [i.e., the heavenly world’s] supreme dominion over his life. Thus, the other world, hitherto future, has become present” (37–38; my emphasis). ↩
- Vos says, “Not only the Christology but also the Soteriology of the Apostle’s teaching is so closely interwoven with the Eschatology, that, were the question put, which of the strands is more central, which more peripheral, the eschatology would have as good a claim to the central place as the others” (Pauline Eschatology, 28–29). ↩
- I have slightly adapted Oscar Cullmann’s diagram in Christ and Time, 82. ↩
- See 2 Samuel 7:12–16; Psalms 21; 72; 89; 110; 132; Amos 9:11; Isaiah 9:6–7; 11:1–9; Ezekiel 37:24–25; Zechariah 6:12–13; 12:7–8. ↩
- See Joel 2:28–32; Isaiah 32:15; 44:3; Ezekiel 36:27; 37:14; 39:29. ↩
- See Job 19:26–27; Isaiah 26:19; Hosea 6:2; Daniel 12:1–2. ↩
- See Genesis 49:1; Numbers 24:14; Deuteronomy 4:30; 31:29; Isaiah 2:2; Jeremiah 30:24; Daniel 10:14; Hosea 3:5. ↩
- See Brandon D. Crowe, The Hope of Israel: The Resurrection of Christ in the Acts of the Apostles(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020). ↩
- Crowe, Hope of Israel, 85–86. ↩
- “We must think of Christ’s death and resurrection as the central event that launched the latter days. This pivotal event of death and resurrection is eschatological because it launched the beginning of the new creation” (G.K. Beale, “The New Testament and New Creation,” in Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect, ed. Scott Hafemann [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002], 163). ↩
- According to Hebrews 6:5, we taste “the powers of the age to come” on earth. ↩
- The additional words “in the last days” occur only one other time in the LXX, Isaiah 2:2. More than likely, Peter is alluding to that text. For a closer analysis of Old Testament and New Testament texts where the phrase “last days” appears, see Vos, Pauline Eschatology, ch. 1; and G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), ch. 3. ↩
- Cullmann, Christ and Time, 145; emphasis original. ↩
- See 1 Timothy 4:1–3; 2 Timothy 3:1–5; 2 Peter 3:1–7; James 5:3; Jude 14–19. ↩
- Interestingly, this is how Luke eschatologically structures the book of Acts. As the disciples watch Jesus ascend into heaven, “two men . . . said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven [first coming], will come in the same way [second coming] as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:10–11). Before this happened, they asked Jesus if this was the “time” when he would “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6), but Jesus simply responds, “It is not for you to know timesor seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). Time is restructured into times. This sets the scene for the foundational work of the apostles in between the times. ↩
- Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 21–22. ↩