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Part IV: Practical Implications

  1. First Corinthians 15:45, Paul’s most pivotal pronouncement on the relationship between the exalted Christ and the Spirit, is consequently the cornerstone of his teaching on the Christian life and the work of the Holy Spirit. Life in the Spirit has its specific quality as the shared life of the resurrected Christ, in union with him. There is no activity of the Spirit within the believer that is not also the activity of Christ; Christ at work in the church is the Spirit at work.

    Romans 8:9-10 is particularly instructive here. There, in short compass, four expressions are virtually interchangeable: ‘you... in the Spirit’ (9a); ‘the Spirit ... in you’ (9b); ‘belong to [Christ]’ (9d, equivalent to the frequent ‘in Christ’); and ‘Christ ... in you’ (10a).These four expressions hardly describe different experiences, distinct from each other, but have in view the same reality in its full, rich dimensions. The presence of the Spirit is the presence of Christ; there is no relationship with Christ that is not also fellowship with the Spirit; to belong to Christ is to be possessed by the Spirit. This truth about the believer’s experience, it bears emphasising, is so not because of some more or less arbitrary divine arrangement, but pre-eminently because of what is true prior to our experience, in the experience of Christ, because of (in virtue of his death and resurrection) who the Spirit now is (’the Spirit of Christ’, v. 9c), and who Christ has become (’the life-giving Spirit’). 21 So, elsewhere (in the prayer for the church in Eph. 3:16-17), for ‘you ... to be strengthened... through his Spirit in the inner man’ is nothing other than for ‘Christ [to] dwell in your hearts through faith’ (NASB).

  2. The Spirit at work in the church, then, is Christ at work in nothing less than eschatological (because resurrection) power. In fact, the NT has no more important or more basic perspective on being a Christian than this: The Christian life is resurrection-life. As we have already noted, it is part of the resurrection-harvest that begins with Christ’s own resurrection (l Cor. 15:20); the believer’s place or share in that harvest is now - not only in the future but already in the present. The radical edge of Paul’s outlook on the Christian life comes to light in the observation that, at the core of their being (the ‘inner man’, 2 Cor. 4: 16; or what he also calls the heart, Rom. 2:29; 6: 17; Eph. 1: 18), Christians will never be more resurrected than they already are! Christian existence across its full range is a manifestation and outworking of the resurrection life and power of Christ, the life-giving Spirit (Rom. 6:2ff.; Eph. 2:5-6; Col. 2:12-13; 3:1-4).

    These considerations need to be stressed in view of the tendency in much historical Christian thinking to de-eschatologise the gospel and its implications, especially where the work of the Holy Spirit is concerned. His present activity, characteristically, is viewed in a mystical or timeless way, as what God is doing in the inner life of the Christian, detached from eschatological realities. The result, too often has been largely privatised, individualistic, even self-centred understandings of the Spirit’s work. The church ought constantly to make clear in its proclamation and teaching that, in the NT, ‘eternal life’ is eschatological life, specifically resurrection life. It is ‘eternal’, not because it is above or beyond history - ‘timeless’ in some ahistorical sense - but because it has been revealed, in Christ, at the end of history and, by the power of the Spirit, comes to us out of that consummation.

  3. It seems fair to suggest that at issue here is a still-to-be-­completed side of the Reformation. The Reformation, we should not forget, was a (re)discovery, at least implicitly, of the eschatological heart of the gospel; the sola gratia principle is eschatological in essence. Justification by faith, as the Reformers came to understand and experience it, is an anticipation of final judgement. It means that a favourable verdict at the last judgement is not an anxious, uncertain hope (where they felt themselves to be left by Rome), but a present possession, the confident and stable basis of the Christian life. Romans 8: 1 (‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’, NASB), which they clung to, is a decidedly eschatological pronouncement.

    However while the Reformation and its children have grasped, at least intuitively, the eschatological thrust of the gospel for justification, that is not nearly the case for sanctification and the work of the Spirit. Undeniable is a tendency, at least in practice, to separate or even polarise justification and sanctification. 22 Justification, on the one hand, is seen as what God does, once for all and perfectly; sanctification, on the other hand, is what the believer does, imperfectly. Sanctification is viewed as the response of the believer, an expression of gratitude from our side for salvation defined in terms of justification and the forgiveness of sins - usually with an emphasis on the inadequate and even impoverished quality of the gratitude expressed.

    The intention of such an emphasis is no doubt to safeguard the totally gratuitous character of justification. But church history has made all too evident that the apparently inevitable outcome of such an emphasis is the rise of moralism, the reintroduction into the Christian life of a refined works-principle, more or less divorced from the faith that justifies and eventually leaving no room for that faith. What is resolutely rejected at the front door of justification comes in through the back door of sanctification and takes over the whole house.

    Certainly we must be on guard against all notions of sinless perfection. Forms of ‘entire’ sanctification or ‘higher’, ‘victorious’ life, supposedly achieved by a distinct act of faith subsequent to justification, operate with domesticated, voluntaristic notions of sin that invariably de-eschatologise the gospel and in their own way, despite their intention, end up promoting moralism. We must not forget that ‘in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning’ (Heidelberg Catechism, answer 114).

    But - and this is the point - that beginning, however small, is an eschatological beginning. It stands under the apostolic promise that ‘He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 1:6, NASB). Sanctification, no less than justification, is God’s work. In the NT there is no more basic perspective on sanctification and renewal than that expressed in Romans 6: It is a continual ‘living to God’ (v. 11) of those who are ‘alive from the dead’ (v. 13). Elsewhere, it is a matter of the ‘good works’ of the eschatological new creation, for which the church has already been ‘created in Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 2: 10). In their sanctification, believers begin at the ‘top’, because they begin with Christ; in him they are those who are ‘perfect’ (l Cor. 2:6) and ‘spiritual’ (v. 15), even when they have to be admonished as ‘carnal’ (3:1,3). 23

    An important and fruitful challenge for the teaching ministry of the church today is to give adequate attention to the eschatological nature of sanctification and the present work of the Holy Spirit (ensuring at the same time that justification is clarified within the already/not yet structure of NT eschatology).

  4. But, it might now be asked, has not the resurgent Pentecostal spirituality of recent decades seen and, in large measure, recaptured the eschatological aspect of the Spirit’s working, and so compensated for the traditional neglect and shortcomings just noted?

    One brief observation concerning this multi-faceted question will have to suffice. 24 A current widespread misperception notwithstanding, the NT does not teach that spiritual gifts, especially miraculous gifts such as prophecy, tongues, and healing, belong to realised eschatology. For instance, a concern of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 is to point out that prophecy and tongues are temporary in the life of the church. Whether or not at some point prior to the Parousia (I leave that an open question here), Paul is clear that they will cease and pass away (v. 8). But that cannot possibly be said of what is eschatological. Such realities, by their very nature, endure. 25 Phenomena such as prophecy and tongues, where they occur, are no more than provisional, less-than-eschatological epiphenomena. 26 I suggest that this reading of the passage helps with the perennial problem exegesis has wrestled with in verse 13: How can faith and hope be said to continue after the Parousia, in the light, of, for instance, 2 Corinthians 5:7 (for the present, in contrast to our resurrection-future, we ‘walk by faith, not by sight’) and Romans 8:24 (’hope that is seen is not hope’, NASB)? That question misses the point. The ‘abiding’ in view is not future but concerns the present, eschatological worth of faith and hope (as well as love), in the midst of the non-enduring, sub-eschatological quality of our present knowledge, including whatever word gifts bring that knowledge.

    All told, the NT makes a categorical distinction between the gift (singular) and the gifts (plural) of the Spirit, between the eschatological gift, Christ, the indwelling, life-giving Spirit himself, in which all believers share (e.g. 1 Cor. 12: 13), and those sub­-eschatological giftings, none of which, by divine design, is intended for or received by every believer (l Cor. 12:28-30, for one, makes that clear enough).

    The truly enduring work of the Spirit is the resurrection-renewal already experienced by every believer. And that renewal manifests itself in what Paul calls fruit - like faith, hope, love, joy and peace (to mention just some, Gal. 5:22-23), with, we should not miss, the virtually unlimited potential for their concrete expression, both in the corporate witness as well as in the personal lives of the people of God. This fruit - pre-eminently love, not the gifts - embodies the eschatological ‘first-fruits’ and ‘deposit’ of the Spirit (to use Paul’s metaphors). However imperfectly displayed for the present, such fruit is eschatological at its core. Not in particular gifts, however important such gifts undoubtedly are for the health of the church, but in these fruits we experience the eschatological touch of the Spirit in our lives today. This is a point, I hope, on which charismatics and non-charismatics, whatever their remaining differences, will eventually agree.

  5. A question may now come from another quarter: Will not stressing the resurrection quality of the Christian life and the eschatological nature of the Spirit’s work minister an easy triumphalism, a false sense of attainment? Trivialising options such as ‘possibility thinking’ and ‘prosperity theology’ in various forms are by no means an imaginary danger, as our own times make all too clear.

    The NT itself is alert to this danger - the perennial danger for the church of an overly realised eschatology. In the interim between Christ’s resurrection and return, believers are ‘alive from the dead’, but they are that only ‘in your mortal body’ (Rom. 6:12-13); Christians experience ‘the powers of the age to come’ (Heb. 6:5), but only as ‘the present evil age’ (Gal. 1:4) is prolonged, only within the transient ‘form of this world’ (1 Cor. 7:31) (all references NASB).

    What such interim existence entails is captured perhaps most instructively and challengingly, even if at first glance a paradox, in several passages in Paul. Though, strictly speaking, autobiographical and having uniquely apostolic dimensions, they intend the suffering he experienced as a paradigm for all believers.

    Philippians 3: 10 is a particularly compelling instance. As part of Paul’s aspiration to gain Christ and be found in him (vv. 8-9), he expresses the desire to ‘know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death’ (NASB). In this declaration, 1 take it, the two ‘ands’ are not co-ordinating but explanatory. Knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his suffering are not sequential or alternating in the believer’s experience, as if memorable and exhilarating times of resurrection power are offset by down days of suffering. Rather, Paul is intent on articulating the single, much more than merely cognitive, experience of knowing Christ, what he has just called ‘the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (v. 8, NIV). To know Christ, then, is to know his resurrection power as a sharing in his sufferings - an experience, all told, that Paul glosses as being conformed to his death. The imprint left in our lives by Christ’s resurrection power is, in a word, the Cross.

    Similarly, 2 Corinthians 4: 10-11 speaks of always carrying around in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our body, and, again, of always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. Here the two counterposed notions of the active dying of Jesus and of his resurrection life do not describe somehow separate sectors of experience. Rather, the life of Jesus, Paul is saying, is revealed in our mortal flesh, and nowhere else; the (mortal) body is the locus of the life of the exalted Jesus. Christian suffering, described as the dying of Jesus, moulds the manifestation of his resurrection-life in believers.

    This ‘cross-conformity’ of the church is, as much as anything about its life in this world-age, the signature of inaugurated eschatology. Believers suffer, not in spite of or even alongside the fact that they share in Christ’s resurrection, but just because they are raised up and seated with him in heaven (Eph. 2:5-6). According to Peter (1 Pet. 4:14), it is just as Christians suffer for Christ that God’s Spirit of (eschatological) glory rests on them. For the present, until he returns, suffering with Christ remains a primary discriminant of the eschatological Spirit. The choice Paul places before the church for all time, until Jesus comes, is not for a theology of the Cross instead of a theology of resurrection-glory, but for his resurrection theology as theology of the Cross.

    The question of Christian suffering needs careful and probing reflection, especially for the church in North America with its relative freedom and affluence, where suffering can seem remote and confined to the church elsewhere, but where we are surely naive not to be preparing for the day when that distance may disappear ­perhaps much sooner than we may think.

    Romans 8: 18ff., where Paul opens a much broader understanding of Christian suffering than we usually have, is instructive. There, with an eye to the Genesis 3 narrative and the curse on human sin, he reflects on what he calls, categorically, the sufferings of the present time (v. 18), that is, the time, for now, until the bodily resurrection of the believer (v. 23). From that sweeping angle of vision, suffering is everything about our lives, as they remain subjected, fundamentally and unremittingly, to the enervating futility (v. 20) and bondage to decay (v. 21), which, until Jesus comes, permeate the entire creation. Christian suffering, then, is a comprehensive reality that includes everything in our lives in this present order, borne for Christ and done in his service. Suffering with Christ includes not only monumental and traumatic crises, martyrdom and overt persecution, but it is to be a daily reality (cf. Luke 9:23: ‘take up his cross daily’ [NIV, italics added]); it involves the mundane frustrations and unspectacular difficulties of our everyday lives - when these are endured for the sake of Christ.

    Philippians 1:29, I take it, is a perennial word to the church: ‘For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him’ (NIV). Here Paul speaks of the given­ness of Christian suffering for the church as church. Probably we are not over-translating to speak of the gracious given-ness of suffering; suffering is given to the church as a gift. At any rate, Paul is clear, the Christian life is a not only/but also proposition - not only a matter of believing but also a matter of suffering. Suffering is not simply for some believers but for all. We may be sure of this: where the church embraces this inseparable bond between faith and suffering, there it will have come a long way toward not only comprehending theologically but also actually experiencing the eschatological quality of its resurrection-life in Christ, the life-giving Spirit.