By Weldon E. Warnock
In the first epistle of John the phrase “eternal life”.is found six times. Twice (1:2; 5:20) the expression refers to Jesus, showing His nature and the source of eternal life. The other four times refer to something possessed by the people of God (2:25; 3:15; 5:11, 13). Eternal life is also a predominant theme of the Gospel of John.
John writes about eternal life in the present tense, and he also writes about eternal life in the future tense. In 1 John 5:11, 13 we read, “. . . God hath given to us eternal life . . . . that ye may know that ye have eternal life . . . .” These verses indicate present possession. However, in 1 John 2:25 eternal life is a promise, and, thereby, a future possession. “And this is the promise that he bath promised us, eternal life.”
The actual possession of eternal life cannot be now, and at the same time, a future gift, although the preceding passages seem to teach it both ways.
Commentators, preachers and religious people in general are divided over the question as to when one possesses eternal life. Albert Barnes wrote, “. . . not merely shall have, but is already in possession of that life and happiness which shall be everlasting” (Com. on Luke/John, p. 233). B.F. Wescott stated, “Eternal life is not future but present, or rather it is, and so is above all time”
Gospel According to John, p. 87). These two quotations from Barnes and Wescott are typical of several more that could be given.
On the other hand, there are those who emphatically declare that eternal life will not be an actuality or a reality until after this earthly life. Guy N. Woods wrote that “eternal life is not a present possession, but a promise, a promise conditional and dependent on our remaining faithful” (Peter-John-Jude, p. 250).
E.M. Zerr wrote that the reward of eternal life “will note come in this world but in the next which will be `when earthly things have ceased to be’ ” (Bible Com., Vol. 6, p. 282). The statements by Woods and Zerr reflect the thinking of a goodly number, especially members of the church of Christ.
Let us consider some of the Scriptures that appear to teach both of the preceding positions and see if we can find a satisfactory solution to the problem.
The following Scriptures seem to indicate that eternal life is a present, actual possession. Notice the present tense verbs. Emphasis is mine.
John 3:36. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see
life . . . .”
John 5:24. “He that heareth my word, and.believeth on him that sent me, bath everlasting life . . . .”
John 6:54. “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life . . . .”
1 John 5:11. “And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.”
1 John 5:13. “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.”
In the following Scriptures eternal life is a possession that is realized in the future.
Mark 10:30. “. . . . and in the world to come eternal life.”
Romans 2:7. “To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life.”
Romans 6:22. “But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.”
Titus 1:2. “In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began.”
Titus 3:7. “. . . . we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
1 John 2:25. “And this is the promise that he hath promised us, even eternal life.”
All of the preceding Scriptures are true. Since the Bible is the Word of God and it is not contradictory, there must be a plausible solution to harmonize an apparent contradiction. It does not solve the problem to array one text against another and say the Bible teaches eternal life is future because Mark 10:30 says so. That does not answer John 5:24 and other similar texts.
Neither is any thing solved by quoting the passages on present possession and ignoring those Scriptures that teach future possession. We have to consider all the verses and make them agree. We will do this as we proceed in the study. We will clarify the difficulty two ways: (1) by defining terms, and (2) by studying the grammatical structure of some of the verses under investigation.
In defining terms the word, “life,” must be defined and so must the word, “eternal.” To know what is meant by the phrase, “eternal life,” is imperative to this study.
First of all, We will examine the word life. Though life may mean sometimes simple existence, as life under the sun (Eccl. 9:9), in our present discussion of “eternal life” it means, basically, a right relationship with God. This life (zoe) is a quality of character that enjoys the very highest blessedness. R.C. Trench wrote, “No wonder, then, that Scripture should know of no higher word than zoe to set forth . . . . the blessedness of the creature in communion with God” (Synonyms of the N.T., p. 95).
Jesus said, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). Knowing God and knowing Christ is life eternal. The word, “know” (ginosko), indicates a relationship. W.E. Vine wrote, “In the N.T. ginosko frequently indicates a relation between the person knowing and the object known.” To be estranged from God is to be alienated from the life of God (Eph. 4:18).
As to the word eternal, it is translated from the Greek word aionios, which comes from the word aion. The word means lasting, ceaseless, perpetual or never-stopping. (The word, “everlasting,” is a synonym for “eternal” and means the same thing.)
Thayer gives three different usages of aionios: (1) without beginning or end, that which always has been and always will be, (2) without beginning, and (3) without end, never to cease, everlasting (p. 20). From these usages, one may scan the whole span of eternity (aionios), or he may look back into eternity, or he may look forward into eternity. Thayer’s third definition is the one which applies to our study – “without end, never to cease, everlasting.”
Since “life” is a relationship with God, and “eternal” means “never to cease,” then we must conclude that “eternal life” is a relationship with God that never ceases. If we, therefore, possess “eternal life” now, we cannot be lost once we are saved. If alienation from God could take place, then the life would not be eternal, that is, without end. But there are Scriptures in abundance that show saved people can be lost (Matt. 13:41; Lk. 8:13-14; Jn. 15:1-10; 2 Tim. 2:18). Hence, we conclude that we do not actually possess eternal life, now.
In verses already cited, “eternal life” is stated as a present possession. For example, John 5:24 states: “He that . . . . believeth . . . hath everlasting life.” Here, the verb “hath” translates the word echei in the phrase, echei zoen aionion (third person singular of the present indicative of echo). In this verse is an instance of the Futuristic Present which Dana and Mantey say, “This use of the present tense denotes an event which has not yet occurred, but which is regarded as so certain that in thought it may be contemplated as already coming to pass” (A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 185).
The scholarly Winer wrote that “the notion of zoe as used by John, not only permits, but almost requires the present tense; apart from this, however, echein zoen aionion (to have life eternal) might very well be said of one who, though not as yet in the actual enjoyment of the eternal life, yet in his certain hope already has it as a possession belonging to him” (Grammar of New Testament Greek, p. 332).
Winer also wrote of this present tense that it is used “when an action still future is to be represented as being as good as already present, either because it is already firmly resolved on, or because it must ensue in virtue of some unalterable law” (Ibid., p. 331).
From these quotations from Dana and Mantey and Winer, at least two things stand out:
(1) Eternal life is so certain, it is spoken of as already come to pass. We can now see why many passages state that “eternal life” is a present possession. The present tense simply denotes the certainty of it. Similar language is found in God’s gift of Jericho to the Israelites. Before Jericho was taken, God said: “I have given into thine hand Jericho . . .” (Josh. 6:2). The possession of Jericho was so certain, God said he had already given the city unto Israel.
The betrayal of Jesus by Judas was so sure that Jesus spoke of it in the present tense before it ever happened. “. . . the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified” (Matt. 26:2). John the Baptist spoke of judgment as present, when obviously it was future. “And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees . . .” (Lk. 3:9). Here, again, we see future events so definite that they are spoken of as already taking place.
(2) Eternal life is already as good as present because of an unalterable law. The unalterable law is the immutability of God’s promises. Listen to Paul: “In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began” (Tit. 1:2; cf. Heb. 6:17-18). God cannot go back on His word. Eternal life, a future possession in the world to come, will become an absolute reality because God said so.
In view of the preceding observations it becomes crystal clear that eternal life is a promise to all obedient believers (although spoken of as a present possession due to the certainty of it), but the actual possession of everlasting life is reserved in heaven. Peter said we are begotten again unto a lively hope to “an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:3-4).
Returning to the passages on eternal life in 1 John, we can readily see that 1 John 2:25 explains what John meant in 1 John 5:11, 13. John shows in 2:25 that we have eternal life in promise – in prospect. This is an inspired and infallible exposition of those verses in the 5th chapter.
- What is the meaning of “life” as used in our lesson?
- State the three usuages of aionios (eternal) by Thayer. Which one applies to our study?
- According to 1 John 5:11, 20 where is the source of eternal life?
- What do Barnes and Wescott have in common? What do Woods and Zerr hove in common?
- What verse in 1 John teaches that eternal life is a promise? What verses in 1 John speak of eternal life in the future tense?
- Eternal life means life without end. Why could not a saved person be lost if eternal life is an actual, present possession?
- Read John 5:24. This is an example of the Futuristic Present. What do Dana and Mantey say about the Futuristic Present?
- Why was Jesus’ betrayal (Matt. 26:2) spoken of in the present tense, though the betrayal was yet future?
- According to Titus 1:2, why is eternal life unalterable?
- Write a brief resume of why eternal life is a future possession.
Guardian of Truth XXV: 17, pp. 258-260
April 23, 1981