While desirous of helping the people of God with whatever help the Lord has been pleased to give, it is with a considerable degree of hesitancy I approach the subject of eternal life, and for several reasons; chiefly because of the way in which the term has been bandied about by both semi-infidels and evangelicals in Christendom, so that it is in most people’s minds as synonymous with either simple eternal existence or with forgiveness of sins, and whoever seeks to help the people of God into the true idea of it, is liable to be branded as an enemy, whose object is to rob the saints of the grace of God. But let me say at the outset, that what I say as to eternal life, I say to those who are the subjects of the grace of God, who are born again, who have received both forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit, who are, in short, true believers on God’s Son. My one desire is that such may become better acquainted with His grace, and that they may be in the consciousness that the gift of God is theirs.
It is plain that in the condition in which man is as a child of Adam, death is his portion. Eternal life in the present dispensation is out of the question for man in the flesh. He must be able to take account of himself in some other way than in flesh and blood, to be able to apply such a term to himself, because he knows that to his present condition in flesh there must come sooner or later a termination. Indeed, as to the blessed Lord Himself, life in resurrection was what was ever before Him. He did not take flesh and blood in order to eternalise that condition, but to die, and take life again in a condition to which death could never have application. In His present condition, “death has no more dominion over Him.” Not that it ever could have had dominion over Him, had He not given Himself to taste death for us, but it was to this end He took flesh and blood, to bring that condition to an end in death, so that He might become life-giving Head for us. He says, “Thou wilt show me the path of life” (Ps. 16:11), “He asked life of Thee, and Thou givest it Him, even length of days forever and ever” (Ps. 21:4). “He offered up prayers and supplications, with strong crying and tears unto Him that was able to save Him from [or out of] death, and was heard” (Heb. 5:7). Heard and answered in resurrection. I only speak of this to bring before the reader the sphere of eternal life. It is entirely outside the circle in which the earthly man revolves.
In the world to come, which is the only world to which you can attach the thought of eternal life, the people of God will enjoy immunity from death, and in that way, as well as by the knowledge of God, they will enter into eternal life. But this will be, not by the saints being placed beyond its reach, as the heavenly glorified saints will be with bodies changed from natural to spiritual, but by the presence and power of Christ, who will maintain them in life, and guard them from the intrusion of evil. Death will be for them abolished. In the very place where death reigned, Christ will reign, and the saints will reign in life by Him. He that liveth and believes on Him shall never die. Death will have been swallowed up in victory.
But I would speak of eternal life as it is to be known by the people of God while they are here in this world, out of which Christ has been rejected, and where people have to go on with their deathbeds and burials, and where, as to all that pertains to what is outward, the believer in Christ is no more free of death than the infidel. Today it breaks in upon all kinds and classes of men, and rends asunder every relationship that belongs to flesh and blood and closes the whole earthly career of its victim, and from everything in which he occupied himself, it forever removes him. What may be beyond death is another matter; but life as it is seen and known in this world ceases at death. Hence, I think it must be conceded, that where eternal life is reached, one must have consciously passed out of the whole condition of flesh. How this is possible is a matter for further consideration; I am only at present stating that which I scarcely allow myself to think a sane man will gainsay. There is not much value to be attached to a man’s pretension to eternal life, who feels death at his elbow, ready to remove him from all that in which his life consists. It is only where the soul becomes established in an order of things incorruptible, and where can come no intrusion of sin and death, that he can talk with any degree of reality about eternal life.
It is plain enough that saints in the past dispensations looked for it. The Jews thought they had it in the scriptures, but it was not in the letter. It was not in the law—the curse was there. As we have seen, it will be the portion of all believers in the world to come (Luke 18:29-30), “Manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting.” This will be in resurrection glory for the saints of the present dispensation, but even the “sheep” among the nations will in that day enter into it alive in flesh and blood upon the earth. But I have already spoken of the way in which it will be enjoyed by them.
In Titus 1:2, Paul speaks of it as God’s promise before the ages of time. In 2 Timothy 1:1, it is in Christ Jesus, who has annulled death, and brought life and incorruptibility to light by the gospel; to which Paul was appointed a herald and apostle. He was in the hope of it, and he exhorts Timothy to lay hold of it (1 Tim. 6:12). And believers being justified by grace were to become heirs according to that hope (Titus 3:7).
1. It was God’s promise before the world began.
2. It is in the risen Christ.
3. It is brought to light by the gospel.
4. Paul was in the hope of it.
5. Of it he was a herald and apostle.
6. Believers were heirs.
7. Timothy is exhorted to lay hold of it.
I do not propose to examine every passage in which it is found, as this would be entirely unnecessary, but only at such scriptures as I think present to us the leading thoughts connected with it. The apostle John speaks most about it, and I will turn to his gospel; and I would ask my reader to weigh in the presence of God what scriptures may come before us, and seek His guidance, entirely distrusting the mind of man, let that mind be that of the writer, reader or any other.
In John 3:16, the Son of Man must be lifted up, that the believer in Him might have eternal life; for it was to this end that God had set His love upon the world. According to this passage (which must be looked at in connection with all scripture) no one could have eternal life until Christ had been lifted up. The judgment which lay upon man necessitated that man’s removal from before God; and this made the cross necessary for Christ, if man was to find life in Him. Therefore, it must be found in Him risen. I do not say it was only in Him risen, but it is only in Him risen we can arrive at it.
When He came into this world He was presented to men, who were responsible to receive Him, and in this way He became the great and final test, which demonstrated that man would not have God even in grace as a Deliverer and His rejection closed the door of hope upon the flesh forever. Every hope of His disciples was centred in a Christ in flesh and blood, and when He was rejected and crucified, and when they had seen Him taken down from the tree, and buried, every hope of their hearts was buried with Him in that rocky sepulchre. He says to them in view of this, “Ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice, … but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.” “Ye now, therefore, have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you” (John 16:20-22). They would have Him in resurrection where death could bring no more sorrow. And Peter says, He “hath begotten us again unto a lively [or living] hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:8). And in the face of such scriptures I cannot conceive eternal life touched by any one until He rose from the dead. It is no question of what was in Him—everything was there—but of what was apprehended, and enjoyed by His own.
In chapter 4 He is the Giver of living water, which becomes in the believer a fountain of water springing up into eternal life. The living water, I suppose every one will readily admit, is the Spirit, and it is clearly taught here that it is in His power eternal life is realized; and the Spirit was not given until Christ was glorified. This is in perfect accord with what we have been considering.
In chapter 5 Christ speaks of Himself in two characters, as Life-giver and Judge. The Father had given Him to have life in Himself, and authority to execute judgment. The hour for the execution of judgment had not yet arrived; the hour for giving life had. The hour was come when the Son of God would lift up His voice in the dark domain of death, and declare the infinite and fathomless love of God to those under death’s dominion. That hour was coming, but indeed it was already present, for from the outset He had been rejected, and His death was ever present before Him.
That death which was itself to be the mighty voice of the Son of God uttered in that tremendous act of self-sacrificing love, whose life-giving tones would resound throughout the vast realm of darkness, and with undiminished power would cleave the coming centuries, till the very last subject of the electing grace of God would awake up from the embrace of death to live in the love of God.
Someone may ask here, “How does one hear that voice?” I have no manner of doubt it is when the Spirit is received. His voice is the testimony of God’s love, given in death; and the Holy Ghost sheds that love abroad in the heart where He is received. But it may be replied, “A man does not receive the Spirit until he is justified, and how can you have a justified man morally dead?” I answer, that so far as I see from scripture, no man can be accepted as justified unless he has received the Spirit. When one believes in Christ risen he is justified, and receives the Spirit at the same time. But whether we can put everything into order according to the mind of man or not, our wise course is to receive the light given to us, and go on with God and more will be given to us. He who loves not his brother abides in death (1 John 3:14), and we love because He first loved us. The knowledge of His love is necessary to life.
But John 5:24 has been adduced to prove that eternal life was the portion of believers during the Lord’s life upon earth. Let us read the passage, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that heareth My word and believes on Him that sent Me, has everlasting life and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death into life.” I do not know why this must have its application to those who have believed on Him before redemption was accomplished, any more than what we get in verse 66 of the next chapter. It was not possible that any one could eat His flesh and drink His blood until He was given in death for us; and I doubt if what we have in chapter 10:14-15 was true of any till the Spirit came. In all these passages He only speaks of what is true of a certain kind of person. I doubt if the disciples had believed Him who sent Him until the very close of His ministry, if then. They had believed He came out from God (chap. 16:30). But this, I think, is different from believing Him who sent Him. This is, I doubt not, that the heart is in the light of the revelation of God, and the Father is before the soul, so that it is Himself heard speaking in the Son, and the Father is believed. This could not possibly be till the Spirit was received, and the Spirit was not given till He was glorified.
In chapter 6 He is the bread of life. Their fathers had eaten manna in the desert, and were dead. He was the living bread come down from heaven, of which a man might eat, and not die. The tree of life had been in Eden. There was virtue in it to preserve man from decay, and to maintain him in the freshness and vigour of life; but when he sinned he was no longer allowed to partake of it, death became his portion. Now, life was in Christ. But not life for the flesh, to perpetuate man’s sinful condition down here, but life apart from all that was of nature, in an entirely new order of existence. Hence, though He was the bread of life He had to come into death to be appropriated. “The bread that I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” His death was the end of man after the flesh, and the perfect declaration of the love of God. In the power of the Spirit I accept His death as the end of me after the old order, and live in the light of that love which was expressed in death, and which has found its resting place in the risen and glorified Son of God. I appropriate Him, and live on account of Him; and death for me is a thing of the past.
In chapter 10 He gives it to the sheep, “I am come that they might have life.” They had it not before His coming. Who are the sheep? Those who know Him, and are known of Him, as the Father knows Him and He the Father; those who hear His voice, and follow Him. Such are His sheep. To these He gives eternal life, and they shall never perish.
In chapter 12 if He does not die He abides alone (v. 24). And it is he who hates his life in this world keeps it unto life eternal. In the end of the chapter the Father’s commandment is life everlasting. I doubt not the Father’s commandment was the complete revelation of Himself; and chapter 17 lets us know that eternal life is enjoyed in the light of that revelation.
In chapter 20 we are told that the signs written in this gospel are recorded that we might “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing “we might have life through His name.” The knowledge that Jesus is the Son of God is therefore necessary to eternal life.
Let me place as simply as possible before the reader what has come under our notice in this gospel:
1. Eternal Life was the purpose of the love of God for man. But before the believer could be in possession of it the Son of Man must be lifted up (chap. 3).
2. The Spirit given from a glorified Christ becomes in the believer a fountain of water springing up into eternal life (chap. 4).
3. What characterises the one who has eternal life is that he hears the word of the Son of God, and believes Him who sent Him (chap. 5).
4. No one has it who does not eat His flesh and drink His blood; that is, who does not appropriate Him in His death. That bread is the support of life (chap. 6).
5 He gives it to His sheep (chap. 10).
6. He who hates his life in this world keeps it to life eternal (chap. 12).
7. It consists in the knowledge of the only true God and Jesus Christ His sent One (chap. 17).
8. The Son of God must be apprehended by faith (chap. 20).
Let us glance at the first epistle of John:
In the gospel of John we have life come into the world in the person of the Son. It was in Him for every human being, but apart from His death and resurrection no one could have any participation in it, for death as the judgment of God lay upon every child of Adam. The man under judgment was brought to an end in the execution of that judgment. This took place in the cross of Christ, who through the grace of God gave Himself a ransom for all. In resurrection He is the Last Adam, and the last Adam is a life-giving Spirit; and in the power of the life which is in Himself He quickens out of death those who are given to Him of the Father. This is effected by the Holy Spirit. But when we come to the epistle it is much more the sphere in which those walk who have title to that life and their characteristics and relationships.
The eternal life was “with the Father.” It was not seen with the Almighty God of the patriarchs, nor with Jehovah the God of Israel, but with the Father. The moment the Father comes to light eternal life is with Him. The Father could not be declared until the Son was in manhood and in this place and relationship in which man stands to God, and God to man, the Father and the Son and the eternal life are seen. The apostle says, “We beheld His glory, the glory as of an Only-begotten with a Father.” Whoever saw that, saw for the first time eternal life in manifestation. It is seen in man’s new place before the face of God.
The first four verses are a kind of introduction to the epistle, and when we come to verse 5 we get the sphere where all walk who have claim to that life. Such are in the light of the revelation of God, are affected by that light, have become children of the light, and are morally according to the light; they do truth, keep God’s commandments, and love the brethren.
But all who are in the light have not apprehended the light to the same extent, and therefore we get the saints addressed according to the measure of their apprehension of the light of God. Fathers know Him who is from the beginning; young men have overcome the wicked one; babes have known the Father. These last are encouraged to let that abide in them which they had heard from the beginning, by the promise of eternal life. The danger was that they might be diverted from Him in whom eternal life was. The fathers seem to be safe from this, but the young men, although they had overcome the wicked one, might be carried away by the world. The babes were in great danger, but they were taught by the anointing, and as taught by Him they would abide in the Son in whom only life could be found.
We get the wheat and the tares in chapter 3: the children of God and the children of the devil manifested. The children of God are under the control of the righteous One, and do righteousness; and their hearts are in the light of the love of God as expressed in His death, and they are willing to lay down their lives for one another; and in this circle of divine affections they have the consciousness that they have passed out of death into life.
In the fourth chapter we get the manifestation of divine love, and its results in life in those who have come under its influence—they love one another (v. 11); God is seen in the company, who present Him in nature (v. 12); they bear testimony to the grace of a Saviour God (vv. 13-14); boldness for the day of judgment (v. 17); and fear forever gone, for we are in the life of God, who has caused us to live in love, which is His nature (vv. 18-19).
In chapter 5 we come to the three who bear witness. The blood witnesses that the life of flesh has been brought to an end in judgment, the water that this is where purification is found—not the cleansing of flesh, but the putting of it away in judgment, so that we are cleansed from it—and the Spirit given, that we may live in the life of the last Adam, in whom eternal life is found. These three bear united testimony that God has given to us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who believes in the Son has the witness in himself; he knows that death lies upon all that he is as a child of Adam, but that he has in the Son an existence apart from flesh; and in Him in the power of the Spirit, he can take his stand apart from his earthly condition; and in the atmosphere of the infinite and holy love of God he is able to realize in the consciousness of his soul, eternal life.
I come to verse 20. We know that the Son of God has come. It is conscious knowledge. We know it by the understanding He has given us; we know it by the living light which from His unveiled face pours all its heavenly beams full upon our rejoicing hearts; we know it in relationship with God, and we know it by the holy and divine affections which have been formed in our souls; and we know it by knowing “Him that is true”—true in the revelation of Himself; true in contrast to the duplicity, baseness, treachery, and wickedness of the world, the flesh, and the devil; true in righteousness, holiness, power, love, and goodness; and true, so that the feeblest heart may unreservedly and unquestioningly confide in Him.
And “we are in Him that is true” That is, we are true ourselves. The old corrupt man put off, and the new man, which after God is created in truthful righteousness and holiness, put on, and we follow Him in a path free from the intrusion of the principles which prevail in the world. From that path, death, darkness, lust, lawlessness, and hatred are absent. It is the sphere of love, righteousness, salvation, and eternal life. “In the way of righteousness is life; and in the pathway thereof there is no death” (Prov. 12:28). In the Son of God we see the true God and eternal life. By Him our feet are kept in the paths of righteousness, and our hearts in the light and warmth of the love of God; and the world, the antichrists, and the wicked one are powerless to touch us; and it is thus eternal life is known and enjoyed.
But someone is certain to raise a question as to saints in the past dispensations. I would strongly recommend everyone to apprehend the blessedness of what is for saints of the present dispensation. The portion of those saints was peculiar to themselves, and we need not be very much concerned about them. I am aware it has been contended that they had life in the Son, while we have life in Christ. But it is in the Son we are said to have life. If it were only meant that when man fell under death, there was no hope for him anywhere but in God, I should agree, for where else could recovery for him be found? But to single out one of the blessed persons of the trinity before the Godhead was declared, and to affirm that saints had life in that Person, is, I believe, going a great deal too far. Why not say they had life in the Father, or in the Holy Spirit? Why in the Son? It is in the last Adam we have life. He is a life-giving Spirit. Was He last Adam before incarnation? Had the Father given Him to have life in Himself before He became Man? (John 5:26). And what meaning could be attached to such a declaration on the part of Christ except this, that the Father had placed in the incarnate Son the fountain of life in view of a world under death, so that when the judgment would be borne, and the Son in resurrection, life could be communicated to believers in the power of the Spirit.
“This life is in His Son,” and it is in this life we, by the Spirit, participate. The fountain within springs up into eternal life. It finds, as we have been seeing, its circle of satisfaction, happiness, and joy in the Father, His sent One, and those born of God. It is a life outside the order of this world, outside flesh and blood, and outside all that commands our attention in our responsible lives. Its sphere is heavenly in character, and foreign to the whole earthly order; but by “the well of water” we can now enter upon it, and enjoy the holy relationships, affections and delights in which it consists. Our practical life will be greatly affected by it; the life of Jesus will come out in these mortal bodies; we will walk as He walked, in love, righteousness, obedience, holiness, meekness, gentleness, forbearance, patience, and in every precious moral quality which makes manifest the children of God.
But eternal life itself does not lie in these things. It is not that there is any other life given to us from the Son of God than that which is in Himself on high. It is the Spirit of that life we have, and no other. But we are still in flesh and blood, and in a groaning creation, and in these mortal bodies we groan ourselves, being burdened; and we are in relationships and circumstances belonging to the old order which is under sin and death, and which will come to an end; and we are glad that it will come to an end; but the life which is in Christ Jesus will never come to an end. “The life of Jesus” is that which characterizes the children of God, and makes them manifest in this world; and this is, I believe, why John, who above all the apostles treats of eternal life, does not speak of sons (with which eternal life is connected) so much as of children, because the manner of life down here is the criterion, whereby the pretension of those who claim to be in possession of eternal life is judged. It is because that my soul is in the conscious enjoyment of eternal life that I am able to practice self-judgment, and come out amongst men in “the life of Jesus.” And it is by this I may discover who has or who has not title to eternal life.
Sons are not yet in manifestation, neither is eternal life. The believer has no other outward status before the world than that of servant, whatever he may know or enjoy in his soul, neither is he before the eyes of men any more relieved from death than any other mortal man I might say to men with whom I come into contact, that I have eternal life, but they are well aware that I am as much under death as they, and I might tell them that I am one of the sons of God, but they might judge with some show of reason that I was one of those “of all men most miserable,” I could not prove either statement. The case is a little different as to children, for though the world might not believe that I have my place in the love of God, it is very clear before their eyes that believers are in the same relation to the world as Christ was—hated causelessly. So that there is a very great distinction between the idea of sons and that of children, though it might be very difficult to point out the distinction in every scripture. But I believe, in spite of objections to the contrary, that the thought of eternal life and that of sonship go much together. Creation awaits the manifestation of the sons of God—children are already manifested. Neither sonship nor eternal life are yet in display before the world; the children of God are, and if the world deny it, let it explain its hatred. Perhaps I should add a word as to the initial work of God in the soul. I think it is plain enough from scripture that man in his natural condition will not receive the gospel in such a way that will ensure his salvation. It was only where the seed fell into good ground (“an honest and good heart,” Luke 8:15, and no man has this by nature), that fruit was produced. To believe the word when it is preached is the responsibility of every hearer, but apart from this preparatory work of God no one would profit by the preaching. This statement is built upon no isolated text of scripture, but is woven into the whole fabric of holy writ. This work has been spoken of as “new birth,” according to John 3, “Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Peter in his first epistle goes beyond this, and there now birth is by the reception of the word of the glad tidings.
I can understand someone reading this and saying to himself, that the writer seems to think that a man has to be born again a great many times. But we must be very careful in using the figures by which the truth is conveyed to us in scripture. While it is true that new birth is a necessity for all, the term seems to have special application to the Jews. It is by the writers to the circumcision it is made use of, and we do not find it in the Gentile epistles. It is a statement which pronounces the flesh to be utterly valueless and unprofitable. There are two things in John in which cut at the very root of man in the flesh, and declare his worthlessness, and they are new birth and the lifted up Son of Man.
The Lord says to Nicodemus, referring to what He had spoken to the Jews, “If I have told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you heavenly things?” This is, I think, how He demonstrates the fact that the Jews must be born again; they would receive no testimony without it. This is why I take the initial work of God in the soul to be new birth. If it be contended against, I leave it; but I will contend for this, that before the word is received, a work is wrought by God in the soul; call that work what you will. I believe scripture calls it new birth.
But then I think we will be liable to get into confusion if we attempt to make the spiritual match in every detail with the natural. When a man is born into the world he is born once for all, and there is an end of it. But I do not think this will do in the spiritual. New birth is not always viewed in scripture in the same way; it is sometimes looked at in a very contracted and incipient way, and sometimes in a way more expanded and complete, according to what the Spirit may desire to bring home to the mind. The first thing told Nicodemus is that without it no one can see the kingdom of God. Next he is informed that in order to enter the kingdom it is necessary to be born of water and the Spirit. Next he is taught that that which is born of the Spirit is spirit, and water is left out. Lastly, he is counselled not to marvel for the nation must be born again.
New birth I take to be the very earliest beginning of the work of God in any man. Born of water and the Spirit carries one us far as 1 Peter, and is the effect of having believed the gospel. Born of God, in John’s first epistle, is that those designated as such have been brought into existence by the revelation of God. They are His children, and bear His moral characteristics. We must not bind spiritual things down to the same limits as natural things, but seek to grasp by the help of God the main idea presented to us.
But new birth in its initial stage is a very different thing from life. The subject of life for man is introduced by the brazen serpent, and it is the believer who has it. There is nothing about either life or faith in the subject of new birth in the chapter.
First, I believe there is the work of God in the soul, brought about by the sovereign operation of God, without which no man would receive testimony from God. Second, when that is present, and the gospel preached, it is received. Third, the Holy Spirit is given. Fourth, the believer being made free from sin, and become servant to God, has his fruit to holiness, and the end everlasting life (Rom. 6:22).
I can understand someone saying, “Why, you put eternal life at the end only, but God puts it also at the beginning. We all believe in the end, but we believe also in the beginning.” I answer, God does not put it at the beginning. He puts new birth at the beginning, and they are not to be confounded. “But are we never to reach eternal life until Christ’s coming?” That is not the end. The end has a much more moral bearing, and it is more what certain things lead up to. If you sow to the Spirit you reap life eternal. This is not at the coming of Christ merely. There is a moral path to eternal life, and it has to be trodden. Moreover, eternal life is, in scripture, connected with faith in the Son of God, and I venture to think that this means a great deal more than merely faith in Christ. Not every believer has apprehended Him as Son of God.
But I must draw this paper to a close. This is not a day in which we should be very dogmatic. Most of us are only learning. Some seem to have got beyond it, and need no more instruction, but anyone going on with God will feel he has much to learn, and will be willing to learn from anyone who has got any light; Let us cleave close to the Lord. We will gain nothing by dogmatism and fleshly contention. If in the midst of gross darkness we are thankful for the light we have received, and are exercised that our walk and ways may be in harmony with it, we may confidently expect to get more. And if we have a wholesome fear of the intrusion of the fleshly mind, and walk humbly before God, and in the exercise of love to His beloved people, He will be with us our SUN and SHIELD. May this be realized by both writer and reader.