MEANING OF WORDS
T. PIERCE BROWN
Each one of us surely knows that words have different meanings in different contexts. For example a fast horse is one that will run rapidly. A fast color is one that will not. A fast woman may or may not. To stand fast is not the same as to walk fast. To fast is to not eat, but if one then eats he may eat fast. However, this principle is often disregarded, even by those whom we consider astute Bible scholars.
For example, if “eternal life” merely means, “unending existence,” then a person who spends eternity (if one can “spend” eternity) in hell has eternal life. We might try to clarify that by saying, “He has eternal death.” Any Bible student knows that a person may be dead and alive at the same time, though not in the same sense. When Jesus said, “The maid is not dead, but sleepeth,” (Mt.9:24) she was dead from their viewpoint, but not from his. “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living,” (Mt.22:32) so Abraham is alive unto God.
If we are discussing the question, “Do we now have eternal life?” we need to be aware of those principles, and try to apply them properly. Probably most of us who have engaged in discussions with our religious friends who believed in the impossibility of apostasy, and quoted various passages that say we have eternal life have emphasized that we do not have eternal life except in prospect, as when God said to Joshua, “I have given Jericho into thy hand” (Joshua 6:2). He had it in the purpose of God, but not in actual possession. Some who take that position would probably suggest that anyone who says we actually have eternal life now are upholding or teaching false doctrine.
That would be true if “eternal life” always meant the same thing in every context, and necessarily only the idea that if one has something that is eternal, he must possess it forever. But if we understand that both “eternal” and “life” are as almost all other words, and may have different meanings in different contexts, we may come to a different conclusion.
Suppose you had a pencil which God has given you that will last forever. It might be called an “eternal pencil.” Does that prove that you could not lose it? If, by definition, “eternal life” only means life that you must keep forever after you get to heaven, of course you do not have it now. The question is, “Does it necessarily always mean that?”
One of the scriptures that are most frequently used to prove that we cannot have eternal life now is Romans 8:24-25, “For in hope were we saved: but hope that is seen is not hope: for who hopeth for that which he seeth? But if we hope for that which we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.” Any logical person does not need divine revelation to let him know that you can not hope to get that which you already have. The same person may be aware that one can hope to keep that which they already have. The context of Romans 8:24-25 shows that we do not now have the adoption of sons, the redemption of the body. If we had it, we would not be hoping for it.
Again, I have fellowship with God and Christ now. Does that mean that I cannot hope to have fellowship with God and Christ after the resurrection and judgment day? Certainly I cannot hope to get the kind of fellowship that I got when I was baptized into Christ, but I can hope to keep it and to get a deeper kind of fellowship. And I may lose that fellowship, even if that fellowship is called “eternal life” or life in Christ (1 John 1:2-6)
If “eternal life” refers to the quality of life that one has in fellowship with Christ, as suggested by several passages of scripture, then when one lives in fellowship with Christ, he has eternal life, and when he ceases to have that fellowship, he ceases to have eternal life just as certainly as one might be dwelling in “eternal light” and walk out of it into “eternal darkness.”
Some of the passages that indicate that “eternal life” does not always refer only to the life we will have after the judgment day are 1 John 1:2, “And the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness, and declare unto you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us.” It seems clear that the “eternal life” spoken of here is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). When we let the life of Christ be manifest in our mortal flesh, we have what He calls “eternal life,” for it is the life of the eternal one. In 1 John5:11he is speaking of the same thing. “And the witness is this, that God gave unto us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath the life; he that hath not the Son hath not the life.” Those who think we only have it in prospect seem to overlook the fact that it says, “This life is in his Son.”
I hope for an abundant entrance into the everlasting kingdom (2 Peter1:11), but I am now in God’s kingdom which He said would never end. The fact that the God of heaven set up a kingdom which has no end does not prove that he will not cast out of that kingdom those who offend. Nor does the fact that a person may have a life of fellowship with the eternal one, characterized as “eternal life” does not mean that he cannot lose that fellowship.
The wrong understanding that men have of John 5:24 does not mean that we have only one logical explanation, and that is that we have eternal life only in prospect. John says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth him that sent me, hath eternal life, and cometh not into judgment, but hath passed out of death into life.” Those who think the Bible teaches the impossibility of apostasy use this verse to try to prove that one who has ever heard and believed the word of God has eternal life, which they define as a life they now have and cannot lose. The passage does not so teach, and one does not have to assume “it means the prospect of eternal life” to disprove it. It means that the person who is hearing (that is, heeding) the word of God and believing (that is, continuing to have a trusting, obedient faith) will not come into condemnation. The present tense of the verbs shows this to be true. It teaches the same thing in John 10:27-28, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who hath given them to me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” The sheep are the ones who are hearing (present tense) the voice of Jesus and are following Him. Those will never perish. They have eternal life. No one can snatch a person out of the hand of Jesus or of God who is hearing the voice of Jesus and following him. That has nothing whatever to do with the strange idea that a person cannot stop hearing the voice of Jesus. A person can quit being a goat and start being a sheep and move from death to life. He can reverse the process by a choice of will, but no one can force him to against his will.