Already, Not Yet

August 06, 2020

by David E. Briones

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

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 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.

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

Paul’s eschatology is not only about the future entering the present, but also the present determining the future.

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.

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A Brief History of the Apocrypha

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by David E. Briones