Eternal life. Isn’t this something that every person longs for? Perhaps one of man’s most pressing question is, “What will happen to me when this earthly body turns to dust?” Many people spend their whole lives fearfully wondering whether they will go on living forever or simply cease to exist once they shut their eyes upon this earth for the last time. If given the opportunity to ask God one question, surely every man would find himself uttering the same words the rich young ruler put before Christ, “What must I do to have eternal life?” Surely man would do anything to live forever and never face ultimate death.
One problem we face in this quest for eternal life is a proper understanding of the nature of the human soul. Most people are unaware of the Biblical truth that their souls are inherently eternal. Each of us in one sense already possesses “eternal life,” we will all go on existing for eternity. Therefore, the true dilemma we face as eternal beings is how we will spend that eternity. Listen to the Baptist Confession of Faith speak of the resurrection:
The bodies of men after death return to dust, and undergo corruption, but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God Who gave them. The souls of the righteous are then made perfect in holiness, are received into paradise where they are with Christ, and look upon the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. The souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torment and under darkness, reserved to the judgement of the great day. The Scripture acknowledges no other place than these two for souls separated from their bodies.
Jesus described these two destinations of men’s souls when he warned that the wicked, ”will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46 ESV) Here, “eternal life” is set at odds with “eternal punishment.” Both are eternal, but eternal punishment can’t really be described as life, can it?
John MacArthur has said, “…eternal life is not just a length of life but being alive to God.” This is why we can say that any person who places their trust in Jesus’s death on the cross for the forgiveness of their sins has gained eternal life. They have become alive to God and no longer live under the threat of God’s punishment for their sin. They are now cleansed by the blood of the Lamb and able to have full, unhindered communion with the Father–our holy and immortal God!
This is the second problem we face as humans who desperately seek eternal life: though we would do anything to gain it, there is absolutely nothing we can do to achieve it. There is only one human who has ever deserved eternal life and he was also God. It is only through a substitutionary work of God that we can gain eternal life.
Let’s take a look in the book of Romans where Paul uses the terms “death” and “life” interchangeably with the concepts of ”trespasses” (sins) and “righteousness” respectively:
For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19 ESV)
What is the difference between these two groups of people? Those who are under condemnation (which is initially all of us!) and destined to eternal punishment are those who have not been made righteous by Christ’s sacrificial death. Their sins have not been payed for and his righteousness has not been imputed to them. Those who are justified and given the gift of eternal life are those who have received the grace of God. The only reason they are allowed to experience the eternal life is because of Christ’s perfect and sinless life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection! After all, each of us were dead in our trespasses and sins, but have now been made alive together with Christ. (Ephesians 2)
And so, while eternal life does, in a sense, refer to unending life, it also refers to much more. When we contemplate the gift of eternal life, we should not only thank God for the fact that we will never die, but for the reality of our eternal, intimate relationship with him. We who were once far off have not been brought near to the sovereign God of the Universe. We who were once his enemies are now his children. We who were under the condemnation of God are now under his banner of love. This is eternal life. This is life.
Don’t forget the extreme grace that you have been shown through the cross of Christ. In love, God sent his Son to die for your sins, so that you could experience this life. What can we do but consecrate these blood-bought lives to our God? What can we do but draw near to the one who has made himself available to us? What can we do but love him?
When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. (John 17:1-5 ESV)