Living in the Tension
“The Church is full of hypocrites!” Sadly, this statement is all too often true. Sometimes our actions betray our profession, leaving the spotless bride open to such charges. The presumptuous attitude of self-righteousness that we often convey to the world reveals our operational ignorance of a peculiar tension we find in the New Testament: The tension of the “already, but not yet.”
“Already, but not yet” describes the tension between the benefits of redemption already experienced in this life and those benefits which await us at the consummation. Christians enjoy the “alreadyness” of the Atonement—remission of sins, adoption as children, the indwelling Holy Spirit, etc. However, there is a sense in which we will not see these realities in totality until the last day (1 John 3:2), and so they always remain objects of faith. For instance, the believer already has eternal life (John 5:24), but he is not yet physically resurrected. Likewise, the church is a fellowship of persons who are both new creatures in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) and still imperfect sinners. We await our glorification and the destruction of our sinful natures in the last day.
True, the believer is no longer living as one who is totally depraved; but he can never attain sinless perfection in this life either. The belief in “complete sanctification” in this life denies the already/not-yet tension. The believer is in a lifelong struggle with the flesh (Romans 8:13).
Faith healers who promise that complete and universal healing is available today fail to distinguish between present benefits of the Atonement and future ones. Such teaching is proven erroneous by the fact that everyone eventually dies.
The church enjoys the “alreadyness” of the community of the redeemed; but her “not yetness” reminds her to uphold her purity through discipline. She must guard against false teachers, immorality, and apostasy. Christians should be dealt with as forgiven sinners: neither above reproach, nor wholly incapable of any good.
A pessimistic outlook for the future puts undue emphasis on the “not yetness” of Christ’s kingdom, implicitly denying its “alreadyness.” The citizens of the kingdom are to work, not in the expectation of defeat but in the confidence of victory. Satan’s defeat occurred two thousand years ago; his final doom is certain (Revelation 20:10). Yet our optimism should be tempered by remembering that the eradication of evil is reserved for the last day (Revelation 20:14).
The already-not yet tension underlies the whole New Testament message. Understanding this tension provides us with the necessary balance for applying its teachings to every aspect of our Christian experience.