Faithful Christian living involves looking back on Jesus’ finished work of atonement and looking forward to His triumphant return. Today, Sinclair Ferguson discusses the past, present, and future tenses of the gospel.
Welcome to Wednesday’s edition of Things Unseen. This week, we’ve been talking about gospel grammar. Yesterday, the topic was moods—the indicative and imperative moods of the verbs in which the gospel is expressed. That’s what gives the gospel shape and expresses its tone of grace. But there’s more to verbs than moods. Verbs also come in different tenses. And there are basically three tenses, although they come in different forms: past, present, and future. And the gospel comes in all three tenses. The New Testament teaches us to live the Christian life in relationship to them.
And the simplest way to summarize its teaching is perhaps this: the gospel teaches us to live today conscious that we are living now between the already and the not yet. We live now in the light of what God did the past in Christ, but also looking to the future when Christ will come again. We live, as I say, between the already—what Christ has done, looking forward to the not yet—what He is still to do. And that helps us realize that while our experience of God’s grace in Christ is real, it is as yet incomplete. Already Christ has become incarnate in the past, lived, and died, and risen again, and ascended, and is now reigning, still the same incarnate Savior. But He has not yet brought about the consummation that will occur when He returns in majesty and glory.
The famous European theologian Oscar Cullman famously used events in World War II to illustrate this. We celebrate the Normandy landings on June the 6th, 1944 as D-Day, the day when, in a sense, the decisive events that would end World War II actually took place. But the war was not ended until the unconditional surrender of the German forces in May 1945 and of the Japanese forces in August 1945. And those days are often referred to as V-Day—Victory Day, or VE-Day—Victory in Europe Day, or VJ-Day—Victory in Japan day. But in the year or so between D-Day and V-Day, there was still conflict, still suffering, and still loss of life. The decisive events took place in the past in 1944, but their full implications would not be worked out until the future, the following year in 1945.
And you can see the point of Cullman’s illustration. In His incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension, Christ has done everything that is decisive for our salvation. He’s revealed God to us. He’s died for our sins. In His death, He’s broken the dominion of sin and death, and He’s bruised the head of Satan, the serpent. He triumphed over him on the cross, as Paul says in Colossians 2. But all the implications of that are not yet fully worked out, either in the world, or in the church, or in ourselves as individuals. Sin is still present in the world. People still rebel against God. Satan may be wounded, but he’s still active, and we still stumble. Only when Christ returns will all His enemies become a stool for His feet. But here is what the New Testament wants us to grasp: the D-Day of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension has been so decisive that it guarantees that V-Day will come.
What’s the point of this? It’s that we need to realize that the big thing has already been accomplished by the Lord Jesus, and it guarantees that however painful the mopping up operations may be, His final victory is certain. And so, we live between two moments, looking back in faith to D-Day and all Jesus has done, and looking forward in expectation to V-Day and the consummation of Christ’s victory, when the earth will be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
But there’s something else here. It’s that this macro-story is reflected in the micro-narrative of our own lives as Christians. There’s already a D-Day, and there will be a V-Day. There’s a not yet about the Christian life. We live now by faith united to Christ with our sins forgiven, set free from sin’s dominion, but we are not yet set free from sin’s presence. We still live in a fallen world. And although we’ve been delivered from the realm of darkness, Satan continues to tempt and to accuse us.
So, we’re still in a battle between D-Day and V-Day. It can be tough going. We may experience suffering and loss. We’ll certainly experience opposition. We’ll have to fight against indwelling sin. But the important thing to remember from the grammar of the gospel is this: the decisive battle and victory has already been won by the Lord Jesus in our lives too. And one day, He will come again in glory, and we will enjoy Victory Day in a marvelous way when we see Him face-to-face. We are already more than conquerors through Him who loved us. So, let’s thank God that we know the grammar of the gospel.