The Now and the Not Yet
There is nowhere in the Bible where we will find an expression of higher, more exalted joy, than in 1 John 3:1: ‘See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.’ It is as though the elderly apostle John is gathering together all his dear children around him in a circle and, with shining eyes, is exclaiming to them, ‘Look, what kind of love is this that the Father has shown us! Have you ever seen anything like it before?’ It is exactly the same expression as we find in the mouths of the disciples on the Sea of Galilee in Matthew 8:27: ‘What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?’ It’s wide-eyed, open mouthed awe and amazement, something that takes your breath away.
Believers are God’s children. It is something that is true today. It is not an honour that will be bestowed upon us on some far-off future day. The work of spiritual regeneration, of being born again, has already taken place in every true Christian. He is a twice-born child of the living God, chosen by the Father in Christ before all ages, called by the Father with a holy purpose, justified by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, sealed unto everlasting life by the work of the Spirit. All these things are true today, now – we have the testimony of the Bible to these wonderful truths, and the testimony of the anointed Spirit in our hearts. We need to see the amazing grace of God in this – that while we still struggle with our own sin, still fall into sin, are still confronted by sin, not only in the world around us but in the dark recesses of our own imaginations; while, in short, we are still a desperately long way from where we wish we could be, and even further from where the Lord will one day bring us – he tells us emphatically that we are children of God!
But there is a tension in verse 2 as there is in so much of the Scripture. It is the tension between what we can call the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’. As we can see, both these words ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ appear in this verse. There are glorious and exciting things which we can and should say about the present. There are even more glorious and exciting things we can say about our future state. But it does seem that many of our difficulties as Christians spring from our failure to keep these two forces in tension. The Christian is being pulled in opposite directions by two ropes. One pulls him towards ‘now’ and the other pulls him towards ‘not yet’. Can he balance out these forces?
We can be pulled forwards, as it were. We can over-realise the future and live as if the ‘not yet’ were already part of our present experience. But that might cause us to become over-despondent when there are difficulties in the present life. Why are all these problems and temptations and sins happening to me if I am a child of God? Why do I still fail the way I did so many years earlier? We fail to see that perfection still lies ahead in the ‘not yet’ realm. This has been the danger in the various ‘holiness’ teachings that emerged during the nineteenth century, in Keswick and elsewhere. Receive your sanctification as a gift; you’re now a ‘sanctified Christian’. Or believe that you are living the ‘victorious life’. Some Christians will speak very confidently about being delivered from a certain sin or temptation. I have a tendency, a feature of my personality, that seems to be affecting my spiritual walk with the Lord. I need prayer to be delivered from it! But what if I am delivered from this one thing? Is there not a whole seething mass of sin and unbelief that lurks beneath? Shocking though it may sound, we need to be brought back to earth with the realisation that there is going to be no ultimately victorious life for any of us this side of eternity. We will all die with a good deal of indwelling sin that hasn’t been conquered.
Yet we can also be dragged backwards. We can give too little attention to the future, and be bound by the present. For someone in this category, present sins and temptations and disappointments also get them down. But in this case the tendency is to be so bound by these daily defeats that we completely take our eyes off all God’s future promises. We feel we’re just getting from one day to the next, and if we have a moderately good day then we’re quite cheerful, but when we slip up and fall we’re down in the dumps. This Christian life seems to be a bit of an up-and-down slog – good days and bad days. Typically we become introverted and defeatist, and tragically the source of our contentment becomes how we’re doing now, not what God in Christ has presently done for us and will one day reveal perfectly in us.
The correction for us here is to be told that ‘what we will be has not yet appeared’. Don’t we feel like praising God every day for this – that what we are now, here, today, is so very far from what we’re going to be one day when Jesus comes back? Good – things are going to get a whole lot better! Supposing you were told, ‘This is it. You’re basically now complete. Your heart and mind and soul and body have progressed as far as they ever will. So be satisfied with what you are!’ Wouldn’t you feel like howling in protest, ‘That’s not enough! It won’t do; I want more!’
The believer who knows his Scriptures, understands them and is able to achieve the right level of tension can say with John Newton:
I am not what I ought to be – ah, how imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be – I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good! I am not what I hope to be – soon, soon shall I put off mortality, and with mortality all sin and imperfection. Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was; a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’1
Here is the expression of a man who, having spent years drinking deeply from the broken cisterns of human sin, then drank ever more deeply from the fountain of living waters, and knew so well in his own heart this tension between the now and the not yet.
- Josiah Bull, The Life of John Newton (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2007), p. 289.
Paul Yeulett is Pastor of Shrewsbury Evangelical Church.
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