Already and Not Yet
One of the essential aspects of the Christian life is the idea of “already but not yet.” It carries implications for a myriad of others point of theology and the gospel. The reality of every Christian is that his life is “already, but not yet.” By grace through faith, every person who embraces the gospel is already completely saved. This means the believer’s sin debt is already paid in full and the righteous requirement of the law already met by Christ. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”1 At the moment of justification, Christians are alive, raised up with Christ, and seated with Him in heaven. We are already united to Christ! This is the already of the gospel.
By a hopelessly inadequate analogy, it might be likened to flying to Boston. Once the airplane reaches Boston airspace, it may be said of the passengers that they are already in Boston though they have not yet landed. In an earthly way, they are experiencing a dimly lit version of already and not yet. Although they are positionally in Boston airspace, they have not completely arrived yet. In Philippians, Paul alludes to this experience among Christians. He explains that even though he had become perfect through unity with Christ, he had not yet become perfect. Therefore, he continued to press on to lay hold of the prize of Christ Jesus. He exhorted his readers, “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.”2 At the same time as we are already saved and positionally perfect in Christ (justified), we are still in a process of being perfected (sanctification). While we are already perfect, we are at the same time not yet complete. This is not a paradox. We do not need to reconcile these two aspects of Christianity. After all, we do not reconcile friends. There is no real conflict between these two realities. One aspect reflects our perfect unity with Christ (already) and the other reflects our progressive growth in Christ which is being perfected (not yet). Throughout the Scriptures, both aspects are clearly depicted for us.
Paul taught Titus extensively about the complete work of Christ and the ongoing work of God’s Spirit. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you.”3 In this passage, Paul shows that when Christ appeared, three things happened. 1) Christ brought salvation to all men, 2) instructed them for change, and 3) directed them to set their sights on the future perfection of their faith. Here we find all three aspects of gospel blessing – past, present, and future – working together.
In Colossians, Paul puts it, “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.”4 Here again we find that Christians are already seated with Christ and at the same time looking forward to the revelation of Christ’s glory and the consummation of our future hope. Another clear example of “already but not yet” in Scripture is John’s first epistle. We read, “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”5 This is followed by an emphasis upon practicing righteousness and growing in Christ. Unity with Christ brings a believer a renewed identity and a renewing lifestyle. He is not merely changed in a moment, but changed over time as well. One day, it will be revealed what Christ has truly been accomplishing through His death and His day-to-day work on the masterpiece of His people. He has not only saved them, but He is simultaneously saving them as well. Paul writes, “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”6
Again, this is not a paradox. It is God’s wisdom in the gospel. Christians, therefore, ought to encourage one another to embrace and identify with both aspects. If we hold fast to only one, we will frustrate the blessing of the other. If we believe that Christ’s work in the gospel was merely to accomplish our justification, much despair may come in times of temptation and trouble because we will not have an eye on His present work of restoration. On the other hand, if we lose sight of the perfect security we have in Christ, we will struggle to believe that God is able and willing to keep up, whatever we face in the here and now. As those who have been united with Christ, we are to embrace the gospel by holding fast to the word which was preached to us – the already and not yet promises of the gospel. God’s sovereign work to perfectly save, perfectly keep, and perfectly perfect us will reveal that by His grace we have not believed in vain.7