In his New Testament Theology, Thomas Schreiner emphasizes the already/not yet feature of eschatology which is pervasive throughout the New Testament. This perspective on eschatology essentially sees us living in an age in which God’s promises are inaugurated, but not consummated. Christ’s resurrection, as the fulfillment of Old Testament anticipation, has “started the engine,” and the coming of the Holy Spirit shows that we are in motion. But we have not arrived at our final destination, in terms of the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises. Once you identify this tension, it’s hard not to see it in nearly every New Testament author.
In a lecture for his New Testament Theology class, Dr. Schreiner demonstrates this eschatological tension in the Pauline epistles. For example, Romans 8:15 indicates that “we have received the Spirit of adoption as sons” (a present possession), yet in Romans 8:23 we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons.” According to Ephesians 2:8, those who have faith in Christ “have been saved,” but 1 Thessalonians tells us to don “for a helmet the hope of salvation,” arguably a reference to a future event. Even in justification, which we tend to think to be exclusively “already,” there is eschatological tension. Paul could say in Romans 5:1 that “we have been justified by faith,” and yet in Galatians 5:5 that “we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” This is not to say that those who believe in Christ are not fully righteous, or that justification is a process aided by human effort. It is to say, rather, that our righteousness has not reached its culmination in an eschatological sense. The world does not recognize God’s verdict about us. Even our own consciences do not always recognize God’s verdict about us (2 Peter 1:9). But there is coming a time when our justification will be consummated.
We see this tension also in Paul’s imperatives and indicatives. When Paul exhorts his readers, he grounds those exhortations in doctrinal truths, specifically related to the person of Christ. He tells his readers, in essence, “This is who you are in Christ, so here is how you should live.” But we often see the imperative and indicative overlapping, or in tension. In 1 Corinthians 5:6-7, Paul urges the Christians to “cleanse out the old leaven [permeating sin]” and in the same breath tells them that they are “really unleavened.” They are already pure, yet they are not yet pure. Colossians 3:9 indicates that Christians have already “put off the old self,” but in its sister passage, Paul exhorts his readers “to put off your old self” (Ephesians 4:22). Is Paul being contradictory? Or rather do we see that truth about who are already are compels what we must become? Here is eschatological tension practically applied.
Keeping in tension the “already” and “not yet” aspects of these doctrines has important implications for practical Christian living. Overemphasizing the “already” can lead to moral laxity. On the other hand, overemphasizing the “not yet” can lead to frustrating perfectionism. With regard to politics, veering too sharply toward the “not yet” can lead a person to shun any sort of civil involvement. On the other hand, an imbalance toward the “already” can give someone the drive to “fix” the world through political and/or moral reform, and bring heaven to earth. As New Testament Christians, we live between eschatological inauguration and consummation. We are certain that Christ’s death and resurrection has secured our redemption. We enjoy eternal life now. But we also realize, with deep longing, that the fullness of all these promises is yet to come.