Concise Bible Dictionary:
See LIFE, ETERNAL.
From Anstey’s Doctrinal Definitions:
In the synoptic Gospels, the term refers to having divine life from God on earth in the millennial kingdom of Christ (Matt. 19:16, 29; 25:46; Mark 10:17, 30; Luke 10:25; 18:18, 30, etc.). This was promised in the Old Testament (Psa. 133:3; Dan. 12:2) and will be realized by the remnant of Israel (Rev. 7:1-8) and the believing Gentile nations (Rev. 7:9-10) in a coming day.
Eternal life has an altogether different meaning in John’s Gospel and in the New Testament epistles—where it is presented as a heavenly thing. In this Christian aspect, eternal life has to do with possessing divine life according to the relationship that Christians have with the Father and the Son. The Lord defined it as: “This is life eternal, that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). This is a distinctly Christian blessing possessed “in Christ” (Rom. 6:23; 2 Tim. 1:1). F. G. Patterson said, “Eternal life is the Christian term for what we possess in Christ; by it we are brought into fellowship with the Father and the Son, and thus have a nature suited to heaven” (Scripture Notes and Queries, p. 112). (“Everlasting life” and “eternal life,” as translated in the KJV, are the same thing, and should be translated “eternal life” or “life eternal” throughout the Word of God.)
Eternal life, in this Christian sense, is called such because it refers to a special quality of divine life which the Father and the Son have enjoyed together in fellowship with the Holy Spirit eternally. Prior to the coming of Christ into the world, this aspect of divine life was unknown by men—being “with the Father” in heaven (1 John 1:2). It has now been given to Christians (John 3:16; 1 John 5:13, etc.) whereby they are able to enjoy fellowship with the Father and the Son (John 17:3; 1 John 1:3).
Contrary to what many Christians think, “eternal life” is not a description of the length of divine life, but rather a description of the character and quality of divine life. Hence, “everlasting life” (KJV) does not mean “life that lasts forever.” Since all human life goes on forever—regardless of whether a person is saved or not—the term surely must mean more than an endless duration of life. H. Nunnerley said, “Much misapprehension has arisen as to eternal life by confining its meaning to the endless duration of existence and the eternal security of those who possess this life” (Scripture Truth, vol. 1, p. 195). A. C. Brown said that eternal life “does not mean merely that we have life that lasts forever. Nor does it particularly refer to our first meeting with the Saviour, as stressed by some evangelists” (Eternal Life, p. 4). H. M. Hooke remarked, “Very few of us take the pains to sit down and think what eternal life is. I remember once asking an old saint if she would kindly tell me what eternal life was. ‘Oh, yes!’ she said, ‘perpetuity of existence.’ ‘Then,’ I said, ‘you have nothing more than the devil has—for he has perpetuity of existence!’ I believe that what she said is a common idea. Even the lost have perpetuity of existence; for they will spend eternity in the lake of fire, but they don’t have eternal life” (The Christian Friend, vol. 12 , p. 230).
Many confuse eternal life with being born again, but these terms are not synonymous. Both have to do with possessing divine life, but eternal life is to have divine life in its fullest sense, which necessitated the coming of the Son of God. The Lord said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Prior to His coming into the world people did not know this character of divine life. It is not that there are two different kinds of divine life. The life given in new birth and eternal life are the same life in essence. It is the very life of Christ—in fact, He is called “That Eternal Life” (1 John 1:2). The difference is that to be born again is to have divine life in embryo, so to speak; whereas eternal life is to have that life in its fullness. The same could be said of the life in an apple seed as opposed to the life in a full grown apple tree. Both have the same life, but one has not been developed.
The possession of eternal life in its Christian sense involves four things:
1) KNOWING GOD AS FATHER (John 17:3). This required the coming of Christ into the world to reveal the Father (John 1:18; 14:6-11). J. N. Darby said, “The revelation of the name of the Father brings eternal life with it (Notes and Jottings, p. 102). H. Nunnerley said, “Eternal life is a life of communion, a participation in divine relationships, an experimental knowledge of the Father and His sent One” (Scripture Truth, vol. 1, p. 197). (“Father” is used a few times in the Old Testament in reference to God, but it is denoting His care for His people as a father guides and cares for his family; it is not used as a name of God revealing His Person as such, as it is revealed in the New Testament. A few examples are: Isaiah 63:16; 64:8; Jeremiah 3:4.)
2) BELIEVING ON CHRIST THE SON OF GOD (John 3:16, 36; 5:24; 6:47; Rom. 6:23, etc).
3) KNOWING THE FINISHED WORK OF CHRIST ON THE CROSS (John 3:14-15).
4) HAVING THE INDWELLING HOLY SPIRIT (John 4:14), which brings the believer into a relationship with the Father and the Son. F. G. Patterson said, “We have eternal life in Christ—Christ lives in us; and this eternal life brings us into fellowship with the Father and the Son, which could not be until the Father was revealed in Him and the Holy Ghost given, by which we enjoy it” (Words of Truth, vol. 3, p. 178). A. C. Brown said, “Eternal life refers to the life of God enjoyed in communion with the Father and the Son by the indwelling Holy Spirit” (Eternal Life, p. 4).
Thus, while the Old Testament saints were definitely born again (and thus had divine life), they couldn’t have had eternal life, simply because the Lord Jesus had not yet come to reveal the Father, nor had He been revealed as the Son of God, nor had He accomplished redemption, nor had He ascended on high to send the Holy Spirit. H. M. Hooke said, “I have been much struck in looking through the Old Testament Scriptures to find not one single instance of its being mentioned of an Old Testament saint that he had eternal life; it was not known” (The Christian Friend, vol. 12 , p. 230). J. N. Darby was asked: “Ques. Had not the Old Testament saints eternal life? Ans. As to the Old Testament saints, eternal life formed no part of the Old Testament revelation, even supposing that the Old Testament saints had it” (Notes and Jottings, p. 351). He also said, “Knowledge of God, even of the Father and the Son, the Spirit of sonship, consciousness of being in Christ and Christ in us, communion with the Father and the Son, are that which the Old Testament saints did not possess” (Collected Writings, vol. 10, p. 26). F. G. Patterson said, “It could not be then said that they [Old Testament saints] had eternal life. It was only brought to light through the gospel (2 Tim. 1:10; Titus 1:2, etc.).” (Scripture Notes and Queries, p. 66).
Teaching that the Old Testament saints had eternal life blurs the distinction between the two Testaments and the blessings and privileges that distinguish the Church from Israel. It is an error of Reformed (Covenant) Theology, which sees Israel and the Church as one people with equal blessings.
There are two aspects of eternal life in its Christian sense. It not only refers to a character of divine life in the believer as a present possession (John 3:15-16, 36), but it also refers to a sphere of life in which the believer is to live in fellowship with the Father and the Son (John 17:3; 1 Tim. 6:12, 19). We use the word “life” similarly in describing an element in which a person dwells—e.g. “country life,” “city life,” etc. In this latter sense, eternal life is an environment of life wherein all is light and love, and where fellowship with the Father and the Son is everything. By virtue of the indwelling Spirit, we can live in that element now while we are here on earth (John 4:14; 1 John 5:11-13). Hence, someone aptly said that eternal life is “an out-of-this-world condition of things,” in which the believer lives by the Spirit.
The Apostle Paul refers to this aspect of eternal life as something into which we will enter in the future, when we are received into heaven in our glorified state (Rom. 2:7; 5:21; 6:22, 23; Gal. 6:8; 1 Tim. 1:16; 6:12, 19; Titus 1:2; 3:7). This does not mean that we cannot enjoy this life now. We can certainly enjoy it now by the Spirit, but then we will be in that life in its fullest sense. On the other hand, the Apostle John speaks of eternal life in the believer as a present possession (John 3:15, etc.), though he does speak of it in its future sense as well (John 4:36; 12:25).