When we begin to talk about eternal life (or for short, “life”), we often adopt binary language — you got it or you don’t, end of story. Then, as a separate issue, we discuss the matter of sanctification. There is, of course, a reason for this. In the End, there are only two places to be, and two sorts of people to be in them. Those who have life will live on the New Earth, where God will dwell with His People, and those who have chosen death will die in the Lake of Fire, eternally quarantined away from the God they so despised. Among the folks who live on the New Earth, some of them will be spiritual giants like Deborah or Peter, men and women who receive great reward. Others will be…how to put it?…largely spiritual failures. People who, like Samson, might have shown a great deal of early promise, but frittered it away. There is a sense in which these are separate issues, the one decided in an instant of faith and the other worked out over the course of a person’s whole life.
In deference to that separateness, many folks will drop “eternal life” language entirely when they start talking about sanctification. Growing up, I can’t recall ever hearing anyone use “eternal life” language in connection with walking with God: “life” was always about justification, never sanctification.
This gets into your hermeneutics, and you begin to read any passage that discusses “eternal life” or “life” as if it were talking strictly about the new birth, which is a serious problem.
But a growing number of commentators have begun to realize that Scripture doesn’t quite speak in that way. In many passages, eternal life isn’t something you get when you die; it’s something you have now (e.g., John 5:24). So there is a growing desire to respond to those passages, but at the same time a great fear of impairing justification by faith alone by confusing justification and sanctification, and the result is an odd blend. These folks discuss the new birth in terms of having eternal life, and then discuss sanctification/growth in terms of experiencing eternal life.
This is a quantum leap forward from where we were, and we should applaud it. However, it doesn’t quite go far enough to really be following the way Scripture speaks of the issues.
In brief, it’s not enough to talk about having/not having eternal life, and then, separately, experiencing eternal life. That’s helpful, but it’s not the way the Bible talks. The Bible talks about not having life, then having it, and then having more life (e.g., John 10:10).
Here’s the difference. The “having/not having vs. experiencing” model is like a conventional light switch and a blindfold. The light is either on or off, but how much you experience the light depends on something totally separate — the blindfold. Maybe it’s on good and tight, and you can’t see a thing, even though the light is on. Maybe it’s slipped upward just enough that you can see down along the sides of your nose. Maybe it’s gone cockeyed, and you can see out of one eye, but not the other…and so on. The light being on is one concern; the blindfold is another, entirely separate set of concerns.
The “not having/having/having more” model is like your basic dimmer dial switch like you might find in a suburban dining room. Turn the dial just a little, and you’ll feel the click as the switch goes from ‘off’ to ‘on.’ But there’s just a trickle of current flowing; you can barely see the light. Keep turning the dial in the same direction, and the flow increases, the light gets progressively brighter. On and off are still distinguishable states, but it’s all on one continuum, not two totally separate issues.
Jesus came that we might have life, and that we might have it more abundantly. He gives us a gift in the new birth, and sanctification is, in this sense, a distinguishable, but not separate, affair. It’s getting more of what you got to start with.