What it Means to be a Christian
by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 4 - The Eternal Prospect of the Christian

We saw at the beginning that the Christian life is not something which just springs up in this particular era - the Christian era, as it is called - but that it dates right back to eternity past. We saw that it was designed by God in His eternal counsels - the New Testament has much to say about this - and that that eternal Purpose and design is pressing into this present dispensation in a very definite and particular way.

Now we are to see that the future eternity is also pressing into this dispensation. The future eternity is governing the present, is shaping and explaining the present. God is not only working onward. Really, the onward aspect of Divine activities is our side of things. God is, so to speak, working 'backward'. From His side of things He is always working back to His full thought in eternity past. He is bringing us on, but from this other standpoint He is really bringing us back.

THE PROSPECTIVE ELEMENT IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

So we come to this matter of the eternal prospect of the Christian. We have to realise - not that it is difficult to do so - that there is a very large prospective element in the New Testament: that is, the New Testament is always looking on. In the New Testament everything is dominated by the ages to come. God's conception was an eternal one, not just one of time; it is something far, far too big to be realised in fullness in any mere period of time. It certainly, therefore, cannot be realised in the lifetime of any person. It outbounds time. This is "from eternity to eternity", and it requires timelessness for its full realisation.

This, of course, explains a great deal. It explains the very nature of the Christian life and of Christian service. A very big factor in the ways of God with His people, with Christians, is that of experience. God puts a great deal of value upon experience. Yet it often seems that, just when we are beginning to profit by experience, the end comes, and we are called away from this life, and all the long and full and deep experience has really had no adequate expression. There is something about this that would be a problem. If God puts so much value upon experience, and then when we have got it we cannot use it, it seems like a contradiction. It requires an extension somewhere, somehow, in order to turn to account all that deep experience which God has taken so much pains to produce. And so this eternal prospect explains God's ways with us in the path of deep and deepening experience.

Then as to the work of God. Well, the work is difficult, it is hard; the progress is all too slow; and though you may do much, and fill your life, when you have had all the days that can be allotted you and have spent yourself to the last drop, what have you done? What does it amount to, at most? We have to say - little, comparatively little. There is so much more to be done, and every successive generation of Christian workers has the same story to tell. On we go, on we go, and we never overtake, we never reach anything like fullness in this life. Something more is required to make perfect both our imperfect lives and our imperfect work.

And then another factor, which is not a small one, is that God seems to be so much more concerned with the worker even than with the work. This of course creates the perplexities of Christian life and service. If God were really concerned with our Christian work, surely He ought never to allow us to be laid aside from it, especially repeatedly or for long periods, and He certainly ought not to allow us to die 'prematurely', as we would say. If the work is everything, then He ought to keep us on full stretch all our days, and extend our days to a full period; but He does not. So many of His choicest are not able to be in action, to serve, in the way in which Christian service is ordinarily thought of; and even those who are fully in action are conscious that the real need in the work of God is for their own deeper knowledge of God Himself - that God is concerned with them, even more than He is with their work.

What does this say? All that discipline, chastening, trial, testing, that we go through under the hand of God: is all that just for now? Surely He is preparing for something more. He is concerned with men and with women - withpeople - quite as much as, if not more than, with what they do for Him. This, of course, will never be taken as an excuse for our not working to full capacity, but it does all point to something more. There is nothing perfect or complete so long as death remains. You will remember the argument which the apostle develops in the letter to the Hebrews concerning the priesthood of the Old Testament. A priest of the old dispensation could bring nothing to finality because he died and had to hand on to another; and in like manner he himself never attained to finality; and so it went on. The argument is that, because of death, nothing was made perfect. But He - Jesus, our High Priest - has made and does make things perfect, because He "ever liveth". It requires an endless life - "the power of an indissoluble life" - to reach fullness. That is clearly shown in the Scripture.

You see, the picture of immortality which the Bible gives us is a very wonderful one, and one, of course, which in our present order of things we cannot understand. The picture of immortality which the Bible gives us is that of new productions coming about without the dying of the old. Our present order is that everything new comes out of a preceding death. Seed, flower, everything has to die, in order to produce or make way for something new. That has been the natural order of things since Adam fell. And the heart of this present dispensation is the great truth of Jesus Christ, the "corn of wheat", falling into the ground and dying, that there should be a production on a larger scale. That is the order of this dispensation. But that is not the order of the coming eternity. The picture of immortality there, as given in the Word, is of trees producing new branches, new leaves, new fruit, and yet the old never dying. Fruit is brought to perfection without any death at all. That is rather wonderful, is it not?

And how much there is in the Word in the nature of an urge and an imperative to wholeheartedness, to utterness. All the time the apostles are urging us, bringing upon us the weight of this great imperative to go on - go on - go on! By exhortation, by warning, they are constantly saying to us, 'Go on and ever on! Have no margin of life that is not burnt up for God!' And the point of that argument, of that urge and imperative, is the coming eternity. All this is in the light of the afterward. We must, they say, be utter for God because of what is going to follow, because this is not the end. There is that which, coming afterward, will show the justification for having been utter for God.

THE COMPARATIVE ELEMENT IN ETERNITY

Now, that leads us to the next thing in this connection - the comparative element in eternity. There is, I think we agree, a prospective element in the Christian life which occupies a great deal of the New Testament. Cut out that prospective element from the New Testament and see how much you have got left, whether it be Gospels or Epistles. You are not going to have very much left if you take that out. It is there and it is mightily there. But in addition to it, there is in the New Testament what I am calling the comparative element in relation to the coming eternity. I mean by this that things are not all going to be on one 'mass production' level hereafter. There are going to be differences where the children of God are concerned, and very great differences.

It was to this, of course, that the Apostle was pointing when writing to the Corinthians. Speaking about foundations and superstructure, he said: 'The foundation is laid. Now let every man take heed how he build thereon. If any man build thereon wood, hay, stubble, gold, silver, precious stones, every man's work shall be tried by fire' (1 Cor. 3:10-13). And, he implies, if it is wood, hay or stubble, it will all go up in smoke. And then he brings in this tremendously forceful word (vs. 15): "If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as through fire." That is, the man may just scrape through, as a kind of 'emergency' - just managing to get in, as we say, 'by the skin of his teeth'. But everything else has gone. The argument surely is that that is not what God intended. Over against that we have a phrase like this: "For thus shall be richly supplied unto you the entrance into the eternal kingdom" (2 Pet. 1:11). On the one hand, we see the possibility of just getting in, with our life and nothing more; on the other hand, an abundant entrance into the everlasting kingdom. You see, there are differences, there are comparative features about the afterward.

What about those messages to the seven churches in Asia, which we have at the beginning of the book of the Revelation? I believe that the people in those churches are true Christians and not merely professors. If you grant that, then you have got to face this, that between Christian and Christian there is a difference, and there are some very distinct promises given to certain Christians there. "To him that overcometh..." "to him that overcometh..." "to him that overcometh will I grant..." Surely logic implies: 'If you don't, then you won't. If you don't overcome, then you won't get what the Lord offers.' There are differences. I do not believe this is a matter of loss of salvation, but it is something more than just being saved, just getting in.

RELATIONSHIP WITH THE LORD FOR ETERNAL VOCATION

What is the nature of the difference or the differences? Some people will say, 'Well, of course, it is reward.' But what does the New Testament show to be the nature of the reward? The answer is quite clearly this. The reward relates to calling. It is vocational - it is always vocational. "And his servants shall serve him; and they shall see his face" (Rev. 22:3,4). It is service, but service without all the burdensome elements that are so often associated with service now: service to Him without limit, without restraint, without opposition, without suffering. To be able to serve Him! Surely there can be no greater joy than just to be able, without all the straitness and limitations and difficulties of the work now, to serve the Lord in fullness.

Now that is where the New Testament puts its finger. It is calling, vocation; and this, it goes on to show, is a matter of positions in relation to the Lord, different positions for service. Take an illustration of this from one of the messages to the churches. "He that overcometh, I will give to him to sit down with me in my throne" (Rev. 3:21). There you have two ideas. One is a very close relationship with the Lord, a very intimate nearness to Him; the other, royal service - the service of the throne. What is your conception of sitting with Him in the throne? Let us not have pictures of sitting on golden or ivory thrones, and so on. This simply means union with the Lord in the administration of His eternal kingdom. That is service. But that is said to be a special gift to certain people - it is their reward, if you like. The point is that it is vocational, and it is a matter of relationship to the Lord.

The final picture that we have in the New Testament, while so full of symbolism, is an embodiment of these spiritual principles. It is the picture of the City. Now again get your mind clear, and do not think of a literal city. It is only an illustration, a figure, a symbol. This city is undoubtedly the Church. Need I argue that? "The Jerusalem that is above... which is our mother" (Gal. 4:26). "Ye are come unto... the heavenly Jerusalem" (Heb. 12:22). "Ye are come..." We are not coming later on, afterwards. "Ye are come... unto the heavenly Jerusalem... and to the... church of the firstborn". So that that city which is said to be the "new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God" (Rev. 21:2), is the Church. Now, like a capital city, it is put into a particular and peculiar position, and the idea of such a city is that it is an administrative centre. We are told that 'the nations walk in the light thereof ' (vs. 24). You see, there is something at the centre for government, and there is much more that is not at the centre. Here is proximity to the Lord, relationship with the Lord for eternal vocation in administration in His kingdom.

THE URGE AND THE IMPERATIVE

That, surely, is enough to bear out the statement that there is a comparative element in the eternity to come. And that is the point of the urge and the imperative, that is the force of the constraint: "Let us press on unto full growth" (Heb. 6:1, R.V. mg.) - not looking back, but pressing on; it is the force of all the warnings - not that you may lose your salvation, but that there are positions and there is a vocation to which you are called in eternity, and you may miss that. I think Paul saw that in what he called 'the on-high calling' (Phil. 3:14). He saw something of this reigning life in the ages to come.

Now, with God, nothing is merely official. God never appoints officers in His Kingdom. There are not politicians - political officials - in His Kingdom, neither are there ecclesiastics - ecclesiastical officials. With God, I repeat, there is nothing that is merely official. You know, God does not appoint officers in His Church. God's principle of appointment is always according to spiritual measure. Even now in the Church - where it is a spiritual thing, where it is according to His mind - God indicates those who are to have oversight as being men of spiritual measure; not selected, chosen and voted in by popular vote. That is the principle of the New Testament, and in the Kingdom it is like that. No one is going to have any position just because he is appointed officially to it. Not at all! Every position will be according to our spiritual measure.

Hence we are urged repeatedly - 'let us go on to full growth' ('perfection' in the A.V. is an unfortunate translation). It is always according to the "measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). It is just how much of Christ there is, how big we are according to the standard of Christ. That is God's basis of appointment, and it will always be so. It is so now and it will be in the ages to come. It will always be that vocation depends upon how much of Christ there is in those concerned. God's whole thought, as we saw at the beginning of these meditations, is that Christ shall fill all things.

Now that explains our discipline, for our discipline is our training for then; and the nature of our discipline now is just to increase the measure of Christ and to decrease the measure of 'I', of ourselves, in every way; to set aside the one man, that occupies the place of Christ, and to put Christ in his place. The one all-inclusive object of the Holy Spirit in this dispensation is to make Christ everything, and to get as much room for Christ as He possibly can - and that means, where we are concerned, as much as we will let Him have. That throws us back, of course, upon the question: Are we really going to be 'utter'? The measure of our 'utterness' will be the measure of our usefulness in the ages to come. This will be governed by spiritual measure and by no other principle.

REWARD AND GRACE

Some people find difficulty - a purely mental one - in reconciling reward and grace. Some may want to say, 'Oh, but it is all of grace, and you are making it a work. After all, it is all of grace.' How can you reconcile reward and grace? Well, you have got to find somehow the place of rewards, haven't you? But it is not so difficult as all that. It is all the grace of God that we have a chance to be 'utter' at all. It is all of grace that I can be a Christian and that I can go on with the Lord, that I can serve the Lord even a little bit. It is all of grace. And if suffering is going to lead to glory, and the measure of the glory is going to be according to the suffering, then it will require all the grace of God for that. You can never get outside of grace. If ever there should come a reward - if you like to visualise such a thing as a reward being literally offered now, I tell you, dear friend, when we get to that point of full understanding and knowledge of all the forbearance and longsuffering and patience of the Lord, we shall fall on our faces and say, 'Lord, I cannot take any reward - it is all of your grace.'

But then remember that grace is spoken of in more than one way in the New Testament. There is grace which gives us access and acceptance. "This grace wherein we stand" (Rom. 5:2). It is all the favour of God, without merit, that we are saved at all, that we belong to the Lord. Yes, that is grace. But then grace is also spoken of as strength - strength beyond initial salvation. It is what the Lord meant when He said to Paul in the presence of his affliction and suffering: "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). Grace is acceptance without merit, but grace is also strength to labour, serve and suffer. However you look at it, it is all of grace.

UTTERNESS FOR GOD

So now we have to focus down upon this, that there is in the New Testament a large place for our meaning business with God. It is not all willy-nilly - that you believe, you accept Christ, and that is the beginning and end of it; you get everything now. Surely all these entreaties, exhortations, beseechings, bear down upon this. Their burden is: Do not leave anything to chance. Do not say, 'Oh, well, this does not matter very much, this will not hurt, there is not much wrong in this; I have got salvation, and the grace of God will cover all these imperfections; I can do this and that, and it will not make much difference; God is a God of love.' The New Testament says, in effect, 'Do not take any risks.' If it does not mean as to your salvation ultimately, it does mean as to something. The whole force of the Word is: 'Look here, you be utter; God does not make provision for anything else. You go all the way with the Lord, for it is that to which you are called.' The Lord has never said, 'Well, you only need to go so far, and I will excuse you the rest.' No, it is always fullness that God keeps in view, and He is challenging us all the time as to whether we will mean business with Him. But there will be no place, in the end, for our boasting in our endurance, our success, our utterness. Even though we pour ourselves out to the last drop, at the last it will be ourselves, above all, who will be the worshippers - we shall be the ones who are down before Him most. The most utter people are always those who are most conscious of their indebtedness to the Lord.

THE GREAT CRISIS WHICH DETERMINES EVERYTHING

And now, as we draw to a close, we come to the great crisis which determines everything. It is always there in the Scripture, always kept in view: a great crisis - the coming of the Lord. It is there, it is then, that everything will be determined. Though we may have passed on before He comes, the Word makes it perfectly clear that that makes no difference - we shall be there when He comes, and those who are alive when He comes will not get ahead of us. We shall be there together, and so we shall all be on the common footing; and then it will be determined what the future is going to be - just exactly what will be our place, what will be our function. That is a big factor in the prospective aspect of things. The Scripture always keeps in view the prospect of the Lord's coming. When we are saved, we receive a new hope, but as we go on as believers we find that that hope becomes something very definite and concrete. It is called in the New Testament 'the hope', and the hope is related to the coming of the Lord.

So that all the appeals and all the warnings and all the entreaties focus down to this. The Lord is coming, and at His coming everything will be decided, everything will be settled. It is then that our future eternity will be decided upon. You recall all those appeals, in the light of His coming, for watchfulness, for being fully occupied, being on full stretch, till He comes, and the earnest warnings that, if we are not, something serious is going to happen - something is going to go wrong. I am not putting this into any system of doctrine, crystallizing it into any form of teaching; but these are the facts, pure, simple facts. At the coming of the Lord, great decisions will take place, and if we are not watching, if we are not occupying, if we are not on full stretch, something is going wrong. The Word makes that perfectly clear in various ways. Something is going wrong - I put it like that. I mean that something is going to be other than the Lord would have had, and what might have been with us.

So we bring the eternity that is ahead right into the present, and say that this is a tremendous motive. It gives a tremendous motive to the Christian life. Oh, the life hereafter - going to Heaven, or however we may speak about it - is not something that is just out there, in a kind of objective, detached way, and we are looking forward to that day, waiting for that day to come. Dear friend, that day is pressed right into the present. That day is here now in all its implications. There is little hope of our going to Heaven, if Heaven has not already come to us. Our place and our vocation in that day (though not our salvation) will depend very largely upon the measure that Christ has had in us in this life.

That, again, explains many things, does it not? It explains, for instance, why the Lord very often presses into a short time a great deal of suffering, much affliction, much trial, that produces a wonderful measure of Christ. You can see the growth in grace. You discern the patience, the forbearance, the kindness, the love of Christ coming out in this suffering child of God. This is preparation for glory, preparation for service. It explains very much. We can go round it, and look at it from many different standpoints, but after all what it amounts to is this. The New Testament keeps the future in view as the great governing thing for the present. The New Testament says that it is going to make a difference in the eternity to come just how far we have gone on with the Lord, and how much room the Lord has gained in our lives now.

And it is going to be definite. The New Testament says the Lord is coming. The Lord will come in His own time, and then all will be decided. You see, so many people are interested in the second coming of Christ purely from a prophetical standpoint, as to events and happenings in the world, and so on, and so few Christians are alive, fully alive, to the fact that in the New Testament the coming of the Lord is always brought to bear upon our spiritual state. "He that hath this hope" - not, 'he that hath this prophetic interpretation of the second coming' - but "he that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself" (1 John 3:3): he gets ready, he seeks that his state shall be all right as well as his standing. It matters, and it will matter, a very great deal. So we must open the door wide in our Christian lives to that far greater life that is before us. At most this is a brief one, a small one; it is only the beginning; but in that day all its meanings are going to come out in fullness.

Will you hear the appeal? The Christian life, as we have said, is a tremendous thing, an immense thing. We are called with an eternal calling, unto an eternal vocation. Here we are just brought into relationship with the Lord, and then are dealt with by the Lord. We are allowed to serve the Lord; but even in our service we are in school, we are learning, rather than anything else. Do you not think that that is how it ought to be? Not just that we should be doing a thousand and one things, but that we should be learning deeply in the school of experience. And it is all related to the calling on-high, and the great vocation afterward.

The Lord move our hearts to be utter for Him, to take no risks, to leave nothing to chance whatever, but, like His servant Paul, to go for the highest prize, the fullest thing that the Lord ever intended.


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