Inaugurated eschatology: What it is and why it matters

Tony Reinke posts a portion of an interview published in 2008 in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology with professor Dr. C. Everett Berry. The excerpt, Tony suggests, has two particular strengths; first, it explains the basic contours of inaugurated eschatology quite well, and, second, it explains how this inaugurated eschatology should shape our thinking and daily Christian living:

SBJT: How can the theological construct of inaugurated eschatology help us in forming a biblical understanding of Christian sanctification?

C. Everett Berry: The term inauguration essentially refers to an act of ceremonial observance whereby a given party officially inducts another newly designated party into a special position of authority. Note also that this practice typically alludes to a significant transition wherein the subject being inaugurated represents a new phase of leadership or service. And it is here where insight has proven helpful to evangelicals as they attempt to conceptualize the theological flow of the biblical storyline and delineate the hermeneutical symmetry between Old Testament promise and Christological fulfillment.

Specifically, the concept known as “inaugurated eschatology” highlights a theological tension in the New Testament between the temporary co-existence of two mutually exclusive realms. First there is “the present age,” which is marked by all the consequences of sin upon the world including the divine curse as well as Satanic oppression. This era continues to wreak havoc upon humanity but now with one crucial difference. It exists on borrowed time because of the beginning of another age established by the finished work of Jesus Christ. His act of redemption defeated death, made atonement for sin, thwarted the works of the devil, and provided a means whereby the kingdom of heaven might eventually become a full reality on earth. Consequently, the completion of his Father’s mission marked the dawning of a new eschatological era that would bring salvation and restoration from sin.

The key though is that the full realization of this telos [ultimate aim] is not instantaneous. The biblical writers understood the resurrection and ascension of Christ as events that set in motion, or inaugurated, the gradual ushering of “the age to come” into the present. Now the present age commences on a divinely-set stopwatch ticking down the last days until the impending kingdom of God arrives in its consummate form on the last Day, which is otherwise known as the Day of the Lord when the glorified Christ returns to save his people and judge his enemies. Furthermore, believers in the early church were taught that this future was certain because of promises made by Christ and his apostles regarding the imminent parousia. They were also assured of this reality by virtue of the fact that Christ was currently executing in preliminary form the power of the future kingdom amidst the very time of spiritual darkness in which they still lived. While they existed in a world blinded by Satan and cursed because of Adam’s sin, they were likewise experiencing many of the blessings of the eschatological age. The forgiveness of sins, the indwelling of the Spirit, and the gift of eternal life were soteric foretastes that were indicative of future realities not yet received, such as resurrection from the dead, the absence of sin’s carnal influence, and a new creation.

Theologically speaking then, the concept of inaugurated eschatology obviously has tremendous implications for interpreting numerous motifs in Scripture. Yet one theme often overlooked is its relationship to the doctrine of sanctification. One notices when reading the ethical sections of the New Testament that biblical writers frequently allude to believers’ identity as kingdom citizens of the age to come in order to exhort them to live out their faith in the world now. The portrait given in Scripture is that believers are a people who live in the hostile convergence of two antithetical ages that overlap, thus creating a kind of parallel universe. On the one hand, our redemption is not experientially culminated because we still struggle with temptation, sin, and spiritual immaturity. Yet on the other, we have been born again, empowered by the Spirit, and thereby become new creations in Christ.

The net result of these dual truths is a clash of loyalties because now we as believers are admonished to repudiate the immoral ways of our old identity as children made in Adam’s image by walking in the power of the Spirit so we can be continually conformed into the image of the second Adam. The theological irony, however, is that we do not reject our former way of life so we can gradually achieve a new spiritual rank. We recognize instead that at conversion, we forfeit our spiritual link to the present age and became full citizens and heirs of the future kingdom. Therefore, because of the dynamic of inaugurated eschatology, biblical sanctification does not focus on maintaining a certain life style in order to gain something we do not have yet. Rather we are to grow in grace in order to reflect the identity that is already fully ours. This is why believers in the New Testament are not described as sinners who should change in order to be called saints one day. It is because they already are saints positionally that they are to exhibit a certain life practically.

So in a sense each ethical mandate placed before us as believers entails an eschatological context that validates its authority. For instance, we seek those things that are Christ-honoring because it is there where we have already been seated (Eph 2:6; Col 3:1). We forgive those who wrong us because we have been forgiven (Eph 4:32; 1 John 4:11). We do not take fellow believers to civil courts because we are to be judges of angels (1 Cor 6:2-3). We live as loving servants in all social contexts because the ones exalted in the future are the ones who serve in the present (Matt 18:4-5; 19:28-30). We maintain physical purity because we are indwelt by the Spirit who is given to us as a promise of a future eschatological reunion (1 Cor 6:19; 2 Cor 5:5; Eph 1:14). Moreover, in the end we see that because Christ’s kingship is a reality now, sin in our lives is not only to be understood as rebellion against God our Creator. It is also contrary to who we are as Christ’s redeemed people because in the age to come, kingdom citizens will walk in full obedience to their Lord.

Source: “The SBJT Forum: The Kingdom of God,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 12/1 (2008), pages 109–111. Posted online with written permission from SBJT.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

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