‘Eternity is Now’ by John Ortberg – A book review by Tom Ingrey-Counter
This short book by best selling author John Ortberg dispels the myth that eternal life is something way out in outer space that we can only hope to experience after we die, and that being saved is merely about meeting the minimal entrance requirements for getting into heaven. Instead, John unpacks the reality that the moment we trust Christ, we are initiated into eternal living with God as a here-and-now reality, which will continue beyond our life on this earth.
In the first part of the book, the author explores the pervasive mindset that considers ‘saving faith’ to be the minimum amount you have to believe so that God has to let you into heaven. He explains how non-sensical it is to trust in such an arrangement without trusting Jesus himself, and unpacks the true meaning of salvation as ‘something much bigger and grander and more vital than simply making the cut.’
I found John’s use of the concepts of ‘bounded and centred sets’ to explain different faith mindsets particularly helpful. Objects within bounded sets are defined by clear and static boundaries, whereas objects within centred sets are defined by their orientation to the centre. In seeking to follow Jesus, what matters is that we keep moving towards the centre, rather than legalistically focussing on issues that differentiate who is in, and who is out.
I particularly appreciated the quote ‘human beings are in the process of turning into something – something wonderful or something wicked – all the time’. It gives a strong sense of the critical and eternal nature of our here-and-now lives, that Jesus came to save us, not from punishment for sin but from sin itself, and that the ‘main task of salvation is an inside job’ (another quote).
The second part of the book explores what it means to work out – rather than work for – our salvation. It is organised into four chapters entitled, ‘Awakening’, ‘Purgation’, ‘Illumination’ and ‘Union’.
In ‘Awakening’, the author discusses the Transfiguration as a ‘Mountaintop moment’ of profound awakening for Peter and the other disciples. The appropriate response to the gift of awakening is obedience, however Peter’s subsequent failings remind us that we all need the gift of awakening each day.
‘Purgation’ explores further our need to be saved from what might happen in us, and from who we might become, through confession, remorse, making amends, forming a new intention, and spiritual exercises such as prayer and fasting.
In ‘Illumination’, Ortberg discusses the visit Jesus made with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, where he asks them, “Who do you think I am?” The author makes the key distinction between believing certain things about Jesus, and having the faith of Jesus. The latter changes our mental map, so that we naturally begin to live as Jesus lived – to follow Him.
‘Union’ is an account of what it means to abide in Jesus as branches of the Vine. It is not the branch’s job to produce fruit, he writes. In the same way, it is not our job to try to generate more God-pleasing actions by greater willpower, but to do what we already do in a different way. The practices we engage with that make space for God are not the primary expression of our participation with Him. Rather, they are vehicles through which we receive power and freedom to participate in Christ in the ordinary moments of our lives.