Dr. Phillip Cary is professor of philosophy and chair of his department at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. He’s the author of Good News for Anxious Christians (Brazos, 2022) and The Nicene Creed (Lexham, 2023). This interview has been edited for length and flow. Listen to an extended version online at modernreformation.org/already.
Phil, this issue of Modern Reformation is about the amazing aspects of salvation we already enjoy in Christ. Why do we need to talk about this topic? And why is it hard for us to grasp?
We need the “already” because the gospel tells us the story of what God has accomplished in Christ in the shedding of his blood and the resurrection of Christ from the dead. These things have already happened. They shape our identity. They are what we believe if we are Christians. But the present is a present in which Christ is hidden from us. Where is Christ right now? Well, he’s not in the tomb—but he’s not on earth, either. He’s hidden at the right hand of God the Father Almighty—somehow with his body—as a living human being. (Here’s something stunning about the “already”: there’s a human being sitting on the throne of God!) Yet that means our own lives are hidden from us, as Colossians 3 says. We are hidden from ourselves. Our very identity is something we believe in rather than see.
You mentioned Colossians 3:3, “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” What about Paul’s reasoning here is so radically different from the way we tend to go about our lives?
Colossians 3 is lovely—and astonishing! According to Paul, we’ve already died. He says in the previous chapter that we’ve already been buried with Christ in baptism and raised with him (2:10–12). That’s already happened. We’ve put on Christ and put off the old self (3:9–10)—those Greek verbs are all in the present perfect tense, which means they tell us about actions that are already completed. But now we have to adjust to what is already completed, which we only have real knowledge of through faith in the word of God rather than by sight. Our everyday experiences and perceptions aren’t going to show us that Christ is at God’s right hand. They’re not going to enable us to “seek the things that are above” (v. 1). For that, we have to believe the truth given to us by the testimony of the apostles and the prophets. But if we are rooted and grounded in that truth, then we already possess real life in Christ.
I appreciate how you make the point in Good News for Anxious Christians that our sanctification is largely invisible to us; it’s a matter of hope. And in some ways, it gets less and less visible the more we mature, even though we see its truth in Jesus by faith. Can you talk a little more about that dynamic in the Christian life?
Here we are talking about the “already,” and now you’ve introduced the notion of hope, which of course necessarily has a dimension of what is “not yet.” At the same time, what we hope for has indeed in some ways already happened. We hope to be revealed as those who presently live in Christ, and that’s why we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In Colossians 3, heaven is “above”; it’s the hiddenness where we set our minds because that’s the place from which God’s purposes for us are revealed.
The Christian focus on heaven is all derived from Christ sitting at the right hand of God. That’s where the Lamb is on the throne in Revelation (5:6). That’s where Christ brings his blood to make atonement in the heavenly sanctuary, according to Hebrews (9:12). That’s where the Son of Man comes before the Ancient of Days in Daniel (7:13). So, all this biblical thought about heaven is a thought about where Christ is. Everything awaits the revelation from heaven of what is already true in heaven, so that it will become fully true on earth. We keep praying for it: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”—thy mercy and justice be done—“on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s already there, and we’re waiting for the kingdom of heaven to take hold of this wretched and troubled earth so that the present evil age will give way to the age to come.
Modern Reformation’s tagline is “thinking theologically.” As I listen to you, I’m listening to someone who is thinking theologically about reality, as if God’s word determines what’s true. Nowadays we tend to think very differently, as if what’s true depends on whether I personally believe it and what matters is what I personally feel is relevant.
Yeah, that’s a disaster. If you think that, then you’ve defeated yourself from the very beginning. Our faith has to be based on something that’s true, whether or not we believe it. The relevance of the truth is something different; it’s more like listening to music. Instead of recognizing that the music is beautiful, you wonder how you can make this relevant, how you can apply this music to your life. This means you’re not listening—at least if it’s good music! It’s likewise with the gospel.
Why is it so hard for us to believe that grace is what changes us?
Because it’s hard for us to believe in Christ. The gospel is a story, right? In stories, things become clear over time. The way things were at the beginning isn’t the way they will be at the end—and in the middle, things can be pretty awful. Right in the middle, you can have Good Friday. For all of us at various times in our life, it’s hard to put our trust in where this story is going. But on Sunday when you look back on Friday, Friday looks different, doesn’t it? What had looked like defeat becomes glory. I think that’s the fundamental answer to our problems about suffering and evil and our struggles with doubt and waywardness. When Christ comes in glory, and we’re revealed with him, the whole story of our own lives will look different. It’s Friday. But Sunday’s coming.
The more we mature, the more we see our mixed motives and our fickle hearts. But it’s simultaneously true that we see the genuine fruits of the Spirit’s work in one another.
Yes, I think that’s the place to look. We can see the Holy Spirit at work in other people better than we can see him in ourselves. To return to Colossians 3 once more, “You have put on the new self” is actually plural (v. 10): “Y’all have put it on.” So, we’re more apt to see this new self in others than in ourselves.
One of the most important things for husbands and wives to say to each other isn’t just “I love you” but “You love me.” I went through a serious time of crisis recently, and one of the things that I was able to rely on is my wife’s love for me. She cares for me and my troubles. In fact, it’s part of my job as a Christian to bear witness to the fact that she loves me; God has wielded her as this instrument of comfort and joy for me. Seeing and acknowledging how other Christians are doing the work of God in bearing witness and putting on Christ for us is one of the most important things we can do for one another in the church. We must practice the art of Christian admiration.
I’ve read how you emphasize the Christian virtue of constancy and how it’s often lost nowadays in our desire for ever greater experiences. Can you relate constancy to the “already” and the “not yet”?
Transformation, in contrast to constancy, is a big buzzword. Now, there is a transformation that happens over the long haul in our lives; but if you’re seeking transformation all the time, then what you’re doing is always looking for the next new thing. Whereas what we find in Christ is what we already have: life hidden in him. So, a large part of our Christian task is to live out in constancy the gift that’s already been given to us in Christ. It’s like a marriage. There is growth in a good marriage; but there is, most fundamentally, constancy, faithfulness. I want to be married to the same ole lady I married thirty years ago. We’ve developed some, of course, but we’re still the same people in the same marriage. Likewise, I have the same ole Christ. He hasn’t changed. He’s the same yesterday, today, and forever. And it is my hope and firm intention to be wedded to the same ole Christ when I get to the end of my life. That’s where the growth comes from. The tree stays planted in the same place. You don’t uproot it and move it all over the place. We experience radical changes in our Christian life now and then, but it’s not all about change. It’s about being in some way the same new creation you were when you died and were raised with Christ in baptism.