The word “life” (ζωή) or “eternal life” (ζωή αἰώνιος) is no general term for Paul to describe all people with beating hearts on earth, but the “most frequent mould into which the content of the coming age is cast” (Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, 303). Eschatology leavens Paul’s conception of “life,” so that the eternal state is a comprehensive realm of life, a realm reigned over in life (Rom. 5:17).
So what led Paul to this eschatological conception of “life”?
According to Vos, Paul drew from “the ancient antithesis in which life stands opposite to death since the very beginnings of the race” (The Pauline Eschatology, 304). In Genesis 2 we are introduced to two trees of destiny in which the polar forces of life and death clash: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:9). The consequence for eating of the second tree was certain death (Gen. 2:17).
When the Lord formed man he breathed the breath of life [נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים] into him, yet a higher state of life was offered to him sacramentally in the tree of life. This sacrament is properly understood within the context of the covenant of works “wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (WCF 7.2). This future blessedness held out to Adam “emerges as ‘the life’ par excellence” (The Pauline Eschatology, 305).
Adam, however, fails to render unto the Lord perfect and personal obedience and so becomes “incapable of life by that covenant.” Nevertheless, the Lord was pleased to make a second covenant, the covenant of grace “wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ” (WCF 7.3). Notice it is the same eschatological promise of “life” offered in the second covenant as was offered in the first, but now it is offered unto “sinners.” The eschatological aspect of life has always been present from the beginning, but now a new soteriological aspect is required. Because eschatology precedes soteriology
the original goal remains regulative for the redemptive development of eschatology by aiming to rectify the results of sin (remedial) and uphold, in connection with this, the realization of the original goal as that which transcends the state of rectitude (i.e., rising beyond the possibility of death in life eternal) (Vos, The Eschatology of the Old Testament, 74).
The eschatological and the soteriological aspects are both fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and enjoyed by all who are united to him by faith in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4),
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 6:22-23).
The Pauline conception of life does not belong to those whose existence is wholly caught up in the present age, over which death reigns, but to those who have been raised with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places. The believer in union with Christ is today in possession of eschatological life. According to the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the benefits of Christ’s resurrection is that “by his power we too are already now resurrected to a new life” (HC 45).
This life is presently hidden with Christ in God, but will one day be manifested in glory when Christ comes again (Col. 3:1-4). “What life is for the hidden side of the eschatological subject, that [glory] is for the outward side in which the higher life comes to revelation” (Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, 314).
So today, as we hold fast to the word of life, we can be sure that not even death can separate us from the love God in Christ Jesus our Lord. “Our death does not pay the debt of our sins. Rather, it puts an end to our sinning and is our entrance into eternal life” (HC 42).