Eternity is Now in Session by John Ortberg

Book Summary

This book is the second book (The other was Is Reality Secular? by Mary Poplin ) I have read that gets its title from a short phrase from Dallas Willard. Dallas was fond of saying “Eternity is now is session.”  And this book is all about bringing eternity, which is in all of our hearts, into the present practical realities of our life. Slightly less breezy than a lot of John’s other books, I think you will enjoy this. Read this summary and if it whets your appetite, read the book. The book combines (somewhat obtusely) two different threads I am pursuing: awakening to God’s presence 24/7 and exploring what “believing  in Jesus” really means.

This book touches on some very important topics:

      • What is the Gospel?
      • What does it take to be saved?
      • How do I become awake to God?
      • How do I leave my baggage behind?
      • What is the new mental map for my life?
      • What does union with God look like?

The book is not a deep dive into any one of these but will provide a helpful start and some very good resources to dig deeper into each of these.

Introduction – Are we there yet?

John starts the book with the phrase every parent knows: “Are we there yet?” I remember when our youngest was three and we were driving 1400 miles to Florida. As we stopped to fill up for gas after about 30 minutes she said: “Are we there yet?” John tells us that we have not grown out of this impatience:

We suffer from destination impatience. We rush through life, always in a hurry. To get to where, we do not know.

He sees behind that impatience a hunger:

… we hunger for more than just an infinite continuation of life as we now experience it…

That hunger, John claims, is for eternal life – which he defines by quoting Brenda Colijn as:

[Eternal life] is “primarily qualitative rather than quantitative.”

and Jesus:

… the entire New Testament … defines eternal life only once, with great precision…: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent (John 17:3 NRSV)”

Eternal life = Knowing God

John goes on and talks about the difference between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. We know our home towns through knowledge by acquaintance. We know the Great Wall of China (most of us) through knowledge by description. God invites us to a knowledge by acquaintance. Quoting Dallas Willard:

“Eternal life in the individual does not begin after death, but at the point where God touches the individual with redeeming grace and draws them into a life interactive with himself and his kingdom.”

Then John says that this has affected our view of the gospel:

We’ve shrunk [the gospel] down by making it solely about going to heaven when we die, and in doing so, we’ve shrunk God down too….

What if salvation isn’t mostly about getting us into heaven but about getting heaven into us?

Part 1 Rethinking Salvation

Chapter 1 Breaking News

John starts the chapter by talking about heaven and the essence of the Good News:

This is perhaps the real sinner’s prayer, offered before every forbidden act, word, and thought: “Don’t look at me, God.” In heaven, that prayer can be neither offered nor answered.

Quoting Dallas Willard and C.S. Lewis respectively:

“I am thoroughly convinced that God will let everyone into heaven who, in his considered opinion, can stand it.”

“the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”

He defines the gospel in two ways:

Jesus’ good news – his gospel –  is simply this: the Kingdom of God has now, through Jesus, become available for ordinary human beings to live in.

This is Jesus’ gospel: God is present here and now. God is acting.

This definition actually solved a  dilemma I had when Jesus and later the disciples were proclaiming the “good news” long before Jesus death and resurrection.  (See Mark 1) What was the good news they proclaimed? N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight (The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited) first introduced this idea to me many years ago. They declared a good news that is different from the traditional understanding of the gospel. John tells us that from the earliest days of the church, the accounts of Jesus life were not titled: “The Gospels” plural or “The Gospel of Mark.” But rather, “The Gospel according to Mark.”

Pushing this idea that the gospel – the good news – is all about Jesus becoming King, John defines what he means by the kingdom:

[In defining the kingdom, Dallas Willard says:] Your kingdom is the “range of [y]our effective will.”

Abraham Kuyper

I was thinking of Abraham Kuyper’s most famous quote: “There’s not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Lord over all, does not exclaim, ‘Mine’!” when I read this by John:

What is a two-year-old’s favorite word?  No. Their second favorite? Mine. They’re learning they have a kingdom. That’s’ kingdom language.

You may wonder, If the Kingdom has come in Jesus, why is the earth still a mess? Why are pain and suffering still with us? And the answer – which took the early church decades to come to grips with – is that other “kingdoms” remain.

The Good News is that a power has become available to increasingly turn us into the kind of people who naturally and recreationally do such things. [work through conflict; give sacrificially; be willing to come out of hiding; stop idolizing their job; etc]

Chapter 2 The Minimum Entrance Requirements

When I was about three months old in Jesus, I was at a youth meeting in Dr. James Kennedy’s church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The person leading the meeting asked if anyone wanted to have Jesus in their life. “Do any of you want to come to Jesus tonight?” I raised my hand. After the service, she came up to me and talked

Coral Ridge Presbyterian          It didn’t look like this in 1972


with me. At first she thought she had a new believer on her hand. What she didn’t know was that she had a word-smithing engineer on her hand. She told me that I only needed to ask Jesus in once. I only needed to “come to Jesus” once. I told her [the engineer talking] – “I raised my hand because I want Jesus in my life all the time. I want to come to Him everyday” John opens this chapter discussing how we often mis-represent what it means to “come to Jesus.”

John points out something that I missed in Jesus’ exchange with the rich young ruler: Mark uses the words saved; the kingdom of God; and eternal life interchangeably. (Mark 10:17-26). He then starts defining salvation:

[Salvation is] not about relocation; its’ about transformation.

John says that “Jesus invites us to run the ‘Great Experiment.” “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” (John 7:17)

Now we begin to understand why the “minimum entrance requirements” question is such a problematic approach to salvation.

G. K. Chesterton

John likens that to a groom saying “What are the minimum requirements for maintaining my husband status?” “In our world, something is terribly wrong and cries out to be put right” quoting Fleming Rutledge. John goes on to talk about how we are a big part of what is wrong with the world. This reminds me of when (not ever verified) G. K. Chesterton responded to a question in the London Times that invited readers to answer: “What’s wrong with the world today?” with the response: “I am.”

Ortberg notes that “We are saved for shalom – a flourishing life with God. What are we saved from?” John recognizes that we are rescued from the “whole chaotic mess that is our existence. … But it’s the inner disorder of persons that the biblical writers say is our deepest problem. … We are saved … from evil.”

Commenting on the meaning of Jesus name: “He will save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1:21), John tells us that “the Bible says Jesus came to save us from sin itself.” And further, “’Christ doesn’t save by going around handing out tickets to heaven. He saves by giving himself.’” Quoting Patrick Ramsey:

Being overcome by evil is the ultimate tragedy that can befall a human being, and nothing else comes close.

“… the deadly illusion that obedience is something we do for God’s sake rather than because it is the natural way of life for Jesus’ disciples” is one of the traps that we fall into as followers of Jesus.

Chapter 3 – Follow Me

Simply put, discipleship is the means by which we learn to live the life that Jesus offers. Christianity was never intended to produce Christians. Just disciples.

In this chapter, John introduces two ways of seeing if something is “in” or “out” of a set. The “bounded set” determines who is in and who is out by a clear set of requirements. A bounded set of circles cannot include a triangle. A “centered set” is one where the objects in the set are defined by their orientation to the center. The set of bald people has a membership that is not static. You were in it when you were born; then you were out; and now you are back in the set. Also, the number of hairs on your head, a finite number, is subjective in terms of whether you are in the set or out. No one has defined what the minimum requirements for baldness are. John goes on to say:

That is why, when it comes to the question of who is in with God and who is out, Jesus and the New Testament consistently focus on the center, not the boundaries.

There is an old tradition on large Australian ranches located on often-dry land that there are two ways of keeping cattle on the ranch. One is to build a fence; the other is to dig a well. What a gift it might be to a world that has become increasingly polarized and politicized if the church would be utterly committed to Jesus as our center. No fences to keep others out, just the life-giving water of Jesus, drawing people ever close to his presence.

Building off Simon Sinek’s famous TED talk about the “golden circle” where a company or a movement has three concentric circles. The outer is the “what” and the next circle is the “how” and the third is the “why.”

The church’s “what” is to make disciples, or apprentices. The “how” is by learning to be with Jesus and learning from Jesus how to live like Jesus. … Dallas Willard defines the “why” like this: “There is no problem in human life that apprenticeship to Jesus cannot solve.”

Part 2 Walking with Jesus


“There are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” Willa Cather

John begins this section by talking about human stories and introduces the connection between story and our journeys. The common story is where

… an ordinary character leaves home to enter a strange, unknown world. The character faces dangers, toils, snares, they die and are reborn; they are delivered; they are saved; they come home. This story, retold a thousand times, never grows old because it is our story.

Obedience to Jesus in all things is the journey, but we will see, obedience is a far more creative, proactive, grace-power, intelligent way of life than is normally thought in our day.

Chapter 4 Awakening – Seeing God Everywhere

“when [the disciples] became fully awake, they saw his glory.” Luke 9:32

John explores what it means to be fully awake to God in this chapter. I am reminded of Greg Boyd’s book Present Perfect where he describes the practice of putting “Are you awake” post-its around his house and on his sermon notes. He of course was asking: Are you fully awake to God in this moment?

But what does it mean to be awake to God? First, do we even know that we are asleep? John (through Lewis) claims that we under under an evil enchantment:

“… you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years…”  Here C.S. Lewis captures in prose what he describes of the children in The Silver Chair. The children were captured by an enchantment that prevented them from seeing reality as it really is. Only by stomping out the source of the enchantment could they become awake to the true reality.

But what does this awakening look like? John quotes Evelyn Underhill:

According to Evelyn Underhill, awakening is “primarily an unselfing.”

But how do we become awake to God? John says:

Awakening usually starts with getting things wrong.

John then begins to define what intimacy with God is like. He starts by defining what our real lives are:

Dallas Willard said that persons are made up of experiences. We don’t consist merely or even primarily of cells and tissue; our real lives are a series of experiences.

Intimacy is shared experience. … When you invite someone to share an experience, you’re inviting them into a little step of intimacy.

John then uses C.S. Lewis words to describe our hunger for intimacy:

We do not want merely to see beauty. … We want … to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. … Some day, God willing, we shall get in.

If the summary of this chapter feels a little disjointed, it is because, in my reading, this chapter is a little disjointed. John is touching on a topic of great interest to me. But he doesn’t tie the ideas together. And he doesn’t dig deeply enough. Suffice it to say, we are under a spell and need to be awakened to God. But not just awakened to see God but to be awakened to become intimate with God. And to do that requires a dying to our old self.

Chapter 5 Purgation – Leaving Baggage Behind

Purgation is having the hell burned out of you.

This chapter is built around the story in Luke 5 where Jesus tells Peter to go out in the boat and let down his nets. After protesting, Peter does what Jesus asked. Then when a large catch is made, Peter tells Jesus to depart because he [Peter] is a sinful man. Jesus tells Peter not to be afraid because He is giving Peter a new vocation.

John tells that the road to purgation starts with awareness of a higher standard. And then a submission to a higher authority as Peter said: “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:5) The question before us is: “Are we moving toward or away from God.” Purgation helps us to move toward God. John lays out the steps towards purgation:

  • Confession – John quotes David Brooks who claims that we are moving from a culture of humility to a culture of the Big Me. “For instance, in 1950 when Gallup asked high school seniors if they considered themselves very important, 12% said yes. Fifty-five years later, 80% considered themselves very important.” I think this misses the point. I feel that I am very important in God’s eyes. Not very important in the eyes of others. And not very important in my own eyes. So because God’s eyes are what matters to me, “I consider myself very important.” In this section, titled “Confession” John doesn’t talk too much about how to do confession – just the fruit of confession. He describes a pastor who was caught plagiarizing his messages and when he confessed, John noticed not depression but lightness. “It’s actually lighter to be known for who you really are than to be admired for who you’re really not.”
  • Remorse – “It is often taken as a sign of health to say, ‘I have no regrets.’ But any sane human being is full of them.” “Purgation is always about freedom. … [Through purgation] I am free from my compulsions and free to think and want more interesting things.” John connects purgation with repentance.
  • Making Amends – “seeking to set right what you have done wrong.” “Making amends is not a violation of grace; it is a means of grace.” John points out that the 8th and 9th steps of the twelve step program of Alcoholics Anonymous is to “first become willing to make amends and then (as possible) to actually make them.”
  • Forming a new intention – When Peter confessed to Jesus (Luke 5), “Jesus doesn’t deny Peter’s sinfulness, but he gives him a new vocation, a new intention – to become the kind of person who can spread the kingdom.” He quotes Neal Plantinga (a good Friesian name) “A spiritually sound person disciplines her life by such spiritual exercises as prayer, fasting, confession, worship and reflective walks through cemeteries. She visits boring persons and tries to take an interest in them, ponders the lives of saints and compares them to her own, spends time and money on just and charitable causes.” Ortberg goes on to say that “Engaging in these disciplines helps us each day to purge those parts of our lives that are not in alignment with Jesus and to walk closer in step with him.”

John ties these steps back to his fuller understanding of what it means to be saved:

Salvation is more than simply a declaration of legal status [you are going to go to heaven]. We are … part of the Universal League of the Guilty. We don’t pretend perfection. We don’t get discouraged by setbacks and relapses. But we are on the road.”

In the class Barbara and I took on this book, the instructor laid out 5 steps to help us move toward God:

    • Gratitude – recall events from your day that made you smile with gratefulness.
    • Review – recall events from your day where you felt most aware of God’s presence and a desire to move toward and with Him
    • Sorrow – recall times during the day when you felt distracted from God’s presence and intimacy, times when you felt you were moving away from God and running your life on your own.
    • Forgiveness – humbly ask God to forgive your times of distraction from His presence.
    • Grace – ask God for the grace you need to live more moments tomorrow with the ability to feel God’s presence and love more clearly

Pastor Steve (who led the class) said that three biggest hindrances to intimacy with God are

    • Busyness
    • Fear of what God will ask of us
    • Guilt / Shame – He concentrated on how purgation can address this.

Pastor Steve also said (in discussing the spiritual disciplines in general) “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” I thought that was a helpful catch phrase.

Chapter 6 – Illumination: A New Mental Map

To hold to a doctrine or an opinion with intellect alone is not to believe it. A man’s real belief is that which he lives by. George MacDonald

John defines illumination as:

… the word for the process by which we come to see and think differently.

He provides a great illustration about how this happened to Helen Keller describing her illumination to a world of words that connected with reality. The illustration is from Helen’s book The Story of My Life. I want to read that book!

His main point of the chapter seems to be that we have disconnected belief from practice. For example, Jesus did not say:

“Believe the right stuff about me, and eventually you might want to follow me.” He said, “Follow me, and eventually you’ll come to believe the right stuff.” He called people to make following him the center of their lives. … Illumination doesn’t simply mean believing certain things about Jesus. It means coming to believe what Jesus himself believed.

This was a big jump from what the quote from George MacDonald says. MacDonald says real belief is what we live by. Now Ortberg is saying that real belief is believing what Jesus believed. He doesn’t really develop this jump except to point to a book by Richard Hays (The Faith of Jesus Christ). The central premise of that book is that the phrase translated ‘faith in Jesus Christ’ is best translated ‘the faith of Jesus Christ.’ Ortberg says that this means living our life “by the faithfulness and belief system of Jesus.” I have spoken about  this extensively (asking the question Why the preposition in the Greek in Galatians 2:20 is there:

“And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God.”

I have downloaded the sample of Richard Hay’s book and will probably buy it – so look for a summary in about 6 months. Ortberg doesn’t really develop this idea either and I’m not sure how it fits with illumination.

Commenting on Jesus “pop-quiz” with Peter and the disciples (“Who do you say that I am?”), John says that:

Jesus’ main vehicle on earth is going to be the church (“upon this rock, I will build…”)

Jesus’ main problem on earth is going to be the church (“Get behind me Satan…”)

Again – the chapter is a bit disjointed with a number of great ideas (illumination / believing Jesus belief system / etc ) that are not tied together or explained.

Chapter 7 – Union

Union does not mean the extinguishing of the self; and it does not mean the gratification of the self. … Rather it is the participation of the self in the life of God.

In this chapter Ortberg discuss the following big concepts about union with God:

    • Abiding – “When we abide, we make a home (our abode) in a place. We linger there, and our inner person gets shaped by our abode. We can abide in fear. We can abide in ambition. We can abide in anger. We can abide in lust. Or we can abide in God.”
    • Participation in Christ – “Paul never talks about how to become a Christian, but he does talk about being “in Christ” or about Christ being in us … more than 150 instances of the phrase.” Quoting Richard Hays: “Paul’s readers have come to participate in the story of Jesus.”
    • The Vine and the Branches – “when I’m off the vine, my thoughts are like anchors. They weigh me down constantly. Am I successful? Why doesn’t X like me? What if I need more money? On the vine, we take in God’s thoughts, God’s life. Greed and fear are replaced by gratitude and confidence.”
    • The Lord of the Dance – “We were made to dance. When the dance is done right, you can hardly tell where one person stops and the other starts. They have become one. And yet each feels more fully themselves than ever.”

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