32) The Book of Life and the Security of the Saints (Revelation 3:5-6)
The promise to those who conquer continues in Revelation 3:5, a passage that has stirred considerable discussion and controversy. “The one who conquers,” said Jesus, “will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Some are frightened by this or filled with anxiety that perhaps one day they will fail to conquer and thus have their name blotted out of the book of life. Others read it as a glorious promise of security, a solid rock of assurance, a declaration by Jesus himself that our names will never be deleted from God’s eternal register. Let’s begin our study of it by trying to identify what the “book” is that Jesus mentions. There are at least five possibilities.
(1) Colin Hemer refers to one particular custom in ancient Athens according to which the names of condemned criminals were erased from civic registers before their execution. The Greek word translated “to erase” (exaleiphein), “was the technical term for such degradation” (148). As insightful as this may be, it is more likely that we should look for a biblical background to this imagery.
(2) In the OT the “book of life” (or its equivalents) was a register of the citizens of the theocratic community of Israel. To have one’s name written in the book of life implied the privilege of participation in the temporal blessings of the theocracy, while to be erased or blotted out of this book meant exclusion from those blessings. In other words, this book had reference to the rights of citizenship for the Jewish people (cf. Ex. 32:32; Ps. 69:28; Isa. 4:3).
(3) The concept of a “book” was also used to portray God’s all-inclusive decree (Ps. 139:16); i.e., the very days of one’s life are ordained and written in God’s “book” before one of them occurs.
(4) There is also the notion of “books” of judgment in which are recorded men’s deeds. They serve as that by which or from which one shall be judged (Dan. 7:10; Rev. 20:12).
(5) The most vivid usage, however, is the concept of the book as the register of those who have been chosen for salvation from eternity past. It is not temporal or earthly blessings that are in view, but participation in the eternal kingdom of God as recipients of eternal life (see Luke 10:20; Phil. 4:3; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 13:8; 17:8). It would appear from these texts that not all are written in this book, but only the elect.
If it is this fifth and final view which Jesus had in mind, and I believe it is, there are three possible interpretations.
On the one hand, Jesus may be saying that it is possible for a sinning, unrepentant Christian (such as were many at Sardis) to fail to overcome or conquer and thereby to forfeit their place in the book of life. Their names, already inscribed in the book, will be erased, signifying the loss of their salvation.
Others suggest that to have one’s name blotted out refers to something other than salvation. In Revelation 3:1 Jesus referred to the people at Sardis as having a “name” for being alive, i.e., they had a reputation for spiritual vitality. The idea, then, is that such people are saved, but will forfeit any hope of an honorable position in the coming kingdom of God. They are saved, but will experience shame at the last day. It is not the loss of life, per se, but the loss of a certain quality of life that otherwise could have been theirs. Thus, what one loses by having their name erased from the book of life is eternal rewards in the kingdom.
Several factors lead me to conclude that John does not envision the possibility of a true Christian forfeiting salvation. We should begin by noting that all of the other promises to the “conqueror/overcomer” are coined in positive terms with no threat (implied or explicit) of losing a salvation once gained (see 2:7,11,17,26-27; 3:12,21). This isn’t to suggest that Christians can’t backslide and sin badly. The rebukes in these seven letters indicate otherwise. Nevertheless, the evidence of the reality of true saving faith is perseverance (i.e., “overcoming”; cf. 1 John 2:19).
If it is asked why this promise is couched in negative terms, the answer is obvious: Jesus couldn’t say “I will write his name in the book of life” because the names of the “overcomers” (i.e., the elect) were already written in the book from eternity past (see Rev. 13:8; 17:8). There is no indication in Scripture, least of all in Revelation, of additional names being inscribed in the book as a reward for faithfulness or perseverance. Rather, faithfulness and perseverance are the evidence or fruit of having had one’s name written in the book. Those who worship the “beast” do so precisely because their names were not written in the book in eternity past (13:8; 17:8).
We need to look more closely at Revelation 13:8 and 17:8 to understand what our Lord is saying in 3:5. According to 13:8,
“all who dwell on earth will worship it [i.e., the Beast], everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain” (Rev. 13:8)
Similarly, in 17:8,
“The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.”
Note carefully that there are two and only two groups of people. On the one hand are those whose names have not been written in the book of life from eternity past. They “worship” and “marvel” at the Beast. The second group consists of those whose names have been written in the book of life, which constitutes the reason why they refuse to give their allegiance to the enemy of Christ. Nowhere does it suggest a third group: people whose names had been written in the book in eternity past but, because they worshiped the Beast, failed to overcome or conquer and thus have their names blotted out.
In other words, as John Piper explains, “having our name in the book of life from the foundation of the world seems to mean that God will keep you from falling and grant you to persevere in allegiance to God. Being in the book means you will not apostatize” (“Can the Regenerate Be Erased from the Book of Life?” 12/22/06 at www.desiringgod.org.). Or again, being written in the book means that God is committed to guarding your heart so that you will “conquer” and “overcome” the Beast by not yielding to the temptation to worship his name or receive his mark.
Those who worship the Beast do so because their names were not in the book. Having one’s name written in the book from eternity past is what guarantees a life that overcomes, a life that perseveres, a faith that conquers. Piper summarizes:
“This fits with Revelation 3:5, ‘He who overcomes . . . I will not erase his name from the book of life.’ The triumph required in 3:5 is guaranteed in 13:8 and 17:8. This is not a contradiction any more than for Paul to say, ‘Work out your salvation . . . for God is at work in you to will and to do his good pleasure’ (Philippians 2:12-13). It is not nonsense to state the condition: if you conquer, God will not erase your name (3:5); and to state the assurance: if your name is written, you will conquer (13:8 and 17:8). God’s ‘written-down-ones’ really must conquer, and really will conquer. One side highlights our responsibility; the other highlights God’s sovereignty.”
Therefore, this declaration of Jesus is a promise to the elect that nothing will ever, by any means (he uses a double negative), prevent them from possessing the eternal inheritance to which they have been ordained. In other words, we must take note of what Jesus does not say. He does not say that anyone will be erased from the book of life. Rather, he says the overcomers will not be erased. His word is a promise of security to overcomers, not a threat of insecurity to those who lapse. So again, Jesus nowhere says he will erase names previously inscribed in the book of life.
When the disciples returned to Jesus, celebrating their victory over the power of the Devil, our Lord responded by alerting them to an even greater, more glorious, indescribably reassuring truth: “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).
What joy! What comfort! What incentive to love him and praise him and serve him. Jesus will never blot my name out of the book of life!