As Christians we have a confidence in our eternal security. The Scriptures proclaim that God has saved us, applied Christ’s righteousness to our account, and will give us eternal life. Furthermore, there are no conditions with obtaining that promise. In other words, a Christian should never worry that he is “doing enough” to remain faithful. When we were saved, we are saved for eternal life, period.
But how should we understand those passages that do seem to suggest Christians can lose their salvation if they rebelliously misstep against the Lord’s commands? One passage that is often repeated to me by a diversity of folks is Revelation 3:5 where John writes,
He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.
At first glance, the verse suggests that a Christian must pursue a life of continuous overcoming, and our faithful overcoming secures our name in the Book of Life. If we are not constantly toiling to live an overcoming lifestyle, we could very well move the Lord against us to blot out our names from the Book of Life and punish our unfaithfulness. Thus, it seems to suggest that when we place our faith in Jesus, our names were added to the Book of Life, but it can be removed for some persistent act of disobedience on the Christian’s part during his or her life.
But is that what this passage means? Let me see if I can unpack what John is saying.
Blotting from the Book
The idea of an “official” book with names of people who are blotted out is not unique to Revelation. The threat of blotting out names from a book is first mentioned in Exodus 32:32,33. It is the record of the worship of the golden calf by Israel. When Moses returns to God to plead for the forgiveness of the people, he says, But now, if You will, forgive their sin– and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written! The LORD said to Moses, Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book. In a desperate plea for Israel, Moses asks God to spare the people and to be blot him out from the book.
A second verse is found in Psalm 69:28 where David prays against his enemies by saying, Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous.
The obvious question could be asked: What exactly is the Book of Life, or the Living, and what does it mean to be blotted out of it? Let me begin with defining the word blot.
Starting again in the Old Testament, the word blot or blotted, is translated from the Hebrew word machah and it can have the idea of “wiping off” as in wiping off a dish, or more to our point at hand, “wiping out,” as in exterminating or destroying.
Interestingly, the word carries more to it than just the idea of killing a person. The word gives more of the picture of erasing or totally eliminating from existence or memory. That is certainly the meaning of the word in Deuteronomy 25:19 and 29:20. Deuteronomy 9:14 even shows a contrast between the Hebrew word shamad, which can also mean destroy or annihilate, with machah. Moses records, Let Me alone, that I may destroy (shamad) them and blot (machah) out their name from under heaven; and I will make of you a nation mightier and greater than they. More than being annihilated, the threat was to erase the memory of their name from off the earth.
Additionally, the word machah is often used to speak of God bringing final, authoritative judgment. The first time the word is used is Genesis 6:7 where God speaks of destroying men with a flood. It is used again in Genesis 7:23 to speak of God sending the flood that destroyed, or blotted out, erased, all living things from the earth.
The Book of Life
Now, moving along to the phrase Book of Life or Book of the Living.
The idea of the Book of Life is a bit more difficult to ascertain, however, Dr. Merrill Unger, I believe, rightly explains in his theological dictionary that in the OT it appears to be “a figurative expression taken from the custom of registering citizens in a society or maintaining genealogical records.” We tend to skip over the long, genealogical sections of Scripture like 1 Chronicles 1-9 when we are doing our daily devotionals, but those repetitive lists of so-and-so begetting so-and-so had the purpose of tracking all the Children of Israel.
In a manner of speaking, those genealogical sections represent the Book of Life for the nation of Israel. A family lineage is vitally important in OT culture. It demonstrated the family were members of Israel, and they were especially important for the purpose of identifying ownership of the family land. Thus, to be “blotted” out of the Book of Life meant the person’s lineage would be forever removed from the genealogical record. We even see examples of that with Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 16), Achan’s sin (Joshua 7), and the kingdom of Saul (1 Samuel 15).
Back to Revelation 3:5
Returning to the NT, the use of the phrase “Book of Life” takes on the meaning of a register that records all of those individuals I believe to be God’s elect, those who are to inherit eternal life. See for example Philippians 4:3, Revelation 3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 21:27. I find it interesting that in Revelation 13:8 and 17:8, one factor that distinguishes between those written in the Book of Life and those who are not, is that those not written in the Book of Life are easily led astray by the Antichrist, where as those who are written in the Book of Life will not follow him.
With those things in mind, there is one final question to answer: What exactly does John mean in Revelation 3:5 when he writes, “He who overcomes?” The common thinking among Christians is to understand John’s words as describing an act of spiritual obedience. In other words, overcoming is a discipline we believers perform in the course of our process in sanctification, or what amounts to a continuing act of personal holiness to obtain the ultimate victory of eternal life.
Hence, if we don’t faithfully pursue overcoming or some how fail by acts of disobedience and so forth, we then risk being blotted out of the Book of Life. Thus, our addition to the Book of Life and keeping our name from being erased from it depends upon how well we behave ourselves in the discipline of overcoming.
But John has written other things, including a short epistle, that addresses how a person knows for certain he or she has eternal life.
In 1 John 5:5, the beloved apostle writes, Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? Rather than being an act of spiritual discipline that secures your name in the Book of Life, the word overcomer is a descriptive title for a Christian believer, a person who has believed upon Jesus as the Son of God. So, a person who is a Christian is an overcomer, or to put it in reverse, one who is called an overcomer is a Christian. The one who overcomes is one who has already placed his or her faith in Jesus Christ.
When we draw all of that data together, I believe John is exhorting with a promise in Revelation 3:5. The Christian, or overcomer, is already written in God’s Book of Life, the record of all of God’s elect unto salvation. Contrary to how human societies would remove a disliked individual from the city records so that the person and his family is cast out and could no longer reap the benefits of being a citizen, God’s promise to His people is that no one, no matter who they are or what they may do, will ever be blotted out of the Book of Life. Revelation 3:5, then, is not a threat of judgment for failing God, but a sure promise of eternal security.