Here is a hot question from my inbox:
I enjoy reading your blogs. I need a little clarification on a statement you made in the penultimate paragraph of this post. You used the phrase “only overcoming believers.” Are you suggesting that there are some believers who will not “overcome”?
Many Evangelicals say that all believers are overcomers. Even some Free Grace advocates say that.
Most Calvinists say that all believers are overcomers since they believe that all who believe in Christ persevere in faith and good works until death. Thus, while a believer might not be overcoming for a short time, he overcomes most of the time, and he certainly is overcoming at the end of his life.
Most Arminians say that only believers who overcome keep their salvation. A failure to overcome results in a loss of salvation. Most Arminians believe that salvation can be lost and regained multiple times in this life. But in order to make it into Christ’s kingdom, one must be overcoming at the time of death.
Some Free Grace people define overcoming not as being victorious, but as being in the Victorious One. In that view all believers are overcomers. Once a person believes in Christ, he is and always will be an overcomer. (The problem with this view is that while it might work with 1 John 5:4-5, it does not fit with the contexts of Revelation 2-3.)
Other Free Grace people, myself included, define overcoming like the Calvinists and Arminians do. An overcomer is a victorious believer. Not all believers are victorious, either at any given time in this life, or at the end of their lives. Only believers who are victorious at the time of the Rapture or death will rule with Christ in the life to come (2 Tim 2:12; Rev 2:26).
The word overcome is not a common one in the NT. It occurs twenty-six times in twenty-four verses. However, most of those references do not refer to the one who overcomes or to the overcomer. Only in 1 John and Revelation does that specific expression occur.
The key passages are 1 John 5:4, 5; Rev 2:7, 11, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; and 21:7. Nine verses.
The problem is that in 1 John 5:4-5 the overcomers sound like all believers, but in Revelation 2-3 the overcomers are clearly restricted to believers who endure in good works (see below).
There are two ways to harmonize the overcomers in the seven letters with the reference to overcomers in 1 John 5:4-5.
One way is to see the overcoming in 1 John 5:4-5 as a different kind of overcoming, that is, a positional, but not experiential, overcoming. When we believe in Christ, we overcome the world which was seeking to keep us from believing in Him. (Or, we overcome the world in the sense that we are in Christ who Himself overcame the world for us.)
The other way is to see the reference to our faith in 1 John 5:4-5 as a reference not to saving faith, but to living by faith. If a believer lives by faith, he overcomes the world in his experience.
I lean toward the second of those two understandings of 1 John 5. But whatever 1 John 5 means, it cannot contradict the clear teaching which is found in the seven letters.
There are three ways in which we can prove that the overcomers of Revelation 2-3 are not all Christians, but only enduring, faithful Christians.
First, in the six references to overcomers in Revelation 2-3, faith is not mentioned, and works are emphasized (Rev 2:2-6, 9-10, 23-26; 3:1-5, 8-11, and 15-20). “I know your works” is stated in all the letters. Good works are commended. Bad works are rebuked.
Second, all seven letters are addressed to believers. Yet the Lord indicates that only those believers who overcome will rule with Him, have the special white garments, the hidden manna, the right to the tree of life, the special white stone, etc.
Third, other NT texts confirm that only enduring, faithful believers will rule with Christ in the life to come. “If we endure, we shall also reign with Him” (2 Tim 2:12). Compare also Luke 19:16-26; 1 Cor 4:1-5; 9:24-27; 2 Cor 5:9-10; Gal 6:7-9; 2 Tim 4:6-8.
For more detailed discussion on this topic, see this short 1990 article by me, this 15-minute podcast by Lucas Kitchen, Shawn Lazar, and me, and this 2018 blog by me.