I recently received the following question from a GES News reader regarding Revelation 3:5.
Revelation 3:5 is one passage that has been very hard for me to understand and clarify. My question is, can a believer lose his salvation or be erased from the book of life if he does not overcome? This seems to contradict John 5:24 and Ephesians 2:8-9 which seem to view everlasting life as a free and secure gift. Or, does it mean that a believer who is truly saved will automatically produce good works and overcome? This seems to contradict Romans 6-7 which views that Christian walk as a struggle and a choice that every believer must make for himself.
I like the treatment of this verse that is found in the second edition of the book Grace in Eclipse by GES board member Zane Hodges.1 His discussion of Revelation 3:5 follows:
Clearly, the promises to the overcomers are rewards for obedience to the commands of the Lord of the Church. As someone has pointedly observed, “A command that everyone keeps is superfluous, and a reward that everyone receives for a virtue that everyone has is nonsense.”2
Two promises in particular have been thought to impinge on the eternal salvation of the overcomer. These are the ones made in the letters to Smyrna and Sardis. To those in Smyrna it is said:
He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death (Rev. 2:11);
and to those in Sardis:
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 (Rev. 3:5; emphasis added).
But both statements can be held to employ a figure of speech called “litotes,” which is extremely common in literature and in everyday speech. Litotes is a way of making a positive affirmation by negating the opposite. The presence of litotes is often signaled by obvious understatement.
Thus when the author of Hebrews writes, “For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love…” (Heb. 6:10), it must be assumed that the reader already knows that God is never unjust or forgetful. The reader therefore correctly infers that the writer means something like: “God will keep your labor of love in mind and will stand by you accordingly.”
Since a reader of the letter to Smyrna could be presumed to understand that no believer experiences the second death, the statement immediately suggests litotes. Jesus promises that the overcomer will certainly suffer no hurt from the second death. But this sharply understates what must be the destiny of the victorious Christian. Hence the reader is left with a tantalizing inference like: “The experience of the overcomer is radically free from the second death.”
This inference is very natural in the light of the immediately preceding words:
Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life (Rev. 2:10).
This can mean: “Die for me, if need be, and I will grant you a superlative experience of life.” Hence, in the promise to the overcomer, Jesus is saying something like this: “Though physical death may harm you here, the second death cannot harm you hereafter. Your experience will be far, far beyond its reach.”3
In a similar fashion, the words, “I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life,” at once suggest the understatement of a litotes. No Christian will have his name blotted from that book. His eternal identity rests on the fact that he is an individual whose name is written in heaven (Luke 10:20). And that is just the point. The litotes, taken in the light of the surrounding statements, implies: “Your everlasting name is supremely secure. For, as you stand clothed in a victor’s garments, I will acknowledge that name in the august presence of My Father and before the holy angels.”4
Abundant and triumphant life, superlative and everlasting honor, are thus the rewards held out to the struggling Christians at Smyrna and Sardis. The use of litotes in both of these promises is a way of imparting, through understatement, the delicate suggestion that the experience will significantly excel the description that is given of it. Just as when someone says, “If you do this, you won’t regret it,” he means, “Your recompense will result in the very opposite of regret,” so our Lord is saying to the overcomer that his reward will be the very opposite of injury from the second death or of losing an eternal name!
But rewards they most assuredly are, as are all of the risen Savior’s promises to overcomers. And thus there is a sense in which this final book of the biblical canon, through these challenging calls to victory, effectively punctuates the teaching of the entire New Testament on the subject of spiritual conflict and eternal rewards.5 The figure who emerges from these portraits is a conqueror, just as Jesus was Conqueror. The rewarded one is a victor worthy of co-heirship with the greatest Victor in human history.
1Zane C. Hodges, Grace in Eclipse, Second Edition (Dallas [Box 141167], TX : Redención Viva, 1985, 1987), pp. 109-111, 119-20. Used by permission.
2J. William Fuller, “‘I Will Not Erase His Name from the Book of Life’ (Revelation 3:5),” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 26 (1983): 299….
3Tatford clearly thinks in terms of litotes when he writes of the promise of Revelation 2:11, “True life lay beyond. In no wise should he be touched by the second death and the very form of the expression but emphasizes the certainty of that truer and fuller life.” Fredk. A. Tatford, Prophecy’s Last Word (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1947), p. 46.
4Tatford again interprets through litotes when he writes of Revelation 3:5, “Practically every city of that day kept a role or register of its citizens…. one who had performed some great exploit deserving of special distinction, was honoured by having his name inscribed in golden letters in the citizens roll. Our Lord’s emphatic statement, therefore, implies not merely that the name of the overcomer shall not be expunged, but per contra that it shall be inscribed in golden letters in the heavenly roll.” His whole discussion is worth reading. Fredk. A. Tatford, Prophecy’s Last Word, p.63; see pp. 62-63….
5Alexander Patterson weaves together many strands of truth when he writes about the Judgment Seat of Christ, “Not a service done for Christ loses its reward.. .Then those who have laid up treasure in heaven receive it with manifold interest. All losses are made good. Then it is the promises are fulfilled, made ‘to him that overcometh…'” Alexander Patterson, The Greater Life and Works of Christ [New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1896], p.316. This beautiful resume of rewards truth was written in the nineteenth century. How little of it is understood in the twentieth!