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.
Can a believer lose his salvation or be erased from the Book of Life if he does not overcome (Rev 3:5)? This seems to contradict John 5:24 and Eph 2:8-9 which 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 the Christian walk as a struggle and a choice that every believer must make for himself.
Those are excellent questions. In them we see two possible interpretations and the difficulties with each. Neither of the two interpretations can be harmonized with the clear teaching of other Scripture.
The Loss-of-Salvation View
The problem with the loss-of-salvation view is that it clearly contradicts a host of passages. Jesus taught that believers “will never perish” (John 10:28), “shall not come into judgment” (John 5:24), and “have [already] passed from death into life” (John 5:24). The apostle Paul told the believers at Rome that “neither death nor life…nor things present nor things to come…shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord;” (Rom 8:38-39). To the believers at Ephesus he wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph 2:8-9). And to the believers at Thessalonica he said that “whether we wake or sleep [i.e., whether we are morally alert or indolent], we should live together with Him” (1 Thess 5:10).
The Overcoming-Equals Faithful-Obedience View
According to this view all genuine believers overcome the world by living godly lives. One author writes: “John was so confident of the ultimate triumph of faith over sin that he had a special name for the believer: ‘the one who overcomes’ (1 John 5:5; Rev 2:7, 11, 26 ;3:5, 12, 21; 21:7).;”1 Notice that he equates overcoming with “the ultimate triumph of faith over sin.;” Based on the context of these remarks, it is clear the author is referring to some ultimate triumph of faith over sin in this life.2
According to what has come to be called the Reformed Doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints, all true believers persevere in a life of godliness. While there may be temporary setbacks and bouts with sin, believers are people who live victorious, holy lives to the end. People who hold the overcoming-equals-faithful-obedience interpretation of our verse understand it in light of that doctrine.
There is a major problem with this interpretation. The Bible does not promise that all true believers will live victorious, holy lives.3 Believers may have more than temporary setbacks and bouts with sin. It is sadly possible for believers to backslide terribly and to remain in that backslidden state until death. Certainly the church at Corinth was hardly a picture of believers experiencing ultimate victory over sin in their lives ( cf. 1 Cor 3:1-3; 11:30; see also Gal 6:1-5; Jas 5:19-20; and 1 John 5:16)!
I’m not saying that eternal security is not true. As already shown above, it is. What I am saying is that there is no guarantee in Scripture that eternally secure people will live overcoming, victorious lives here and now. Believers can fail.
The Overcoming-Equals-Faith View
There is a variation of the view just discussed which recognizes the possibility of failure in the Christian life. The overcoming-equals-faith view suggests that faith—not faithfulness—is the victory. All believers are overcomers the moment they believe. The very act of believing overcomes the world: “Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:5).
While I am unaware of anyone who has put this view in writing, I know a number of people who hold it. I myself held this view for several years. It wasn’t until I studied the seven letters of Revelation 2-3 during my doctoral work that I concluded that this wasn’t what the Lord had in mind by the use of the word overcomer in Revelation.
It is true that 1 John 5:5 teaches that our faith overcomes the world. It is a mistake, however, to conclude that because John so used that expression in one place, he must have used it the same way in all other places. The contexts in which the expression is found in Revelation 2-3 are greatly different than the context of 1 John 5:5.
The second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation are seven letters to seven churches. Whereas 1 John 5:5 says that one overcomes by faith, the seven letters say that one overcomes by works (or by faith plus works). Consider, for example, these statements
- Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works…To him who overcomes I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God (2:5, 7b).
- Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life (2:10).
- And he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I give power over the nations (2:26).
- Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown (3:11).
- To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne4 (3:21).
The question thus remains what does Rev 3:5 mean?
The Eternal-Rewards View
According to this view, genuine believers are in view and their salvation is not in question. Admittedly, some suggest that since churches sometimes contain unbelievers, then these seven letters may have been addressed to both believers and unbelievers. However, in a biblical sense churches never contain unbelievers. Churches are not buildings or social gatherings. Churches are assemblies of believers. Since the Lord was writing to churches, he was writing exclusively to believers.
This is supported by the fact that in none of the seven letters do we find a Gospel appeal.5 The word faith only occurs twice in these letters (Rev 2:13, 19) and in both cases it is affirming the fact that the readers already have faith, not calling them to believe. Surely if these seven letters were addressed to unbelievers, we would find repeated calls to trust in Christ. Instead, we find none.
There are several lines of evidence from the text of Rev 3:3-5 which support the eternal-rewards interpretation. We will consider this evidence before we discuss the meaning of the words, “I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life.”
I Will Come Upon You As a Thief
Verse 3 is a warning: “If you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know the hour I will come upon you.” Calls to watchfulness in light of the Lord’s imminent return as a thief are found in several other places in the NT. Salvation isn’t in view in any of those places. Rather, they deal with the prospect of eternal rewards.6
In 1 Thess 5:10, a context dealing with Christ’s return “as a thief in the night” (5:2), Paul wrote “[Christ] died for us, that whether we wake or sleep we should live together with Him.” In context “waking”7 was used metaphorically to mean walking in the light, being sober, faithful, and loving. On the other hand “sleeping” meant to walk in the darkness to be drunk, unfaithful, and unloving (1 Thess 5:4-8). Paul was saying that all believers will be raptured, whether they are morally alert or asleep, when Christ returns for them. The believer who is morally asleep when Christ returns is not overcoming. Yet he will live together with Him as well!
They Are Worthy
Verse 4 reads, “You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.” The worthiness here is linked to the fact that these were believers “who have not defiled their garments.” Clearly Jesus isn’t praising them for using Tide on their togs! That is a figurative way of saying that there were a few who had not walked in disobedience. Compare Rev 22:148 and Jas 1:27 and Jude 23.
Walking with Christ in white garments must be seen as a reward. Otherwise Christ is teaching salvation by works here! We know from Jesus’ teachings and from the entire Bible that no one but Christ is worthy to be in God’s kingdom because of his or her deeds. We are only worthy to enter God’s kingdom because we have trusted in the Worthy One. This is compelling proof that the issue here is not salvation, but rewards.
He Shall Be Clothed in White Garments
Verse 5 refers again to being clothed in white. The Lord makes it clear that the person in question is an overcomer. While some assume that all Christians will wear these white garments in the kingdom, this verse suggests that only overcoming believers, those who haven’t defiled their garments (v 4), will wear these garments in the kingdom.
This verse suggests that believers will not be clothed identically in the kingdom. Some will wear special white garments. These special garments will signify that the wearer is one who honored Christ until the end of his or her Christian experience.
Peter, James, and John caught a glimpse of what these glorious garments will be like. When Jesus was transfigured before them, “His face shown like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matt 17:2). It may well be that the brightness of an overcomer’s clothes will be proportional to how Christlike he or she was in this life (cf. 1 Pet 4:13).
I Will Confess His Name
This is rewards language. Jesus will acknowledge faithful believers before the Father and before His angels. Compare Matt 10:32-33 and Luke 19:11-19. He will say “Well done, good servant” (Luke 19:17). This is a reward that faithful believers will receive. It is not a condition of entrance into the kingdom.
There still remains the question of what the Lord meant by the words, “I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life.” As we shall now see, this expression fits well with the eternal-rewards view.
I Won’t Blot Out His Name
Several things should be observed in relation to this expression. First, whatever it means, it can’t contradict other Scripture or the clear meaning of the rest of the passage and of other Scripture.
Second, many read it as though it says, “He who doesn’t overcome I will blot out his name…” It doesn’t say that. It is important to note that this verse doesn’t say anything about the fate of those who don’t overcome. It certainly doesn’t say that God will blot the non-overcomer’s name out of the Book of Life. The focus here is on the overcomer, not on the non-overcomer.
If I said, “All fathers are men,” that wouldn’t mean that the opposite is true, that all men are fathers. There are men who aren’t fathers. In the same way, the corollary to our verse is not true. God will not blot out the name of the non-overcoming believer from the Book of Life! Once a person has spiritual life, it can never be taken away (cf. John 10:28-29; 1 John 5:12).
Third, there is a well-established figure of speech called litotes or understatement. In this figure of speech a positive point is made by denying its opposite. For example, imagine that a loving, committed mother said to her teenage son, “If you mow the yard today, I won’t send you to bed without dinner.” Let’s assume that the mother had previously guaranteed him that she would never send him to bed without supper. He would thus know that even if he didn’t mow the yard, he would get dinner. His mom was promising him a special meal if he mowed the yard.
So, too, when the Lord says that He won’t blot the name of the overcoming believer from the Book of Life, He means that He will give the overcomer a special fullness of life forever.9
We know some of what this superlative experience will include: wearing special white garments (Rev 3:4-5), ruling with Christ (Rev 2:26-27; 3:21), eating the fruit of the tree of life (Rev 2:7), eating hidden manna (Rev 2:17), and receiving a white stone engraved with your own special name that only the Lord and you will know (Rev 2:17). None of these things is equivalent to eternal salvation. None of these things is required for kingdom entrance. These are all rewards awaiting the overcoming believer.
We don’t know all that is in store for the overcoming believer. But from what we are told in the seven letters, we know that it will be something no one will want to miss.
William Fuller, who defends this understanding of Rev 3:5, writes, “A command that everyone keeps is superfluous, and a reward that everyone receives for a virtue that everyone has is nonsense.”10 The eternal-rewards interpretation takes the command seriously, views the reward as a powerful motivation to obedience, and doesn’t distort the Gospel!
The Lord Jesus Christ wants every believer to overcome the world by living a faithful Christian life until He returns or until death. He promises special rewards for the Christian who overcomes. Those rewards include a special fullness of life alluded to in the understatement, “He who overcomes … I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life.”
Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10b). All believers have, and will forever have, life. Only overcoming believers have, and will forever have, life more abundantly. Paul echoed this same theme when he ended his letter to the Galatians with these words: “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Gal 6:9).
* This article is taken from an upcoming book slated for publication this fall. The book, entitled Grace in Focus: Tough Texts in a New Light will explain thirty difficult NT passages on six topics: saving faith, assurance, eternal security, perseverance, rewards, and Lordship Salvation.
3For further discussion see Robert Nicholas Wilkin’s, An Exegetical Evaluation of the Reformed Doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints, an unpublished Master’s thesis (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1982).
5Revelation 3:20 is not a Gospel appeal. It is addressed to Christians and is inviting them to have fellowship with Christ. The figure of opening the door is an illustration of the preceding verse. To “open the door” we must “be zealous and repent.” That is, we must be zealous for good works and repent of our sinful attitudes and actions (cf. 3:15-18).
8There is a textual variant here. The Majority Text reads, “Blessed are those who do His commandments.” The so-called Critical Text reads, “Blessed are those who wash their robes.” These readings show that scribes understood these two concepts to be synonymous in the Book of Revelation.
9For further discussion see Zane C. Hodges’s, Grace in Eclipse, Second Edition (Dallas, TX: Redencion Viva, 1985, 1987), pp. 109-111 and 119-20.