An interesting phrase in the Bible that is most often associated with the book of Revelation is “the book of life.” It first occurs in Revelation 3:5, but is also used several more times in the remaining chapters. The Bible’s first reference to such a book, however, is not in Revelation. Both the exact phrase and the basic idea are used in other places in the Bible. Moses seems to be referring to this book in Exodus 32 following the sin of the people worshiping the golden calf while under Aaron’s leadership in Moses’ absence. Upon returning, and after he dealt with the situation, Moses went back to the LORD and asked Him to forgive the people. In Exodus 32:32, Moses tells God that if He will not forgive the people’s sin, “then blot me out of the book you have written.”
There is also a clear Old Testament reference by David to this book in one of his prayers. In Psalm 69:28 David petitions God concerning his enemies, “May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous.”
During His ministry Jesus seemed to be referring to the same idea when a large group of his disciples returned with much excitement after a successful mission outing. Luke 10:20 reports that Jesus told them not to “rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
The Apostle Paul knows of this book as well as he refers to it in his letter to the Philippians. Referring to his co-workers at the end of Philippians 4:3, he indicates their “names are in the book of life.” Commentator Ralph Martin suggests this denotes “God’s register of his people.”
The letter to the Hebrews speaks as Jesus did in Luke 10:20 referring “to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven” (12:23). Commentator Donald Guthrie suggests that both this reference, as well as Jesus’ usage in Luke 12:20, refer to those who are “enrolled in heaven.”
Speaking about the one who is victorious, in Revelation 3:5 Jesus promises “I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life.” John writes in Revelation 13:8 that those who worship the beast are “all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life” (cf. Revelation 17:8). Revelation 20:12 and 15 have references to “the book of life” and Revelation 21:27 makes it clear that “only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” will enter the New Jerusalem.
What are we to make of these references in the Bible to “the book of life” and “names written in heaven”? The book of life is apparently a list of names of those who will spend eternity in heaven with God. New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger gives us some insight when he notes, “In ancient cities the names of citizens were kept in registers and were erased upon death or the commission of a treasonous act” (Breaking the Code: Understanding the book of Revelation, Abingdon Press, 1993, p. 40). These biblical references raise two doctrinal issues that have been controversial and debated for many years.
One of the issues is called the perseverance of the saints or eternal security. The question raised in this connection concerns whether a person who has been saved can ever lose his or her salvation. Moses suggests that salvation can be lost when he tells God that if He is unwilling to forgive the people, he would like God to blot him out. David suggests his enemies can be lost when he asks God to blot them out of the book of life. And in Revelation 3:5 Jesus says He will not blot out the name of the one who is victorious implying that the name of one who is not victorious may be blotted out.
I certainly do not believe God has a pencil with an eraser that He uses to write names in the book of life and then to erase (blot) them out, perhaps only to write them back in later. I believe Christians can have complete assurance that they are saved and going to be with the Lord when they pass from this life. However, I would not guarantee that a once believer who turned his or her back on the Lord, repudiated her or his faith, and lived a totally unchristian life would be saved. I believe a Christian can and should live with complete confidence, assured of salvation through faith in Christ.
A second issue is raised in the great white throne judgment scene of Revelation 20. In verse 12 we are told “books were opened” and after that “the book of life.” The verse concludes with “The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” What is the place of works, both good and bad, in a believer’s life? At first reading this report may suggest to some a contradiction to the clear teaching in the New Testament that one is saved by grace through faith and not by their good works. If we look closely at the entire verse I do not believe we will conclude Revelation 20:12 teaches salvation by works. We should keep in mind that there are not only books that contain what people have done and by which they are judged, but also “the book of life.” Allow me to make a few observations.
For one thing, it may very well be that it is only the lost who are judged by what they have done that is recorded in the books. If that is the case, then the saved are not judged according to what is in the books, but are saved because their names are in the book of life. And they are in the book of life, of course, because of their faith in Jesus.
I think Robert Mounce makes an important point when he asserts, “The issue is not salvation by works but works as the irrefutable evidence of a man’s [sic] actual relationship with God” (The Book of Revelation, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1977, p.366). A believer demonstrates her or his faith by the things he or she does and does not do (works). And the opening of the books provides the evidence of the faith of the saved. But, going back to the matter of assurance of salvation, the reason a Christian can be assured of his or her salvation is because we are saved by grace through faith.
My sense is that in an overreaction to the false understanding of salvation by good works, some Christians underestimate the importance of godly living in the Christian life. We do not do good works and avoid bad works in order to be saved, we avoid bad works and do good works because we are saved and have faith.
One final observation about the books: “The opening of the books suggest that our earthly lives are important and meaningful, and are taken into account at the end” (Metzger p. 97). My professor of theology at Cincinnati Christian Seminary, Jack Cottrell, taught that there will be degrees of reward in heaven and these books (our works as believers) will be a part of that determination.
I don’t know if a person can be saved and have their name in the book of life only later to have it blotted out. Strong advocates of eternal security would say that a believer who turned his or her back on the Lord was never really saved to begin with. I have an opinion, but I don’t know if there will be degrees of reward for the saved in heaven.
I do know that the New Testament teaches that we are not saved by our good works but by grace through our faith in Jesus. I also know that followers of Jesus show their faith and their relationship with the Lord by the way they live—not that they are perfect, but they are walking with Him. Finally, I have every confidence that my name is written in the book of life; not because I am good enough, but because I have put my faith in Jesus. I hope your name is in the book as well and that you confident of it.
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