This thread is part of my Exegetical Compilation series which I’m sllllowwwwllllyy posting up here.
Rev 3, whether in its warning to the Sardisians or to the Laodicians, is sometimes quoted as evidence against universal salvation.
At Rev 3:1-6, Christ warns the church in Sardis that unless they overcome their sin (waking up and strengthening the things that remain which are about to die), He will erase their names from the Book of Life – and as Rev 20 teaches, those whose names are not found in the BoL at the lake of fire judgment (after the general resurrection) shall be thrown into the LoF.
Of course if on other grounds the lake of fire (or what it represents) is not a hopeless punishment, then this cannot be evidence against universal salvation from sin, only evidence against the idea that God never punishes anyone.
But admittedly, being erased (actively erased as the Greek indicates) from the Book of Life, though a metaphorical description for God’s judgment of sinners, is no small point: the idea that anyone can be written in the Book of Life and then blotted out, runs quite against Calv ideas of persistence of salvation, and even against soft Arminian ideas of convincing God to secure salvation. Hardcore Arminians (and some similar predecessors among Catholic theologians) would point to this verse as strong evidence that salvation, even once granted, can be finally lost. Even if God never happens to follow through with the threat, so long as the threat is real, and if the LoF punishment is hopelessly final, it must be possible to finally lose salvation.
Calvs and softer Arms would of course point to other verses strongly testifying that once God chooses (originally or by being convinced, per Calv and Arm theologies respectively) to save someone from sin, we can trust He will definitely get it done, our faithlessness not invalidating the faithfulness of God.
The Sardisians have a name of being living, but they are actually dead (v.1) – not that all of them are, but most of them (v.4). The others have not found their acts completed in the sight of the Lord’s God (by context the Father). (v.2) They are exhorted, then to remember how they have obtained, and hear, and to keep and to repent. (v.3) If they do not, the Lord shall be arriving on them as a thief. (v.3)
The whole context fits the concept that these people do currently (at the time the message was given) have their name written in the book of life, but that the Lord Jesus may erase it (not just blot it out; the term in Greek is literally to erase). And other congregations are given similar warnings if they don’t shape up. (The most relevant comparison might be the congregation in Ephesus, whose lampstand the Lord will be moving out of its place if they do not repent. (Rev 2:1-6))
Having one’s name blotted out of the Book of Life is parallel with being grafted out of the vine in Romans 11; but Paul stresses that we should not despise those currently outside the vine, for God can graft them back in again, and those currently in can also be grafted out – for despising those currently grafted out!
Relatedly, Exodus 32 surely implies that that having one’s name blotted out is not a hopeless situation (especially compared to the culmination of the Song of Moses at Deut 32). More importantly, almost the last verse of the book of the final OT prophet, Malachi 3:16 (and surrounding contexts) directly shows God adding people’s names back to the book of life (called there “the book of remembrance before Him”) after His exhortation of repentance to them and their repentance. Admittedly, in terms of narrative logic, this isn’t shown happening in-or-after the day of judgment which Malachi prophesied; it’s shown happening in Malachi’s day. But of course, Mal’s prophecy was about the forthcoming punishment of God (in the day of the Lord to come) being very and repeatedly emphasized as intended for hopeful refining. So in effect, the intended result of the day of judgment will be to add names back to the book, just as God added in the names of penitent rebels in Malachi’s own day. Malachi testifies that it can be done (in case anyone is unwilling to add up details elsewhere, or to accept St. Paul’s testimony on it using a different metaphor of branches being grafted in after being grafted out); and, in effect, that it will be done.
Is there any evidence closer to Rev 3 indicating the punishment isn’t hopeless? Well, according to Rev 2:17, there is apparently a sense in which everyone entering into the kingdom of heaven receives a new name from God! In that sense, one way or another we all who are finally saved must have “new names” written into the book, commensurate with the salvational change wrought in us; which may imply that (metaphorically of course) the names of saved people in the book are always erased and changed to our new names.
More pertinently, the congregation of Laodicia, soon afterward in the same chapter (3:14-22), receives one of the severest rebukes from Jesus in the whole New Testament: it would be difficult to imagine more colorful imagery than to say the Lord is about to vomit them out of His mouth! Yet the Lord also adds, “Whosoever I may be loving as a brother (or am fond of, philos), I am exposing and disciplining.” (v.19) The Laodicians, or the significant majority of them, believe themselves to be rich, deceiving themselves when they are actually wretched and poor and blind and naked (v.17). The Lord exhorts them (among other imagery) to buy white garments to be clothed so that the shame of their nakedness will not be made manifest. (v. 18) If they do not, He will surely expose them! – so they had better become zealous and repent! (v.19) But even if that exposure and vomiting happens, God does not punish them hopelessly, only in hope that they will repent and obtain from the Lord what they need. Thus (as it is written in verse 19) the Lord exposes and disciplines them in love.
And if God does so for them, then by the same principle so for the Sardis congregation: being erased from the Lord’s book of life (or the Ephesians having their lampstand moved, for that matter, or having the Lord fall upon them suddenly like a robber), is equivalent to the Lord spewing them (actually vomiting them!) out of His mouth and exposing the shame of their nakedness. Yet the latter, by direct scriptural testimony, is not a hopeless punishment, and indeed God does so in love to them; therefore, by parallel, being erased out of the book of life is not a hopeless punishment but a loving “discipline” (the same word used by the Hebraist in Heb 12 for a lovingly hopeful punishment, though surely a frightening one best avoided.)
Relatedly, note there are others in RevJohn whose nakedness shall be exposed as part of God’s punishment, not least the whore of Babylon (whatever that figure may mean).
As always, forum members are free to add to and discuss these verses in the comments below, pro or con, and also to link to other discussions of them on or off site.
If you find my compilations helpful, feel free to tip me $5 here at Amazon, near or at the top of the list. You can tip me for multiple articles of course. (I get $2.50 of each single $5 tip.)