Late Night Meditations on the Book of Life
George Blader asked me a good question after our service Sunday night. I had argued that the “book of life” is a list of all the elect whom God has chosen before the foundation of the world. To be written there is to be secure in God’s sovereign, electing love. This is why Jesus told the disciples, “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). I argued from Revelation 17:8 that names are written in the book of life “before the foundation of the world” and that this represents God’s free and unconditional election before we are ever born or have done anything to merit God’s blessing. And I argued from Revelation 20:15 that having our name in the book of life means that we will have eternal life and not be cast into the lake of fire. My conclusion, then (from Luke 10:20; Philippians 4:3; Revelation 17:18; 20:15), was that before the foundation of the world God wrote the names of his chosen people in a book, so that to be in that book is to be chosen and secure for all eternity.
But George pointed out Exodus 32:32-33 where Moses pleads for Israel like this: “But now if you will forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out of your book which you have written. And the Lord said to Moses, Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot him out of my book.” This created a big problem for me (it is approaching midnight Sunday as I try to figure it out). Clearly, if God blots unrepentant sinners out of his book, then being written in the book is not the same as election and there is no security in being written there.
One possible solution is that the book of life means the list of everyone who is born, and that God blots out all unbelievers leaving only the saints. This would agree with Revelation 17:9 that the names were written before the foundation of the world and with Revelation 20:15 that only those in the book of life are saved. But it would not account for why Jesus said, “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). Why should they rejoice in this if everyone’s name is written in heaven before the foundation of the earth? What’s to rejoice about if Judas’ name is there as well as John’s?
The solution I would suggest at this stage of my understanding is that the term “book” or “book of life” does not have a uniform meaning in Scripture. Rather, the meaning develops over time. In Exodus 32:33 the book is probably a list of all the living in Israel. And to be blotted out of the book is simply to die. So Moses was saying, “I’d rather die than see your people destroyed in the wilderness.” This is probably the meaning in Psalm 69:28, too: “May they be blotted out of the book of the living” (i.e., may they die). In these two texts eternal life is probably not in view at all.
But when we come over into the New Testament the term, “book of life,” is apparently given a new meaning. It is now “the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:27). The life signified by the book is not mere human life but the eternal life purchased by the Lamb. But someone may say, “Still, everyone could have been written in and only unbelievers blotted out.” But Revelation 13:8 rules this out because it says that being written in keeps you from unbelief: “And all who dwell on earth will worship [the beast], everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” Here the thing that keeps a person back from worshiping the beast is that his name is in the Lamb’s book of life. Presence in the book secures perseverance in faith.
So, I think my explanation of Luke 10:20 from last Sunday evening still stands. In the New Testament the book of life is synonymous with the list of those who are elect and predestined for eternal life. This makes good sense of Luke 10:20: “Rejoice because your names are written in heaven!”
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