Recorded in the Book of Life: By Faith or By Works?
Q: What is the Book of Life? I assumed that this is the Word of God where believers’ names are written. However, I was told there is a book that lists your works, as if they have any bearing on where you will be in eternity.
A: Two years ago, I wrote briefly about the Book of Life. At that time, I mainly focused on whose names were recorded and when and how this happened. The Scriptures never clearly explain whether this is an actual, physical book (or scroll) or if the Book of Life is a metaphor for the list of those who will enter eternal life. No matter which, its content consists of all those who either believed in God’s promised Messiah prior to His coming or who since then the Resurrection believed in Jesus, the incarnate Word of God.
Writing to the Philippian Christians, Saint Paul spoke of his “fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. (4:3)” This is the only mention of such a record outside of Revelation and tells us nothing about criteria for inclusion or whether or good works are necessary for being listed. Of course, the rest of the Pauline corpus has much to say on whether it’s faith or works, but I first want to examine other occurrences of the Book of Life.
We must move on to Revelation to continue our look. Through John, the Lord rebuked the church in Sardis, saying that they were near to spiritual death. However, for those who remained faithful, Jesus said, “You have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. (3:4-5)”
Revelation 13 tells of the coming of the first beast, godless temporal authority. Of this beast we are warned, “All who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.... Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (13:8, 10)” Similarly, “The dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast. (17:8)”
Near the end of Revelation, the Book of Life is used in the Last Judgment. Inclusion or exclusion from the book indicates inclusion or exclusion from eternal life. After his vision of the End Times, John wrote, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (20:15)” Again, when the New Jerusalem, “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb, (21:9)” came down, entrance was barred to anything “unclean” and to “anyone who does what is detestable or false” while “those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life (21:27)” may enter.
Although not named as such, this book most likely is identical to the “scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. (Revelation 5:1)” It is “the Lamb’s book of life (21:27)” because, while “no one in heaven or on earth ... was able to open the scroll or to look into it, (5:3)” the Lamb was worthy and able to take “the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. (5:7)” Since the Lamb is Christ Jesus, we see that it is only through Him that we are recognized as citizens of the New Jerusalem and heirs of everlasting life.
Returning to Saint Paul, we find that he wrote that we are saved “by grace ... through faith” and that it isn’t our “own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works (Ephesians 2:8-9)” Meanwhile, Revelation records that “the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. (20:12)” Does this mean that Revelation contradicts Ephesians? Is one or the other not truly God’s Word? Are good works necessary or not? After all, Christ Himself seems to be weighing our works when speaking of the Judgment of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46).
Unless we wish to ignore or eject part of Holy Scripture, don’t we need to find a way to reconcile salvation by grace through faith with the necessity of good works? Do faith and works stand as mutual contradictions? Or can we properly emphasize both without contradiction? This is possible when we understand that good works aren’t all the nice things that anyone can do of his own accord. Rather, a work is only “good” if it is done in faith.
No one saves himself by being nice, kind, or generous — however, Christ saved us so that He might make us good and loving children of the heavenly Father. The believer who is saved by Christ’s works and not by his own efforts isn’t rescued in order to lie around doing nothing. Instead, “We are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)”
The works named in the Judgment won’t save their doers. Rather, they will testify that the doers possessed saving faith. While we’ll see reprobate evildoers banished forever because of their sinful deeds, the invitation to the redeemed will be different. When He calls the righteous forward, Christ won’t begin by saying, “Come, all you who accomplished sufficient good works.” Instead, “The King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ (Matthew 25:34)” The Father’s blessing and our inheritance by faith of the Son’s righteousness grant us eternal life.
The saved sheep often don’t realize their good deeds — they’re too busy loving their neighbors as themselves to keep score of how many neighbors they’ve loved. Genuinely surprised, “The righteous will answer [Jesus], saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?’ (Matthew 25:37)” For while we may travel through life leaving a trail of good works, we will enter paradise solely by virtue of Christ’s saving work.
Similar questions occur regarding the Athanasian Creed. It, too, first seems to indicate that good deeds save us: “At [Christ’s] coming all men will rise again with their bodies and will give an account of their own works. And they that have done good will go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith which, except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.” Just as shown above, this language can be reconciled with Scripture’s “grace alone” teaching, as I showed in the post Athanasian Creed: Trinity, Good Works, and Salvation.
For further study, here’s more on The Judgment of the Sheep and the Goats. You can also see my answer to the question Sanctification: God’s Work or Man’s?
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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