In 1858 Rev. George Dufield received these words from a minister friend, whispered while dying from a tragic accident, “Let us all stand up for Jesus.”1 For the next Sunday’s sermon, Dufield wrote a poem from those words in memory of his friend titled, “Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus.” The final stanza of the poem reads,
Stand up, stand up for Jesus, The strife will not be long;
This day the noise of battle—The next the victor’s song.
To him that overcometh A crown of life shall be;
He with the King of glory Shall reign eternally.
The crown of life for the overcomer was promised by our Lord to the church at Sardis during their time of testing, and to all Christians, as James tells us: which the Lord hath promised to them that love him (Jas 1:12). The admonition to all seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3 is, to him that overcometh, which is always preceded by the inclusive words, he that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).
The piercing words of Jesus, that the overcomer of this world is the one who will finally inherit heaven, have encouraged believers of this age of grace to verbalize this perseverance of the saints in their various confessions. Perhaps the most common statement is in the New Hampshire Confession of 1833.
We believe that such only are real believers as endure unto the end; that their persevering attachment to Christ is the grand mark which distinguishes them from mere professors; that a special Providence watches over their welfare; and that they are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.2
Perseverance of the saints is, in a way, a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it affirms that the believers’ salvation is “kept by the power of God” through Christ’s finished work on their behalf; yet on the other hand, it affirms that a “mere profession” of salvation is inadequate for eternal life without the reality of faith which always shows itself in the life of the believer. This doctrine is plainly seen in the letters to the seven churches (Revelation 2-3) as Jesus separates believers in the churches from mere professors in the churches by the description He that overcometh.
In the coming Tribulation, the entire Church will be a professing Church only, containing no true believers at all (Rev 13:8) because, of course, all true believers will have been removed at the Rapture. At the end of the Age of Grace, however, the Church will be a mixed multitude of true believers and professing believers (1 Tim 4:1-3; 2 Tim 3:1-7). We are surely in the last days and are experiencing the phenomenon of this mixed multitude! Wheat and tares, sheep and goats, clean garments and spotted, seem to be harder to distinguish than many have thought. And while the Church enjoys the sunshine of success, many are indifferent to the Lord’s warnings.
Overcomers are believers and all believers are overcomers
This language is similar to John’s first epistle where believers are put in broad categories: Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him (1 John 3:6). In Revelation he writes, To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life (2:7); He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life (3:5). All of the “overcomer” statements are true of any believer who will one day be in heaven.
The apostle Paul has this kind of broad language in Romans: To them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, [they will have] eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, [they will have] indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish (Rom 2:7-9). The point is, true believers, though they may struggle in this life, will persevere and overcome to where their life is one that reflects Christ and His redemption.
There were true believers in each of these seven churches. Antipas was a faithful martyr (2:13) in Pergamos though many followed the doctrine of Balaam. Most in Thyatira had followed Jezebel, but the rest had not known the depths of Satan (2:24). Sardis was dead spiritually, but there were still a few names (3:4) that had not defiled their garments. Though most in Laodicea were miserable before God, if any man (3:20) would open his own door to Christ, He would come in. These were the overcomers! The rest, and in many cases the majority, are not included in the promise of heavenly rewards.
Non-overcomers are unbelievers and no unbeliever overcomes the world
This only follows if the first assertion is true. False professors of the faith may be in the church, they may do the things believers do for a while (perhaps for quite a while, years in fact), but they will not persevere to the end and overcome the things of the world that attract them. Again, in John’s first epistle, he describes these as those who do not love the brethren. They cannot abide to stay around and do the things true believers do. So they went out from us, but they were not of us (1 John 2:19).
In Ephesus, some had left the initial love that had drawn them to the Christian faith. They needed to repent (2:5) in order to be one that overcometh and who will eat of the tree of life (2:7). In Pergamos, many were sacrificing to idols and committing fornication (2:14). They needed to repent and be overcomers or find themselves to fight against God and the sword of his mouth (2:16). In Thyatira, many were also worshiping idols and committing fornication (2:20). God was ready to cast them into a bed of adultery (even great tribulation) unless they repented and became overcomers who will one day rule in the kingdom of God (2:26). In Sardis, many had a famous name but were dead spiritually (3:1). Their works were not perfect (3:2) before God as the true believers who were worthy (3:4) of the white garments of heaven. In Laodicea, most thought that their prosperity was a sign of their fellowship with God, when in fact God saw them as wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked (3:17).
False believers within the church do not overcome. John Owen once said, “Religion in a state of prosperity is like a colony that is long settled in a strange country. It is gradually assimilated in features, demeanor, and language to the native inhabitants, until at length every vestige of its distinctiveness has died away.”3 Similarly, R.A. Torrey wrote, “Hand in hand with this widespread infidelity [which means non-faith] goes gross immorality, as has always been the case. Infidelity and immorality are Siamese twins. They always exist and always grow and always fatten together.”4
It is possible for true believers to backslide into this condition for a time. But the test that they are true will be their loathing of such things (Lot was “vexed” by the life-style of Sodom) and their turning back to God. Nonbelievers will feel no such loathing and will be more than content to stay in the world and in the church.
True repentance is never late and late repentance is never true
Though some would say “seldom true,” in this case we are following John’s (though we should say the Lord’s) thought of true believers overcoming. Any sinner may repent of his sins and come to Christ at any time. That kind of repentance is never too late. To the Philadelphians God promised removal from the tribulation period (3:10) for those who have kept the word of my patience. All who will leave the false synagogue of Satan (3:9) and come to the true faith can also overcome these things. To the Laodiceans God promised communion to any man that would hear His voice and open the door to Him (3:20). This would all be true repentance and, if done in this life, would not be too late.
Late repentance is of two types. a) Late repentance in this life is a sop. It is insincere. Many unbelievers go through this life feeling sorry that their sin is seen and disliked by God. Repentance becomes a way to relieve the pressure for a while and appease God’s displeasure. This kind of “late” repentance is never true repentance. b) Late repentance in the next life will be forced from the lips of unbelievers as every knee will bow and every tongue will confess (Phil 2:10-11) but it will be too late for it to be true, volitional repentance.
What the Spirit has written to the churches, the Son has commissioned to the angels
These letters are the Spirit’s inspired words to the churches of Asia. In each case the letter ends with the words, He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. In each case also, the letter begins with Christ addressing the angel of the particular church. This is the pastor or messenger of the church (see Gal 4:14; 2 Cor 12:7; Jas 2:25). The Greeks used this description (aggelos, angel) of the official herald who was commissioned by the king to publicly address the people and be careful not to soften, change or negotiate with the words.5 George Whitefield once prayed to God, “O, grant I may, like a pure crystal, transmit all the light Thou pourest over me, and never claim as my own what is thy sole property”6
And so . . . .
The angels, the pastor-heralders of God’s message, must never negotiate with the message in order to better appeal to the hearers. The sinner cannot overcome the world by retaining his own prerogatives. And “messengers” do not help them by allowing them to think they can! “The entrance to heaven is low, and we must be no taller than children in order to get in.”7 It is that which we, the herald-angels, sing!Notes: 1. Quoted by Kenneth Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1982) 237. 2. William Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions Of Faith (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1980) 365. 3. Quoted by William Wilberforce, Real Christianity (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997) 99. 4. R.A. Torrey, How To Pray (Chicago: Moody Press, nd) 105. 5. See knrux in Kittel;s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. III (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1965) 688. 6. In Harry Stout’s The Divine Dramatist (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1994) 58. 7. C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: HB & W, 1964) 88.