About five years ago during a debate over the subject of Lordship Salvation I was asked, "Doesn't Rev 14:9-12 prove that all true believers persevere in the faith?"
The Reformed doctrine called the perseverance of the saints is not exactly the same as eternal security. Eternal security says that once a person is saved he cannot lose his salvation. Perseverance says, however, much more than this. It says that all saved people will persevere in a life of godliness and holiness. While temporary times of sin and carnality may occur, no true believer will persist in such a state for very long.
In order to examine whether these verses prove the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, we need to consider the context.
These verses deal with the Tribulation. That is a coming seven-year time of tremendous trouble on the earth. The wrath of God will at that time be poured out in full measure upon sinful man.
Satan will be allowed by God to install his man as world dictator. This man, called the beast in the Book of Revelation, will demand that everyone worship him and his god, Satan. To enforce this worship he will link commerce with religion. He will require that anyone who buys or sells anything must have a mark placed on his forehead or hand. This mark is called the mark of the beast.
The technology is already in place for such a system. Today debit cards are already widely in use. No check is written. No cash is exchanged. The buyer's account is simply debited and the seller's credited. The beast will give each person a code for doing business and stamp that on their hand or forehead.
The verses under consideration say that anyone who takes the mark of the beast will spend eternity in hell. In v 11 we learn that their torment will be unending. While some evangelicals and fundamentalists today are saying that God will annihilate the unsaved, there is no room for such a view in light of this passage.
So, what about it? Do these verses prove that the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is correct?
There are three possible ways to interpret the fact that everyone who takes the mark of the beast will go to hell. First, one could argue that eternal security is not operative in the Tribulation. There is, of course, no biblical or logical support for this. Eternal security is consistently taught in Scripture (e.g., John 5:24; Rom 8:38-39). No exceptions are given.
To suggest that eternal security is not operative in the Tribulation--or at any other time for that matter--is to subvert the sufficiency of the Cross. Eternal security is an integral part of the Gospel. Thus this view is wholly untenable.
Second, one could argue that this passage teaches that all true believers will persist in obedience and holiness during the Tribulation. However, the context shows that this view is also untenable.
Verses 9-11 are not even about believers. They are about unbelievers. At the very moment an unbeliever takes the mark of the beast he is sealed in a state of unbelief. He will surely spend eternity in hell. (Of course, believers can rightly infer from these verses that God would never allow them to take the mark since they know themselves to be eternally secure. Yet that is certainly not the main point here.)
Why would the Lord tell Tribulation believers this? Tribulation saints will suffer great persecution for refusing to take the mark. They will see unbelievers who take the mark avoid the persecution they are experiencing. This would be discouraging for any believer who was shortsighted. Verses 9-11 are thus designed to give the Tribulation saints (and believers of all ages) the big picture.
We might paraphrase v 12 in this way: This [knowing the fate of those who take the mark] is a motivation for believers to endure the persecutions and to persist in obeying God's commands and in keeping the faith.
Nowhere does v 12 say that all Tribulation saints will persevere in obeying God's commands and in keeping the faith. Rather, it says that one of the reasons those who persevere will do so is because they know that the unsaved have a devastating destiny.
It goes without saying that as Tribulation saints reflect on the fearful future of the lost, they will be moved to contemplate their own futures as well. They will be reminded that if they endure they will reign with Christ (2 Tim 2:12; Rev 2:26; 3:21) and will have other eternal rewards as well (Matt 5:1112; 6:19-21; Rev 22:12).
E. D. Hirsch, an expert on biblical interpretation, reminds us that a given set of words can have several different meanings depending on what he calls the illocutionary force of the statement in context (Aims in Interpretation, pp. 26, 52-53, 67). The illocutionary force of Rev 14:9-12 is clearly hortatory. Of the approximately thirty commentaries I consulted on this passage, nearly all attest that the aim of these verses is to motivate Tribulation believers to persevere. The view which suggests instead that these verses are promising that all believers will persevere wholly misses the point.
Matt 24:12 confirms the fact that some, actually many, Tribulation saints will fail to endure. The love of many believers will grow cold during that terrible time.
Third, one is left with only one viable alternative. Implicit in these verses is a guarantee that God will not allow any Tribulation saint to take the mark. As He does now, so then He will give special grace in times of testing. He will not allow any believer to be tempted beyond his ability to withstand the test (1 Cor 10:13).
Of course, it is indeed conceivable that a believer might fail to utilize the special grace which God will give him. In such cases we can be sure that God will remove him from the tempting situation--quite possibly by taking him home.
I believe that the rapture will precede the Tribulation, and so I don't expect any of us to be around facing the trials spoken of. Even so, Rev 14:9-12 challenges us to persevere in the faith (there are still plenty of trials and difficulties for us in this age) that we might realize the fantastic future of the overcomer.
Bob Wilkin is the Founder and Executive Director of GES.