James 1:12 says, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life.”
It is important to understand the serious tone in this text. Read as it stands it promises the crown of life only after we have remained steadfast under trial. That is, only after we have stood the test, will we inherit the crown of life.
Let’s address the first and most obvious question. What is the crown of life?
Is it a reward that only some Christians get in heaven for having been extraordinarily faithful? Or is this crown the same thing as saying “eternal life?” The question is extremely important. If the crown is a prize given in heaven to some, then the crown is a sign of the great courage and faith of some. But if the crown is eternal life, the meaning of this passage changes considerably. For then, James 1:12 would be saying that just to get to heaven, you must remain steadfast under trial. And if the second option is true, then there can be no promise of eternal life to those who desert the Lord, when they are under trial.
The phrase, ‘crown of life’, is only repeated in one other place in our Bible. That place is in Revelation 2:10. “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Clearly, just like in James – the crown of life in Revelation is given to people who bear up under trial. But that still doesn’t answer our question. Is this crown the crown of salvation? Or is it a special reward that might, perhaps, be given to martyrs? The answer in Revelation is actually quite clear. It’s found in the very next verse “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” (Revelation 2:11)
The second death in Revelation is clearly identified later. Revelation 20:14 and 21:8 identify the second death as the lake of fire. This, of course, is the reference to hell. In other words, Revelation 2:10-11 serves as both a promise and a warning to persecuted believers. If they are faithful unto death, they receive the crown of life. If not, they receive the second death or the lake of fire.
Revelation 2:10-11 reminds us that bearing up under persecution is a matter of heaven or hell. That is very similar to what Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:12. “If we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us.” That sounds very similar to the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:32-33. “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
It seems reasonable then to approach James in the same way. If we remain steadfast under trial, we will receive the heavenly promise of an eternal life.
For some, such language is frightening. Does it then seem as if our salvation is in doubt? I will answer that question in my next blog. But of one thing we must be assured. Faithfulness unto death is necessary for eternal life.