Subject Nine: Backsliding

 •  13 min. read  •  grade level: 8
Questions by P. Brown; answers by H. P. Barker.
I believe that most, if not all, Christians know what it is to backslide. I do not mean that they have fallen into open sin. One may conduct himself most commendably and yet all the while be a “backslider in heart.” Many of us, I am sure, have to mourn over times when we have consciously slidden back from communion with God and when our souls have been chilled. Let us pray, therefore, that God will help us in our consideration of the subject.
What Is the Cause of Backsliding?
In order to answer this question, I must point out that backsliders are of two kinds. There are those who have never gotten beyond a mere profession of Christianity. Brought under religious influences, they have taken the place of believers in Christ and in all sincerity imagine that they are on the way to heaven. But there has been no divinely wrought conviction of sin in their souls; their consciences have never been plowed up by the power of God’s Word; to true repentance and saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ they are entire strangers. In spite of their profession, they are what they always were, lost sinners. Sooner or later, perhaps, the religious life on which they have entered becomes irksome to them. They feel that they cannot live up to the profession that they have made. Old tastes and desires reassert themselves, and little by little they slide back into their former manner of life and are looked upon, by those who once believed them to be real Christians, as backsliders. Like the sow of which we read in 2 Peter 2:2222But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire. (2 Peter 2:22), their washing did not go deeper than the surface; outwardly reformed, they had never been transformed into Christ’s sheep, and their turning again to the mire of sin is only what might be expected.
The other class consists of those who have been genuinely converted. As hell-deserving but repentant sinners, they have put their whole soul’s trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and His atoning work. Their sins are forgiven and they are Christ’s forever. Even such may backslide and grow cold in heart and fall into sin.
Many causes may contribute to the declension of a Christian. Perhaps one of the most frequent is self-confidence. We are so prone to forget that we cannot get on for a single hour unless we lean on the strong arm of Christ for support. We are sometimes foolish enough to think that the wonderful blessings we have received are enough to keep us going on without constant dependence on the Blesser. We shall do well to remember what happened in the case of Jacob. On that memorable night by the ford Jabbok, he was wonderfully blessed. God changed his name, and most significantly it is added, “The sun rose upon him.” But the very next thing we read of Jacob is that “he halted upon his thigh.” Darkness had given place to sunshine, doubt and misgiving had been replaced by confidence, the blessing of God had been freely bestowed, but Jacob was left as weak and helpless in himself after it all as he had been before. He still needed to lean for support on something outside himself. And long years afterwards the same necessity existed (Heb. 11:2121By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff. (Hebrews 11:21)).
The same thing is true, in a spiritual way, of every child of God. Constant and hourly dependence is the only way to be kept from backsliding, and this will be so to our last moment on earth. To forget this and to trust in any way to our own power of continuance is to ensure failure and defeat.
If One Who Is Truly a Child of God Backslides, Does He Need to Be Saved Over Again?
I might answer this question by asking another: If a boy were to run away from home, does he need to be made his father’s son over again? No; he may need chastisement, and when repentant he will need forgiveness and restoration to his place in the home circle, but the bond of relationship between him and his father is one which no misdeeds on his part can sever.
Now the bond that is formed between the believer and God is an everlasting bond. It is God Himself who has formed it, and “whatsoever God doeth, it shall be forever” (Eccl. 3:1414I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him. (Ecclesiastes 3:14)). God has saved him and made him His own dear child. He has sealed him with His Spirit and assured him that he shall never perish. Moreover, he has become a member of Christ’s body and an object of the special love and care of Christ Himself. Can all that be compromised and God’s work undone and a sheep plucked from the Shepherd’s hand? To a thoughtful mind and one who comprehends what is implied in a soul’s being saved, to ask such questions is to answer them.
Is There Not Such a Thing As Being Blotted Out of the Book of Life?
You refer, I suppose, to what is said in Revelation 3:55He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. (Revelation 3:5). But we must remember that in the city of Sardis there were some who had, as it were, written their own names in the record of the living ones. They had a name to live, as verse 1 tells us, but in reality they were dead. Now if God writes anyone’s name in the book of life, it is because that one is truly alive, having been quickened by God Himself. And if God writes a name in that book, He will never blot it out. But if anyone takes the place of being a living one, without ever having “passed from death unto life,” it is as if he had inscribed his own name where it has no right to be, on the pages of the book of life. And all such names God will assuredly blot out. But they are the names, not of backsliding saints, but of false and lifeless professors.
Did Not the Apostle Paul Fear That, After All, He Might Possibly Become a Castaway?
If he did, he must have doubted the truth of what he himself constantly taught! But Scripture says no such thing as your question supposes. The passage that is in your mind is 1 Corinthians 9:2727But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway. (1 Corinthians 9:27), which, you will observe, does not mention such a thing as becoming a castaway, though the possibility of being a professor and even a preacher and yet, after all, being nothing but a poor, unconverted castaway is clearly recognized.
Why Does God Permit His Children to Backslide?
We cannot speak of our backslidings as being by God’s permission. It is true, of course, that He has power to keep us from backsliding, but it is not His way to treat us as mere inanimate machines. He has made all His stores of grace and power available for us, so that if we wander and stray, we have no one to blame for it but ourselves. And God uses our failures and falls to impress upon us the lesson that we are slow to learn — that of our own utter weakness and incompetence.
But in order that we may be preserved from stumbling and erring, God has given us a living Saviour in heaven to be our great and mighty Intercessor. He knows our weakness and our need, and He lives to meet it with His grace and power.
We have also the Holy Spirit dwelling within us to be our Guide and Comforter, to make the things of God real to us, and to control us on behalf of Christ.
Then, too, we have the priceless treasure of God’s Word to act on the conscience and point out the way of truth.
With such resources as these, there is no excuse for backsliding. It is only when we neglect the wonderful provision that God has made and try to walk in our own might that we are overtaken with spiritual disaster.
If a Christian Sins, Is He in Every Case to Be Considered a Backslider?
Hardly, for in that case, who among us would not be a backslider? We must distinguish between the one who persists in sin and the one who is “overtaken in a fault,” though even the latter needs restoration (Gal. 6:11Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. (Galatians 6:1)).
If you watch a column of smoke, you will often see it driven to and fro by the passing gusts of wind. Yet its main direction is upward, in spite of everything. So with the Christian. He is liable to be influenced by passing things and, through lack of watchfulness, to be overtaken in a fault. But if his main direction is upward and if he continues in that course, mourning his failures and pressing on in spite of all, he is not to be regarded in the same light as one who goes on for days or weeks or months without getting into God’s presence in self-judgment and confessing his sin and seeking grace to enable him to turn from it.
What Do You Mean by a “Backslider in Heart”?
The term is a scriptural one, as you will see if you turn to Proverbs 14:1414The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways: and a good man shall be satisfied from himself. (Proverbs 14:14). We have an example of what is meant in the case of the saints at Ephesus. They were what many would doubtless have regarded as a model company. Their zealous labors, their faithfulness in rejecting false teachers and their endurance for Christ’s sake were well-known. Nevertheless, He who reads the heart had something against them: They had left their first love (see Rev. 2:2424But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak; I will put upon you none other burden. (Revelation 2:24)). Outwardly they were all that could be desired, but their love to Christ had ceased to burn with its former brightness; the ardor of their first affection for Himself had cooled; they were backsliders in heart.
How many of us have to confess that the same thing is true of us! And how evident it is, from the case of these Ephesian believers, that activity and zeal in the Lord’s service, even when coupled with uncompromising faithfulness to true doctrine, are no remedy for a departure from “first love.”
How Can a Backsliding Child of God Be Restored?
If thorough restoration is sought, there must be a thorough going to the bottom of one’s sin and declension in the presence of God. No mere expression of sorrow and prayer for forgiveness will suffice. There must be real self-judgment and a retracing of one’s steps to the point of departure.
I remember that once, while sitting in my lodging, a little mouse came out of its hole and began to run around in the room. Some motion of my foot, however, soon startled it, and away it ran and vanished into its hole. A few minutes afterwards it reappeared, this time coming from a hole on the opposite side of the room.
Let every backsliding Christian notice this. You cannot do as that mouse did! It ran into one hole and came out at another, but that is impossible for you. You have gotten into some dark hole, away from the light of your Saviour’s presence, away from the joy of communion with God. And if you are to be restored, you will have to come out at the same hole as that into which you went.
What I mean is that you will have to retrace, in God’s presence, that piece of your soul’s history that lies between the moment of your departure and the present time. With the Lord’s help you can do this, and to confess the first wrong step, and judge yourself for having taken it, is a great point gained.
Bear in mind, all the while, that the blessed Lord looks on you with eyes of unchanging love. All your sinful wanderings have not lessened His faithful love for you. Think of this. Turn the thought over in your mind, “He loves me, notwithstanding all,” and with the thought of that true, strong, tender, eternal love, carry your confession into the presence of God. “Take with you words, and turn to the Lord,” and He will heal your backsliding and fill your heart with joy once more.
But be sure you offer no excuses for your declension.
Your greatest foe is yourself, and in turning to the Lord you will do well to make no excuses for yourself.
In confessing your sin thus, you may rest assured that you are forgiven. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.” You may not, and probably will not, experience any sudden relief or any immediate dispersion of the clouds, but forgiven you most certainly are the moment you pour out the sad story of your sin in your Father’s ear.
Then, through the advocacy of Christ, restoration follows. He will bring His Word to bear upon you; He will speak to your heart in a way that will melt you and deepen within you the sense of His love and faithfulness and your own folly and unworthiness. Then, distrusting your own wisdom and strength, you will seek to go on in the power of His grace.
When a Backslider Turns Thus to the Lord, Is His Restoration Immediate?
Not usually, I believe, though his forgiveness is instantaneous the moment confession is made. But restoration is a further thing than forgiveness and is not brought about so speedily. The returning wanderer is made to feel that his sin is no slight matter and that the privilege of communion with God is not a thing that can be cast aside and then resumed at will.
In saying this, I have in my mind passages in Hosea 5:1515I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early. (Hosea 5:15) and 6:12, which, though primarily referring to Israel, state the principle that I am seeking to explain.
The Lord withdraws Himself in chapter 5:15. “I will go and return to My place,” He says, “till they acknowledge their offence, and seek My face.” The effect of this is that the people exhort one another. “Come,” they say, “and let us return unto the Lord: for He hath torn, and He will heal us; He hath smitten, and He will bind us up. After two days will He revive us: in the third day He will raise us up.” A period of time is thus anticipated between the turning of their souls to the Lord and the revival and raising up that will come from Him. This period of time allows the soul’s passing through exercise and its reality being tested. But if its attitude of true contrition and self-judgment is maintained, the restoration is as certain as the forgiveness, and we may be sure that God will not keep one waiting a longer time than is sufficient for the needful lessons to be learned.
Restoration, let me add, does not usually come in the shape of a sudden burst of ecstasy, or anything of that kind, but is brought to pass by our having our thoughts diverted from ourselves to Christ. The Holy Spirit directs our hearts to His love, and in being engaged with Himself, the blessedness we longed for is ours once more. The pamphlet called The Red Heifer, from the same publisher, may help make this clear.