Barney had always been proud of his thick wavy hair, but then he began to lose it. Finally just one lone hair remained on top of his shiny dome. One morning Barney awoke, looked at his pillow, and was shocked to see that last hair lying there. Jumping out of bed, he ran downstairs, crying, "Martha, Martha, I'm bald!"
Barney’s life and reaction is similar to the Christian who begins dabbling in the things of the world. He gets deeper and deeper in sin, slowly sliding and backsliding away from the Lord, without even knowing or perceiving what is really happening to his life. Backsliding starts in such a subtle way that most of us are unaware of it, and some may be backsliding and not realize it. It begins with wrong choices, small compromises, and then adverse changes are made in our Christian lives. Many times it is not until the backslider has some startling experience, perhaps due to God's discipline, that he sees his true condition.
In today’s study we want to address the topic of backsliding. We will do so by asking various questions dealing with the subject of backsliding.
What does the term backsliding mean?
The term backsliding does not appear in the New Testament but it does appear in the Old Testament. The Hebrew words for backsliding (showbab - “to turn away”) or backslidings (meshuwbah – “turning away or turning back”) denote Israel’s apostasy. It would suggest a person’s disloyalty and faithlessness to God. There are different types of apostasy presented in the Word of God such as the apostasy of the last days committed by unsaved demon inspired people (1 Tim. 4:1). But for God’s Jewish people it was a time when they refused to live by the terms of the Mosaic covenant. They would break God’s covenant requirements and commands for their lives. When applying the word backsliding or apostasy to the Christian life it would refer to those times when God’s people turn away from living for God and return to questionable habits. It’s a time when they lose a sense of God’s presence and power in their lives.
So even if the word backsliding does not occur in the New Testament we can concur that the general idea of the word (to turn away or depart) can become part of the Christian experience.
“Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God.”
Christians will never finally and forever walk away from God by losing their faith and belief in Him (Heb. 3:6, 14) but they can become confused about certain truths presented in Scripture (2 Tim. 2:17-18). Although there cannot be total departure from truth in the Christian life there can be temporary lapses in faith and misunderstanding about truth. The Holy Spirit of God working on the inside of them would not allow them to depart from the soteriological (salvation) fundamentals and Christological foundations of the Christian faith. Believers are those who believe (1 Tim. 4:12).
It should also be stated that genuine believers can never totally and forever abandon God in their lives (1 John 3:7-10) since God’s life continually exists on the inside of them and will keep operating in some measure throughout their life by manifesting fruitfulness (Phil. 1:6). Nevertheless Christians can temporarily lapse in their dedication to the Lord and their love for Him. They can go through periods of time where they move away from loving God, living for God, serving God, committing themselves to God, and walking in fellowship with God. God’s people can depart from the Lord in some measure. Not all apostasy must come from unbelievers who totally forsake everything about Christianity. Apostasy can be applied to believers who refuse to hear and accept some truths of Scripture that they need to believe and embrace. Such was the case with these Hebrew brethren who needed to embrace the completed work of Jesus Christ and not return to the sacrificial system of the Mosaic Law (Heb. 3:12). It would also be true of the believers at Galatia (Gal. 1:6; 5:4-9).
Departure can also apply to those believers who stray from their former position of commitment to the Lord and living for Him. It can refer to those Christians who allow their lives to become corrupted by the things of the world to such a point that they lose a sense of God’s presence and power operating in their lives. They can for a time depart from God and live their own life independent of God.
Paul said in 2 Timothy 4:10:
“For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica; Crescens to Galatia, Titus unto Dalmatia.”
When Demas forsook Paul and departed into Thessalonica he also separated from the Lord’s work and what God called Him to do and how God wanted him to live. Backsliding can become a real problem in the Christian experience that can hinder our testimony and fellowship with God.
2 Peter 3:17-18 seems to stress the real possibility of believers backsliding: “Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness. But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen.”
Peter warns the brethren about falling “from your own stedfastness.” This is a warning about apostasy in the Christian life. This is not an apostasy from faith in the person and work of Christ. It is rather a departure from the truths of the Word of God that are needful for maintaining a healthy Christian life. The word “fall” means to drop away or be driven off one’s course in life. The danger of falling away or backsliding is something real in the Christian life. The way to keep from falling is to keep on growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ (vs. 18). This obviously means to grow by learning to rely upon the strengthening grace of Jesus Christ and the knowledge of His abiding presence in your life.
2 Peter 1:10-11 also says:
“Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”
The reason why this warning is given to these believers (“ye shall never fall”) is because there was a very real possibility that they could fall (trip or stumble) from their present state of godly and fruitful living as Peter had just described. But instead of stumbling into a state of ineffectiveness they could make their high calling sure by living this fruitful and spiritual life that Peter had just described in the previous verses. The end result would be an abundant entrance into the millennial kingdom, which would bring rich reward and privilege (note the word “abundantly”).
2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 also addresses the issue of believers backsliding: “And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”
In this case, Paul urged the church not to associate with a disobedient member who was backslidden in his life “that he may be ashamed.” This Christian brother had backslidden into such a shameful state of sin that God’s people needed to refuse fellowship with him in the local church meetings. Here was a person who was lazy and did not work to support himself or his family (2 Thess. 3:10-11). There can be no doubt about it. Believers can backslide. They can lapse into sin and not follow truth, obey God, walk with God, and fellowship with God.
What are some Biblical examples of backsliding believers?
Noah would be an example of a backsliding believer. He got drunk and lay naked in his tent (Gen. 10:20-23). Lot sought the fellowship of the wicked Sodomites, lost all his spiritual influence, and got drunk and ruined his own daughters (Genesis 19). We will see this in a later portion of our study. Saul was anointed by the Lord as ruler over God’s inheritance (1 Samuel 10:1, 24). He was said to be a spiritual man directed by God (10:6-10; 11:6). Saul even built an altar unto God (14:35) and worshipped God (15:31). However, Saul did many wicked acts at times within his life such as taking the place of the priest and offering a sacrifice upon the altar (13:8-14). Saul became disobedient and even lied to Samuel about what he had done. Because of his disobedience the Lord sent an evil spirit upon him and he tried to kill David (19:9-10). Saul actually ended up murdering the priests of the Lord (22:17-18). David, a man after God’s own heart, a man used to write the beloved Psalms, committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had her husband, Uriah, slain to cover his sin (2 Samuel 11). Some of you today may know the broken heart that David experienced over his backsliding sin (Psalm 51:1-17). Oh the burning conscience of a backslider! You may need to repent of your sin just like David did and get right with God today. There is a way back as we will see at the close of this study. The way back is to repent of your sin and confess your sin before God (1 John 1:9).
A preacher of the early 1900’s said that when he was 12 years old he had killed one of the family geese by throwing a stone and hitting it squarely on the head. Figuring his parents wouldn't notice that one of the 24 birds was missing, he buried the dead fowl. But that evening his sister called him aside and said, "I saw what you did. If you don't offer to do the dishes tonight, I'll tell Mother." The next morning she gave him the same warning. All that day and the next the frightened boy felt bound to do the dishes. The following morning, however, he surprised his sister by telling her it was her turn. When she quietly reminded him of what she could do, he replied, "I've already told Mother, and she has forgiven me. Now you do the dishes. I'm free again!" In a similar way God’s people who have backslidden into sin must confess their sin to Him in order to receive forgiveness, restoration, and a sense of freedom once again.
Solomon wrote three books of Scripture (Proverbs, Ecclesiasties and Song of Solomon), which would indicate that he was a regenerate man and that God’s desire was to communicate His eternal message through this man. Solomon did have an intimacy and fellowship with God. His prayer of dedication for the temple was certainly God-honoring (1 Kings 8:22-28). Solomon’s real downfall began when he started to love foreign wives and marry them (see 1 Kings 11:1-10). His sin caught up with him, and his heart was eventually drawn away from the Lord. The world of seducing and scantily dressed women becomes the downfall of many men today. The pornographic industry and TV world of entertainment can become the cause of a man’s backsliding. Wife swapping and lust for another man’s wife has been the downfall of more than one Christian man. Solomon did forsake the Lord. He eventually became an idolater and did not fully commit his life to God (see 1 Kings 11:5-6). Let us beware of backsliding.
Thomas Adams once said:
“If thou wilt fly from God, the devil will lend thee both spurs and a horse.”
King Uzziah did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord (2 Chronicles 26:1-4). However, when Uzziah became powerful, he fell into pride and became unfaithful to the Lord and even attempted to burn incense upon the altar (26:15-19). This was absolutely forbidden by God. As he was burning this incense upon the altar, he was struck with leprosy on his forehead (26:20). King Uzziah had leprosy until he died. He lived in a separate house and was excluded from the temple of the Lord.
The Bible also tells how Peter denied the Lord. He cursed and swore claiming that he never knew Jesus (Matt. 26:69-75). Peter went back to his old fishing business but Jesus finally caught up with him to restore Him to a place of fellowship and blessing once again (1 Cor. 15:5). Paul’s companion and close associate (Col. 4:14; Philemon 24) in the ministry (Demas) evidently had his heart stolen away by the world. This grieved Paul because Demas had defected from the ministry and went back into the world (2 Tim. 4:10). He no longer followed the Lord’s will for his life. A Corinthian church member was actually living in sin with his stepmother! The church needed to discipline this man (1 Cor. 5:1-5). In fact, Paul delivered this man out of the haven and protection of the church into the domain of Satan for discipline. The purpose for this chastisement was so the brother could be restored to the fellowship of God’s people in the future (see 2 Corinthians 2:5-10). Then too, who can forget the drunkenness of the Corinthians? Some of the Corinthian believers were using alcoholic wine at the Love Feasts and becoming drunk (1 Cor. 11:21). So at the remembrance of the Lord’s death they were not fit to partake of communion or the Lord’s Table. This brought God’s judgment upon their lives. God’s judgment was a sin unto death. The Lord took the lives of these sinning Corinthian believers (see 1 Cor. 11:30). Since they did not show respect toward the Lord’s body, the Lord was going to weaken their bodies physically and even take the lives of some of the Corinthians. This is called a sin unto physical death that a believer can commit (1 John 5:16). Believers who backslide can actually be saved from God’s chastisement of physical death by a spiritual saint who seeks to restore them.
“Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.”
There are other examples we could give of believers who failed to live for the Lord as they should and who departed into sinful living breaking their true fellowship with God. But the examples mentioned above will remind all of us that we are not exempt from backsliding. We too can depart from God and not live for Him as we should and love Him as we can. You may say, I have not committed adultery, planned anyone’s death like David, or become drunk like the Corinthians. Well, you don’t have to commit these types of sins to live in ongoing carnality and a backslidden state. How about your stubbornness to repent of your gossiping ways, your envy, jealousy, self-centeredness, impure heart, root of bitterness, pride, lack of church attendance, lack of faith, lack of commitment to God’s work, and your callousness and insensitivity to the things of God? There is something within all of us, the old Adamic nature, which is continually pulling us away from God and causing us to forget God’s will and purpose for our lives. When we allow the old nature to control and dominate our lives we lapse into a backslidden state. This brings us to our next question.
When does backsliding occur?
a. Backsliding occurs when a Christian lives in carnality.
Backsliding occurs when a believer or Christian falls away from God’s fellowship and full blessing in life because of their own selfish ambitions and sinful lifestyle. Backsliding can only occur in a Christian’s life. Why is this? It’s because you have to go somewhere before you can slide back. One needs to be born again and moving forward in their lives before they can move in a backward direction. Nevertheless backsliding occurs when carnality or fleshly living overtakes and dominates a believer’s life. It occurs when a Christian is continually controlled and primarily defeated by sin. It may be an outrageous sin and gross sin known to everyone, or it may simply be coldness of the heart toward spiritual things. It might be lukewarmness of the heart (Rev. 3:15-16) toward spiritual living instead of possessing a burning love and zeal for the things of the Lord. It must be understood that when a Christian commits one particular sin they do not necessarily fall into a continuous carnal and backslidden state unless they fail to confess this sin and get right with God.
“He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.”
A continuation in carnal living and a fixed pattern of carnal living is what causes a Christian to backslide in their day-to-day living. When a person refuses to change their sinful patterns of living they can become backslidden and defeated in their life and become carnal in their Christian experience. 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 reminds us how the Corinthians lived a carnal life:
“And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?”
The verse suggests that the Corinthian’s were living in a continual carnal or fleshly state (“For ye are yet carnal”). Because of this they were not spiritual Christians but carnal Christians who had allowed their flesh to dominate their lives. When a Christian begins to develop a consistent pattern of carnal living then they become backslidden. When they move in a downward spiral of carnal living they are eventually overcome by sin and backslide in their Christian experience. A backslidden believer lives more for the flesh than for God. They live for themselves instead of their Savior. They no longer are interested in the Word of God, they no longer are listening to the voice of God, nor are they fellowshipping with God. Like Demas, they love the present world system (2 Tim. 4:10) that is against God and which is continually seeking to take them away from God’s blessing and fellowship.
b. Backsliding occurs when a Christian turns their heart away from
God and loves forbidden things.
Proverbs 14:14 says:
“The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways: and a good man shall be satisfied from himself.”
Backsliding consists of our “own ways” – our worldly, carnal, selfish, reckless, and wicked ways. Our own ways become the forbidden ways that are against God. They are the ungodly and selfish ways of living (Prov. 14:12 16:25). These ways of carnal living provide satisfaction for the passing moment. Let us remember that sin is always seasonal (Heb. 11:25). But when does backsliding begin? It begins when the heart of a Christian moves away from God (“backslider in heart”). It occurs when the heart begins to desire the forbidden things of life rather than the godly or right things. Backsliding begins in the heart and eventually translates into our everyday living. The text says that we become a “backslider in heart” for it’s from the realm of the heart that wicked sins originate and where personal decisions are made (Matt. 7:21: Jer. 17:9). This tells us that a person may be living outwardly pious or righteous but be backslidden just the same. This is because their heart is far from God (Matt. 15:8) and they are manifesting rebellion toward God on the inside of their heart.
1 Kings 11:9 says:
And the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart was turned from the Lord God of Israel, which had appeared unto him twice.
Deuteronomy 11:16 also says:
“Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them.”
A backslider turns away from God in the realm of his heart. This is where backsliding occurs. The heart is the focal point of where rebellion and all backsliding originates. Sin on the outside always begins on the inside. This is why there is so much warning and instruction about keeping your heart’s motives and desires pure or wholesome (Prov. 4:23). The bottom line is this. You choose to backslide and live your own selfish way. This can be illustrated in the lives of God’s people during the Old Testament. Israel was a notorious backslider. The book of Judges records at least seven occasions when Israel turned from the Lord and had to be chastened.
The book of Hosea is a book on backsliding. The prophet speaks often of how Israel had gone away from God.
“For Israel slideth back as a backsliding heifer: now the Lord will feed them as a lamb in a large place.”
The picture is of a young heifer that throws the yoke off her neck and turns backward rather than moving forward. As long as the nation responded like a young cow, stubbornly resisting His leading, God would treat her appropriately (Jer. 31:18). Israel was stubborn and refused to be separated from her sinful idols and selfish living. Because of their stubbornness God would judge them and they would become like a helpless and vulnerable lamb pasturing in the large unprotected regions. This may picture the coming Assyrian captivity upon the nation due to God’s people losing His protective hand.
“And my people are bent to backsliding from me: though they called them to the most High, none at all would exalt him.”
Some of you are bent on backsliding! You are stuck in your backsliding mold and are determined to live for yourself. You are like a stubborn mule who will not budge. I want to say something today. God needs to shake you up! If you are bent on living your own way, as a Christian, I can assure you that you won’t get away with it forever. We will see this in another point. God’s Word says we can become “bent to backsliding” or determined to go in our own wicked way. This is because we still possess the old nature as God’s children and there is an inner struggle with sin. The problem of sin is still present with Christians as it was when they were unsaved.
John R. Rice recounts an incident in his life that tells us how we possess the sin nature and are prone to backsliding. He writes:
“My mother was dead and my boyhood companions in the wild west Texas cow town were rough and wicked. And one day it dawned on me that I had drifted far from God in my heart. I had grieved Him in my life. I had gotten to where prayer was not a joy and the Bible was not sweet. I was attending special services in a little Presbyterian Church. Many young people found Christ, and many Christians had their joy restored, and I alone seemed left without a blessing. How sweet was the singing! What a light on the face of the happy people. And one night as they sang,
Pass me not, O gentle Saviour,
Hear my humble cry,
While on other thou art calling,
Do not pass me by,
I cried out, ‘Lord is everybody going to get a blessing but me. Do not pass me by!’ And, thank God, all the joy came back and peace flooded my soul! I knew that my failures and my sins had been forgiven. It was as definite as if my Father has taken me in his arms and kissed away my tears and told me so! That night as I walked home across the prairie, and looked up at the stars, I made a vow to God. I said, ‘Oh, God, I will never fail You again, I will never forget my prayer time, I will never give way to temptation and sin!’ You may well smile; I think that maybe a loving and kindly God smiled at my great promises that night. How well He knew my sinful nature, my frailty and sin! … How little I knew that God wanted trust instead of promises, and that He wanted me to depend upon Him instead of myself. But He gave sweet peace again.”
Jeremiah 3:6 speaks of the backsliding ways of God’s people:
“The Lord said also unto me in the days of Josiah the king, Hast thou seen that which backsliding Israel hath done? she is gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot.”
Some of you may be playing the harlot today in that you have departed from serving and living for the Lord. You may be living primarily for yourself and doing your own thing in life. You are living the Vanity Fair type of lifestyle or having your own fling in life and you know it’s wrong. Now what are you going to do about it? God is calling you to the place of significance, surrender, and change. Stop playing the harlot type of life. Stop playing with sin! Don’t you know that sin wrecks everything! You must say yes to God’s way once again and forsake that sin or sins in your life, which have been keeping you from fellowshipping with God and living for the Lord. You say, “I have many problems in my life.” Yes, you do. And many times you create your own problems because you have a sin problem. Sin creates many problems in your life and don’t you ever forget it. It’s time to cleanse your life from sin.
2 Corinthians 7:1
“Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”
Since we have the promises of God’s fellowship and presence given in 2 Corinthians 6:16-18 (“And will be a father unto you”) we should want to walk with God and experience the wonderful blessing of God’s Fatherly love of companionship and leadership in our lives. The only way we can experience God’s fatherly care over our lives is to cleanse ourselves from sin and allow His presence to once again become real and wonderful in our lives. God wants to lead us, comfort us, and fellowship with us, as the Father, but He can only do these things when we are willing to clean up our lives. What is filthy in your life today? What has caused you to backslide into a dormant and deplorable state as a Christian? God says that we need to do business with Him at times in our lives where we cleanse ourselves from filthy living. We do this by taking the initiative to turn away from sin, or as the context teaches, separate from the sinful things or unclean things of our lives. We must learn to “touch not the unclean thing” (2 Cor. 6:17). We need to obey the truth about living a separate and holy life. We must “cleanse ourselves” or take the initiative to step out and do something about our spiritual condition by separating from sin.
Dear friend, step out today and mean business with God. First, we need to cleanse ourselves of the outward sins of the “flesh” (body) or what we do with our bodies. Second, we must also cleanse ourselves from sins of the “spirit” (inner man) or what we think like and long for on the inside. The motives and thoughts of the inward life need to be cleansed since we backslide in the inner person. When we cleanse ourselves outwardly and inwardly we will reach the goal of holiness that God has intended for our lives (“perfecting holiness”). God wants us to be pressing toward the goal of holiness which means we will be growing or maturing in our holiness and do so fearing God (“in the fear of God”). This means we will possess a wholesome dread of displeasing a holy God and at the same time possess a reverential awe for His holiness. Clean up your act! God is a holy God and wants to be your Father.
Let us cleanse ourselves! In this permissive society God’s Word still condemns the sins of the flesh and the spirit. Such sins as drinking liquor, pornography, tobacco use, gossip, swearing, listening to rock music, adultery, fornication, jealousy, pride, anger, and “such like” (Gal. 5:21) are sins that need to be addressed and forsaken in the Christian life. Of course, neither the list of sins I mentioned above or the list in Galatians 5:21 are intended to be an exhaustive list. I may have missed your sin or Galatians 5:21 may not have mentioned the particular sin that is causing you to backslide. What is the sin that has caused you to backslide in your Christian life? How about the root of bitterness in your heart (Heb. 12:15) or some other secret sin (Psalm 90:8) that has been gnawing at your life? How about the sin of neglect (James 4:17)?
Let us remember our thoughts on 2 Corinthians. If you as a Christian are going to indulge in sin and live in a backslidden state then God cannot be the kind of loving and helping Father that He wants to be toward your life. Although you are His son as a Christian, He cannot treat you as a Father would like to treat His son (2 Cor. 6:18 – “and I will be a Father unto you”). Experiencing God’s tender and fatherly care over our lives and His loving companionship can only come when we seek to separate from sin or clean up our lives. We need to deal with our sin. We need to deal with our backsliding. Let us cleanse ourselves. What will it be for you today?
Billy Sunday, the baseball evangelist, always had an attack upon sin. He was quoted as saying: “I’m against sin, I’ll kick it as long as I’ve got a foot, and I’ll fight it as long as I’ve got a fist! I’ll butt it as long as I’ve got a head. I’ll bite it as long as I’ve got a tooth. And when I’m old and fistless, footless, and toothless; then, I’ll gum it until I go home to glory and it goes into perdition!”
“Why then is this people of Jerusalem slidden back by a perpetual backsliding? they hold fast deceit, they refuse to return.”
Are you like these people? How about your today? Are you backslidden? Are you living for yourself and beginning to love the forbidden things? Are you too stubborn to change your life today? What are you going to do about your life?
According to airline authorities a new method for clearing ice-packed planes has been put into operation. Unlike conventional de-icers that are limited in capacity, this up-to-date equipment has ramp-side holding tanks from which hot fluid is piped to gate locations where the aircraft is parked. The ground crew can quickly tap into the source, and within minutes a constant flow of liquid is doing the job of de-icing the planes and getting them ready for takeoff.
In the spiritual realm, Christians too need an occasional de-icing. A chilling coldness sometimes sets in and they gradually become insensitive to the things of the Lord. Even worse, they become unresponsive to the direction of God and the leading of His Spirit.