In the book of the prophet Hosea is described the undying love of God toward a people whose hearts have wandered far from His ways. Here are expressed the deep, inner longings and desire of his heart to woo them and win them back by His love. “I will heal their backsliding,” He promises; “I will love them freely…” (Hos 14:4)
The word “backslide” literally means “turn back” or “turn away” (from God, 1 Ki 11:9; from our first love, Rev 2:4; or from the gospel, Gal 1:6, 7; 3:1-5; to Satan, 1 Tim 5:15; to evil, Psa 125:5; or to the world, 2 Tim 4:10).
Scripture metaphorically describes the backslidden state as: serving two masters, forsaking the Lord, going our own way, leaving our first love, forgetting God, falling away, turning aside (“like a deceitful bow,” Jer 14:7), growing cold, departing from the faith, putting a hand to the plow and looking back (Lk 9:62), “salt that has lost its savour” (Mat 5:13), “a dog returning to his vomit” (Prov 26:11), a dead branch (Jn 15:6; Heb 6:8).
With the abundance of Bibles in America, a church in every neighborhood; and bookstores, tape ministries, and nationwide religious television and radio, why do they backslide? How do they fall?
The backslider does not suddenly wake up one morning and go out and commit adultery. Over a period of time, he may have become lax in his thought life, or entertained fleshly desires. King David watched Bathsheba undress, and soon it was but a little step for him to give expression to the imagination of his heart.
Characteristics of the Backslidden Condition.
Spiritual decay is a gradual process. If it came as a splash of cold water in the face on a sweltering day, we’d recognize it for what it is. But Satan is sly, and his tactics are subtle. Even as the onslaught of many diseases can be insidious, the wasting away that occurs in the heart of the backslider may be nearly imperceptible. It may begin with a general feeling of spiritual indifference (Amos 6:1). As we fail to focus upon spiritual things, the flesh seeks fulfillment.
Initially, the prayer life may be crowded out with other interests – even innocent pastimes: sports, hobbies, television. As we fill our hearts and lives with junk food, our hunger for the Word diminishes. Church attendance usually slackens off (though some continue in a state of hypocrisy), and relationships undergo extreme stress, as the conviction of the Holy Spirit becomes increasingly uncomfortable. As we ignore God’s appeals to return (2 Ki 17:15), our zeal and concern for souls subsides, due to a sense of guilt and hypocrisy. In time, the fear of God departs and a complete re-ordering of priorities in our life occurs. An overall feeling of lostness and lack of purpose causes great discontentment of heart.
Then one day, we realize that our abhorrence of sin is gone. It becomes easy to justify actions we never otherwise would have considered acceptable. And since our sensitivity to spiritual things is not what it used to be, we may sense very little guilt. The calloused heart becomes stone; our conscience, “seared” (1 Tim 4:2). Now, the farther we stray, the more distant the voice of God becomes, and the more difficult it seems to find our way back.
Even while struggling in a fallen state, the backslider may verbally identify himself with the Lord (Hos 8:2; Lk 6:46). The inconsistencies in his life, “like the morning dew” which comes and goes, may disturb him (Hos 6:4); but more often he will be blind to his own spiritual state (Hos 7:9; Rev 3:17, 18). An over-confidence in one’s former standing with God (as opposed to confidence in God) can falsely convince an individual that God will overlook his present conduct (Hos 7:2).
Some have a propensity to falter; “they keep on backsliding.” They are “bent to backsliding” (Hos 11:7). Their condition appears “perpetual” (Jer 8:5; 14:7). “Their hearts are always going astray …” (Heb 3:10) Even as individuals vary in their degrees of spirituality or commitment (Col 1:23), some are more prone to falling away, by reason of choice (personal weakness). Like a garden that must be carefully tilled and weeded (Hos 10:12; Mat 13), our spiritual lives require diligent attention (2 Tim 2:15, 21; 2 Pe 1:5-7). Neglect and laziness, as well as trampling the vines, can wreak havoc.
Backsliding is, as the word implies, a sliding back – not a jump off a cliff, but a coasting downhill. We cannot ascend the mount of God in neutral. Spiritual growth requires a conscious effort, or it will be only “natural” that we succumb to the ways of the flesh.
The condition, however, while not sudden in onset, may escalate rapidly. All it takes is “a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest…” (Prov 8:10; 24:33). “A little leaven ferments the whole lump” (Gal 5:9). “… the little foxes… spoil the vines.” (Song of Sol 2:15) Satan tempted Jesus when He was physically weak (fasting), and he attacks us at our weakest times, in our weakest areas. An A-student might not be tempted to cheat, but to become proud of his achievements. The Christian might never be tempted to murder, but faces countless opportunities to hate or speak evil of his brother.
The backslidden condition may be manifested externally (in cursing, drinking, lying, etc.); but it occurs in the heart (Prov 14:14) Often concealed in secret (2 Ki 17:9), the backslider’s condition may remain hidden behind a facade of religiosity. We can have all the right doctrines, and bear every appearance of honor among men – yet still be filled with lust, jealousy, bitterness, etc. The wayward heart, however, does not long tarry near the altar of God, but squirms under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and writhes in discontent.
Although backsliding begins in the heart and mind (Prov 14:14; 2 Corin 11:3; Col 2:8), however, the condition eventually becomes evident externally. Jesus said that a person’s inward spiritual condition becomes obvious by the fruit he bears. Paul said it is possible to profess the truth verbally (“with their mouth”) but deny the Lord in our actions (Tit1:16). If our lives fail to measure up to our profession of faith (1 Tim 5:8), our actions will declare our words obsolete (1 Corin 13). Even the term “believer,” as used in the New Testament, is not a noun but a participle: “one who is believing.” Christianity is not a one-time trip to the altar, but a day-by-day walk of life and faith in Jesus Christ.
Backsliders in Scripture
One need not look long in Scripture to find examples of the backslidden. Israel’s repeated backslidings are well documented, as are those of many Old Testament individuals: Lot, Gen 19:1-22; Saul, 1 Sam 15:11, 26-28; Amon, 2 Ki 21:22, 23; Rehoboam, 2 Chron 12:1, 2; Asa, 2 Chron 16:7-9; Joash, 2 Chron 24:24; Amaziah, 2 Chron 25:27; etc.
Scripture tells us that “when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God… And the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart was turned from the Lord God of Israel, which had appeared unto him twice.” (1 Ki 11:4, 9; cp. vv. 4-40; Neh 13:26)
From the life of David we learn how yielding to one sin, lust, can quickly lead to others: drunkenness, adultery, even murder (2 Sam 11:1-5, 13; 12:1-13). Severe consequences of our actions can remain, even though an offense has been forgiven. David suffered tremendous grief at the death of the son born of an ungodly union. His great anguish of heart, as one who experienced the Presence of God but abandoned His ways, is expressed in Psalms 51:1-19 and 61:10-12.
While the spiritual condition of an individual within a church may reflect upon the leadership, this is not always the case. Even some disciples of Jesus (perfect teacher that he was) “went back and walked no more with Him” (Mat 26:56; John 6:66) Some fell away but returned – including Thomas, who had his moment of unbelief (John 20:27-29); and Peter, who denied the Lord in the face of persecution (Mat 26:70-74; Mk 14:72). “Satan hath desired to sift you as wheat,” Jesus told Peter; “but I have prayed for you, that you do not fail.” (Lk 22:31, 32)
Paul, too, expressed concern over believers in the early church, that they remain in the faith (1 Corin 5:1-13). At times, entire churches are mentioned as having backslidden: The Corinthian church (2 Corin 12:20, 21); the Galatian church (Gal 1:6; 3:1; 4:9-11; 5:6, 70); the churches of Asia (1 Tim 5:15; 2 Tim 1:15; Revel 2:4, 14, 15, 20; 3:2, 3, 15-18). The New Testament mentions many backsliders by name: Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim 1:19, 20); Phygellus and Hermogenes (2 Tim 1:15); Demas (2 Tim 4:10). Yet, even of those who followed, some, “having loved this present world,” “turned aside” and fell away (1 Tim 1:18-20; 5:15; 2 Tim 1:15; 2:17, 18; 4:10-16).
The Conditional Aspects of Christianity
“If you continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel…”
Life is filled with choices. Daily, we make decisions that may draw us nearer to God, or cause us to fall away. We also have an enemy, whose purpose it is to render us ineffective for the kingdom. His desire is to discredit and disprove both the work and the word of God, by weighing down (Lk 22:31) and wearing down (Dan 12:7) the saints. Satan seeks to strip us of our spiritual strength, by tempting us to exert our efforts elsewhere. If he cannot convince us to commit an obviously outrageous offense, he will crowd our lives with other interests: “the cares of this world.” It is not necessary to turn a cup upside down, to displace its contents. It can just as easily be emptied by the introduction of other matter. As we fill the cup with sand, the water will spill out. As it is in the natural, so it is in the spirit.
Scripture speaks as much of backsliding as it does of getting saved – and not surprisingly. Once an individual begins on the Way, his problems do not cease. Quite the contrary. As an unbeliever, he was just where Satan wanted him. He posed no threat to his kingdom. To deceive and mislead the elect, however, Satan will work overtime.
Obedience to Christ is not optional. It never has been an elective in the course of the Christian walk (Mat 19:17; Jn 8:31). While our salvation is completely unmerited, many promises of God are conditional upon our obedience to His Word: “If you…” (Deut 7:12; 11:13, 22, 27; 28:1, 2, 9, 13; 30:10; 1 Sam 1:19, 20; 12:14, 15; 2 Chron 7:17, 19; 1 Ki 9:4; Jer 22:4, 5; 1 Corin 10:12; 11:28, 31; 2 Corin 13:5; Col 1:23).
* Long life & health: Ex 15:26; 1 Ki 3:14
* God’s Presence: 1 Ki 11:38
* Success: 1 Chron 22:13
* Victory over the enemy: 1 Sam 7:3
* Inner strength & satisfaction: Ex 18:23
* God’s treasure: Ex 19:5
Thus, when we wander outside the boundaries of His will, we tread on territory that is dangerous – not only spiritually, but emotionally, psychologically, even physically. In the sense that there is also a loss of balance and stability, backsliding is also a “falling away.” But it is always the result of personal choice: 2 Chron 24:20; 15:2-4; Isa 30:9, 15; 2 Tim 2:12. “The Lord is with you while you be with Him…”
The Causes of Backsliding
“Have you not brought this on yourselves by forsaking the Lord? Your wickedness will punish you; your backsliding will rebuke you…” Jeremiah 2:17, 19
The causes of backsliding are many and varied. Some are hidden; others are obvious. But the usual tendency is to emphasize the externals: pornography, illicit sexual relationships, drunkennness, etc. The lack of positive, spiritual input (prayer and Bible study), however, has just as detrimental an effect upon the soul as the introduction of evil influences. Starvation can be as deadly as the ingestion of any lethal substance. Jesus condemned the Pharisees not for what they did, but for what they failed to do: “…you neglect the weightier matters of the law,” such as mercy, He said. He also told his disciples that they would be judged not just according to their relationship with him, but also by their neglect of “the least of these” (Mat 25:35-45).
Not everything “lawful” is “expedient” or beneficial, Paul writes. Reading romance novels, for example, might not in itself cause one to go out and sin. (It could). But neglecting the Word of God certainly will. The “lust of the flesh,” the “deceitfulness of riches,” “the love of the world” – all these can entrap us and cause our downfall. But the pride of life, and hatred toward a brother, eat away from within and are just as destructive.
Consequences of Backsliding
“Consider then and realize how evil and bitter it is for you when you forsake the Lord…” Jeremiah 2:17, 19
Backsliding often carries its own punishment (Prov 14:14; Jer 2:17, 19; Rom 13:4). And its effects often extend far beyond the experience of the offender alone. Causing a brother to stumble is a serious offense. We will be held accountable not only for our own relationship with God, but for our conduct before men as well. Our life is “an open book,” Paul writes, “known and read of all men.” People who do not hear what we say cannot help but observe the way we live. “Your actions speak so loudly,” the saying goes, “that I can’t hear a word you’re saying.” Therefore, we are to “love not in word, but in deed…” (1 Jn 3:18). Anyone who has experienced the Presence of God will never find lasting satisfaction outside of His will. This accounts for the inner frustration and bitterness of soul accompanying the abandonment of one’s soul to the unruly state of life without God.
Recovery: A Process
“I will heal their backsliding; I will love them freely…” Hosea 14:4-7
Scripture likens the backslidden condition to a disease (Isa 1:5, 6), for which God has a cure (Jer 3:22; Hos 14:4-7). As with most natural diseases, certain symptoms are typical of the condition: a spiritual lethargy, a calloused attitude toward sin, worldliness, a spiritual love grown cold, lack of prayer or decreased hunger for the Word, and a general feeling of apathy toward lost souls. A dominant characteristic of the backslidden condition is stubbornness (2 Ki 17:14, 40). Falling away is essentially a heart condition. Though its manifestations may be primarily external, the root of the problem lies much deeper. And, even as many health problems can be caused by neglect as well as abuse, the Christian who neglects the Bread of Life can hardly expect to grow in the nature and admonition of the Lord.” Scripture cites several safeguards or preventative measures against backsliding.
Responsibility Toward the Backslidden
“But if you do not listen, I will weep in secret because of your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly, overflowing with tears…” Jeremiah 13:17
Although the spiritual welfare of God’s flock is primarily the responsibility of the shepherd, or pastor, every believer ought to have a burden for the backslidden. We are our “brother’s keeper” (Gen 4:9) and should “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2). Besides exhorting one another daily (Heb 10:25), we ought to pray regularly for our brother (Psa 80:3; 85:4; Lam 5:21). “Behold, Satan hath desired to have you … but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not. And when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren,” Jesus told Peter (Lk 22:31-32).
However, prayer cannot replace the loving confrontation. “The truth shall set you free,” Jesus said. “If a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness…” (Gal 6:1) “If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister” (1 Tim 4:6) – even if the words are rejected (Ezek 3:19, 21; Hos 8:1). A reward awaits those who retrieve a fallen soul: “…he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins” (Jas 5:20).
In attempting to bring back a fallen brother, however, we must make sure we ourselves are strong enough in the faith to stand secure: “…lest you also be tempted” (Gal 6:1). Those who have forsaken the Lord tend to bring others down (Prov 28:10; Mat 18:6; 1 Corin 15:33). Therefore, we are specifically exhorted to avoid those who have completely hardened their hearts through sin (Prov 28:14; Isaiah 26:3, 4; 1 Corin 5:9-11; Col 1:21-23; Jude 22 23) – although our attitude toward them should remain one of mercy: “Count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thes 3:6, 15).
The Call to Return; the Promise of Forgiveness
“Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings…” Jeremiah 3:22
God promises to receive those who return with repentant hearts (Deut 4:29; 1 Chron 28:9; 2 Chron 7:14; 15:2; Jer 31:20; 36:3). His patience toward those who “keep on backsliding,” however, is limited (Jer 15:6; Prov 24:16; Hos 11:7). Their backsliding is “perpetual… they refuse to return” (Jer 8:5-7). Some are reprobate: beyond any place of repentance (Isa 1:5-6; Jer 6:30; 15:1; Ezek 22:18; Heb 10:26-29, 38, 39; 1 Corin 5:10-13; Heb 6:6; Revel 2:4, 5, 21-23; 3:2, 3). But if they are rejected of God, it is because they have rejected Him. His desire is always for their return (2 Chron 30:6; Isa 31:6; Jer 3:4-22; Hos 6:1; 14:4-7).
Must believers repent? The primary difference between the righteous and the wicked is that “the just man,” though he may “fall seven times,” gets up again (Prov 24:16). He doesn’t remain in his sin. Moses fell. David fell. Peter fell. The churches in Revelation fell and were exhorted to repent (Revel 2:5, 16; 3:3, 19). Scripture – written to believers – repeatedly warns against falling away (Psalms 85:8; 1 Corin 10:12): “Watch…” “Be sober.” “Take heed…” “Beware…” “Hold fast..”
What does God require of the backslider who desires to return? “…only acknowledge thine iniquity” (Jer 3:13, 14; 12:13), and change your ways (Job 22:23; Psa 51:3-4; Isa 1:16-20).
Complete restoration is possible. God is merciful and ever ready to forgive (Neh 9:17; Isa 54:6; Jer 3:12-14; Ezek 34:23; Mic 7:18; 1 John 1:9). He may withdraw His Presence, to stir our hearts to return; but he never abandons His own. He still calls the backslidden his “children” (Jer 3:14), his people” (Psa 106:40; Ezek 37:23b). The initiative, however, is ours: “Return unto Me, and I will return unto you” (Mal 3:7; Jer 3:12-14). “Break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the Lord…” (Hos 10:12, cp. 2 Chron 30:9 and Jer 4:1).
“Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory…” (Jude 1:24-25)