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Pastoral Exhortation - Series of 2011

What Is Backsliding?


The Bible repeatedly sounds out strong warnings against backsliding. The reason why it warns so much about backsliding is because we are often unaware of its presence in our lives. Backsliding begins unexpectedly. Then like a dangerous cancer, it pervades our lives quickly. So we must learn what backsliding is all about and then exercise utmost vigilance against it lest we be taken unawares.

Meaning of “backsliding”

In the King James Bible, the word “backsliding” and its various forms appear about 17 times; and all of them appear in the Old Testament (cf. Proverbs 14:14; Jeremiah 2:19; 3:6, 8, 11, 12, 14, 22; 5:6; 8:5; 14:7; 31:22; 49:4; Hosea 4:16; 11:7; 14:4). Though the word “backsliding” is not found in the New Testament, the concept is abundantly found in it.

In the Old Testament, the English word “backsliding” and its derivatives are translated mainly from three Hebrew words. The first Hebrew word mešûbā(h) and other forms of its root word (šôbāb and šôbēb) depict “a figurative extension of the non-linear motion of turning aside off a correct path”. Hence they indicate apostasy, faithlessness, defection, waywardness, disloyalty, betrayal, etc. One who is not true to a belief and course of action, and so cannot be trusted is therefore considered to be a backslider. The second Hebrew word sārar portrays stubbornness and rebelliousness. It is used in the Bible to describe obstinate persons who are unwilling to change their behaviour under any circumstances, living in open defiance to divine authority. The third Hebrew word sûg is also translated as “turning away” or “turning back”, to depict one’s faithless, disloyal, untrustworthy behaviour. In the Old Testament, it refers to Israel’s unfaithfulness to God.

Cause of backsliding

Nowhere in all Scripture is the cause of a backslider more succinctly described than in Proverbs 14:14a: “The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways.” It teaches us that backsliding is caused by the departure of one’s heart from God. The primary cause of this grievous disorder is the corruption, depravity and deceitfulness of the human heart. When one’s heart is not right with the Lord, he is backsliding from the Lord. All deviations from God originate from this contaminated source. Hosea 10:2 cautions: “Their heart is divided; now shall they be found faulty: he shall break down their altars, he shall spoil their images.”

A man may be a backslider in heart even though he cannot be charged with an open notorious sin. In fact, most backsliders in heart do not appear as backsliders in life. So it is important that we remember that the first stage of backsliding is a divided heart. Backsliding begins when one entertains desires, thoughts, temper and arguments that are contrary to God’s will. The heart then gradually digresses and accommodates sin by relinquishing divine principles, showing laxity of practice and neglecting Christian duties. So the backslider in heart is one who has left his first love. He is lukewarm in spirit; mixed up with the world; and he is also too double-minded and faint-hearted to serve the Lord. It is not easy to reverse his interest. It is always difficult to reach his conscience.

A backslider empties his heart of God’s ways and fills it with his own ways. Backsliding begins when one develops self-gratifying, self-glorifying desires that are contrary to God’s will and purposes. Backsliders “are turned back from the LORD; and those that have not sought the LORD, nor enquired for him” (Zephaniah 1:6). Matthew Henry says, “The backslider in heart, who for fear of suffering, or in hope of profit or pleasure, forsakes God and his duty, and shall be filled with his own ways.” Because the heart of a backslider is so full of himself, the danger of his backslidden condition might remain hidden from him. This would probably explain why great men like Abraham, Lot, David and Peter suddenly found themselves in wretched sins. How much more then, lesser men like you and me! Let us pray, “O, Lord, deliver us from the evil of our self-willed hearts.”

Two groups of backsliders

In the Bible, the backsliders are those who once appeared to be religious or spiritual, whether they are true believers or not. It hardly describes non-religious people or those who belong to non-biblical religion as backsliders.

There appears to be two kinds of spiritual backsliding: (i) “Perpetual backsliding” and (ii) occasional or temporary backsliding. Perpetual backsliding characterises hypocritical men or professors of religion, who “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5). These are not true believers, though they appear to be religious. They have regarded themselves as true converts and are also seen by others as such. They have joined the full communion of the church but have subsequently gone back to the world, given up their profession and in many cases become immoral or sceptical. Their end is worse than their beginning. These persons might have even partaken in and have experienced the fellowship and services of the church, but without true faith in the Lord Jesus. Hebrews 6:4-8 shows that even though they have had some noticeable religious experiences, how awful and hopeless will be their fall. “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God: but that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.” Jeremiah the prophet describes their backsliding as perpetual backsliding: “Why then is this people of Jerusalem slidden back by a perpetual backsliding? they hold fast deceit, they refuse to return” (Jeremiah 8:5).

Secondly, there is an occasional or temporary backsliding of true believers. Believers may at times backslide; and in some cases, their backsliding might even resemble the perpetual backsliding of professing Christians or false believers. But God will discipline and restore them to repentance, so that they are never finally lost, but are kept by God’s power.

While speaking about these two groups of backsliders, Charles Hodge said: “There is, however, all the difference between these two cases that there is between a swoon and death. In appearance the two are alike. But, in a swoon there is still a dormant principle of life. It is sure to revive. Whereas, in the other, the principle of life is absent and revival is out of the question.”

A word of caution must be sounded to all those who find themselves in a backslidden state: they should return to God immediately! God’s message to those who continue in sin is that they must repent and follow the Lord – “Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings” (Jeremiah 3:22). Otherwise, the consequences of sin can be severe. It is extreme folly to think that it will be alright to continue in self-willed ways. In the context of Proverbs 14:14 that taught us what backsliding is all about, there is a verse that warns us of the danger of walking in self-willed ways. It warns: “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Proverbs 14:12).


Pastoral Exhortation