By Dr. Roger Barrier, Crosswalk.com
What is “backsliding?” I’d like to know because I think I have done it.
The fact that you’re worried about it means that you probably have. Please don’t take that too personally. Most Christians backslide at one time or other in their Christian life!
What is Backsliding?
I define “backsliding” as an interruption or step backward in our spiritual growth.
Personally, I believe that backsliding is the Old Testament equivalent of the New Testament phrase, “Live in the spirit and not in the flesh (our sin nature).”
Backsliding is serious business because the greatest sin in Christianity is the failure to grow up spiritually.
When a baby with genetic problems can’t grow up, our hearts break. In the same way, when one of God’s spiritual babies refuses to grow up, his heart breaks.
My wife and I once had a baby who couldn’t grow up. She was born at three pounds and died at 5 pounds. It was awful.
Sadly, American churches today are filled with baby Christians who have chosen, for whatever reason, not to grow up.
God’s design for all Christians is to mature spiritually from spiritual children, to spiritual young men and women, and on to spiritual mothers and fathers. (Read 1 John 2:12-14 to understand some the basic characteristics of each level.)
What does it mean to backslide?
Let me explain backsliding in the context of normal spiritual growth.
Imagine a hand saw turned upside down with the teeth pointing upward. Now tilt up one side. The low side represents spiritual babies and children. Now, move upward about halfway along the upside down hand saw and we identify this area as spiritual young men and women. Finally, at the tilted up end of the saw we see spiritual mothers and fathers.
This is the normal Christian life. As time passes God’s design is for us to grow upward in our spiritual maturity until we are able to guide the church and lead it as Christ intends. The saw teeth represent the ups and downs of the Christian life. As we follow the Holy Spirit we move up the saw. When we slide downward away from the Lordship of Christ, we are backing up in our Christian maturity.
Unfortunately, we all have moments of living our way instead of Christ’s way. But overall, the general trend is to move upward in our spiritual growth. The number of upward steps far outweighs the number of downward steps.
In backsliding, the saw begins to trend downward. Our spiritual lives are stymied. Spiritual growth stops and backsliding has commenced. The tragedy is that we don’t remain at the spiritual level where we stopped. We go into what James calls “retrograde motion” by which we turn from Christ and slide down the upturned saw blade.
James calls these people “forget full hearers” because they actually begin to forget the lessons and the things that they have experienced in Christ (James 1:22-25).
When backsliders decide to return to Christ we find that they do not pick up where they left off. Instead, they have slid backwards and soon discover that they are less spiritual now than when they first began to slide.
Some Christians slide down the saw faster than others. How quickly depends on how surrendered—or not—they are to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Signs of backsliding
Backsliding looks like gratifying the desires of the flesh instead of living according to the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:19).
Backsliding looks like Galatians 5:19-20: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.”
Backsliding looks like luke warmness to the things of Christ. It looks like intentional sins, guilt, and/or discipline and divine punishment
In contrast, moving forward in our spiritual growth looks like the fruit of the Spirit.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:23-25).
Backsliding is not the type of game we want to play with God. Backsliding has a high price! Backsliders always lose.
Please note that backsliding is not an unpardonable sin. Backsliding will not lead to hell because the grace of Christ forgives all of our sins at the cross: past, present and future. However, the Lord Jesus uses a variety of tools to make the life of the backslider absolutely miserable.
Backsliding in the Bible
“Therefore a lion from the forest will attack them, a wolf from the desert will ravage them, a leopard will lie in wait near their towns to tear to pieces any who venture out, for their rebellion is great and their backslidings many” (Jeremiah 5:6).
“Your wickedness will punish you; your backsliding will rebuke you. Consider then and realize how evil and bitter it is for you when you forsake the Lord your God and have no awe of me,” declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty” (Jeremiah 2:19).
“‘You have rejected me,’ declares the Lord. ‘You keep on backsliding. So I will reach out and destroy you; I am tired of holding back’” (Jeremiah 15:6).
Backsliding is not the end of the world. Jesus is waiting with outstretched arms to welcome us back.
“They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 37:23).
“Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate (Luke 10:23-24).
The cure for backsliding is to return to Christ as Lord.
“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10).
Follow Jesus’ model for renewing your love for Jesus.
“Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Revelation 2:4-5).
Notice that Jesus’ model has three easy to remember parts.
- Remember what it used to like;
- Repent that it’s not that way;
- Repeat the things you did when you were on fire for Jesus.
Personally, I’ve found that formula to be utterly effective when I’m struggling with my love for Jesus.
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.
Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at [email protected].