Please comment on the matter of backsliding. Is this sin not an Old Testament phenomenon?
The words “backsliding,” “backslider,” and “backslidings” are indeed found only in the Old Testament. We have taken the term “backslider”—which is closely related to the word “apostasy,” which described Israel’s national and individual departure from the worship of the true God—and used it to describe a carnal believer today. In our usage, “backslider” refers to a believer who is out of the will of the Lord, or who is carnal. I don’t see any particular problem with using “backslider” in this manner, as long as we know what we mean.
The concept of the carnal, worldly, rebellious believer is certainly valid. Call these believers backsliders if you wish; the important thing is that we face the facts: believers can be less than what they should be spiritually. Too many believers are satisfied with their status as escapees from eternal damnation. They don’t consider their divine mandate to advance and grow (2 Pet. 3:18). Others go on with the Lord after salvation but relapse later when troubles hit.
The New Testament frequently deals with the subject of carnality in the Christian life. Passages to consider are 1 Corinthians 3:1–3, Galatians 5, Hebrews 5:11–13 and 12:15, and James 1:22–24.
Whenever someone deals with the question of backsliding or carnality, he has to attend to the issue of God’s Word or to a lack thereof. Again, countless Scripture passages underscore the importance of the intake of God’s Word for spirituality. Psalm 119:9 asks and then answers the question, “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word.” The proper and regular intake of God’s Word and carnality do not mix.
I remember hearing repeatedly at Bible college that the easiest place for a person to backslide is at a Bible college. The mere atmosphere of exposure to the Word is not what counts; the Word has to get into a person’s heart, soul, and mind to work the needed changes. Also, maturing spiritually is a lifelong process. Many people want instant spirituality, but God does not work in us that way. Yet He expects us to advance continually in the Christian life.
Even pastors attest that those in their calling can backslide without realizing it. Again, neglect of the Word as the primary matter of importance in life becomes apparent. Instead of diligent study, preparation, and delivery of the Word, a person can resort to substitutes and shortcuts—entertainment; gimmicks; events outside God’s prescribed way, the local church; emotionalism; or even an undue emphasis on revival or evangelism (not wrong in themselves if genuine)—rather than resting in the power of the Word to change lives. In other words, spiritual growth can come in no other way than through sound teaching (1 Tim. 4:6; Titus 1:9).
A person might wonder why backsliding happens, especially when a particular believer has in the past enjoyed sweet fellowship with the Lord through the Word. The answer is found in Revelation 2:4, which portrays believers in the church at Ephesus: “Thou hast left thy first love.” Jude 21 admonishes us to “keep yourselves in the love of God.” Again, the Word of God is of utmost importance in obeying this command.
Backsliding also takes place when we let some of the world get a foothold in our lives. We put ourselves in places where we’re easily tempted or don’t have the chance to commune with the Lord. Backsliding can certainly happen as believers begin to take their spiritual, physical, and material blessings for granted. It takes place as bitterness or sorrow strikes and is not dealt with Biblically. Material wealth can cause a person to regress spiritually because the temporal becomes more important than the eternal.
Signs of backsliding include neglect of church attendance, neglect of personal and family devotions, sinful habits, a critical spirit (especially toward those who are spiritually interested and who govern their lives by the Word), and a general disinterest in anything of a spiritual nature.
Possible consequences of backsliding are serious: divine discipline (Heb. 12:5– 15), the permanent condition of turning one’s back on the Lord (v. 17), and the sin unto death—the Lord’s taking a believer Home before his time (1 John 5:16).
How should a person deal with his own backsliding? We’ve noted the problem of the believers at Ephesus. Revelation 2:5 reveals a step-by-step method to recover spiritually. First, the Ephesian believers were to remember. They were to recall the thrill they had experienced in the past from following Jesus and being positive toward His will and Word. Remembering would create within them a longing for better things spiritually.
Second, they were to repent. Repentance involves not a mere sorrow for sin but a resolve to let God be sovereign in one’s life and to take His viewpoint on the issues of life.
Third, they were to renew (“do the first works”). This idea means that the wayward believer should live obediently once again. We need a willingness to obey every time the Word confronts us with instruction.
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