Those who live carelessly in their spiritual path on earth often say, “I know I’m a backslider.” They feel they are Christians but admittedly are not living like followers of Jesus. It’s amazing to me how often the word backslider is used by such persons. I would think that some other Christian teachings of major importance or warning would occupy their minds. Backslider is an overused word with minimal Biblical foundation. In fact, the word isn’t used at all in the New Testament. In the Old Testament it occurs about a dozen times, especially in the books of Jeremiah (3:6,8,11,12,14,22; 31:22; 49:4) and Hosea (11:7; 14:4). Its setting and meaning indicates an apostate, one who completely rejects the truth and turns away from it.
Only a remnant of Israel lived as true believers, faithful to the Lord. The nation as a whole was considered to be apostate, degenerate, rejected and under the judgment of God. As the “wife of the Lord” she had become unfaithful and adulterous, a spiritual prostitute. God divorced her (Jeremiah 3:8; Isaiah 50:1). One of the prophet Hosea’s children was named “Lo-ammi,” meaning “you are not my people”—God indicated that He had completely renounced any relationship to them. The word backslider is not an accurate term for someone professing to believe but living far from God. It will, however, no doubt continue to be used like that.
Another common expression, much overused or misused, is that of “carnal (or fleshly) Christian.” These are true believers, according to the major passage dealing with them (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). Carnal Christians feed on spiritual “milk.” They are immature believers who have failed to grow properly. Nothing in Paul’s description given here makes it appropriate to apply this term to a person who lives an habitually sinful or God-neglecting life.
Do Christians ever sin? Of course (1 John 1:10). In what way do believers who sin differ from unbelievers? For believers sin is not a normal characteristic of life. True believers practice righteousness (1 John 3:7). They do not sin regularly, repeatedly, habitually (1 John 3:8), especially deliberate sin (1 John 3:4). No one who is born of God can live a life in which lawless sin (known, yet still committed) is a practice (1 John 3:9). “In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest. Whosoever does not practice righteousness is not of God” (1 John 3:10). True believers sin, but they never sin by rejecting their hope in the gospel. They do not become apostates. They do not continue in a life of habitual, unrepented and deliberate sin.
When true believers do sin, it grieves them deeply (Psalm 32:3-5). They confess and forsake their sins (Proverbs 28:13). They long to be restored to a true fellowship with God (Psalm 51:1-17). If they do not judge themselves (1 Corinthians 11:31) God disciplines them as His children (Hebrews 12:5-11). He does not eject them from His family. God’s discipline can include sickness and even death (1 Corinthians 11:30). It is to be feared. Such persons should “tremble at His Word” and fear His displeasure. Those who are not true believers seem to have no fear of this. They return to their former sins repeatedly. It is as a “dog returns to his own vomit” or “a sow, having washed, to wallowing in the mire” (2 Peter 2:22).
A true believer is known as a sheep. In Scripture a believer is never called a dog or a pig. Those terms refer to those with a false profession, who were never true believers. Yes, believers do sin. Yet they are no longer slaves to sin as they were when unsaved (Romans 6:16-18). Their lifestyle now is one of obedience from the heart. They are freed from sin’s power (Romans 6:18). To live righteously they must consider themselves to be dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:11). They must daily yield their bodies to God as instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:13; 12:1-2). They desire to cooperate fully with the Holy Spirit to walk according to His will (Romans 8:4,11-13). Believers are given the Scriptures for their instruction so that they “may not sin” (1 John 2:1). They are to pray that they enter not into temptation (Mark 14:38) or place themselves in situations that are spiritually dangerous. They must “resist the devil” (James 4:7) and resist temptation. The Lord has “granted” to them “everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). It is up to believers to avail themselves of every divine provision to avoid sin or offense to God.
The life of those with a false profession is quite different. Their spiritual life is wasted away. I recall questioning a young woman one time about her relationship to the Lord. I have done this hundreds of times with all kinds of people. At a certain point in the conversation I asked, “When and where did you hear and believe the gospel? When did you receive Christ as Lord and Savior?” She named a certain time when this “spiritual experience” occurred. “Did your life change then?,” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “How long did the change last?,” I persisted. “About one hour,” she said, to my astonishment. “What happened then?” She replied, “I started to backslide.” That must be a record low for life transformation after profession. Judas Iscariot lasted three years, with more signs of life than some persons I have met. With others the time might last longer or shorter. At some point, however, false profession will break down and fall apart.
A word of caution should be given here. It is a questionable practice for anyone to say to a professing believer “you are not saved” on the basis of their opinion. There are believers or preachers who act as self-appointed judges. They may carelessly label someone unsaved on the basis of externals, that is, not of the inner being. They may disapprove of certain clothing as immodest. They may object to jewelry. They may object to television in general or to what in particular is watched. They may object to smoking. They may require certain hair length, or a certain type of head covering. They may object to any makeup on women. Many of these things might be undesirable. But they should not be the basis of our saying, “You are not saved.” That is not a pronouncement we should make readily.
The Lord warned about judging others on the basis of outward things. First Samuel 16:7 says, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” An individual might outwardly appear righteous, but inwardly be “full of hypocrisy” (Matthew 23:28). It is not that which comes from without that defiles a man, said the Lord, but what comes from within (Matthew 15:11-20). It is the unrighteous and hypocritical heart, sometimes seen in religious people, that is the problem (Matthew 23:25-28).
Read applicable verses from Scripture and make your own self-appraisal. Let the Holy Spirit do His work in convicting you of your spiritual need. You are saved on the basis of having spiritual life (in the Son) not light (spiritual understanding). You may have received very little teaching on proper Christian living.
In seeking to help others it may be helpful to discern the reality of their profession of faith in Christ. Discerning is not the same as pronouncing a verdict or “judging.” How else could one appropriately give needed spiritual guidance? Because believers have the means to overcome any obstacle in their spiritual life, they ought to live differently from the unsaved. So don’t accept or use the label of “backslider” without true knowledge of what this means. Let it not be an excuse for a God-displeasing life. Be sure you do not profess to be among His people yet someday hear the words of the Lord Jesus, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23).
Study Guide Lesson 7 Backsliders, Carnal Christians And Sinning Saints
1. Recall any person you have met who claimed to be a backslider but who probably was never saved in the first place. How did you handle them? Or, what should you have done if you had been better prepared?
2. How would you handle a person who has had many episodes of serious sin, such as immorality, and who makes this statement: “None of us are perfect.” Or, “I believe God forgave me when I asked.”
3. What is the difference between a believer who sins and an unbeliever who sins, especially while professing to be a Christian? Read 1 John 3:4-10 and Psalm 51.
4. Why is it not wise to tell anyone “I believe you are not saved,” or “I believe you are saved”? What is the best way to deal with people about whom either you or they are not sure of their relationship to Christ?