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Backsliding: A temporary or partial diminution of one’s spiritual commitment. It is less serious or major than apostasy.
Backsliding is a temporary lapse into unbelief and sin following a spiritual conversion. The four relevant Hebrew words in the OT are variously translated “turn away” (Jer. 8:5), “backslidings” (Jer. 5:6), “turn from” (Hos. 11:7), and “waywardness” (Hos. 14:4).
Backsliding in the OT primarily concerns Israel’s forsaking of its covenant relation with Yahweh (see Jer. 2:19; 8:5; 14:7). The nation’s turning from the Lord in disobedience is analogous to the breaking of a sacred marriage vow (Jer. 3:6–22). Specific examples of backsliding in the OT include Saul (1 Sam. 15:11–28), Solomon (1 Kings 11:4–40), Rehoboam (2 Chron. 12:1–2), and Asa (2 Chron. 16:7–9). Although the word backsliding is not found in the NT, there are numerous examples of believers who draw away from fellowship with the Lord—e.g., the disciples (Matt. 26:56), Peter (Matt. 26:69–75), Demas (2 Tim. 4:10), Corinthian Christians (2 Cor. 12:20–21), and churches in Asia (Rev. 2:4, 14–15, 20).
The reason that some who are genuinely converted fall back into a life of sin is that the believer yet possesses the old nature that is “being corrupted by its deceitful desires” (Eph. 4:22; cf. Rom. 7:13–24; 1 Cor. 3:1–3). Specific causes of spiritual backsliding include God-forgetfulness (Ezek. 23:35), unbelief (Heb. 3:12), bitterness (Heb. 12:15), preoccupation with the present world (2 Tim. 4:10), love of money (1 Tim. 6:10), and seductive philosophies (Col. 2:8). Backsliding displeases the Lord (Heb. 10:38), grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30), and incurs divine punishment (Lev. 26:18–25). Although backsliding brings untold hurt, most Christians believe that the backslidden believer is not eternally lost. The believer’s union with Christ sealed by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13–14), God’s work of preservation (2 Tim. 1:12), Christ’s effectual intercession (Heb. 7:25), and the fact that the life Christ gives is eternal (John 3:16; 10:28) guarantee the final salvation of every blood-bought child of God.
According to Scripture, backsliding can be prevented by abiding in Christ (John 15:4–7), being spiritually alert (Eph. 6:18), praying constantly (1 Thess. 5:17), and maintaining a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:19). The promises of God to the backslider are exceedingly gracious: “ ‘Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Mal. 3:7); “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely” (Hos. 14:4).
To wane in religious commitment, to become less arduous in piety or less upright in morals. Grieved by the spiritual defection of his chosen people, God declared that “backsliding Israel committed adultery” (Jer 3:8 KJV). Through Hosea the Lord lamented the fact that “Israel slideth back as a backsliding heifer” (Hos 4:16 KJV). Jeremiah confessed, “Our backslidings are many, we have sinned against thee” (Jer 14:7).
The principal Hebrew word for backsliding means “turning back” or “turning away.” The people of Israel repeatedly turned from God and engaged in the sin and idolatry of their pagan neighbors. In the language of the OT, backsliding Israel lusted after abominations and forsook the Lord and his commandments (Ezr 9:10; Is 1:4; Ez 11:21). They violated the sacred covenant by worshiping idols and practicing harlotry (Ps 78:10; Jer 2:11; Hos 4:10). The people forgot God’s mighty works on their behalf, ignored his counsel, and rejected his instruction (Ps 78:11; 107:11; Is 30:9). Hardhearted and rebellious, they delighted themselves in all sorts of perversions (Jer 3:21). Religious leaders entrusted with the spiritual care of the nation were instrumental in leading the people astray (Is 9:16). The priests proved themselves faithless shepherds (Jer 50:6).
In the NT, backsliding is usually viewed from an individual more than from a group perspective. Jesus warned his disciples of the danger of backsliding: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62). In his analogy of the vine and branches, Jesus exhorted the disciples to “abide” in him and in his words (Jn 15:4–8). Lack of continuous and vital contact with Christ would result in spiritual ineffectiveness and loss of fellowship. The parable of the prodigal son dramatically illustrated the self-willed rebellion of an erring son and the gracious forgiveness of a pardoning father (Lk 15:11–32). In a conversation on the Mt of Olives, Jesus observed that toward the end of the age evil would abound and “most men’s love will grow cold” (Mt 24:12). Steadfastness and perseverance were the only reliable antidotes to backsliding.
Paul likewise warned believers of the dangers of falling away. Israel’s idolatry in the wilderness and God’s judgment upon their waywardness should serve as a stern warning (1 Cor 10:1–11). Paul instructed his converts in Galatia against forsaking their freedom in Christ and an enslaving religion of works. He marveled that the new believers had so quickly been deceived (Gal 3:1) and were abandoning the gospel of Christ (1:6). The new Christians who had begun so well were failing to obey the truth (5:7).
In correspondence with Timothy, Paul was grieved to learn that some believers had already turned aside after Satan (1 Tm 5:15). Love of money and philosophical speculation had precipitated their downfall (6:10, 20, 21). A Christian by the name of Demas turned back from serving God because he loved the world more than Christ (2 Tm 4:10).
Finally, in Revelation, the risen Christ reproached the churches for the spiritual indifference and coldness of their backsliding (Rev. 2:4; 3:16).
Martin Luther once spoke of the shameful behavior of backslidden Christians: “The offenses given within the church are greater than those given among the heathen, because when Christians degenerate, they are more godless than the heathen.”
From Scripture, it seems clear that “born again” believers can either regress or progress in their Christian life. Paul indicated something of the inner struggle between his old carnal nature and his new spiritual nature (Rom 7:14–25). Spiritual growth results only from starving the carnal and feeding the spiritual. The apostle urged Christians to advance in faith and knowledge until they attain full maturity in Christ (Eph 4:13–16). Only then would their spiritual lives be stable. As believers purge themselves from iniquity and grow in grace, they resist the natural tendency to backslide (2 Tm 2:21). Jude expressed confidence that God is able to strengthen and sanctify believers so that backsliding becomes less and less of a threat (Jude 24).
The question arises of whether Christians who backslide can lose their salvation. Those Christians known historically as Arminian in theology hold that believers can “fall from grace” and be lost. In such a case, backsliding amounts to total apostasy. Calvinists, on the other hand, insist that truly regenerated persons can never be lost. To Calvinists, backsliding means only loss of fellowship and effectiveness in the service of God, because their doctrine of perseverance teaches that God’s elect will ultimately be saved (i.e., persevere in the faith).
- 1 JOHN 1:8-10; 2:1; 3:8-10: Can a Believer Lose His Salvation?
- EPHESIANS 1:4: Are some chosen (predestined) to eternal salvation, and others to eternal condemnation?
- What Does the Bible Really Say About Born-Again Christian Losing Their Salvation?
The Bible offers practical guidance to avoid falling back into a state of sin. Christians should guard against a heart of unbelief (Heb 3:12). Their ambition should be to press on to know God more intimately (Phil 3:10–16) and to obey his commands more perfectly (Dt 8:11). God’s sustaining power should be appropriated by faith (Ps 17:5). Their heart should be set upon the Lord himself rather than on the gifts he bestows (Dt 8:12–14). In short, believers should seek to “walk in the light, as he is in the light” (1 Jn 1:7).
What does God say to Christians who find themselves in a backslidden condition? First, they should face up to the consequences of their spiritual malpractice (Dt 32:29). God states that “the backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways” (Prv 14:14 KJV). Next, they should confess all known sin and turn to the Lord in repentance (Lv 26:40; Hos 6:1, 2; 1 Jn 2:2). God’s promise to the penitent is “Return to me, and I will return to you” (Mal 3:7). Often it is helpful to seek the assistance of a wise spiritual counselor (Jer 3:15). Persons who are sincerely penitent will determine in their heart never again to turn to folly (Ps 85:8).
The God of the Bible is the God of all grace. Therefore, “Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord; his going forth is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth” (Hos 6:3).
- Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001)
- Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988)
- Millard J. Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001)
 Millard J. Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 20.
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