Notes of an address
This is one of the most solemn subjects that could possibly engage our attention. It is alas! far too common a thing for us to allow it to pass unnoticed.
The actual word, backsliding, is only to be found in the Old Testament. Its first mention appears to be in Proverbs 14:14, and it is much to be noted that it is there spoken of as taking place in the heart. It is just there that all backsliding begins, however open and public it may become before it is finished. What is in the heart sooner or later comes to the surface, for, “as he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7).
It seems as though Jeremiah might be called the prophet of backsliding Israel, for the word occurs twelve times in his book, out of the sixteen times it occurs in Scripture. But if the term is an Old Testament one the decline that it indicates is by no means limited to Israel. Look where we will, Eden to Sinai; Sinai to Solomon; Solomon to Pentecost; Pentecost to the present moment; upon every page of man’s history you see it. And the serious thing is that taking place, as it does in the heart it may often be unnoticed even by the person himself: as it says in Hosea 7:9, “Strangers have devoured his strength, and he knoweth it not: yea, grey hairs are here and there upon him, yet he knoweth not.”
The outward appearance may be kept up. Externally all may be in order, as was the case with the church in Ephesus, about which we read in Revelation 2, and yet things may be wrong. A more jealous and scrutinizing eye notes the decline, “Thou hast left thy first love.” “Thou art fallen . . . repent.”
There are three kinds of backsliders.
1. Apostate backsliders, in whose case repentance is impossible.
2. Unconverted backsliders, in whose case repentance is possible, though by no means certain.
3. Converted backsliders, in whose case repentance and restoration is certain, since He who has begun the good work in them will complete it.
The first kind. Those who make a profession of Christianity, and then totally abandon it. Hebrews 6 and 10 bring such cases before us. The former chapter describes the height of their privilege: the latter, the depth of their fall. These Scriptures primarily refer to Jews who had embraced the Christian religion, yet it is but too true that Gentiles also may be guilty of the same thing. Nothing is said in these cases as to any kind of moral breakdown. There is no charge of bad ways or behaviour.
The position as to these backsliders may be summed up under three heads:—
(a) They had embraced all the outward privileges of Christianity, without being born again. Hebrews 6 is very definite as to this. They were,
“Once enlightened.” Brought up in the light of Christianity. Had enough knowledge to even teach the plan of salvation, and yet not saved themselves.
“Tasted of the heavenly gift.” Christianity is heavenly in its origin, in contrast to Judaism which is earthly. They had sampled these heavenly things and had a certain appreciation of them. Perhaps like Balaam they desired an end like the death of the righteous.
“Were made partakers of the Holy Ghost.” They shared in the benefits of the presence of the Holy Ghost on the earth, just as we share with others the light and heat of the sun. They were made to feel His power in the meetings.
“Tasted the good Word of God.” Just as the stony ground hearers, of whom we read in Matthew 14 and Luke 8, received the word with joy and yet fell away.
“And the powers of the world to come.” The miracle-working power of the Spirit will be felt in the coming age, and it was displayed in the early days of Christianity. The same power can be felt and resisted today.
(b) Having tasted all these privileges, they turned away from them. They felt their power and yet they ended by deliberately throwing away the very kernel of Christianity:—the Son of God Himself, the blood of the covenant that He shed, the Spirit of grace, all were repudiated with scorn, as the tenth chapter shows.
(c) They thereby shut themselves up to doom. The tenth chapter tells us that there is no more sacrifice for sins. The sixth tells us that it is impossible to renew them to repentance. It is evident that there can be no remission without sacrifice, and there can be no recovery without repentance. Consequently their case is hopeless.
Profession can go a long way, as we have just seen, but verse 9 of chapter 6 shows us that there are better things than these and things that accompany salvation, which evidently these other things did not necessarily do.
The second kind. An unbeliever who makes profession of being converted, but in whom there is no real work of the Spirit of God. Such slide back sooner or later from the position they have taken. They immediately and with joy receive the word, but the joy and excitement wear off in the course of time. The constant effort that is necessary if they are to live at all like a Christian, the constant saying of no to the desires of the flesh and mind—and all this without the corresponding compensation that a true Christian has in a personal knowledge of Christ and His love—become utterly irksome to them. At last their old tastes assert themselves, old companions and habits are taken up and back they slide.
There are plenty of illustrations of this in the Bible. The case of Orpah furnishes us with one. She started out of the land of Moab with Naomi just as Ruth did. Yet her heart was in Moab, and before long her feet carried her back in that direction, and there she was just as before. Lot’s wife is another illustration. Her heart was all the time in Sodom, and to her the Lord points back as to a solemn monument saying. Remember! Orpah’s position. Lot’s wife’s doom are sufficiently serious to warn a sham professor. In 2 Peter 2:22 also we read solemn words about a case of this kind.
The third kind. Of this class Naomi is a representative. This is the class to whom the term “fallen from grace” is generally applied. It is supposed that they fall out of the favour of God by becoming backsliders.
It is important to remember that our acceptance before God—our being in His favour, or standing in grace—is not in any way dependent upon our conduct. Our conduct had nothing to do with our acceptance and relationship before God, though it has everything to do with our enjoyment of it. Abel was not brought into favour because of his personal excellence nor because of his good behaviour, but because his excellent sacrifice was accepted. Just so, we are brought into favour “in the Beloved.” We are in God’s favour so long as He is.
Moreover our standing is in God’s grace; He Himself is well disposed towards us. Joseph’s brethren knew very well that neither their past conduct nor their present behaviour had anything to do with the favour in which they stood before Joseph. They reckoned that Jacob was the one that kept them in favour, so when he passed off the scene they were at once distressed. Jacob being gone they thought that they could no longer expect to be viewed with favour, seeing they could find no reason in themselves why they should be. What was their surprise to find that Jacob’s influence had no more to do with it than their own conduct! All depended upon Joseph’s love and grace. They had been standing in his grace, and did not know it. Joseph had acted on his own initiative and from the grace in his own heart, rather than under any influence which his father brought to bear upon him.
How is backsliding brought about? Here Job 15 will help us. Verse 11 furnishes the great test question:—“Are the consolations of God small with thee?” It is as though the Great Physician lays His finger upon our spiritual pulse! Heavenly comforts are small with us because the heavenly Comforter is grieved.
Then come further questions which lead us back to the cause of it all. “Is there any secret thing with thee?” These secret things are often little things, yet they divert our souls from Christ; they dim His glory before our eyes. These little things must go. It may be said that, “There is no harm in them.” Yet they may do the mischief. George Whitfield used to hold up his finger and thumb and show how effectually they shut out all view of the sun from his eye—and there is no harm in the finger or the thumb. Rightly used they are highly useful members of our bodies.
Again comes the enquiry, “Why doth thine heart carry thee away? and what do thy eyes wink at?” Here we get back to the real seat of the trouble. We find ourselves at the very point indicated in Revelation 2:5, “Thou hast left thy first love.” This traces things back to their source.
How is the backslider restored? God will certainly restore the backslider who is truly converted. It may be under the drawings of His own sufficiency; or it may be under the pressure of His chastening hand, of which Psalm 32 speaks.
Of this Naomi is an illustration. She slipped away easily enough. It was not difficult to leave the land of promise for the land of Moab; but once there her troubles began. She lost her husband and then her sons. This was great pressure. The light and hope of her life was extinguished, and then just at that time she heard of the Lord visiting His people in giving them bread. This turned her feet once more toward Canaan, and she got back at the beginning of the barley harvest. The whole city was moved at her return: there was joy at the recovery of the backslider!
If the backslider is to be thoroughly recovered all must be bottomed. The barrier must be removed: the place of departure must be reached. If a railway train has been run on to sidings it must go back to the points where it got off, if it is to get on to the main line again. That was how the Lord dealt with backslidden Peter as recorded in John 21. By His skilful questioning He led him back in his thoughts to his boastful assertions of his love, and to the shameful denials that followed. Three times did Peter deny his Lord, and three times did the Lord ask Peter His searching question.
Peter was like a soldier who through fear had temporarily deserted. What he needed and got was discipline and recovery and not re-enlistment. A wayward lad may need the punishment of the father’s hand, but no bad conduct of his can sever the bond of relationship that exists. For every truly converted backslider the chastening of the Father’s hand is the way that leads to recovery.