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.
[Jer 3:6, 8, 11-12, 14, 22 NKJV] 6 The LORD said also to me in the days of Josiah the king: "Have you seen what backsliding Israel has done? She has gone up on every high mountain and under every green tree, and there played the harlot. ... 8 "Then I saw that for all the causes for which backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a certificate of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but went and played the harlot also. ... 11 Then the LORD said to me, "Backsliding Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah. 12 "Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say: 'Return, backsliding Israel,' says the LORD; 'I will not cause My anger to fall on you. For I [am] merciful,' says the LORD; 'I will not remain angry forever. ... 14 "Return, O backsliding children," says the LORD; "for I am married to you. I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion. ... 22 "Return, you backsliding children, [And] I will heal your backslidings." "Indeed we do come to You, For You are the LORD our God.
[Jer 31:22 NKJV] 22 How long will you gad about, O you backsliding daughter? For the LORD has created a new thing in the earth--A woman shall encompass a man."
[Jer 49:4 NKJV] 4 Why do you boast in the valleys, Your flowing valley, O backsliding daughter? Who trusted in her treasures, [saying], 'Who will come against me?'
[Hos 11:7 NKJV] 7 My people are bent on backsliding from Me. Though they call to the Most High, None at all exalt [Him].
[Hos 14:4 NKJV] 4 "I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely, For My anger has turned away from him.
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.
[Jer 3:8 NKJV] 8 "Then I saw that for all the causes for which backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a certificate of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but went and played the harlot also.
[Isa 50:1 NKJV] 1 Thus says the LORD: "Where [is] the certificate of your mother's divorce, Whom I have put away? Or which of My creditors [is it] to whom I have sold you? For your iniquities you have sold yourselves, And for your transgressions your mother has been put away.
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.
[1Co 3:1-4 NKJV] 1 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual [people] but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able [to receive it], and even now you are still not able; 3 for you are still carnal. For where [there are] envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like [mere] men? 4 For when one says, "I am of Paul," and another, "I [am] of Apollos," are you not carnal?
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.
[1Jo 1:10 NKJV] 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.
[1Jo 3:7 NKJV] 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.
[1Jo 3:8 NKJV] 8 He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.
[1Jo 3:4 NKJV] 4 Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness.
[1Jo 3:9 NKJV] 9 Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.
[1Jo 3:10 NKJV] 10 In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor [is] he who does not love his brother.
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).
[Psa 32:3-5 NKJV] 3 When I kept silent, my bones grew old Through my groaning all the day long. 4 For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was turned into the drought of summer. Selah 5 I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD," And You forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
[Pro 28:13 NKJV] 13 He who covers his sins will not prosper, But whoever confesses and forsakes [them] will have mercy.
[Psa 51:1-17 NKJV] 1 To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Have mercy upon me, O God, According to Your lovingkindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin [is] always before me. 4 Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done [this] evil in Your sight--That You may be found just when You speak, [And] blameless when You judge. 5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me. 6 Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, And in the hidden [part] You will make me to know wisdom. 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Make me hear joy and gladness, [That] the bones You have broken may rejoice. 9 Hide Your face from my sins, And blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from Your presence, And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, And uphold me [by Your] generous Spirit. 13 [Then] I will teach transgressors Your ways, And sinners shall be converted to You. 14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, The God of my salvation, [And] my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness. 15 O Lord, open my lips, And my mouth shall show forth Your praise. 16 For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give [it]; You do not delight in burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God [are] a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart--These, O God, You will not despise.
[1Co 11:31 NKJV] 31 For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged.
[Heb 12:5-11 NKJV] 5 And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: "My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; 6 For whom the LORD loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives." 7 If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? 8 But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected [us], and we paid [them] respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they indeed for a few days chastened [us] as seemed [best] to them, but He for [our] profit, that [we] may be partakers of His holiness. 11 Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
[1Co 11:30 NKJV] 30 For this reason many [are] weak and sick among you, and many sleep.
[2Pe 2:22 NKJV] 22 But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: "A dog returns to his own vomit," and, "a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire."
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.
[Rom 6:16-18 NKJV] 16 Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin [leading] to death, or of obedience [leading] to righteousness? 17 But God be thanked that [though] you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. 18 And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.
[Rom 6:11 NKJV] 11 Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
[Rom 6:13 NKJV] 13 And do not present your members [as] instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members [as] instruments of righteousness to God.
[Rom 12:1-2 NKJV] 1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, [which is] your reasonable service. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what [is] that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
[Rom 8:4, 11-13 NKJV] 4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. ... 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. 12 Therefore, brethren, we are debtors--not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
[1Jo 2:1 NKJV] 1 My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
[Mar 14:38 NKJV] 38 "Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed [is] willing, but the flesh [is] weak."
[Jas 4:7 NKJV] 7 Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.
[2Pe 1:3 NKJV] 3 as His divine power has given to us all things that [pertain] to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue,
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).
[Mat 23:25-28 NKJV] 25 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. 26 "Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. 27 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead [men's] bones and all uncleanness. 28 "Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
[Mat 15:11-20 NKJV] 11 "Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man." 12 Then His disciples came and said to Him, "Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?" 13 But He answered and said, "Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 "Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch." 15 Then Peter answered and said to Him, "Explain this parable to us." 16 So Jesus said, "Are you also still without understanding? 17 "Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? 18 "But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. 19 "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. 20 "These are [the things] which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man."
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).
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.”
[1Jo 3:4-10 NKJV] 4 Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. 5 And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin. 6 Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. 8 He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. 9 Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God. 10 In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor [is] he who does not love his brother.
[Psa 51:1-19 NKJV] 1 To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Have mercy upon me, O God, According to Your lovingkindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin [is] always before me. 4 Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done [this] evil in Your sight--That You may be found just when You speak, [And] blameless when You judge. 5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me. 6 Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, And in the hidden [part] You will make me to know wisdom. 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Make me hear joy and gladness, [That] the bones You have broken may rejoice. 9 Hide Your face from my sins, And blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from Your presence, And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, And uphold me [by Your] generous Spirit. 13 [Then] I will teach transgressors Your ways, And sinners shall be converted to You. 14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, The God of my salvation, [And] my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness. 15 O Lord, open my lips, And my mouth shall show forth Your praise. 16 For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give [it]; You do not delight in burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God [are] a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart--These, O God, You will not despise. 18 Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion; Build the walls of Jerusalem. 19 Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, With burnt offering and whole burnt offering; Then they shall offer bulls on Your altar.
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?