This is primarily a religious term, although it can and does have secular uses. Thus one dictionary meaning defines a backslider as follows: “recidivist: someone who lapses into previous undesirable patterns of behaviour”. And in Christian thought, a backslider is a believer who reverts back to carnal ways and sinful behaviour.
The Bible speaks to this in both Testaments, eg:
-Proverbs 14:14 The backslider in heart will be filled with the fruit of his ways, and a good man will be filled with the fruit of his ways.
-2 Peter 2:20-22 If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.”
I recently wrote on lukewarmness, which is related to this. And there, as here, it may be as helpful to list examples or indications of these conditions as to just offer theological definition. Thus in my previous article I listed some signs which warn of being lukewarm: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/06/19/on-being-lukewarm/
Here I want to do the same: list some indicators and markers of the backslidden condition. But I will not reinvent the wheel here. Many famous Christians have already discussed this in the past, and it is worth drawing upon their wisdom and expertise. So let me here focus on just one such figure.
American theologian and revivalist Charles Finney (1792-1875) wrote Lectures on Revivals of Religion which was published in 1835. It contains 22 lectures on the topic, and lecture 21 is on backsliders. It is well worth reading, but we have been helped here by another famous Christian, Keith Green.
He of course was a hippy in the 60s who became a Christian in the 70s. His powerful music was due in part to his incredible mentoring and discipleship by none other than Leonard Ravenhill. Thus holiness, repentance, revival and a love for the lost characterise the music ministry of Green, who tragically died in an airplane crash in 1982.
He and his wife Melody started Last Days Ministries in 1978. He reprinted lots of material from past Christians such as John Wesley, William Booth, and Finney. Thus he took his lecture on backsliding and made it a bit easier to read for modern-day believers.
Finney lists 17 signs of backsliding, along with 11 consequences of it, and 6 steps of recovery. He defines backsliding – in part – in these terms: “It is in taking back that consecration to God and His service that constitutes true conversion. It is the leaving by a Christian of his first love. It consists in the Christian withdrawing himself from entire and total surrender to God and coming again under the control of a self-pleasing spirit.”
Let me now offer a few of each of these three sections for you:
What Are the Evidences of a Backslidden Heart?
1) A lack of spiritual enjoyment is evidence of a backslidden heart. We always love saying and doing those things that please the one we love most. When the heart is not backslidden, real communion with God is kept up, and therefore all spiritual devotions are not only performed with pleasure, but the communion with God involved in them is a source of rich and continual blessing. If we do not enjoy the service of God, it is because we do not truly serve Him.
2) An outward formality in religious exercises. A stereotyped, formal way of saying and doing things that is clearly the result of habit rather than the out-gushing of a true spiritual life. In prayer or fellowship, this formality will be emotionless and as cold as ice, and will reveal a total lack of sincerity in the performance of all spiritual service. Such a state would be impossible where there was a present, living faith and a true godly zeal.
5) Searching for worldly amusements. The most grateful amusements possible to a truly spiritual mind are those that bring the soul into the most direct communion with God. A loving heart is jealous of everything that will break up or interfere with its union with God. When the soul does not find more delight in God than in all worldly things, the heart is sadly backslidden.
6) A lack of interest in foreign missions. If you lose your interest in these works and for reaching those in heathen lands, and do not delight in the conversion of souls everywhere, you may know that you are backslidden in heart.
7) The loss of interest in outreaches to the poor and needy. Surely if you were ever converted to Christ at all, you have had an interest in all charitable, Christian enterprises that came within your knowledge. Of course, a converted soul takes the deepest interest in all outreaches to reform, help, and save mankind – in the provision of the needs for the poor and needy – and in short, in every good word and work. Just in the proportion that you have lost your interest in these things, you have evidence that you are backslidden in heart.
11) Absence from scheduled prayer meetings for slight reasons is a sure indication of a backslidden heart. No meeting is more important to a Christian than the prayer meeting, and while they have any heart to pray, they will not be absent unless prevented by something urgent that God has impressed them to do. If a call from a friend at the hour of meeting can prevent their attendance, it is strong evidence that they do not really want to go. That same person visiting at such a time would not prevent them from attending a wedding, a party, a picnic, or some other enjoyable event. The fact is, it is hypocrisy for them to pretend that they really want to go while they can be kept away by small excuses.
16) The loss of interest in the question of holiness. If you are a Christian, you have felt that sin was an abomination to your soul. You have had inexpressible longings to be rid of it forever, and everything that could throw light upon that question of agonizing importance was most desperately crucial to you. If this question has been dismissed and is no longer of any interest to you, it is because you are backslidden in heart.
17) A lack of interest in God’s Word. Perhaps nothing more conclusively proves that a Christian has a backslidden heart than his losing his interest in the Bible. While the heart is full of love, no book in the world is so precious; but when that love is gone, the Bible becomes not only uninteresting, but often repulsive. There is no faith to accept its promises, but conviction enough left to dread its threatenings.
The Consequences of Backsliding In Heart
1) The backslider in heart will be filled with his own mistakes. He is not walking with God. He is not led by the Spirit, but is walking in spiritual darkness. In this state he is sure to fall into many terrible mistakes: mistakes in business, mistakes in relationships, mistakes in using his time, his tongue, his money. Indeed all will go wrong with him as long as he remains in a backslidden state.
2) He shall be filled with his own feelings. Instead of that sweet peace and rest in the Holy Spirit that he once had, he will find himself in a state of unrest, dissatisfied with himself and everyone else. It is sometimes very trying to live with a backslider. They are often touchy, fault finding, and irritating in all their ways. They have forsaken God, and in their feelings there is more of hell than of heaven.
9) The backslider in heart will be full of his own delusions. Having an evil eye, his whole body will become full of darkness. (Matt. 6:23) He will almost certainly fall into self-deception in regard to principles and doctrines. Wandering on in darkness as he does, he will very likely swallow the grossest delusions. Cults of every type and deceptions of every shade may be very likely to gain possession of him. Who has not observed this of many backsliders in heart?
How To Recover From a State of Backsliding
1) Remember from where you have fallen. Face the question at once and deliberately compare your present state with that in which you once walked with God.
3) Repent at once and do your first works over again. (Rev. 2:5)
4) Do not attempt to get back by merely changing what you do on the outside. Begin with your heart and immediately get right with God. Give yourself no rest until the question of your acceptance before Him is completely settled.
All in all some very good and sober advice which we all need to take to heart. We all must ask ourselves: am I backslidden? And the good news is, if we are, and we are sick and tired of it, Jesus promises to help us get back to our first love.