When considering the phenomenon of backsliding to the point of falling from grace, we should keep in mind that every person has a free will which believers can also use to their own detriment under the influence of spiritual deception – to such an extent that they can completely apostatise. The Holy Spirit never intimidates us to do things which are contrary to our will. He leads and convicts us to bring our will in agreement with the Lord’s will and to live accordingly. If we do that and take care to maintain the right relationship with the Lord by abiding in the atonement (1Joh 2:1-2) we will never backslide.
Carnal Christians who are not filled with the Holy Spirit have not yet surrendered their old nature to be crucified; consequently, their will is not sanctified and fully inclined to the things of the Lord (1Cor 3:1-3; Gal 5:17). They only have a limited understanding of biblical doctrines and are therefore candidates for backsliding. A deeper spiritual work first needs to be done in their lives to become more fully acquainted with the will of the Lord and to obtain the motivation and power to do His will.
We grieve and resist the Holy Spirit if we do not persevere on the way of the Lord and deliberately allow sin into our lives. As children of the Lord we then start wandering away from Him. If we persevere on the way of wilful sinning we will eventually reach the point when we will quench the Holy Spirit (cf. 1The 5:19). Even the holy angels in heaven who served the Lord heartily and without ceasing were influenced by Lucifer to rise against God and ultimately ended as outcasts in the kingdom of darkness (2Pet 2:4). In view of their foolish decision we, as children of God, are warned in 2Pet 2 not to turn our backs upon the Lord by treading the way of sin and rebellion against Him.
The following straight questions can be put to those who deny the phenomenon of apostatising as explained in the Bible:
1. Don’t you believe that the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul (1Sam 16:14), thereby taking His mercy from him (2Sam 7:15)? Saul continuously despised the commands of the Lord and, as a former anointed of the Lord, in the end he consulted a witch and committed suicide.
2. Don’t you believe that David realised there was a distinct possibility that the Lord could take His Spirit from him after he committed murder and adultery? In the light of this possibility he sincerely confessed his sins and entreated the Lord not to depart from him: “Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me” (Psa 51:11). He restored his broken relationship with the Lord and again served Him with a pure heart.
3. Don’t you believe that the Lord can also, in New Testament times, remove His lampstand with the oil and light of the Holy Spirit from apostate believers, and also from backslidden congregations, if they do not remain faithful to Christ? To one such congregation He said: “I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place – unless you repent” (Rev 2:4-5). In this case there is clear reference to people who have deviated from the way of the Lord and that the Lord consequently removed the light of His Spirit from them. In the case of the Ephesians the members were led into error by false teachings (Act 20:29-30).
4. Don’t you believe the righteous can bring the wrath of God upon themselves if they return to a life of sinning? “When a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I lay a stumblingblock before him, he shall die; because you did not give him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand” (Eze 3:20). Unfortunately, there are believers who turn from the Lord and His Word to reengage a sinful lifestyle.
5. Don’t you believe that the Lord entrusted to us a ministry among backsliders, and that they can be lost if we do not lead them back to the flock? In Luke 15 the entire chapter is devoted to this subject, by way of the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In his backslidden condition the lost son was spiritually dead and lost (Luk 15:32). But he returned to his father and was spiritually revived – he “was dead and is alive again” (Luk 15:24). That means that he came to life a second time. A backslidden person who died spiritually can be quickened a second time. There are many people who “have forsaken the right way and gone astray” (2Pet 2:15) and then, against their better judgement, spend their lives in the world. If they don’t return to the Lord, they will die in their sins.
6. Don’t you believe that sin can again have dominion over believers if they don’t resist it? “For by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage” (2Pet 2:19). Christians who again subject themselves to the domination of sin, stand to become more severely enslaved by it than before: “For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them” (2Pet 2:20-21).
7. Don’t you believe that a branch which was implanted into the vine but later, because of its own apostasy, no longer abide in Christ, will spiritually wither and even end up in the fire? (Joh 15:4-6). If you don’t believe it you have to explain why the Lord Jesus said to His disciples: “Abide in Me,” and also explained the tragic consequences that would follow if we don’t abide in Him: “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire” (Joh 15:6).
Don’t you believe that all the promises of the Lord are conditional? What is the condition of the promise in John 10:28 that no one will snatch us out of the Lord’s hand? It is clearly stated in the previous verse: “My sheep hear My voice… and they follow Me” (Joh 10:27
). Continuous actions are indicated here: we should continuously observe the Lord’s Word and keep on following Him; then only can we enjoy the promise of eternal security. What happens if believers become lukewarm and apostate in their spiritual lives? Jesus said: “Because you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth” (Rev 3:16
9. Don’t you believe that the inheritance of believers which is kept and even sealed in heaven can be forfeited if a breach of contract is committed and the Holy Spirit is quenched? How can they retain their spiritual guarantees if they insult the Spirit of grace and count the blood of Christ a common thing by living as if it serves no further purpose in their lives? (cf. Heb 10:29). What happened to Demas after he had forsaken the evangelistic work which he did together with Paul, and returned to a life of worldly pleasures? (2Tim 4:10). Was he still on his way to heaven?
10. Don’t you believe that doctrinal apostatising can reach such extremes that it can even affect the doctrine on salvation and jeopardise a person’s salvation? What happens to Christians who revert to the law? “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal 5:4). In this scripture there are two expressions which so clearly describe the phenomenon of apostatising that no one can deny it. Believers can indeed “become estranged from Christ” and “fall from grace.”
11. Don’t you believe that, apart from a legalistic faith, there are also other forms of doctrinal deception that can give rise to apostatising? “Now the Spirit expressly says that in the latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons” (1Tim 4:1). A person obviously first has to be in the faith before he can depart from it. Such people completely forsake the only true faith and are overcome by the lies of the devil.
12. Don’t you believe that believers who distort the Lord’s Word and render it powerless by either adding other things to it or taking some of it away, will lose their salvation because of that? Why does the Lord say that He will take away such people’s names from the book of life, despite the fact that they may earlier have been written in that book? (Rev 22:18-19; Prov 30:6). To the overcomers who did not abandon the race and deviated from the Word of the Lord, He says: “I will not blot out his name from the book of life” (Rev 3:5). Why would this promise be given if people’s names cannot be blotted out from the book of life? The overcomers will be praised because they were not among the backsliders: “You… have kept My Word, and have not denied My Name” (Rev 3:8).
13. Don’t you believe that there are also many preachers and theologians who earlier testified to fact that the Lord Jesus “bought” them with His blood, but who subsequently denied Him by rejecting His deity, virgin birth, the significance of His crucifixion, or His resurrection from the dead? (2Pet 2:1-2).
14. Don’t you believe that wilful and persistent sinning will give a former believer an evil heart of unbelief? “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God” (Heb 3:12). This is further proof of apostatising, since a brother can, through foolish actions, allow evil and unbelief in his heart by departing from the living God. Because of his persistent sinning he again becomes a hardened sinner who is characterised by evil and unbelief.
15. Don’t you believe that the perseverance of the saints is necessary to remain on the way of the Lord? “For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end” (Heb 3:14). “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Heb 10:23). Paul says to the Colossians that they can appear before the Lord holy and blameless “If indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel” (Col 1:23).
How should we fight the good fight of faith and remain standing to the end? Abide in the Lord Jesus, be immovable in your faith, resist all attacks and deception of the Evil One, be more than a conqueror in Christ, increase in holiness, and bear fruit that befits repentance. If you do these things, you will never find yourself on the way of the backsliders. But if you start compromising with an evil world, fail to crucify the flesh with its lusts, grow cold in your love, start looking backwards after you have put your hand to the plough, question the truth of the Bible and accept dubious doctrines without testing them in the light of Scripture, then you will backslide in your spiritual life and allow the devil to systematically undermine and break down your faith.
Through the command of the perseverance of the saints the Lord expects a sustainable commitment from us, as well as singleness of purpose in our life of faith. He abundantly gives faith and power to conquer to everyone who trusts Him for it, and because of this provision it is not necessary to backslide. But if we become careless and neglect or discontinue our quiet times and walk with the Lord, then we open the door to the deception of the enemy, allow the flesh, the world and sin to gain a foothold in our lives, and will eventually pay the price for our apostatising – that is a broken relationship with the Lord and a complete lack of power in our struggle against the Evil One. Such people surrender themselves to spiritual defeat domination by sin, in the same way in which the lost son did.
Every one of us should earnestly strive to prevent a situation like this. Let there not be said of us what was said of backslidden Israel: “They have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked to anger the Holy One of Israel, they have turned away backward” (Isa 1:4). Paul says: “The just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, my soul has no pleasure in him” (Heb 10:38). However, we should not be “of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe [lit. keep on believing] to the saving of the soul” (Heb 10:39).
Prof. Johan Malan, Mossel Bay, South Africa (August 2010)