Can Christians Backslide?

Written by Paul J. Bucknell on November, 23, 2019

Can Christians Backslide?

The Question on Backsliding

Can a child of God backslide (fall from grace) (Heb 12:15, Gal 5:4)?

“See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled” (Heb 12:15).

“You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal 5:4).

Describing the Problem of Backsliding

While many Christians debate whether a believer can lose one’s salvation, I never heard them questioning whether one can backslide. It’s a given. Though there are only a few verses with the word ‘backslide’ in them, there are many others that exemplify it (Isaiah 39:2-3; Heb 12:4-13). Every warning to avoid evil or exhortation to grow hints at the tendency to lose our passion for the Lord. Backsliding not only describes one’s lackadaisical responses but also one’s poor attitude.

O backsliding daughter who trusts in her treasures, saying, ‘Who will come against me?’ (Jer 49:4)

Do we not have many such examples around us? Revelation 2-3 repeatedly points to the state of backsliding. Each church, typical of our own age, faced various temptations and problems. Whenever one sets his heart on the world, he necessarily withdraws his affections from God (Mat 6:24). Christians face an ongoing battle to combat their soul’s tendency to love other things more than the Lord. The command “to love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Mark 12:30) highlights the deep tug-of-war in our hearts.

Christians, however, do not equivocate backsliding with those who have lost their salvation. They are totally different situations.

Defining Backsliding

Backsliding affects us all. So let me first clarify how backsliding is regularly understood and then return to the verses above selected.

Backsliders, by definition, refer to genuine believers who waver in their faith. They slid back in their faith. Since they possess saving faith, even if they die because of waywardness (1 Cor 11:29-31), they do not lose their salvation (John 10:29). The usage of ‘sleep’ to describe these believers’ death proves this (“and a number sleep”). They, however, lose hope for great reward in the new kingdom due to their disobedience and persistent doubts.

1 Corinthians 3 serves as an example of this. The chapter begins by describing the sad, fleshly-like, character of the backslidden Christians at Corinth. Later, in the same chapter, Paul affirms them to be believers (1 Cor 3:15): “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”

Let’s now look at the two given verses.

1.) Hebrews 12:15

“See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled” (Heb 12:15).

The Book of Hebrews speaks much about backsliders. Sometimes the verse hints at or assumes the addressee to be backsliders. While at other times, the author specifically addresses the backsliders.

12 Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Heb 3:12-13)

Hebrews 12:15 appears to speak of genuine believers since he calls them “brethren.” They have experienced the grace of God but warned that they might come “short” of God’s grace.

I take this phrase, “short of the grace of God,” to be the same situation as Jesus refers to in the Lord’s prayer. These ungracious believers live as if not forgiven. They do not allow the grace of God to move them in their hearts by creating mercy for others. If they insist on retaining bitterness in their hearts, then there is no way they can live in the abounding grace of God. Only when they forgive, will God’s grace and forgiveness be extended to them.

14 For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. (Mat 6:14-15)

So, the question follows: If we are not forgiven, does it not mean that we lose salvation? Jesus’ words do not refer to the lost of our personal salvation. Jesus instructs us to pray as if we are in God’s family—we pray, “Our Father.” And yet, due to our lack of similarity to our merciful Father who generously forgives, we cannot share the joy and delight of His forgiving grace. We live as if outside his family. Think of the illustration of King Nebuchadnezzar, who, though king, became and acted like an animal for a period (Daniel 4:34-38). By shunning God’s love for others, we allow the evil one to convince us to live as a condemned one, at least for a while. But by God’s grace, we will return to our spiritual senses.

Many believers wrestle with forgiveness. Bitterness remains a common issue. So it is not as if every time we begrudge someone, that we lose our salvation. Our spiritual life is described as eternal rather than temporary (John 3:16). Salvation is based on faith in Christ’s work on the cross rather than on how we forgive another. Finding ourselves short of grace, however, well-describes those whom the Lord withholds His grace. So backsliding well describes the errant believers who harden their hearts with bitterness.

Here is a followup thought. If a professing believer never forgives and lives in a spirit of bitterness, he most likely has never experienced true salvation. Like the parable of the tares and wheat, we, however, are not to judge where people are at. But certainly, we are to warn, exhort, and otherwise help those struggling with bitterness. They should not think their state as usual since they walk dangerously close to a perilous cliff, if they choose to hold onto their bitterness.

2.) Galatians 5:4

“You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal 5:4).

Fallen from grace is equivocated with severance from Christ in Galatians 5:4. Their false reliance on works depicts no trust in Christ’s sacrifice to gain forgiveness. All through the Book of Galatians there is a warning to professing Christians to guard themselves against false doctrine. They are to examine their faith to make sure they are genuine believers.

The focus here is not on backsliders but those who hold wrong teaching. This confuses them about their faith, sometimes with grave consequences. “Broad is the road that leads to destruction” (Mat 7:13). Now it is true that wrong doctrine negatively affects one’s spiritual life. Satan uses false teaching to keep people from believing the genuine gospel. So the Book of Galatians guides us on how to discern the differences of true believers from false believers.

The doctrinal discussion in Galatians 5 rotates around the theme of salvation rather than sanctification. Paul focuses on the importance of the correct teaching necessary for faith in Christ. The discussion of birth always precedes that of growth. The theme here is very different from Hebrews, where the author seeks to establish the faith of the Jewish believers who, due to persecution, were thinking of retreating to Judaism. “You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?” (Gal 5:7)

The backslider in heart will have his fill of his own ways, But a good man will be satisfied with his. (Proverbs 14:14)

Conclusion

Backsliding brings about an unintentional decrease in one’s love for the Lord. Fellowship is broken; His people stop gathering with the brethren. Sin abounds. One should not compare the usages of short or lacking grace in the Book of Hebrews with those in Galatians. Galatians focuses on assuring believers of a true faith through the true Gospel, but Hebrews calls those straying believers to strengthen their faith and persist in following the Lord.

Discussion Questions on Backsliding

  1. What is backsliding?
  2. Are all Christians susceptible to backsliding?
  3. What causes backsliding?
  4. What are some reasons the Lord accuses believers from the different local churches to have dull hearts in Revelation 2?
  5. What is the opposite of backsliding?
  6. How is grace used in Hebrews 12:15 and Galatians 5:4? Is it similarly or differently used?
  7. How does bitterness cut off the source of grace (Heb 12:15)?
  8. Do you agree or disagree with the author on how he states the state of not being forgiven (Mat 6:14-15) to be descriptive of Heb 12:15 where one is said to “fall short of grace?”
  9. So how does backsliding differ from losing salvation?

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