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What does it mean to “backslide”?

by Julia M. Bruce, MSPC, Mental Health Coach,
CEO, Wellspring Christian Ministries

What do you like best about Sunday School?

Students in one Sunday School class were asked to write down what they liked best about Sunday school. One little boy, who also happened to be the pastor’s son, thought for a moment and remembered all the songs the class had sung during the year. His spelling was not as good as his memory, for he wrote, “The thing I like best about Sunday School is the sinning.” Hopefully this little boy understood that when we backslide, God stands ready to forgive those who have a contrite heart means.

We might chuckle, but the sad part is too many people actually enjoy sinning. They do not have a contrite heart. Rather they have a heart of pride and arrogance. They would rather live their own way than live God’s way. In Isaiah 53:6, the prophet wrote: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.” Or, in other words, we all backslide.

Only Christians can Backslide

A person who has never placed their faith in Christ and become a child of God cannot backslide. Why? Because they are still lost in their sin and have not yet accepted Christ as their Savior. Christians, however, can be guilty of backsliding and returning to their old sinful ways and habits. To backslide is basically to slide backwards into a previous pattern or behavior. They might, at least for time, enjoy the sin while they ignore the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit convicting them. But as a child of God, they will eventually become miserable in their sin because God will seek out His wayward child.

An old preacher used to say that if you are not moving toward Jesus, you are moving away from Him. There is no middle ground. No drifting or coasting along. No foot on this side of Christianity and the other foot planted in the world. When we backslide, we either choose to continue down the slippery slope of sin or we humble ourselves with a broken and contrite heart and come to Jesus for grace and forgiveness.

What does it mean to “backslide”?

As a Christian, we begin to “backslide” the moment we begin to move away from God. Most often, the word is used when Christians begin making sinful choices such as excessive drinking, sexual immorality, dropping out of church, cussing, gambling, setting up idols, or other sinful behaviors that were part of our life before we were saved. It is a backwards motion that takes us back to lifestyles we had before we became a Christian.

Backsliding doesn’t mean we lose our salvation

It’s important to understand that a Christian who backslides has not lost their salvation. We know this based on several scriptures:

John 10:28-29

John 10:28-29 tells us that once we’ve placed our faith in Christ, no one can snatch us out of His Father’s hand.

Romans 8:1

This verse says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.”

Romans 8:35-39

In these verses, Paul wrote: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

To sum up, absolutely nothing can separate us from God – not even if we backslide. Through our faith and acceptance of Christ as Savior, our place in the family of God is secure even when we backslide. And because nothing can separate us from God, He stands ready to forgive the one who has a contrite heart.

Is the word “Backslide” in the Bible?

While you will not find the word, “backslide” in the Bible, you will see the phrase “fall away” or the Bible will tell us about people who moved away from their faith in Christ and returned to what they knew before. Both Paul and James write about Christians that went back to their familiar sins and wandered away from their faith (See Galatians 6:1 and James 5:19-20). This is exactly what it means to backslide.

What causes us to backslide?

What causes a Christian to backslide? While sometimes, it’s simply giving in to temptation and sin, life circumstances can also lead one to wander away from their faith. If we experience difficult circumstances, hurtful relationships, unfair treatment, or trauma, we might begin to question God’s goodness and wonder if He is still in control. We might question His love for us if He would allow us to go through these circumstances. We might wonder if He’s forgotten us. But it isn’t God that’s forgotten us. Rather we backslide as we move away from God, blame God, or lose faith in God. We forget God’s promises to us like the one found in Isaiah 43:2 that says, “I will be with you when you pass through the waters, and when you pass through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you. You will not be scorched when you walk through the fire, and the flame will not burn you.

Overcoming Backsliding

When bad things happen, we become angry, depressed, bitter, confused, and overwhelmed. Instead of claiming His promises, we revert back to the sinful nature to try to soothe what we are feeling and lessen the pain of what we experience. Our Bibles stay closed. We drop out of church. We give God the silent treatment. However, it is in these moments that we need more than any other to stay grounded in His Word and our knees should be raw from kneeling in prayer. This is how we overcome backsliding. If walking away from our faith causes us to blackslide, then the antidote is to stay firmly planted in faith and we can only do that when we are connected to God through His Word and prayer.

God is waiting for the contrite heart

We all end up backsliding at some point. Remember that if you are not moving towards God, you’re moving away from Him and that is was it means to backslide. Thankfully, Jesus said He is our Good Shepherd and He seeks out His “lost sheep” (John 10). He doesn’t want us to backslide. He wants us trust Him. But as His children, He will call us back and pursue us with an everlasting love. When we come back to Him with a repentant and contrite heart, God will be there waiting. Waiting to revive our heart and spirit (Isaiah 57:15).  

Peter is an example

The greatest example of backslide in the Bible is Peter. Each one of us could be Peter. It’s a story of Peter’s pride and his failure. But it is also a story of grace, love and renewal. Let’s look at his story:

Peter’s Pride before Jesus’ Arrest and Crucifixion

Before Jesus’ arrest, Peter had declared that Jesus was the Christ – the Messiah – the one they had been waiting for. Then Peter tells Jesus that he would die for him to which Jesus responded, “Before the crock crows you will deny me three times.” Just as Jesus said, in His trial, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times… and then Peter heard the rooster. Jesus turned to look at Peter. In that moment, something changed in Peter. Something died. The pride and arrogance, his confidence that he would die for Jesus were killed. Peter, which means “rock”, was more like the shifting sand under the crashing waves washing in and out of the shore. As realization sunk in, tears began to fall down the his face. He ran away no longer bold and confident, but a broken sinner in need of forgiveness.

Peter hears of the empty tomb

Three days later, Peter receives the news of an empty tomb. He runs to the tomb. He had to know and see that Jesus had risen from the dead. It was his hope of restoration. If Jesus was alive, just maybe – Jesus would forgive him and he could be renewed. The weight of his guilt was more than he could stand. If only, he could be forgiven.

Peter grew tired of waiting for Jesus to show up

After the resurrection, Jesus sent a message to the disciples through the women that had come to the tomb. He told them to go to Galilee and wait for him. So they did, but they had to wait…and wait….and wait. Perhaps disappointed and losing hope, Peter grew tired of waiting for Jesus to show up (don’t we do that too?). Maybe Peter thought, “I knew he wouldn’t come for the likes of me.” Maybe Peter thinks that if he leaves the group, Jesus would come to the rest of the disciples. Whatever was going on in Peter’s mind, he decides to return to his old ways and instead of waiting on Jesus, he goes fishing.

Peter stopped fishing for men and went back to fishing for fish

Some of the other disciples followed him. (How often when we choose to backslide, do we take others with us?) He goes back to what he knows and trusts. In the boat, the fish doesn’t know of his shame and failure. They don’t point a fin at him and laugh about how he boldly proclaimed he’d die for Jesus and then turned around and denied knowing Him. His failure plagues him. Maybe it keeps him awake at night. Perhaps every time he sees the reflection of his face in water he sees shame, guilt, failure, and brokenness. Maybe he thinks, “I’m just a fisherman. Who am I to think that Jesus would choose me to build His church on? I’m no rock!” Maybe he stops going by Peter, the name Jesus gave him and started using his old name of Simon.

So, he goes back to fishing. He fished the entire night, but caught nothing. Not even one tiny, little fish. A failure at being a disciple. A failure at fishing. He’d let Jesus down. Maybe as Peter was exhausted from fishing all night, he collapses down on a bench in the boat and with his face in his hands and tears begin to flow once more, he wonders how he can go on.

The voice of a Friend

Peter hears something and looks up towards the shore and a man is there. He listens again and the voice says, “Friends! Have you caught any fish? Throw your net on the other side. You’ll find some over there.” Peter has a deja vu moment as he wonders “Where have I head that before?” He shakes his head as the memory of his last fishing trip before Jesus had said, “Come follow me” had a similar ring to it.

He’d fished all night and caught nothing on that night too and Jesus had been the one to tell him to cast his net on the other side. When he did, he and his companions brought in so many fish the nets began to tear and they were so heavy the boat was close to sinking.

He looks at the man on the shore again. Squints his eyes. Who was this? Was he just trying to pour salt into the huge, gaping wound in his heart? Still, Peter doesn’t talk back. Perhaps he thought, “What if it’s Him?”

He wearily stands and picks up the net. Tosses it on the other side of the boat with a splash into the sea. Just like before – there were so many fish, he couldn’t haul the net in. Perhaps Peter couldn’t bring himself to hope what His heart wanted to hope – that Jesus was the man on the shore because in the Bible, it’s John who figures it out. He cries, “It’s the Lord!”

Peter swims to Jesus

That’s all Peter had to hear. He jumps out of the boat. His only intention is to get to Jesus just as fast as he could and rowing back to shore with so many fish would just take too long – even if it was just 100 yards or so off shore. But when he gets to shore, he stand there with his clothes dripping water, looking at Jesus, and he has no words. It’s as if there are no right words to say to the one he had hurt and disappointed – the one whom he had failed. 

Breakfast with the Savior

Jesus fixes breakfast for them and they eat in silence. Peter needed for Jesus to say something. He didn’t need for Jesus to remind him of how he had failed. He didn’t need a sermon. And he didn’t need, “I told you so.” Peter was constantly and vividly aware of his failure. He was already at a place of having a contrite heart. What he needed was Jesus’ words of love, grace, and forgiveness. He needed to be made new – again. Peter didn’t need to be “saved” again. He had already placed his faith in Christ – he just needed for Jesus to forgive him.

“Simon, do you love me?”

Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Simon, do you love me?” Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus tells him, “Feed my lambs.” Then, Jesus asks it again. Peter answers again and Jesus tells him to feed his lambs. Jesus asks a third time and Peter, feeling frustrated, answers for a third time and Jesus once again says, “Feed my lambs.” 

Peter re-commissioned

Peter is hurt. The man he had offended, denied, and rejected was asking him if he loved him. But, Jesus was tenderly reaching out to this wounded, hurt man who had made the biggest mistake of his life. Peter had denied Jesus three times, and three times Jesus asked Peter if he loves him, followed by “Feed my lambs.” Jesus then invites Peter to once again, “Follow me.”

For Peter to become the rock the Jesus said he would, Jesus had to re-commission him and invite him back to ministry by saying “feed my lambs.”

Although Peter had been the one in the wrong, Jesus went to and sought out Peter. The weight of Peter’s guilt was so heavy, that it kept him from being able to seek Jesus out to make things right. The same is true for us. We stay in our state of shame and guilt rather than seeking Christ’s grace and forgiveness. But, just like with Peter, our good shepherd will seek us out to heal us, restore us, renew us, and forgive us.

God is always with the one who has a broken and contrite heart. Like Peter, He tenderly seeks us out, longing to revive our hearts and call us back into serving Him. Don’t stay in the boat with your failures and sin. Jump in the water and get to Jesus as quick as you can. Can you hear him say, “[Your name], do you love me?”

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