“And my people are bent to backsliding from me: though they called them to the Most High, none at all would exalt him” (Hosea 11:7).

“From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:66).
There is a term that was once frequently used in the church. It is an alarming biblical term, backsliding (meshuwbah [mesh-oo-baw’]; apostasy). This term is rarely used today by Christians and ministers of the gospel.

The term backsliding was made popular in the 1600’s by John Bunyan in his famous allegory Pilgrim’s Progress 1678.In the story, Christian and Hopeful are on their religious pilgrimage. While on their journey to the Celestial City, they begin to discuss an individual by the name of Temporary. Temporary had started the pilgrimage, but along the way he fell by the wayside, or, as Bunyan worded it, he “backslid”.

That idea of backsliding was adopted by the Methodists in early America and became a stock phrase in their Christian vocabulary. However, to backslide was not only to lose one’s interest in the Christian pilgrimage, but to revert to a state of unbelief leading to hell, apart from gospel repentance. In the Revelation, the apostle John writes of those who have lost their First Love.

With this idea in mind, consider the teaching of Jesus in John 6.

After feeding a great multitude of people, Jesus made His way to Capernaum where a number of people sought Him. At first, the people were respectful. Someone asked Jesus, “Rabbi, why did you come here?’

“Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. 27 Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.

28 Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?

29 Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.

30 They said therefore unto him, What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work?

31 Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.

32 Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven.

33 For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.

34 Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread.

35 And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:26-35).

The people were astonished at the words of Jesus. Some who heard Jesus say that objected to this language because He was comparing himself to Moses who gave the children manna in the wilderness. In addition, Jesus took the matter a step further by declaring, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

This appeared odd to those who knew Jesus was the son of Mary and Joseph. How could He say such a thing, that He came from heaven.

Then Jesus said something else that sounded cannibalistic. Jesus said that everyone must eat his flesh, and drink his blood, otherwise they would die.

Jesus continued to make other alarming statements with the result that in John 6:66 we read many of His disciples turned back “and walked no more with Him.”   

Many turned back. Many quit following Christ. Why?

Perhaps some thought He was too egotistical by comparing Himself to Moses.

Others may have been bewildered by His teachings and found the Lord’s teachings too hard to understand.

Still others were alarmed that Jesus was making Himself not only greater than Moses, but was claiming to be the new source of life, which bordered on blasphemy, for who can give life but God?

So, many left following Jesus “and walked no more with Him”.

Just like that. One day they were disciples, and the next they were not. They became backsliders. They had proven themselves to be temporary disciples of Jesus, but never truly converted to Him, His cause, or His kingdom.

As the subject of backsliding is meditated upon, consider the following observations.

Backsliding is a spiritual reality. The Bible is filled with stories of people who started out well, but who ended up tragically. For the sake of brevity I will offer just two examples, one from the Old Testament, the other from the New Testament.

Consider the life of Saul, Israel’s first king, appointed by God. There was not another man among the people of Israel who offered more natural leadership than Saul. As a man, Saul stood a head taller than others. He commanded respect. In battle, he was fearless. Elegant in speech, charismatic in personality, people cheered this man who represented more than being a king like rulers in other nations, Sault represented hope. Yet, Saul was eaten with jealousy when the young David appeared on the scene, and stole the national spotlight. Twice Saul attempted to kill David. A life that seemed set for success and honor, in secular and spiritual matters, ended instead in failure and tragedy.

In the New Testament there is the story of Demas. He is mentioned three times.

The first instance is in Philemon (v. 24). Paul introduces him by saying: Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. At that moment we can see what great esteem Demas held in the life of the early Church. Demas was equal with Luke, a fellow worker, and is even mentioned before him. It is evident that at this point he is a faithful follower of the Lord.

The second time he is mentioned is in the Book of Colossians. Paul now writes: “Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas” (Col. 4:14).

Something seems to have changed. Luke is mentioned first, rather than Demas. Not only that, there are words of praise for Luke, but Demas is mentioned only by name. Apparently he is beginning to slow down.

Later, in Paul’s letter to Timothy, he writes: “Demas deserted me, having loved this present age” (2 Tim. 4:10).

There, in a few words, you have the story of a man’s life. He who started out with so much promise, ended in disappointment.

Backsliding is not merely a problem for Biblical characters; it is an issue for the modern church. Go into any local church and look through their church directory, if they have one. Time and time again an individual picture of a person can be pointed to and the observation made, “You know, I have not seen this person for a long time.” Or, “Yes, this person used to be active but…”

Backsliding is a reality. There can be no argument about the reality of it, either in the Bible, or in the local congregation. The question arises: “Why do people backslide?”

There are many reasons for backsliding.

Some backsliding is due to incomplete conversions.

I have often wondered if we make it too easy for people to identify with the local church, thereby setting up a situation whereby people may not take their vows seriously enough. When Jesus fed the 5,000 by the Sea of Galilee, He told the crowd very pointedly, “You seek me not because you saw a miracle, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.”

In other words, some people followed Jesus for what they could get out of it.

We live in a day of cheap grace, and far too often crowd approval and peer pressure result in conversions that are not genuine.

However, while incomplete conversions may explain some backsliding, it does not get to the heart of the problem.

Most backslidings come simply because a person’s spiritual bucket develops a leak, and much of their commitment seeps out.

We need to understand that there are certain periods in our lives when we are more susceptible to doing what these disciples did, turning back and no longer following him.

The college years, for example.  

Out of earshot and eye range of mom and dad, many a college student is tempted to stop going to church.

When a couple first gets married, their marital happiness can blind them to caring for the spiritual relationship of marriage, and faith is ignored.

Then there is the grinding of life. During the promotion years, and the climbing the corporate ladder, God often gets crowded out of the picture.

Perhaps most of all, however, people turn back from walking with the Lord because priorities get moved around.

Increasingly people resort to excuses as to why they cannot come to church, study the scriptures, or seek to be more spiritual.

The road to backsliding is paved with excuses. Each one will help to cripple the inner life.

I do not know where the following material comes from, and for that I apologize, but I found these thoughts in my files.

“All living things can die through neglect. A plant in a garden, a friendship, a marriage—all can wither if not nourished. I have never met a person who crashed out of the Christian life. By that, I mean that I have never personally known an individual who woke up one morning and announced: ‘From now on I will not be a Christian. I will turn my back on God, on the Bible, on the church.’ I have known many persons who oozed out of a once vital faith with the Master. It was done simply through neglect and inattention. The flame of faith was extinguished through neglect.

Commitment, discipleship, long suffering, faithfulness. These were not found in the life of those who turned back that day in Galilee. But there were at least twelve disciples who were committed. Peter spoke for them: To whom shall we go? We will stay here with you Lord.

At the Olympic games in Paris in 1924 the sport of canoe racing was added to the list of international competitions. The favorite team in the four-man canoe race was the United States team. One member of that team was a young man by the name of Bill Havens. As the time for the Olympics neared, it became clear that Bill’s wife would give birth to her first child about the time that Bill would be competing in the Paris Games. In 1924 there were no jet airliners from Paris to the United States, only slow-moving ocean-going ships. And so Bill found himself in a dilemma. Should he go to Paris and risk not being at his wife’s side when their first child was born? Or should he withdraw from the team and remain behind. Bill’s wife insisted that he go to Paris. After all, he had been working towards this for all these years. It was the culmination of a life-long dream. Clearly the decision was not easy for Bill to make. Finally, after much soul searching, Bill decided to withdraw from the competition and remain behind with his wife so that he could be with her when their first child arrived. Bill considered being at her side a higher priority than going to Paris to fulfill a life-long dream.

To make a long story short, the United States four-man canoe team won the gold medal at the Paris Olympics. And Bill’s wife was late in giving birth to her first child. So late, that Bill could have competed in the event and returned home in time for the birth. People said, “What a shame.” But Bill said he had no regrets. After all, his commitment to his wife was more important. A high price, yes, but not too high a price for someone he loved. I can hear that higher priority in Peter’s words: It is you we love Lord, to whom shall we go?

I would warn that there is a consequence to backsliding. Perhaps no other story in scripture explains it better than the story of Samson. He once had such a rich vital relationship with the living God, but ever so slowly he went the way of backsliding. One day Samson got up to do battle with the Philistines and in Judges 16:20 we read the most salient verse in his life’s story. It reads: He did not know that the Lord had departed from him. Suddenly Samson found himself in the midst of battle and he called upon his reservoir of faith, only to discover, much to his surprise, that it was empty. Only then was he awakened to the reality that his relationship with God was not a burning fire, but a cold ember.

Oh friends, too many repeat the story of Samson. We don’t even realize that God is no longer a vital part of our life—that is until a crisis arises. How many people have I known, couples whose marriages were on the verge of complete disaster, and out of complete desperation they come back to the church that they haven’t been to in years. It’s the last fling before the divorce. Then, when it doesn’t work, as invariably it does not, they wonder why religion had no effect. I feel like saying: What do you expect?

How many times have I known someone who lost a loved one who was dearer than life itself, come back to the church for the funeral after being away for years, and they can’t understand why they did not have the spiritual resources to handle it. I feel like saying: What did you expect? Samson waited till he was in the middle of the battle, and then he called upon the name of the Lord God of hosts, but God didn’t answer. Why? Because, says the scripture, God was no longer with Samson, and he didn’t even know it. It had all happened so gradually that it took a crisis before he understood it.

We can come back to a closer walk with God. Remember the distance that you have put between yourself and God means nothing. The tragedy is not the distance; it is that your love is no longer vital. We can return when we evaluate our closeness to God, and the church, and repent our sinful excuses. Then start witnessing to the love of Christ.

Why is it so vital? Obviously for the state of your soul, but for another reason as well. Others need to see you faithful. You have a witness in this world. Your friends, your family, your children especially need to see you faithful. It will have a life long effect upon them.”

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