We know from Scripture and from experience that sometimes true believers fall into ugly sins and sinful patterns. King David is one example; Peter is another; the church(es) of Corinth are yet another. Many of us today have also stumbled as we follow Christ. Like the Canons of Dort say, in some instances believers sinfully deviate from the guidance of divine grace and are seduced by and also comply with the lusts of the flesh (V.4). This is sometimes called “backsliding,” a word that is found in Isaiah 51:17, Jeremiah 8:5, and Ezekiel 37:23 (and a few other places in the OT). Backsliding typically means the opposite of Christian growth and it usually means a person has gotten off the Christian path for some length of time.
What are some causes of backsliding? Why do we sometimes wander in the spiritual wilderness for periods of our Christian life? Dutch Reformed theologian W. Brakel (d. 1711) gives some causes of backsliding (which I’ve edited and summarized):
- Sometimes the Lord withdraws himself from his people so they are humbled for their sinfulness and therefore more desirous to value Christ and his saving work. He wishes to acquaint them, in a vivid and experiential manner, with his long-suffering, the freeness of his grace, his care for them, and his faithfulness. Therefore sometimes he withdraws himself, even though we don’t at the time know exactly why. See 2 Chr. 32:31.
- Backsliding sometimes results from committing a particularly heinous sin – a sin committed intentionally. This can be observed in David’s life after he sinned several times in the story of Bathsheba. The magnitude of his backsliding can be read in Psalm 51.
- Sometimes backsliding is the result of clinging to smaller sins. This happens when we often give into various lesser sins in our day to day life. Many small sins that follow day after day can sap the vitality of spiritual life, cause the heart to be estranged from God, and results in a lack of spiritual vigor.
- Backsliding can follow when we fail to make use of Christ unto justification and sanctification. Earlier in our Christian life, Jesus was precious to us, we continually went to him for forgiveness and help, and were stirred to grow in the faith. As we go along in the Christian life, sometimes we try to do it in our own strength. This is the error of thinking that a Christian only needs Jesus at the beginning of his Christian life, but not so much later on in the Christian life. This is the faulty idea that we do not need Jesus for sanctification; it is failure to listen to the Apostle’s words in Colossians 2:6-7 and Ephesians 4:15.
- Backsliding is caused by despondency and a disowning of our faith. Sometimes when believers desire to grow in the faith, they find they are not progressing as quickly as they think they should. This nearly causes them to give up since they do not know how to overcome this. They even begin to question their faith. However, they ought to know that growth cannot be detected every day; that as long as they are here below everything will be only in part; that to struggle and to strive is growth; that salvation is received out of free grace, by Christ’s merits, and that one ought to always exercise faith in order to be saved.
- Backsliding is sometimes caused by laziness in the faith; in neglecting prayer and the Word. The soul becomes less familiar with God when prayer and Scripture are neglected; the soul loses its vigor. Also, sometimes when his people neglect him, the Lord for a time withdraws himself to remind them of their need for him (see #1 above).
Backsliding is a hard part of the Christian life, and we should not like it, but it shouldn’t cause us to despair or think we’re not saved because we are backsliding. God’s people have gone through this trial before and we’ll go through it again. Of course, it is also wise to seek to avoid backsliding by avoiding things that can cause backsliding! And, at the end of the day, we rest in the truth that our gracious and patient God will never fully or finally forsake his elect.
The above edited and summarized quote is found in Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service, volume 4, chapter 90.