Sadly, there is such a thing as backsliding in the Christian life. It’s also called wandering from the path of following Jesus. Indeed, we are prone to wander! There are various reasons why Christians do sometimes wander or backslide. We could put it in the form of a question: What are some of the causes of spiritual decline in the Christian life? John Newton gave a few helpful answers. I’ll summarize them below:
- One of the chief causes of spiritual decline is error. There are some errors that may be compared to poison. Thus the Galatians, by listening to false teachers, were seduced from the simplicity of the gospel. The consequence was that they quickly lost the blessedness they had once spoken of. Poison is seldom taken alone, but if it is mixed with food, it is not suspected until it is discovered by the effect. Whoever is prevailed upon to believe what is false, though it is mixed with the truth, is already infected with a disease; and his religion, unless the Lord mercifully interposes, will degenerate into either licentiousness or formality. [We live in a day when too many people are tossed to and fro by various winds of doctrine. Therefore those who want what is best for their own souls must be on their guard against that spirit of curiosity and adventure, which the apostle describes as having itching ears – which is a desire of hearing every new and novel teaching.]
- Spiritual pride and a high regard for self is also a cause for spiritual decline. Even if a person believes right doctrine and has experienced the power of the gospel, pride causes spiritual decline. If our knowledge and gifts give us a good opinion of ourselves, as if we were wise and good, we are already ensnared and in danger of falling with every step we take unless the Lord mercifully interposes by restoring us to a spirit of humility and dependence. It is the invariable law of his kingdom that everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. We have nothing but what we have received from God, and therefore to be proud of titles, wealth, or any temporal advantages we enjoy by the providence of God, is sinful.
- A third prevailing cause for spiritual decline is an inordinate desire and attachment to the things of the world, or worldliness. Unless this evil principle be mortified in its root, by the doctrine of the cross, it will in time prevail over the most splendid profession. The love of the world manifests itself in two different ways. The first is covetousness or greed, which can be seen in Judas and Demas. The second is not hoarding, but squandering money under the power of a worldly spirit. In whatever degree the love of the world prevails, the health of the soul will proportionably decline.
Newton does say quite a bit more about these three causes for spiritual decline, and he gives a few others as well. He shared them – as I’m sharing them – to help Christians avoid and fight spiritual decline: “It is sometimes said that the knowledge of a disease amounts to half a remedy.” This is the case in spiritual decline as well: if you and I do suffer from any of these “diseases,” thankfully we can go to the Great Physician for help and cure!
This entire essay, called On a Decline in the Spiritual Life, is found in volume 6 of Newton’s Works.