Is ‘Backsliding’ Really a Thing?

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An article at Proclaim & Defend last week raised the question “Do We Still Believe in Backsliding?” For me, the answer is, “Yes, but not in the way you mean.”

In general, we should describe the Christian life using biblical language in a biblical way. When we do that, we avoid a lot of misunderstanding or misemphasis. So, considering the topic of backsliding, we should start with three questions:

  • How does the Bible use the term “backsliding”?
  • Given how the term is used, what does it mean?
  • How does that meaning apply to us in our context?

How Scripture Uses the Term

Some Hebrew knowledge and a study tool like Logos can make this kind of study easier, but all anyone really needs for this one is good old Strong’s Concordance. Here’s what some digging reveals.

  • “Backsliding” and variations like “backslidden” or “backslider” occur only in the Old Testament (OT).
  • KJV has the term 17 times—almost all in Jeremiah, with a handful in Hosea, one in Isaiah, and one in Proverbs.

These are representative examples:

The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways: And a good man shall be satisfied from himself. (Prov 14:14)

For the iniquity of his covetousness I was angry and struck him; I hid and was angry, And he went on backsliding in the way of his heart. (Isa 57:17)

O Lord, though our iniquities testify against us, do thou it for thy name’s sake: for our backslidings are many; we have sinned against thee. (Jer 14:7)

Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings. Behold, we come unto thee; for thou art the Lord our God. (Jer 3:22)

For Israel slideth back as a backsliding heifer: Now the Lord will feed them as a lamb in a large place. (Hos 4:16)

And my people are bent to backsliding from me: Though they called them to the most High, None at all would exalt him. (Hos 11:7)

What the Term Means

  • In KJV and NKJV “backsliding” and “backslider” translate at least four different Hebrew words. These all derive in one way or another from the Hebrew root sub, which means to turn or return. (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament has fascinating observations on sub and related words.)
  • The word most commonly translated “backsliding” in KJV and NKJV is meshubah (also spelled meshuvah). It has the idea of turning away, defecting, or apostasy.
  • Most occurrences of the term clearly refer to Israel’s failure to abide by the covenant—usually in the form of idolatry, but also in a variety of other ways.

To fully understand what the term means, we need to look thoughtfully at whom it describes. In the context of the OT, “Israel” and “My people” and “My children” are ethnic and covenantal terms. Ethnically, they describe the descendants of Jacob (later renamed Israel). Covenantally, they describe those who entered into the covenant God presented through Moses (including the generations after Exodus).

This raises a key point: At no time in the OT, were all of “God’s people” individuals with personal, justifying faith like that of Abraham (Gen 15:6, Rom 4:3-5, Gal 3:6). “My people” and “my children” do not mean the same thing as “Christians” or “true believers.”

That understood, we’re able to see that in the Bible, backsliding is never a condition clearly attributed to a believing person. Rather, over and over, backsliders are depicted as persons unfaithful to the covenant—and frequently also as people fundamentally rebellious, unbelieving, and idolatrous.

What they slid back from was not a condition of spiritual thriving, but a historical, national condition of covenant faithfulness. Because God speaks of His people as a whole backsliding, an individual could be a backslider without ever having personally been faithful to the covenant.

How It Applies

There is certainly truth and application for New Testament (NT) believers, but we should look at backsliding Israel (a nation) through the lens of what the NT reveals about believers’ relationship to the Spirit, how sanctification works, and the language the NT uses to describe the Christian life.

Growing up, I heard the term “backslidden” fairly often—mostly from visiting “evangelists” conducting “revivals.” I’m not using quotation marks here to be snarky. My purpose is to emphasize a larger point: We often fall into linguistic habits where we use biblical terms but not in a biblical way.

Itinerant preachers who hold special meetings to stir up congregations are not “evangelists” in the biblical sense. Recovering a higher level of fervor or intensity of devotion in your Christian life is not “revival” in the biblical sense either. Similarly, “backsliding” is not how the Bible describes the variety of ways a Christian’s walk may fail to be worthy (biblical terms used in a biblical way: Col 1:10).

I appreciate what the “evangelists” calling for “revival” and an end to “backsliding” were trying to do. For the most part, they wanted to see Christians live in a more Christian way.

But the New Testament speaks of the quality of Christian living in terms like these:

  • Obedience (Acts 6:7, Rom 16:19, 2 Cor 2:9, Titus 3:1, 1 Pet 1:2, etc.)
  • Walking (worthily, Col 1:10; properly, Rom 13:13; by faith, 2 Cor 5:7; by the Spirit, Gal 5:16; by this rule, Gal 6:16; in good works, Eph 2:10; as wise, Eph 5:15; etc.)
  • Growing/excelling/increasing/abounding (1 Pet 2:2, 2 Pet 3:18, Eph 4:15, Col 1:10, 2 Cor 8:7, 1 Thess 4:1)

Avoid Categorical Thinking

When the New Testament speaks negatively about the quality of Christians’ lives, it’s almost always focused on specific forms of disobedience (specific sins) not categories like “backslidden.” Even the seemingly categorical language of 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 (“carnal”) focuses on specific failures in the context.

Professing believers who are unrepentant of egregious sins and “delivered to Satan” (1 Cor 5:1-12) fit into a category. There are some categories in 1 Thessalonians 5:14. But even in these examples, we’re talking about specific areas of weakness and failure more than an overall condition.

The truth is that we’re all on a journey of transformation. We’re all disobedient in various ways. We may have periods where we fail to “grow” or “increase” or “abound” or “abide” or “walk” as we should. All of these call for repentance. We could call these deficiencies “backsliding,” but is there any reason to use a term that is such a poor fit for the true dynamics of the Christian life?

Categorical thinking tends to lead to judgmentalism. It’s so easy to evaluate the quality of someone’s walk with God by a handful of criteria we’ve cherry picked out of the Bible (or just imagined). It’s superficial and invites pride. The criteria we select tend to leave out our own areas of weakness or disobedience. So we simultaneously lift up our own sense of virtue (inaccurately) while lowering our view of someone else’s (inaccurately).

A better approach is to look at the quality of a Christian’s life in the NT way—identifying specific areas of obedience and disobedience and assuming fellow believers are in the same category we are: people reborn by grace, still flawed and failing in many ways, and in the process of transformation (biblical word used in a biblical way: Rom 12:2, 2 Cor 3:18).

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