Condition that results from spiritual apathy or disregard for the things of God, whether on the part of an individual or a group bound by a prior covenantal pledge of commitment to uphold the doctrine and commandments of the Lord. Backsliding includes departure from a good confession of faith and from the ethical standards prescribed for God's people in the Scriptures. To varying degrees, depending on the extent of neglect of God and his commandments, the spiritually wayward experience a season of estrangement and abandonment from God and his people. In instances of apostasy when one spurns the grace of God by renouncing the blessings of the covenant, there is no possibility of repentance for sin, only a divine sealing unto the day of judgment (Heb 6:4-6; 10:26-31).
The sin of backsliding raises the important theological question concerning the relation between faith and perseverance. In cases of temporary backsliding, how do we understand the spiritual condition of the true son or daughter of God? Can one who is united to Christ (i.e., one who is regenerated by God and justified by grace through faith) fall again under the dominion of sin? Reformed theologians have maintained that the sinner redeemed by grace has been delivered once-for-all from bondage to sin. For such (elect) individuals, consequently, backsliding does not entail a fall from grace, whereby one is placed once more under sin's dominion. When a former disciple renounces Christian faith and conduct, however, that person is not a true son or daughter of God, and thus is not numbered among God's elect. Genuine development in the life history of everyone born into the world reveals the unfolding of God's decretive purpose in the salvation of the elect and the condemnation of the reprobate who remain under the wrath of God (John 3:18-21, 36; 5:24-29). History is the process of differentiation between the two seeds: the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent (Gen 3:15).
The frequent occurrence and gravity of backsliding among the people of God is vividly portrayed in the corporate life of Israel during the Mosaic epoch of redemptive history. The house of Israel was guilty of committing the sin of backsliding on numerous occasions. In the speech of Hezekiah, the Chronicler highlights Israel's history as a lengthy period of disobedience. "Our fathers were unfaithful; they did evil in the eyes of the Lord our God and forsook him. They turned their faces away from the Lord's dwelling place and turned their backs on him" (2 Chron 29:6; 36:14). The cause of Israel's backslidings was her stubbornness of heart. Repeatedly the prophets addressed Israel's waywardness and unfaithfulness. As agents of God's covenant lawsuit against the obstinate and stiff-necked people, the prophets pleaded with Israel to repent of her sins and return to God in true faith and holiness. Failing to heed the warning, Israel suffered the full displeasure and abandonment of God in the Babylonian deportation and exile. Hosea describes Israel in particularly graphic terms as an adulterous people (2:5; 4:12; 5:7; 9:1). Her sins of prostitution and sexual immorality, indicative of her spiritual condition, drove her away from God, causing her to apostasize from the faith. Rather than consecrating their life and temporal blessings to the glory of God, the Israelites profaned the name and works of God. "Like Adam, they have broken the covenantthey were unfaithful to me there" (Ho 6:7).
Israel's backsliding was both a divine chastisement and a rebuke for sin (Jer 2:19). Only the mercy and compassion of Yahweh could restore Israel to favor (Jer 3:22; 14:7). The restoration of Israel from exile, however, required the making of a new and better covenant, one that could not be broken (Jer 31:22-34). Through divine cleansing Israel would once again become the people of God (Ho 2:23). "They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God" (Eze 37:23).
Israel serves as an example to us. In the teachings of Christ and his apostles the people of God are exhorted to persevere in righteousness and holiness, so as not to fall under divine condemnation. The sin of apostasy is real for covenant confessors. Accordingly, the angel of the church in Ephesus warns those who have forsaken their first love: "Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first" (Rev 2:5). The saints are to persevere in doing the will of God, remembering the covenant he has made with us in his Son, Jesus Christ. The grace of perseverance is one of the benefits of Christ's atoning sacrifice for our sins. Thus our Lord instructs: "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing… If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love" (John 15:5,10). The cure for backsliding is found in the abiding love and mercy of God who remains faithful to his promise of grace in Christ Jesus, whose righteousness and salvation is apprehended through true faith and repentance.
Mark W. Karlberg
See also Apostasy; Denial; Sanctification
Bibliography. A. A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace; J. Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied; B. B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation.