The Christian life is a race. Through the gospel, God summons us to sustained and persevering effort. He empowers his children by grace, his free and undeserved blessing through Christ. But he does not carry them to heaven on flowery beds of ease. Faith is a living, athletic grace. God’s mercy motivates them and energizes them to press on and to overcome great obstacles.
Christ blazed the trail before us. He now calls us to follow him to the end (Heb. 12:1-2). Looking unto Jesus—that is how we persevere. In him is everything we need.
But realistically speaking, Christians are not always pressing forward with their eyes fixed on Jesus. Sometimes they wander off the narrow path and become disoriented. Sometimes they fall down and injure themselves. They may be tempted to give up on following Christ with all their hearts and to give in little-by-little to the world around them.
To the confused and injured runner, I say: God can help you. You can finish this race—and finish it well.
What is backsliding? Backsliding is a season in the life of a professing Christian when his sin grows stronger and his obedience declines. Not all sin is backsliding. The Christian life is a constant cycle of sin and repentance, all under the atoning blood of Jesus. But at times the cycle of repentance is broken for a while. This is backsliding. It could lead to outright apostasy or falling away from Christ, thus showing that the person is not saved. But by God’s grace not all backsliding is deadly to the soul. Our Physician can heal fallen runners.
Healing begins with diagnosis. The most dangerous injury is one where you do not recognize how serious it is. Many Christians are like people who know something is wrong with their bodies but refuse to go to the doctor until a friend forces them to—or until it gets so bad they have no other choice. Sadly, avoiding diagnosis can be deadly. The infection turns into gangrene. The cancer metastasizes and spreads. Early diagnosis can save your life.
Backsliding need not involve any big, scandalous sin. It often begins with coldness in prayer and a sense of indifference towards the Word of God. We may blame the preacher, but in reality something bad is happening inside our hearts. An inner corruption begins to grow, like a rotten potato spreading decay to other potatoes in the bag around it. Soon our attitude begins to stink. Hypocrisy and pride rise up in our hearts. We become impatient, discontent, and quick to anger towards people. Though we profess to be Christians, we find ourselves drawn to the world.
What bitter fruit comes from such backsliding! Even while we invoke the name of the Lord we bring shame and disgrace upon him. If you are truly God’s child, then the Father places his hand of discipline upon you until you repent. Your life becomes like smoke that darkens and poisons the atmosphere of your home and your church. Others follow you on the descending path away from the Lord—your friends, your children. Unbelievers use you as an excuse to stay away from church. O, how evil are the results of backsliding!
But there is hope for the backslider. God especially describes his grace to backsliders in Hosea 14. God is so amazing! Even though our backsliding insults him, dishonors him, grieves him, and pushes away his love, still he calls us to return to him. This requires repentance: coming to grips with the badness of our sins against God and turning away from them to the Lord with a firm resolution to follow his commands. It requires turning from our reliance on ourselves (and other mere men) and renewing our trust in Christ alone. Such trust does not use Christ as a means to get something you want, but rests in Christ as what you want above all else.
Means of Grace
In order to help us to renew our faith and repent of our sins, God gave us the means of grace. God gave us his Word to meditate on, prayer to claim his promises, and public worship to meet with him and his people. God also uses afflictions and human accountability to help us to grow, calling us to respond with submission. If you are serious about getting back into the Christian race, you must use these means. These are not methods by which we save ourselves. When you grasp hold of the means by faith, you discover that Christ has grasped hold of you.
Our spiritual Physician has potent medicines to heal his people from their injuries and get them back on track to finish the race. These are none other than the graces he purchased on the cross and took up in the resurrection. Christ really is all that we need for spiritual life today, and eternal life in glory. He renews our experience of justification, sanctification, and adoption. He revives our souls and makes us fruitful again. His grace is sovereign and sufficient.