Question: "What does it mean to backslide?"

Answer: The word backslide, in a Christian context, implies movement away from Christ rather than toward Him. A backslider is someone who is going the wrong way, spiritually. He is regressing rather than progressing. The backslider had at one time demonstrated a commitment to Christ or maintained a certain standard of behavior, but he has since reverted to old ways. Backsliding may manifest itself in several ways, e.g., dropping out of church, losing fervor for the Lord, walking away from a ministry or a family, or falling back into old habits.

Some people use the word backslide to mean that a person has lost his or her salvation. However, since a saved person is secure in Christ (John 10:28–29)—God will not kick His children out of His family—that is not how we will use the word. Rather, when we speak of backsliding, we simply mean that someone is growing cold toward Christ. A backslidden condition could indicate the person was never saved to begin with—in which case, the backslider is only showing his true colors. But it’s also possible for children of God to backslide, temporarily.

The Bible uses the phrase fall away rather than backslide, but the idea is similar. In the Bible to “fall away” can mean two different things. In one instance, the person is saved but experiencing a temporary period of questioning that we could call a “crisis of faith.” In the other instance, the person was never saved at all but only temporarily behaving as a saved person would. We will call this taking Christianity for a “test drive.”

The Backslide Crisis of Faith:

In Mark 14:27 Jesus tells His disciples, “You will all fall away.” What He meant was that, when He was arrested, they would experience a crisis of faith, a life event so shocking that they would run from Jesus and question the very core of their beliefs. It was a night of offense, a night of stumbling for them. But this was a temporary condition. Three days later, Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to the disciples. Their faith and hope were restored, stronger than ever.

The apostle Paul tells us how to handle a fellow believer who is backsliding: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). James concurs: “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth . . . someone should bring that person back” (James 5:19). The backslider has wandered from where he should be and is “stuck” in sin, but the church will work to restore him and set him back on the path of righteousness.

There are events in life, such as the death of a loved one, that may cause us to question God. This is okay, as long as we go to God with those questions rather than using them as excuses to live in rebellion. The result of a crisis of faith is often that we come to know God more intimately than before. In times of trial, we should delve into the Word, pray with persistence (Luke 18:1), and surround ourselves with those whose faith is strong.

The Backslide Test Drive:

We see another type of “falling away” in Hebrews 6:4–6 and Luke 8:13. Hebrews 6 describes the apostate, someone who had only “tasted the goodness of the word” (verse 5) and later rejects it. In Luke 8:13 Jesus illustrates apostasy with the rocky soil—some fall away or backslide because “they have no root.” In each of these passages, a person appears outwardly to be a Christian, at least for a while, but he has not committed himself to God. Such a person might be attending church, reading his Bible, listening to Christian music, and hanging out with Christian friends. He likes the wholesome atmosphere and good company that being around Christians affords. But his heart has not changed; he has never been born again. Eventually, he backslides or apostatizes. He had taken Christianity for a test drive and decided he wasn’t buying.

Salvation comes by means of a genuine confession of Jesus as Lord to a heart that believes in Jesus’ death and resurrection (Romans 10:9–10). If a person who has been truly saved later backslides—that is, he slips back into spiritually damaging attitudes and behaviors—the slide will be temporary. The chastening of the Lord will bring him back (see Hebrews 12:4–13). The Good Shepherd will seek out the wandering lamb (Luke 15:3–7).

If a person who was never saved but only putting on a good front backslides—that is, he drops the charade and shows his true colors—his last condition will be worse than the first (Hebrews 10:26–31). How can we tell one type of backsliding from the other? We can’t always, unless given time, and, even then, we don’t know how much time God will take in restoring the backslider. Only God can see the heart.