If you have attended a church for a short while, you might know of a person who fits this category. Stick around a while longer, and you will most likely know this person well. No church is immune to a backslider.
Two dilemmas arise in the case of a backslidden Christian. (1) What does this mean for my assurance of salvation? And (2) are they lost forever?
The fact that there are people who, after making a profession of faith and participating in the Christian community for some time, turn away from Christianity does not negate the eternal security of a Christian. So in the first dilemma, it doesn’t mean much.
Your salvation is always sure because it is Christ’s grasp of you that keeps you, not your feeble grasp of Him. Salvation is found in Christ, not works. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit seals you as a child of God (Ephesians 1:14).
Yet, these spiritual realities do not disallow the Christian to backslide. There are times where, weakened by sin, we flounder in the faith. There are times where, distracted by the world, we find ourselves further from fellowship with God. There are times when, tried by Satan, we lose all sense of God. The experience of these does not mean we were never saved in the first place.
There are, however, those who have similar experiences who have never been saved. They have simply joined the religious movement, never having their hearts transformed. When they lose interest in the things of God, their experience looks similar to the backsliding of a true Christian.
Jesus paints a vivid picture of these people in the parable of the soils.
“Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them” (Matthew 13:5-7)
These hearts were not able to house saving faith. They made great displays of faith but had not the power to persevere.
The problem for the community of believers is the difficulty in discerning whether or not the erring member is simply backsliding or displaying their lack of saving faith. We do not know their heart, and that’s the point; we aren’t supposed to. Our response should remain the same regardless of who is backsliding. Indeed, the gospel response to the backslider is the same as to the nonbeliever.
Our prayers display our trust in God. When we pray, we display our utter dependence upon Him. This is the first step in dealing with a backslider. No amount of reasoning, pleading, calling, or instruction can pull the backslider back unless the power of God works in them. We pray to seek the power of God.
We also pray to place the backslider in the hands of God. Our prayers take the backslider out of our hands and out of our power and leave them in more capable hands. We, in a sense, bring the backslider before the throne of God that God might have mercy on them.
The gospel is an indiscriminate saving force. By the hearing of the Word, sinners are brought to faith and believers grow in faith. We don’t call the backslider to improve their morals or get their act together, we proclaim the gospel to them.
The gospel is patient with our sanctification. It does not expect us to become ‘super Christians’ overnight. Because it is patient with us, we must be patient with others.
It is the gospel which must be our focus in our interactions with them. The gospel is the only instruction which will set them on the right path, securing them, and building their faith.
Church discipline is reserved only for the members of the body. The church has no grounds to discipline those outside the body of believers.
That said, the necessity in the church for discipline is one of the toughest aspects of dealing with a backslider. If they meet the requirements, remaining unrepentant, they are to be disciplined. Discipline will promote their return to Christ. It acts as a wakeup call, shaking them out of their slumber.
Paul directs both the church in Corinth to take extreme measures against immorality in the church. He instructs them “to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5).
In directing the young pastor Timothy to keep watch over his flock, Paul warns of those who will make shipwreck of their faith. Hymenaeus and Alexander were two examples of which Paul states, “I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:20).
Church discipline is most necessary in the life of the church. How will a church retain fidelity to the gospel if they let members blatantly deny the gospel either by word or deed? How will an unrepentant member realize their departure from the gospel if they do not experience a departure from the family of God for a time?
The final thing a church family must do is celebrate the return of a backslider. Their return should not be unnoticed. Restoration is just as much a gospel presentation as the prayers of the people, the patient instruction of the counselors, and the discipline of the unrepentant.
When we celebrate the restoration of a fellow believer, we celebrate the power of God over our "present evil world" (Galatians 1:4). We show not only the community of believers but the watching world that we serve a merciful and gracious God.
The backslider, as long as they have breath in their lungs, is never a lost cause. Some may return to God and some may not, but we must never give up. We must not cease praying, proclaiming, or disciplining for the goal of restoring.