Counsel to Backsliding Christians

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I’ve recently been spending a bit of time over the past week preparing a short section on the ‘Benefits of Union with Christ’ for our church’s second leadership training day (leaders ranging from Community Group leaders to Kids Sunday School teachers).

In the process of preparation, one particular benefit stood out like a sharp thorn to me. That is, the P in TULIP: Perseverance of the Saints. I’m sure many of us are familiar with the doctrine (and if you’re not, Ligonier Ministries has a succinct summary on the doctrine that can be found here), and so I just want to point out one pastoral implication that Professor Wayne Grudem suggests at the end of his chapter on the Perseverance of the Saints in his widely acclaimed Systematic Theology. He says:

‘On the other hand, this doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, if rightly understood, should cause genuine worry, and even fear, in the hearts of any who are ‘backsliding’ or straying away from Christ. Such persons must clearly be warned that only those who persevere to the end have been truly born again. If they fall away from their profession of faith in Christ and life of obedience to him, they may not really be saved – in fact, the evidence that they are giving is that they are not saved, and they never really were saved. Once they stop trusting in Christ and obeying him (I am speaking in terms of outward evidence) they have no genuine assurance of salvation, and they should consider themselves unsaved, and turn to Christ in repentance and ask him for forgiveness of their sins’

(Systematic Theology, p 806)

This sat very awkwardly with me when I first read it because this is not something that I think many Christians are used to hearing. And I believe that the kind of ‘easy believism’ that often characterises modern evangelicalism has done a lot to contribute to our fear of this kind of language.

Most of the time, we give rather ‘mild rebukes’ to our brothers and sisters who are deep in unrepentant sin, without realising that firstly, it is incredibly unloving to do so and secondly, as Grudem suggests, they may not be our brothers and sisters at all. Therefore, if this doctrine is true (and I believe it is), then it may be that we need to heed the warning that ‘backsliding’ is not a trivial matter, but one that should urge us to greater obedience to Christ.

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