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Backsliding and the Christian

Four Reasons Believers Slip Back Into Old Sins and Habits

Country roads in Amish country are unique.

There are all the things you would expect to see: horse and buggies, kids and adults on scooters, and a horse-drawn sleigh in winter (yes, it’s as magical as it sounds).

But you probably don’t picture the roads of this country themselves—the concrete. If you’ve driven these roads, then you’d know they are covered in ruts. The wheels on the buggies are tough on the roads and slowly but surely wear deep grooves into the pavement. Over time these can be drastic enough that, for us “English” who drive, we can take our hands off the wheel, and the rut will keep us on the road. Though, I’ve definitely never done that…

There’s power in this image. We have ruts in our lives. When the patterns are good, the groove serves to help us stay in line with our good habits. But when the rut is something bad, it’s hard to steer out of.

The Apostle Paul loves to encourage believers that we have been made new. He says this in 2nd Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Our old self, the one that did not submit to Jesus as Lord and pursued sinful desires freely, is no more. We have been transformed, and the right and good things of God are now what we aim to pursue. This transformation is part of the wonder of the good news of salvation by grace in Jesus Christ alone.

But here’s the thing, even though we are new, some of those old ruts can still exist on the highway of our lives. It can be far too easy for Christians to backslide, to steer back into those old habits.

In the Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan says there are four ways in particular that believers backslide and slip back into those old ruts. These words would be good for us to digest.

Reason One: We Let Feelings Govern Us

Bunyan says this, “The first reason would be that though the consciences of such men are awakened, their minds are not changed. Thus when the power of guilt fades away and those things that provoked them to be religious stop, they naturally turn to their own course again. It is like the sick dog who vomits what he has eaten and casts it all out, not because he has a mind to do so, but only because his stomach is upset. When the upset stomach goes away, the dog returns to his vomit and licks it up.”⁠

Oof. What an image! Why do we sometimes backslide into our old ways? Because we haven’t really committed our minds to change. We instead only temporarily feel guilt, and when it is gone, we allow the wheels to hop right back in that highway rut. If we live by our religious feelings alone, when those emotions change, so can our living. Live by conviction, not by emotion.

Reason Two: We Fear Man

Here’s a second reason, the backslider “has slavish fears that control them. I am talking about the fears that they have of men, for ‘the fear of man brings a snare.’…Because of their fear of what man might do to an honest pilgrim, they fall in with the world again.”⁠

The ruts in the world are there because the majority of the world says to live that way. We have people judging us as believers every day. People who say we are foolish and living for a future that is make-believe or unknowable. People who say we should indulge more and pursue the things that God would forbid.

One sure-fire way for us to backslide is to give in to the temptation to please those people, to please the world. When people-pleasing becomes our master in place of Jesus, we backslide into old sins and habits faster than a rooster crowing at first light.

Reason Three: We Question God's Truth

“The next reason for backsliding is the shame that attends true religion, which makes it a stumbling block to them. They are proud and haughty and consider true religion to be low and contemptible. When they have lost their sense of Hell and wrath to come, they return to their former course.”

Christian living, genuine devotion to Jesus in all things, from honesty to mercy to serving, is not popular in this world. It will fill the world to come! But in this world, many look down on believers and their faith.

Some of us can get caught up in this temptation of the world to think less of Christianity than we did at first. We can fall back into that old rut that said, “Jesus isn’t that remarkable,” and think heaven and hell are myths and not reality. When we question the goodness and truth of God, when contempt for His word and promises seep in, our motivation for holy living can fly out the window and we backslide big time.

Reason Four: We Fear Conviction

Lastly, Bunyan says this, “the guilt and terror that come to mind as they consider their own miserable condition is something that grieves them. But it does not cause them to fly to Christ for safety; no, instead it causes them to try to avoid all such terrible thoughts.”

Every believer has been there. We’ve done something wrong and we feel convicted. The Spirit is working to change and transform us and the experience is not always pleasant. It can involve public confession and challenging conversations.

Many backslide because they don’t want to feel this conviction. We quench the Spirit’s conviction. They think we’re good enough and God doesn’t need to work this conviction and change in us. This can start small, but pile enough of these muted convictions together and you’re stuck right back in the old rut again—backsliding into your old ways.

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Christian, go forward! God will give you the strength. When you backslide, look forward and stop the slide. Or as Paul says in Philippians 3:13-14, "Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Press on weary pilgrim. Your faithful journey is not in vain.

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