What does it mean to “backslide”?

“Israel slides back like a backsliding heifer.” (Hosea 4:16)

Preachers often warn Christians and churches about backsliding. The term is familiar to some people, but others find it is confusing. Backsliding is used to describe a Christian who was once obedient to the Lord, growing in the Lord and serving Him faithfully. The once obedient Christian backslides by turning back to sin. The term comes from the Old Testament where God frequently rebukes Israel for its backsliding. The image is of a cow that plants its feet and pulls hard against the leading of its master. Israel was resisting the leading of God by turning away from Him to pursue idolatry and practice all manner of evil. A backsliding Christian is one who resists the leading of the Holy Spirit to pursue his own sinful way. Like the Israelites, the backsliding Christian turns his back on what he knows to be right to practice all forms of idolatry and wickedness.

The backslidden Christian lives in sin and does not grow in Christ. The backslider may maintain an outward appearance of religion while also pursuing sinful habits. He slides back spiritually, abandoning the progress he has made in obedience, ignoring the spiritual disciplines and forsaking the imitation of Jesus. The backslidden Christian takes off the Christlikeness he had once put on.

A serious warning needs to be given to the backslider. Backsliding is a serious problem because it is indistinguishable from false Christianity. The backslider may actually be an unsaved person who has deceived himself and others into thinking he is saved. The Christian who is in sin will not have assurance of salvation because their own heart will condemn them. (1 John 3:20) The backslider dare not attempt to comfort himself with the knowledge that because he is a Christian he can contiue in willful sin and still go to heaven. Willingness to live in sin is not a characteristic of a Christian, but of an unsaved person. “Whoever abides in Christ does not live in sin. Who ever lives in sin has not seen Him nor known Him.” (1 John 3:6) Those who refuse to repent give the lie to their profession of faith. A genuine Christian will eventually repent of sin, fall under the chastening of God (Hebrews 12:6) or die an untimely death (1 John 5:16).

The proper response to backsliding is repentance. Hosea 14 teaches backsliders to confess their sin to God and ask for His forgiveness. Backsliders must turn away from the sin they once loved to turn back to God. God promises the repentant He will hear and heal them. God promises the backslider that if he will confess his sin then God will not fail to cleanse him from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)