The Christian Professor
John Angell James, 1837
THE BACKSLIDING PROFESSOR
There are three stages of departure from God—
1. spiritual declension
2. actual backsliding
3. final apostasy
They are intimately connected, and
lead on, unless stopped by divine grace, from one to the other. There have
been many people in these states in every age of the church—there are some
now. Our most solemn attention is required for such a subject. Professors
are continually falling away from Christ, some only in heart, others openly
in conduct; some partially and for a season, others totally and forever. The
hopes of pastors and churches are continually receiving the bitterest
disappointment from the relapses of those who "did run well." Like
the blossoms in the spring, for a time they excited the most pleasing
anticipations—but a blight came on—the blossom went up as dust, and the
root appeared to be rottenness. The present chapter will include a
consideration of the two first stages only.
1. DECLENSION IN PIETY,
means a diminution of its vigor at the heart; a loss of the power of
godliness, or, to use a scriptural phrase, "a leaving of our first love." We
have a very expressive description of such a state of soul in our Lord's
address to the church of Sardis, "Strengthen the things that remain,
which are ready to die." Religion was not all gone—but it was nearly so;
only a little remained, and that was ready to expire. This is a very common
case now. There is no immorality; no open sin; but an utter decay of pious
affection. The whole amount of piety that is left—is cold, heartless, dead
formality. The fundamental doctrines and precious truths of the Gospel,
though not renounced, are not relished and fed upon with that eager
appetite, keen relish, and exquisite zest which they once were—and they can
be very well spared from sermons, if their loss is supplied by displays of
eloquence and the flowers of rhetoric. The means of grace, though not
neglected—are mere forms, imparting no quickening power, and yielding no
spiritual enjoyment. Pious affections of peace, joy, love, delight in God,
and hope of heaven—are almost extinguished. The vigor of watchfulness,
spirituality of mind, and the severity of mortification of sin are
relaxed—under the idea that so much strictness in religion is not
necessary. The company of the righteous is forsaken, and their conversation
insipid. The tenderness of the conscience is blunted—and little sins of
temper, of trade, of the heart and the tongue, are committed with far less
repugnance than formerly. Besetting sins, once nearly subdued—acquire fresh
life and power. In short, piety has lost its hold upon the mind, the heart,
and conscience, as an elevating, sanctifying, and satisfying reality.
Delight in God, the love of Christ, the joyful hope of heaven, have well
Still, as I would not distress the
humble and timid disciple, I would observe, that we are not to conclude that
piety is declining, merely because our feelings are not so lively and flashy
as they once were. If there be a growth in humility and meekness, in
tenderness of conscience and self-denial, in a sense of the value of Christ,
and in dependence upon the Spirit, there is no declension in piety, although
there may be less of vivid emotion than there once was. Just as there is no
decay of strength in the human frame, where the sprightliness and
efflorescence of youth are gone, if the grave robustness of manhood remains.
Nor should the aged believer mistake the decay of nature for the decline of
grace. He hears, he prays, he reads, he remembers, and enjoys with less
ability than he once did; but this is the effect of old age, and not of
backsliding. The plant of righteousness seems to droop—but it is because the
prop that sustained it has given way. The gracious Redeemer will make the
same excuse in this case, as he once did for his slumbering disciples, that
"the spirit is willing—but the flesh is weak."
Unhappily, for many, a state of
declension exists in their souls without their being aware of it. "Strangers
have devoured his strength," said God, when speaking of Israel, "and he
knows it not; yes, gray hairs are here and there upon him, yet he knows it
not." Hosea 7:9. So it is with professors, they are in a state of decay, and
yet are not sufficiently aware of the solemn fact. It may be worthwhile to
inquire into the causes of this self-ignorance.
1. The natural consequence of
decay—whether of body or mind—is a proportionate insensibility. The
old man is not so sensible of his accumulating infirmities as those around
him are. He scarcely remembers what he was, and is but imperfectly aware of
what he is. So it is with the declining Christian, his heart is hardening,
his conscience becoming more dull, and his spiritual perception more dim. A
totally unregenerate state is death, a state of absolute insensibility, and
in proportion as we lose the vitality of religion, we return or approximate
to that state.
2. Declension is gradual. It
is so in the human frame as age advances, and it is so in religion also. If
we passed at once, from the vigor of youth to the decrepitude of age, how
visible would be the transition, and how insupportable too! But aging is so
slowly made as to be imperceptible, and even tolerable. It is thus with
piety, decay is usually so gradual as to be perceived only by a comparison
of distant periods, an exercise, which the backslider is rarely disposed to
carry on. He goes back step by step. He first loses the glow of holy
affection; then the spontaneousness of spiritual thoughts; then the
tenderness of an enlightened conscience; and then the consistency of pious
conduct. Private prayer is neglected, then family devotion, and lastly
social religion. From neglect of duties, he goes on to the commission of
sins. Yet he was at first quite unaware of any deterioration.
3. Self-ignorance is often the
result of a neglect of the duty of self-examination. Many seem to
think that religion is of so hardy a nature, that when once planted in the
soul, like some weed in the desert, or shrub upon the mountain, it must
flourish without care or culture. On the contrary, piety is a tender
exotic of the hot-house, that requires the constant examination, and most
devoted care of the gardener to keep it alive—much more to make it grow.
How few set apart seasons for close and diligent inspection of their hearts;
and who can wonder, then, that piety should be declining without their
knowing it? Would it be a matter of surprise that a tradesman should be on
the verge of bankruptcy, without his knowing the situation of his
affairs—if he never examined his books, or took his stock? It will not do
in temporal affairs, much less in spiritual ones,
to take it for granted, we are going on well.
4. What helps the ruinous ignorance
is, that professors are apt, when they do cursorily examine their state,
to adopt wrong standards of character, and to compare themselves with
each other—instead of the word of God. "I am no worse than my neighbor," is
the excuse not only of the worldling, for his total neglect of religion—but
of the professor, for his low degrees of piety. Instead of examining the
Bible to see what he ought to be, and comparing himself with that, he just
looks round upon his fellow-Christians, to see what they are, and is quite
satisfied if he finds himself not below others. Alas, alas! the average
attainments of the church of Christ are not such, as that its members having
reached these, need not trouble themselves about anything further.
5. Mistaken symptoms of
prosperity often lead to ignorance of our real condition. The hectic
flush upon the countenance, and the sparkle of the eye, may be supposed by
some ignorant people to be the marks of blooming health—when, in fact, they
are the tokens of incipient consumption. The increased appetite may be
regarded as the symptom of returning strength, when, in reality, it may be
only the harbinger of death. So in religion also, there are delusive signs
of spiritual health and vigor. Increased ability and disposition to 'talk of
religion' in the way of explaining and defending its doctrines, may be
mistaken for an increased interest and influence of it in the heart, whereas
it may be nothing but the working of pride, or an effusion of vanity. Zeal
for some peculiar religious notions or forms, may be supposed to be pure concern for
God's glory, though all the while it may be the most rancorous party spirit.
Liberality in giving, may be self-righteousness or ostentation; undeviating
formality may be miscounted ardent devotion; enthusiastic attachment to some
novel opinion, may be erroneously supposed to be spirituality of mind. These
are but a few specimens of the errors into which men fall, in judging of
religious prosperity; and they tend to show the vast importance of our
having a scriptural knowledge of the correct tests of personal godliness.
In all these ways may professors be
kept in ignorance of the state of their souls, and be in a declining
condition, without being sufficiently aware of their alarming situation.
I now go on to consider the case of
the BACKSLIDER IN CONDUCT. I mean the
professor who has yielded to the power of temptation, and fallen into actual
sin. The Scriptures furnish us with melancholy instances of this in the
history of Noah, Lot, David, Jonah, and Peter; while our knowledge of the
church of Christ, in our own days, adds to the number. Some have fallen into
intemperance, others into impurity; others into fraud; and others into all
the varieties of human misconduct. In some cases there have been gross
departures from the rule of Christian morals, without its being suspected,
and the backslider has pursued his guilty course, without its being known to
anyone but God and his conscience. Generally, however, the solemn fact,
sooner or later becomes notorious, and is matter of public scandal.
People of all ages; of both sexes;
of the various grades of society; and of the different sections of the
church, have been guilty of the sin of backsliding. That such things should
occur, however it may be lamented, cannot be matter of surprise, when we
consider the prevalence of temptation, the constitution of human nature, and
the imperfection, and occasional unwatchfulness of the best of men. To such
as are in this melancholy and dreadful condition, I now make my appeal.
Is it necessary to represent to you
the sinfulness of your conduct? But who shall describe its enormity? What
pencil can delineate in shades dark enough—the aggravated nature of your
crime? Against what light, what mercy, what professions, what vows, what
privileges—have you sinned? Your transgressions include the blackest
treason, united with the vilest ingratitude. But I will suppose
that you are already sensible of this. Permit me, then, to ask you—are you
happy? Impossible! unless your heart is hardened, and your conscience is
seared as with a hot iron. No, the streams of religious comfort are dried
up; the fountain of life is at a distance, and nothing but a cup of wormwood
is its substitute. Faith is suppressed, love quenched, hope clouded, joy
fled, prayer restrained—and every spiritual delight vanished. Guilt, shame,
darkness, and defilement, have taken possession of the soul. In what agony
of spirit have you sometimes repeated those verses—
Where is the blessedness I knew,
When first I saw the Lord;
Where is the soul refreshing view,
Of Jesus and his word?
What peaceful hours I once enjoyed,
How sweet their memory still;
But they have left an aching void,
The world can never fill.
Is not your experience a living
comment on those words, "Your own wickedness shall correct you, and your
backslidings shall reprove you; know, therefore, and see, that it is an evil
and bitter thing that you have forsaken the Lord your God."
It is, or it ought to be, no small
addition to the misery of a backsliding state, that it stops your
usefulness. In your holier and better days you did good; but what good
can you do now? Why, even the declining professor, who still keeps up his
place in the church, and among his fellows—has ceased to be what he was.
His prayers in public have lost their unction, his conversation in private
has lost its savor; the sick are not visited; the poor not relieved; the
young not counseled; the sinner not warned, as they once were. His energies
are paralyzed, his influence gone. He has begun to withhold his wealth, his
time, his labor—from the cause of God. His family, his friends, all see,
feel, and lament the alteration. O, how changed from that once useful member
of the church of Christ, which he then was!
And if this be the case with him,
how much more of you, whose misconduct has in effect separated you
from all those scenes of usefulness, which he in some measure still
frequents. You not only do no good—but much harm. You are not
privileged to be even neutral. You diffuse around you the savor of death. If
you are a parent—you prejudice the minds of your children against religion,
and may live to see your sins acted over again in their conduct, as David
did his, in the actions of Amnon and Absalom. You harden sinners; discourage
inquirers; give strength to the arguments of the infidel; point to the jests
of the scoffer, and impudence to the brow of the profane.
But consider the imminent danger you
are in of falling into future temptations, of sinking deeper into the mire
of sin, and departing farther and farther from God. You cannot stop where
you are—but must come back in the character of a penitent—or go on to that
of an apostate. You are in danger of eternal damnation. "The object at which
sin aims, whether in believers or unbelievers, is DEATH, eternal death—and
to this it has a natural and direct tendency. And if it does not come in all
cases to this final outcome, it is not because of its being different as to
its nature or tendency in some people, to what it is in others—but because a
timely stop is put to its operations. Only let sin go on without repentance
until it has finished its work—and eternal death will be the outcome!
Whatever we are, so long as sin lies unlamented upon the conscience, we can
have no scriptural foundation to conclude that we are true Christians. No
real Christian, it is true, will prove an apostate; yet, while we are under
the influence of sin, we are moving in the direction which leads to
apostasy. If we are contented with a relapsed state of mind, what ground
have we to conclude that it is not our element, or that we have ever been
the subjects of true religion?" (Andrew Fuller's Works, vol. 4. p. 460.)
I now suggest one or two cautions,
and some directions, which are applicable to your case.
Do not attempt while the sinful
practice is continued, to gain any comfort of mind by the supposition that
you are a true Christian still, and shall one day be restored to God by
penitence and faith. Do not attempt to
establish in reference to your own case, the distinction between the
backsliding of a child of God—and that of a hypocrite. There is a
difference, I know, both as to causes and results—but you cannot discern it
in yourself, nor can others discern it in you, as long as you are living in
sin! There is no view of God's word, nor any recollection of your own
experience, that should have the smallest influence to comfort you—while
you are living in sin! There is more in that one sin which you refuse to
repent of and forsake, to make it probable so far as we can judge, that you
will draw back to perdition; than there is in all your supposed conversion,
and in all the doctrines of grace to make it probable that you will be
brought to heaven. To take any comfort in the idea of future repentance,
while sin is for the present committed and enjoyed—is the most
unscriptural, irrational, and shocking of all delusions!
Do not allow yourselves to believe
that you have repented, except upon good grounds.
Do not imagine that you are penitent, because you grieve over the sin
and condemn it—if you have not forsaken it! You may shed
floods of tears, and decry the sin with the severest condemnation—but if it
is not relinquished, you are a backslider still, and such you must
remain—until you have given up the evil thing! If, on the other
hand, you have given up the sin—but still continue to justify or palliate
it, you are far off from penitence. Nor is it enough to have a partial and
transient amendment, produced rather by some temporary cause, such as a
sermon, or an alarming event—rather than by a renewed exercise of penitence
and faith. Equally inadequate is that amendment which is not the result of
deep humiliation before God—but of mere selfish and prudential
considerations. And be assured, that you have not yet been brought to the
necessary compunction and reformation, if you love to talk or think of the
sin you have committed. Repentance blushes even to think, much more to speak
of our transgressions. Repentance is a silent retiring grace. And it is
moreover characterized by the most exquisite sensibility in dreading and
avoiding everything that, in the remotest degree, tends to, or tempts to the
repetition of the sin! So that if we put ourselves in the way of sinning
again—we are still in a backsliding state.
Backsliders, be not deceived! And do
not, oh! do not remain as you are! In seeking restoration, take care to use
the right means. Mistake not the way back to God. Add not another error to
those into which you have already fallen. The following DIRECTIONS
may be of service to you.
1. There must be a sincere desire to
return. In whatever way we may have
departed from God, there must be a sincere desire to come back to him again.
Without this, all directions will be in vain, and all means without effect.
And do you not desire it? Is your backsliding pleasant? Are you as happy as
when living near to God, and enjoying the testimony of your conscience? To
quicken your desires and make you long more earnestly for restoration to the
enjoyment of the divine favor, it may be well to listen to the admonition
given by our Lord to the church of Ephesus. "Remember from whence you are
fallen!" This was not said in the way of taunt; then it had been
severely just—but in the way of friendly counsel. Think, backsliding
Christian, what you once were, and ask, "Is it better with me now, than it
Think of your holiness and happiness
in those days of your first and fervent love! Think how sweet, yes sweeter
than the honeycomb, were those precious truths, for which you now have no
relish! Think how delightful were those means of grace in which you now take
no pleasure! Think how joyfully you resorted to the house of God, welcomed
the Sabbath, and joined in the communion of saints at the table of the Lord!
Think with what confidence you drew near to God, while your conscience
testified in your favor, and took away every dread of the Most High—you had
the joy of faith, the comfort of love, the patience of hope, and a humble
consciousness of purity. But this is all gone—and O, how changed! how
fallen! Look up to those delectable mountains, from the sunny tops, and
verdant slopes, and beautiful prospects of which you have descended into the
gloomy and sterile wilderness in which your spirit now roams like the
dispossessed demoniac in the Gospel, seeking rest and finding none. Return!
Return to God! Let a sense of duty draw you—and a sense of misery drive you
back to him from whom you have departed!
2. You must at once abandon, and
with abhorrence too, the sin by which you have departed from God.
You must instantly, and without reluctance, forsake
your evil ways. You must say with the poet—
The dearest idol I have known,
Whatever that idol be,
Help me to tear it from your throne,
And worship only thee.
"Let the wicked forsake his way and
the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he
will have mercy upon him, and to our God—for he will abundantly pardon."
This is the direction for the sinner, and the same applies to the
backslider. The hand of faith when it opens
to lay hold of Christ, drops the sin it had grasped before. You must part
with your sin or Christ.
3. It may be well to consider in
what way you have fallen, that your
repentance may have a special reference to your transgressions, and that
your recovery may be in the way, and to the point of your departure. Was it
by a sudden temptation plunging you into sin, or by the long accumulation of
little sins, that you were prepared for the greater fall? Was it by pride
and prosperity, or by rashness and imprudence? Was it by neglect of private
prayer, or of the Scriptures? An examination of this point is of
considerable importance in various ways.
4. You must closely consider and
rightly understand the evil nature of your backslidings, as sins committed
after your conversion to God. As our
first turning to God begins with conviction of sin, so must every other
return. Such sins as yours have been committed in violation of the most
solemn vows and engagements; without any provocation on the part of God; and
against the greatest and frequently repeated mercies. They are characterized
by singular perils in reference to ourselves, and peculiar danger as regards
the well-being of others. But all this is nothing, if your hearts are not
duly impressed with these things. The clearer your perceptions are of the
enormity of your conduct, the more earnestly you will covet the renewed
expressions of divine forgiveness, and the returning sense of pardoning
5. Consider God's infinite
willingness to receive and pardon the penitent and returning backslider.
When once the erring Christian is brought to
a due and deep sense of his sins, how pungent his grief, how oppressive the
weight of his guilt. He is in danger of sinking into the depths of
despondency, and viewing himself as an outcast from both God and his people.
His sins in all their aggravations appear to his distracted mind. Satan
accuses! Conscience stings! Every look of every Christian seems to reproach
him. And what is worse, God seems to frown upon him—and has, to his
perturbed imagination, appeared to cover his throne with a cloud from which
thunders roll, and lightnings flash, and dreadful forms of justice come
No, you are mistaken! Trembling
penitent, the cloud, and the thunder, and the lightnings, and the dreadful
forms of justice exist only in your imagination. God has scattered over the
whole page of revelation, invitations, encouragements, and promises to draw
you back to himself. From the hour of your departure, he has never ceased to
look after you, and even to follow you, with the messages of 'wounded
love'—and 'inviting mercy'. Hearken to a few of them. "O, Israel, return
unto the Lord, your God; for you have fallen by your iniquity. Take with you
words, and turn unto the Lord; say unto him, take away all iniquity, and
receive us graciously. I will heal their backslidings, I will love them
freely; for my anger is turned away from him." Hosea 14. Can you need
encouragement after this? Will not this cheer you, and be felt as a
sufficient warrant to return to God, and hope for mercy? If not, listen to
the following pathetic language—"Surely I have heard Ephraim bemoaning
himself thus, 'You have disciplined me, and I was disciplined, like an
untrained calf; bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the Lord
my God. For after I had turned away, I relented, and after I was instructed,
I slapped my thigh in grief; I was ashamed, and I was confounded, because I
bore the disgrace of my youth.' Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling
child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still.
Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, declares
the Lord." (Jeremiah 31:18-20). What unbelief or despondence can stand out
6. But perhaps you need still more
particular directions. Your case is difficult, your situation one of danger
and urgency. Embrace every opportunity of retirement for reading the
Scriptures, especially those parts which are suited to your case.
Turn to such portions of Holy Writ as Jeremiah 2, 31. Hosea 14. Micah 7.
Psalms 25, 32, 38, 51. the parable of the prodigal son, and other portions,
which set forth at once the spirit of penitence, and the mercy of God.
Be also much in prayer.
Solemn approaches to God are eminently
calculated to impress the mind with a sense of sin, to inspire us with
abhorrence on account of it, and at the same time to encourage our faith in
God's pardoning mercy, and our dependence on his restoring grace.
There must be minute and unreserved
confession of sin, an utter renunciation
of all self-justification, excuses, and palliations. There must be a
disposition to lay the hand upon the mouth, and a spirit of
self-condemnation. We must admit all the aggravations of our sin, and look
upon it, just as we may suppose God does.
You shall praise God that he has
borne so long with your misconduct, and
be especially grateful that he did not cut you off in your sins, nor allow
you to go on still sinning, and acting out your transgressions to the full
extent of their nature and tendency.
Set apart special seasons of
devotion to humble yourselves before God, by fasting and prayer.
Extraordinary cases require the use of
extraordinary means. "A day," says Mr. Fuller, "devoted to God in
humiliation, fasting and prayer, occasionally occupied with reading suitable
parts of the Scriptures, may by the blessing of the Holy Spirit, contribute
more to the subduing of sin, and the recovery of a spiritual mind, than
years spent in a sort of half-hearted exercises."
Be neither surprised, mortified, nor
offended, if for a while, your fellow-Christians who are acquainted with
your lapses, should look timidly upon you, and seem incredulous as to
the sincerity of year repentance. "Why should a man complain, a living man
for the punishment of his sins. I will bear the indignation of the Lord,
because I have sinned against him." Let the spirit of these passages be in
you, and consider whatever you may be called to endure, as a light
affliction—compared with what you have deserved.
In all your approaches to the
Savior, let it be under the character in which you first applied to him for
mercy—that of a SINNER. "If you attempt to
approach the throne of grace as a 'good' man, who has backslidden from God,
you may find it impossible to substantiate that character. The reality of
your conversion may be doubtful, not only in your apprehension—but in
itself. Your approach, therefore, must not be as one that is washed, and
needs only to wash his feet; but as one who is defiled throughout,
whose hands and head, and every part needs to be cleansed! Do not employ
yourself in raking over the rubbish of your past life in search of evidence
that you are a Christian. You will not be able in your present state of
mind, to decide that question; nor would it be of any service to you if you
could decide it. One thing is certain; you are a sinner, a poor, miserable,
and perishing sinner; the door of mercy is open, and you are welcome to
enter in. 'I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to
repentance!' Let your past character be what it may, and let your conversion
be ever so doubtful, if you can, from this time, relinquish all for
Christ, eternal life is before you." Fuller.
In your approaches to God as a
sinner, feel as much your need of Christ as you ever did.
You can go to God in no other way, but as a sinner. And by no other way
than Christ. God meets his returning children, just where he meets his
repenting enemies, at the cross; and nothing is so eminently adapted to open
all the springs of godly sorrow, as a believing contemplation of the death
of Christ. There must be a simple dependence upon the Spirit of God for our
restoration. We can of our own accord depart from God—but it requires the
omnipotence of his grace to bring us back.
You must be satisfied with nothing
short of a complete recovery; which includes
1. A sweet and comfortable sense of
pardon; such a faith in God's promise of mercy, such a full reliance on the
blood of Christ, as takes away all tormenting sense of sin and dread of God,
and restores the soul to peace. And together with this recovery, includes
such a victory over your corruptions, as that they shall lie wounded to
death before you.
2. And with all this must be united
a holy and trembling jealousy over yourself, a spirit of deep
humility, and abasing consciousness of weakness, a feeling of dependence,
and a purpose of 'watchfulness' for the future.