Thoughts on Religious Experience

Archibald Alexander, 1844

Backsliding—The Backslider restored

There is a perpetual, and there is a temporary backsliding.

1. The first is the case of those who, being partially awakened and enlightened by the Word accompanied by the common operations of the Spirit, make a profession of religion, and for a while seem to run well, and to outstrip the humble believer in zeal and activity; but having no root in themselves, in the time of temptation fall totally away, and not only relinquish their profession—but frequently renounce Christianity itself, and become the bitterest enemies of religion. Or, seduced by the pride of their own hearts, they forsake the true doctrines of the Gospel, fall in love with some flattering, flesh-pleasing form of heresy, and spend their time in zealous efforts to overthrow that very truth which they once professed to prize. Or, thirdly, they are overcome by some insidious lust or passion, and fall into the habitual practice of some sin, which at first they secretly indulge—but after a while cast off all disguise, and show to all that they are enslaved by some hurtful and hateful iniquity.

People who thus apostatize from the profession and belief of Christianity, or who fall into a habitual course of sinning, are commonly in the most hopeless condition of all who live in the midst of the means of grace. When they openly reject Christianity, their infidelity is commonly accompanied by contempt and a malign temper, which often prompts them to blasphemy; and they are, according to our apprehension, in great danger of committing the unpardonable sin; and some who in these circumstances are actuated by inveterate hatred to the truth, and who make use of their tongues to express the feelings of enmity which rankle in them, do often fall into this unpardonable sin.

The case of such seems to be described by Paul in Heb 6:6: "For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again to repentance, seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh and put him to an open shame." Some suppose that the apostle here describes the character of the true Christian, and that he merely supposes the case, if such should fall away, what would be the fearful consequence; but this seems to us a forced construction. It seems more reasonable to believe that he is describing a case which may, and often does occur, and that the description applies to such professors as had received the miraculous endowments of the Holy Spirit, and yet apostatized: and by crucifying the Son of God afresh he probably alludes to the manner in which those who went back to the Jews were required to execrate the name of Christ in the synagogues, and to profess that He deserved to be crucified as He had been, and thus put Him to an open shame.

But whether such apostates do actually commit the unpardonable sin or not seems in most cases to be of little consequence, for they commonly die in their sins, and all sin unrepented of is unpardonable. In some cases, however, apostates stop short of infidelity and blasphemy, and while they stand aloof from religion, content themselves with decency, and do not treat religion with disrespect; yet it will be found on examination, that the hearts of such are extremely callous, and their consciences are seared as with a hot iron. The Spirit of God evidently has left them, and strives no more with them; and they often die as they have lived—fearfully insensible, having "no bands in their death". (Psalm 73:4) But sometimes conscience is let loose upon them in their last hours, and they are left to die in the horrors of despair. In the days of the apostles they seem to have had some way of knowing when a man had committed "the sin unto death", (1 John 5:16) and for such, Christians were not to pray, as their destiny was irretrievably fixed; but such knowledge cannot be possessed now, and we may therefore pray for all, as long as they are in the place of repentance.

2. But when we speak of backsliding, we commonly mean those sad departures of real Christians from God which are so common, and often so injurious to the cause of religion. These cases are so common, that some have thought that all Christians have their seasons of backsliding, when they leave their first love, and lose the sweet relish of divine things, and are excluded from intimate communion with God. But, however common backsliding may have been among Christians, there is no foundation for the opinion that it is common to all. We find no such declension in the experience of Paul or John, and in the biographies of some modern saints we find no such sad declension. We could refer to many recorded accounts of personal experience—but it will be sufficient to mention Richard Baxter, Gardiner, George Whitefield, and David Brainerd. No doubt all experience short seasons of comparative coldness and insensibility, and they who live near to God have not always equal light and life and comfort in the divine life. Those fluctuations of feeling which are so common are not included in the idea of a state of backsliding.

Backsliding occurs when the Christian is gradually led off from close walking with God, loses the lively sense of divine things, becomes too much attached to the world and too much occupied with secular concerns; until at length the keeping of the heart is neglected, prayer and the seeking of the Lord in private are omitted or slightly performed, zeal for the advancement of religion is quenched, and many things once rejected by a sensitive conscience are now indulged and defended.

All this may take place and continue long before the person is aware of his danger, or acknowledges that there has been any serious departure from God. The forms of religion may still be kept up, and open sin avoided. But more commonly backsliders fall into some evil habits; they are evidently too much conformed to the world, and often go too far in participating in the pleasures and amusements of the world; and too often there is an indulgence in known sin into which they are gradually led, and on account of which they experience frequent compunction, and make solemn resolutions to avoid it in future. But when the hour of temptation comes, they are overcome again and again, and thus they live a miserable life, enslaved by some sin, over which, though they sometimes struggle hard, they cannot get the victory.

There is in nature no more inconsistent thing than a backsliding Christian. Look at one side of his character and he seems to have sincere, penitential feelings, and his heart to be right in its purposes and aims; but look at the other side, and he seems to be "carnal, sold under sin". (Rom 7:14) O wretched man! how he writhes often in anguish, and groans for deliverance—but he is like Samson shorn of his locks—his strength is departed, and he is not able to rise and go forth at liberty as in former times.

All backsliders are not alike. Some are asleep—but the one now described is in a state of almost perpetual conflict which keeps him wide awake.

Sometimes when his pious feelings are lively, he cannot but hope that he loves God and hates sin, and is encouraged; but oh, when sin prevails against him, and he is led away captive, he cannot think that he is a true Christian. Is it possible that one who is thus overcome can have in him any principle of piety? Sometimes he gives up all hope, and concludes that he was deceived in ever thinking himself converted; but then again, when he feels a broken and contrite heart, and an ardent breathing and groaning after deliverance, he cannot but conclude that there is some principle above mere nature operating in him.

The sleeping backslider is one who, being surrounded with earthly comforts and engaged in secular pursuits, and mingling much with the decent and respectable people of the world, by degrees loses the deep impression of divine and eternal things. His spiritual senses become obtuse, and he has no longer the views and feelings of one awake to the reality of spiritual things. His case nearly resembles that of a man gradually sinking into sleep. Still he sees dimly and hears indistinctly—but he is fast losing the impression of the objects of the spiritual world, and is sinking under the impression of the things of time and sense.

There may be no remarkable change in the external conduct of such a person, except that he has no longer any relish for pious conversation, and rather is disposed to waive it. And the difference between such an one and the rest of the world becomes less and less distinguishable. From anything you see or hear, you would not suspect him to be a Christian, until you see him taking his seat at church. Such backsliders are commonly awakened by some severe judgments; the earthly objects on which they had too much fixed their affections are snatched away; and they are made bitterly to feel that it is an evil thing to forget and depart from the living God.

There is still another species of backsliding, in which by a sudden temptation, one who appeared to stand firm is cast down. Such was the fall of Peter. Many others have given full evidence that a man's standing is not in himself; for frequently men are overcome in those very things in which they were least afraid, and had most confidence in their own strength. These cases are usually more disgraceful than other instances of backsliding—but they are less dangerous; for commonly, where there is grace they produce such an overwhelming conviction of sin, and shame for having acted so unworthily, that repentance soon follows the lapse, and the person, when restored, is more watchful than ever against all kinds of sin, and more distrustful of himself. Such falls may be compared to a sudden accident by which a bone is broken or put out of joint; they are very painful, and cause the person to go limping all the remainder of his life—but do not so much affect the vitals as more secret and insidious diseases, which prey inwardly, without being perceived.

There are many people who never make a public profession of religion, who for a while are the subjects of serious impressions, whose consciences are much awake, and whose feelings are tender. They seem to love to hear the truth, and in a considerable degree fall under its influence, so as to be almost persuaded to be Christians; and for a season give to the pious, lively hopes of their speedy conversion. They are such as the person to whom Christ said, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." (Mark 12:34) But through the blinding influence of avarice or ambition, or some other carnal motive, they are led away and lose all their serious thoughts and good resolutions. Such people usually lose their day of grace. I have seen an amiable young man weeping under the faithful preaching of the Gospel, and my hopes were expectant that I would soon see him at the table of the Lord; but alas! I believe that on that very day he quenched the Spirit, and has been going further and further from the Lord ever since!

The backsliding believer can only be distinguished from the final apostate, by the fact of his recovery. At least, when Christians have slidden far back, no satisfactory evidence of the genuineness of their piety can be exhibited, nor can they have any which ought to satisfy their own minds. In the course of pastoral visitation I once called upon an habitual drunkard who had been a flaming professor. I asked him what he thought of his former exercises of religion. He said that he was confident that they were genuine, and expressed a strong confidence that the Lord would recover him from his backsliding state. Now here was the very spirit of Antinomianism. Whether he was ever recovered from his besetting sin I cannot tell—but I rather think that he continued his decadent habits to the very last.

I have often noticed how tenaciously the most profane and obstinate sinners will cleave to the hope of having been once converted, if they have ever been the subjects of religious impressions. One of the profanest men I ever heard speak, and one of the most outrageous drunkards, when asked on his deathbed, to which he was brought by alcohol, respecting his prospects beyond the grave, said, that when a very young man he had been among the Methodists, and thought that he was converted; and though he had lived in the most open and daring wickedness for more than twenty years since that time, yet he seemed to depend on those early exercises. Miserable delusion! But a drowning man will catch at a straw. An old sea-captain whom I visited on his deathbed seemed to be trusting to a similar delusion. He related to me certain religious exercises which he had when he first went to sea—but of which he had no return ever since, though half a century had elapsed. I have met with only a few people who had neglected to cherish and improve early impressions, who were ever afterwards hopefully converted. They are generally given up to blindness of mind and hardness of heart. But some of these are sometimes brought in, in times of revival; or, at a late period, driven to the Gospel refuge by severe affliction.

The conviction of a Christian backslider is often more severe and overwhelming than when first awakened. When his eyes are opened to see the ingratitude and wicked rebellion of his conduct, he is ready to despair, and to give up all hopes of being pardoned. He sinks into deep waters where the billows of divine displeasure roll over him; or he is like a prisoner in a horrible pit and in the miry clay. All around him is dark and desolate, and he feels himself to be in a deplorably helpless condition. His own strivings seem to sink him deeper in the mire; but as his last and only resource, he cries out of the depths unto God. As his case is urgent he cries with unceasing importunity, and the Lord hears the voice of his supplications. He brings him up out of the horrible pit, and places his feet upon a rock, and establishes his goings, and puts a new song into his mouth, even of praise to the Redeemer. The freeness of pardon to the returning backslider is a thing which is hard to be believed until it is experienced.

No sooner is the proud heart humbled, and the hard heart broken into contrition, than Jehovah is near with His healing balm. To heal the broken in heart, and to revive the spirit of the contrite ones—is the delight of Immanuel. And he receives the returning penitent without reproaches. He pardons him freely, sheds abroad His love in his heart, and fills him with the joy of the Holy Spirit. It is in fact, somewhat of a new conversion; though there is but one regeneration. We never hear of a sinner being born a third time—but we remember that Christ said unto Peter, "When you are converted, strengthen your brethren." (Luke 22:32) Indeed, the exercises of the soul on these occasions may be so much more clear and comfortable than on its first conversion, that the person is disposed to think that this is the real commencement of spiritual life, and to set down all his former experience as spurious, or at least essentially defective.

Christians, when recovered from backsliding, are commonly more watchful, and walk more circumspectly than they ever did before. They cannot but be more humble. The remembrance of their base departure from God fills them with self-loathing. Whenever spiritual pride would lift up its head, one thought of a disgraceful fall will often lay the soul in the dust. And whether the backslider's sins have been open or secret, the recollection of his traitorous behavior fills him with shame and self-abhorrence. When such people have so conducted themselves as to bring upon them the censures of the church, so as to be separated from the communion of the Lord's people, at first, it is probable, resentment will be felt towards the officers of the church who perform the painful duty. But after reflection, these resentments are turned against themselves, and they pass much heavier censures on themselves than the church ever did.

Judicious, seasonable discipline is a powerful means of grace, and often would be the effectual means of recovering the backslider, if exercised as it should be. Indeed, this may be said to be one main design of its appointment. If whenever there is an appearance of declension in a church member, the pastor, or some other officer of the church, should go to the person, and in the spirit and by the authority of Christ should address a serious admonition to him, and then a second and a third; and if these were unheeded, then bring him before the church—backsliding, in most cases, would be arrested before it proceeded far.

But all Christians have a duty to perform towards erring brethren. When they see them going astray, they should not act towards them as if they hated them—but should rebuke them in the spirit of meekness. Christian reproof from one Christian to another seems to be almost banished from our churches. There is a quick eye to discern a brother's faults, and a ready tongue to speak of them to others; but where do we now find the faithful reprover of sin, who goes to the man himself, without saying a word to anyone, and between themselves, faithfully warns, exhorts, and entreats a straying brother to return. The serious discipline of formal accusations, and witnesses, etc., by such a course would be in a great measure rendered unnecessary. But the common practice is to let the evil grow until it has become inveterate, and breaks out into overt acts—and then there is a necessity to pay attention to the matter, and to put in force the discipline of the church. But even this often proves beneficial, and is a powerful means of reclaiming the offender; or, if he persists in his evil courses, it serves to separate an unworthy member from the communion of saints.

But when church officers and private Christians utterly fail in their duty towards backsliding brethren, God Himself often makes use of means of His own, which do not require the intervention of men. He smites the offender with His rod, and causes him to smart in some tender part. He sends such afflictions as bring his sins forcibly before his conscience. He deprives him of the objects for the sake of which he forsook the Lord—it may be of the wife of his youth, or of a beloved child, on which his affections were too fondly fixed so as to become idolatrous. Or if it was the love of the world which was the seductive cause of his backsliding, riches are caused to "make to themselves wings and fly away like the eagle to heaven". (Prov 23:5) Or was the love of ease and indulgence of the sensual appetites the cause of his delinquency, the stroke falls on his own body. He is brought low by sickness, and is tried upon his bed with excruciating pains, until he cries out in his distress and humbly confesses his sins. Or if he was carried away by an undue love of the honor from men, it is not unlikely that his reputation, which he cherished with a fondness which caused him to neglect the honor of his God, will be permitted to be tarnished by the tongue of slander, and things may be so situated that, although innocent, he may not have it in his power to make the truth appear. Children, too much indulged, become by their misconduct, heavy causes of affliction to parents; and thus they are made to suffer in the very point where they had sinned. Look at the case of Eli and of David.

All afflictions are not for chastisement--but sometimes for trial; and those whom God loves best are the most afflicted in this world. They are kept in the furnace, which is heated seven times hotter--until their dross is consumed, and their piety shines forth as pure gold which has been tried in the fire. "I will put this third through the fire; I will refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, and I will answer them. I will say: They are My people, and they will say: The Lord is our God." Zechariah 13:9. "You have tested us, O God; you have purified us like silver melted in a crucible." (Psalm 66:10) "I have refined you in the furnace of suffering." (Isaiah 48:10)

But we are now concerned only with those afflictions which are most effective to bring back the backslider, the virtue of which the psalmist acknowledges when he says, "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word. It was good for me to be afflicted so that I could learn Your statutes. I know, Lord, that Your judgments are just and that You have afflicted me fairly. (Psalm 119:67, 71, 75) It may be truly said that many who had backslidden never would have returned had it not been for the rod; other means seemed to have lost their power—but this comes home to the feelings of everyone. Whether a believer is ever permitted to die in a backslidden state is a question of no practical importance; but it seems probable that Christians die in all conditions, including spiritual declension. No one has any right to presume that if he backslides, death may not overtake him in that unprepared condition. Backsliding then is a fearful evil; may we all be enabled to avoid it; or if fallen into it, to be recovered speedily from so dangerous a state!