Return of the Prodigal Son
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
(1617 Seville, 1682)

Probably one of the most heart breaking events that occurs all too often within the Church of Jesus Christ, is the “Backsliding” of believers. What are some of the reasons or causes of backsliding? They are innumerable. The wasting away that occurs in the heart of the backslider may be nearly imperceptible. It may begin with a general feeling of spiritual indifference (Amos 6:1). As we fail to focus upon spiritual things, the flesh seeks fulfillment. Satan is sly, and his tactics are subtle and he will find ways to tempt you into returning to the pleasures of your previous sin filled life.

Scripture likens the backslidden condition to a disease (Isaiah 1:5, 6), for which God has a cure (Jeremiah 3:22; Hosea 14:4-7). As with most natural diseases, certain symptoms are typical of the condition: a spiritual lethargy, a calloused attitude toward sin, worldliness, a spiritual love grown cold, lack of prayer or decreased hunger for the Word, and a general feeling of apathy toward lost souls. A dominant characteristic of the backslidden condition is stubbornness (2 Kings 17:14, 40). Backsliding is essentially a heart condition. Though its manifestations may be primarily external, the root of the problem lies much deeper. And, even as many health problems can be caused by neglect as well as abuse, the Christian who neglects the Bread of Life can hardly expect to grow in the nature and admonition of the Lord. Scripture cites several safeguards or preventative measures against backsliding:

  • Prayer. Mark 14:38; Luke 22:46; 1 Corinthians 10:12; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Peter 5:8, 9; Jude 20, 21
  • The Word of God. Matthew 8:24, 25; Luke 4:4, 8; Ephesians 6:17
  • The prayers of others. Luke 22:31
  • Diligence to spiritual things. Hebrews 6:11; 2 Peter 1:5-7, 10
  • Walking in the Spirit. Galatians 5:16; Luke 4:1-14
  • Abstinence. 1 Peter 2:11; James 1:27
  • Godly living. Romans 6:19-22; 2 Peter 1:7, 8
  • Self-examination (good, to a degree). Deuteronomy 4:9; 2 Corinthians 13:5
  • Submission to the discipline of the Lord. Hebrews 12:8
  • Good preaching. 1 Corinthians 15:2
  • Exhortation of other believers. Hebrews 10:25; 1 Timothy 4:6

Backsliding Characteristics

In the beginning of backsliding, your prayer life may be pushed aside for other interests. What seem to be innocent pastimes such as sports, hobbies, television become more prominent in your life than seeking the face of God. As you fill your life with worldly things your hunger for the Word diminishes. Attendance at Church functions slackens off, and relationships undergo extreme stress as the conviction of the Holy Spirit becomes increasingly uncomfortable. In time your sense of guilt and hypocrisy exceeds your concern for your soul and pushes aside your fear of God. An overall feeling of lostness and lack of purpose causes your abhorrence of sin to disappear. You ignore God’s calls to return (2 Kings 17:14-15). You hear the call once again to worldly pleasures.

It then becomes a simple task to justify actions that you never would have considered acceptable when you acknowledged and listened to the Holy Spirit. Your calloused heart becomes stone; your conscience, “seared” (1 Timothy 4:1, 2). Now, the farther you stray, the more distant the voice of God becomes and the more difficult it seems to find your way back.

Following Christ is not an easy task. In fact it is probably one of the hardest tasks we have to perform while on this world. Salvation is easy, it is free, and all we have to do is put away our pride, humble ourselves and accept the gift from God. But that is where far too many Christians stop. They rest in the knowledge that when they die they will go to heaven for they have accepted Jesus and invited the Holy Spirit into their heart. But what they are actually doing is failing in their Christian Stewardship (Luke 9:57-62).

Even as individuals vary in their degrees of spirituality or commitment (Colossians 1:23), some are more prone to backsliding, by reason of choice and personal weakness. Like a garden that must be carefully tilled and weeded (Hosea 10:12; Matthew 13), your spiritual life require diligent attention (2 Timothy 2:15, 21; 2 Peter 1:5-7). A stewardship of neglect and laziness can wreak havoc in your spiritual life as a believer.

Backsliding is, as the word implies, is a sliding back – not a jumping off, but rather a coasting downhill. You cannot ascend the mount of God in neutral. Spiritual growth requires a conscious effort, or it will be only “natural” that you succumb to the ways of the flesh. The backslidden condition may be manifested externally (such as in cursing, drinking, lying, etc.; but it occurs first in the heart (Proverbs 14:14). But the condition may also remain hidden behind a façade of spirituality and religiosity. The wayward heart, however, does not long tarry near the altar of God, but squirms under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and writhers in discontent.

Backsliding begins in your heart and mind (Proverbs 14:14; 2 Corinthians 11:3; Colossians 2:8), however, the condition eventually becomes evident externally. Jesus said that a person's inward spiritual condition becomes obvious by the fruit he bears. Paul said it is possible to profess the truth verbally ("with their mouth") but deny the Lord in our actions (Titus 1:16). If your life fails to measure up to your profession of faith (1 Timothy 5:8), your actions will declare your words obsolete (1 Corinthians 13). Even the term "believer," as used in the New Testament, is not a noun but a participle: "one who is believing."

If you fail to explore and learn the Word of God you are like a child that God has given the ability and talent to become a great virtuoso and who refuses to learn and rehearse. The talent lays fallow and wasted.


Christianity is not a one-time trip to the altar, but a daily walk with Jesus Christ, seeking God's face daily and daily crucifying yourself to "self" so that it is not "self" that lives but rather Christ that lives in you and through you. (Galatians 2:20). The words, walk, seek, and crucify are not passive words. They are action words. Being a Christian requires daily action and devotion to God's Word. You must remember that you are merely on this earth and not of this earth. You are passing through this earth and you must put on God's Armor daily to battle the call of the "natural" world, the world of temptations that surrounds you and tries to engulf you in natural ways. You must become "supernatural", above the call of Satan and his minions. The Christian life involves hard work. It requires you to give up whatever endangers your relationship with God, to run patiently, and to struggle against sin with the power of the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 12:1).

Backsliding, which is a failure in Stewardship, often carries its own punishment (Proverbs 14:14; Jeremiah 2:17, 19; Romans 13:4). And its effects often extend far beyond the experience of the offender alone. Causing a brother to stumble is a serious offense. The Biblical view of a Steward is that of a person who is set over a household. As it is developed in the New Testament, however, that household may be the home, the village, the city, the nation or the church. As stewards we are to provide for the well being of all who dwell in their "households" as well as for ourselves.

We will be held accountable not only for our own relationship with God, but for our conduct before men as well. Our life is "an open book," Paul writes, "known and read of all men." People who do not hear what we say cannot help but observe the way we live. "Your actions speak so loudly," the saying goes, "that I can't hear a word you're saying." Therefore, we are to "love not in word, but in deed..." (1 John 3:18). Anyone who has experienced the Presence of God will never find lasting satisfaction outside of His will. This accounts for the inner frustration and bitterness of soul accompanying the abandonment of one's soul to the unruly state of life without God.

While the spiritual condition of an individual within a church may reflect upon the leadership, this is not always the case. Even some disciples of Jesus (perfect teacher that he was) "went back and walked no more with Him" (Matthew 26:56; John 6:66) Some fell away but returned – including Thomas, who had his moment of unbelief (John 20:27-29); and Peter, who denied the Lord in the face of persecution (Matthew 26:70-74; Mark 14:72). "Satan hath desired to sift you as wheat," Jesus told Peter; "but I have prayed for you, that you do not fail." (Luke 22:31, 32)

Paul, too, expressed concern over believers in the early church that they remain in the faith (1 Corinthians 5:1-13). At times, entire churches are mentioned as having backslidden: The Corinthian church (2 Corinthians 12:20, 21); the Galatian church (Galatians 1:6; 3:1; 4:9-11; 5:6, 70); the churches of Asia (1 Timothy 5:15; 2 Timothy 1:15; Revelation2:4, 14, 15, 20; 3:2, 3, 15-18). The New Testament mentions many backsliders by name: Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Timothy 1:19, 20); Phygellus and Hermogenes (2 Timothy 1:15); Demas (2 Timothy 4:10). Yet, even of those who followed, some, "having loved this present world, turned aside" and fell away (1 Timothy 1:18-20; 5:15; 2 Timothy 1:15; 2:17, 18; 4:10-16).

Although the spiritual welfare of God's flock is primarily the responsibility of the shepherd, or pastor, every believer ought to have a burden for the backslidden. We are our "brother's keeper" (Genesis 4:9) and should "bear one another's burdens" (Galatians 6:2). Besides exhorting one another daily (Hebrews 10:25), we ought to pray regularly for our brother (Psalm 80:3; Psalm 85:4; Lamentations 5:21). "Behold, Satan hath desired to have you ... but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not. And when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren," Jesus told Peter (Luke 22:31-32).

However, prayer cannot replace the loving confrontation. "The truth shall set you free," Jesus said. "If a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness..." (Galatians 6:1) "If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister" (1 Timothy 4:6) – even if the words are rejected (Ezekiel 3:19, 21; Hosea 8:1). A reward awaits those who retrieve a fallen soul: "...he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins" (James 5:20).

In attempting to bring back a backslidden brother, however, we must make sure we ourselves are strong enough in the faith to stand secure: "...lest you also be tempted" (Galatians 6:1). Those who have forsaken the Lord tend to bring others down (Proverbs 28:10; Matthew 18:6; 1 Corinthians 15:33). Therefore, we are specifically exhorted to avoid those who have completely hardened their hearts through sin (Proverbs 28:14; Isaiah 26:3, 4; 1 Corinthians 5:9-11; Colossians 1:21-23; Jude 22 23) – although our attitude toward them should remain one of mercy: "Count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother" (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 15).

Forgiveness: The Call to Return

God promises to receive those who return with repentant hearts (Deuteronomy 4:29; 1 Chronicles 28:9; 2 Chronicles 7:14; 2 Chronicles 15:2; Jeremiah 31:20; 36:3). His patience toward those who "keep on backsliding," however, is limited (Jeremiah 15:6; Proverbs 24:16; Hosea 11:7). Their backsliding is "perpetual... they refuse to return" (Jeremiah 8:5-7). Some are reprobate: beyond any place of repentance (Isaiah 1:5-6; Jeremiah 6:30; 15:1; Ezekiel 22:18; Hebrews 10:26-29, 38, 39; 1 Corinthians 5:10-13; Hebrews 6:6; Revelation2:4, 5, 21-23; 3:2, 3). But if they are rejected of God, it is because they have rejected Him. His desire is always for their return (2 Chronicles 30:6; Isaiah 31:6; Jeremiah 3:4-22; Hosea 6:1; 14:4-7).

Must believers repent? The primary difference between the righteous and the wicked is that "the just man," though he may "fall seven times," gets up again (Proverbs 24:16). He doesn't remain in his sin. Moses fell. David fell. Peter fell. The churches in Revelation fell and were exhorted to repent (Revelation2:5, 16; Revelation 3:3, 19). Scripture – written to believers – repeatedly warns against backsliding (Psalm 85:8; 1 Corinthians 10:12): "Watch..." "Be sober." "Take heed..." "Beware..." "Hold fast..."

What does God require of the backslider who desires to return? "...only acknowledge thine iniquity" (Jeremiah 3:13, 14; 12:13), and change your ways (Job 22:23; Psalm 51:3-4; Isaiah 1:16-20).

Complete restoration is possible. God is merciful and ever ready to forgive (Nehemiah 9:17; Isaiah 54:6; Jeremiah 3:12-14; Ezekiel 34:23; Micah 7:18; 1 John 1:9). He may withdraw His Presence, to stir our hearts to return; but he never abandons His own. He still calls the backslidden his "children" (Jeremiah 3:14), his people" (Psalm 106:40; Ezekiel 37:23b). The initiative, however, is ours: "Return unto Me, and I will return unto you" (Malachi 3:7; Jeremiah 3:12-14). "Break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the Lord..." (Hosea 10:12; 2 Chronicles 30:9 and Jeremiah 4:1).

The road back to God is never long. As the father of the prodigal "ran to meet him," God always meets us at least half-way. Deciding to return, however, has often proven most difficult. While falling asleep is a gradual process, waking must be sudden – usually by an alarm, or a shaking. Recovering from a spiritually backslidden condition is no different. Depending on the degree of our backslidden state, God often must use extreme measures to bring us back. He strives with the backslidden (2 Kings 17:15), and lovingly will use anything: sickness, misery, grief to get us to return. (Psalm 107)

To the backslidden: It is not too late! Find a pastor or group of true believers and ask them for help. Remember, God loves you always. If He called you once, He is still calling you, come back, repent.

To believers: Prepare the table!

If you need help in finding the way or a true believer to help you, contact us or click on the image below, 'Father, I Repent' and we will welcome you and feed you.


The Prodigal Son Returns

The Prodigal Son
The Prodigal Son by Brother George

I had the privilege not long ago of hearing Brother George Chavanikamannil, from Good News for India, speak at our church. He shared with us the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) in a context that I had never heard before. It provided a whole new perspective on the story and its meaning. Please take the time to listen as Brother George tells of our role in winning back the backslidden.

Download PDF Christian Backsliding

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