“Trying this again” or “Why backsliding isn’t OK”

I just overheard a frustrating conversation come from our conference room. The phrase “eternal security” echoed off the hardwood floor and drywall and into my office. I immediately tuned in, like a government phone tap set to record upon hearing “communist” or “Castro.”

Two statements stuck out; they went something like these:

  • “I’m grateful for eternal security, because if there wasn’t, I’d be in trouble,” and
  • “ Backsliding is OK because we have an Advocate.”

But what about Hebrews 6 and the “peril of not progressing” as the NKJV puts it?

Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.

For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned.

I’m not going to attempt to exegete the passage and proclaim its inspired meaning, especially the middle section which seems to refute eternal security. But one thing the Spirit makes clear to me through this passage is that backsliding is in no way, shape or form OK. I know it happens; it’s happened in my own life. Happened just last summer, actually. And I know that His forgiveness is more than adequate and His grace is more than sufficient. I’ve repented and my salvation is secure. I’m aware of the story of the prodigal son.

It isn’t OK, though, because it isn’t God’s will. God is progressive. He’s always at work in the world and He’s always at work within us. His will is that we “go on to perfection” as the verse above states, to “go and sin no more” as Jesus told the prostitute in John 8:11 and to “be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

I’m not promoting a works theology; I’m promoting a fruit theology. We’ll be known by our fruit (Matt. 7:20, Matt. 12:33, Luke 6:43-44). And fruit can’t help but come forth from a branch properly connected to the Vine (John 15:5). If spiritual fruit isn’t coming from the branch, one must ask if it is abiding in the Vine. (Obviously, pruning stages are part of the process).

Something I’ve taken note of, and will be teaching on at my church in about three weeks, is that church-going people often live in the power of Christ’s death, but not in the power of his resurrection and ascension. We’re all about claiming the power of forgiveness of sins through the cross, but we don’t claim the power to overcome the curse and the sting of death through the resurrection or the power to rule and reign with authority through the ascension.

My heart still sinks thinking about this. Is this really all the gospel (read: “good news”) people–church going people–are aware of? Is this all the victory we’re convinced we can live in–that we’re wretched sinners that get to go to heaven because some distant God saved us by killing his son?

One of my professors at the Focus on the Family Institute was talking about “Bumper Sticker Theology” in class one day. You know what I’m talking about–those trite phrases that often grace our vehicles and church marquees. One Dr. Burtoft brought up was: “I’m not perfect. Just forgiven.”

“That’s not necessarily something to brag about,” he went on. “Is that all that distinguishes us from the rest of society–that we’re forgiven?” Then came the kicker: “We are to be Christ-like,” he said. “To be like Christ is not to be forgiven, it is to be perfect.”

Being perfect isn’t something that happens upon conversion. It’s something that happens through discipleship and sanctification. It’s not something that we accomplish through grit, determination and simply making right choices. Right-living is birthed from right-relationship with the Father. It comes from drawing-near, seeking-first and casting-burdens. It comes from humbling ourselves and being lifted up, loving the Lord our God with all our heart, and throwing off everything that hinders.

We have a far-greater and more kingdom-benefiting call than to repentance. We have a call to life–“zoe”–the God kind of life.

Joel Maust

Joel Maust is a blogger, marketer and photographer living in the beautiful Flathead Valley of northwest Montana.