But what about true believers who practice sin: sickness and death.
Throughout this article I’ve been careful to define the “backslider” as one whose life is marked by the same characteristics as any lost person: enjoyment of sin, no (or very little!) personal guilt for that sin, a readiness to engage in sin, no abiding interest in the LORD, His word or His true people—in short, a person who can’t be distinguished from any other lost person.
So, let me be perfectly clear: to live the life of the “backslider” is to be lost.
Anyone who is a “professing Christian” who nonetheless is comfortable living the life of a lost person should be terrified at the warning of Hebrews chapter 6, especially the part which says that “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance”!
Remember the fact that every person is represented by one of exactly two representatives, Adam (for the lost) and the Lord Christ (for the saved). There is no spiritual category of “backslider”, and no representative for the “backslider”.
But, how to we handle those persons (in the Bible and in life) who sinned for some period of time, those whose lives came close to ruin? Weren’t they “backsliders”?
The simple answer is “no”; the complete answer is much more complex and is the topic of this chapter.
We handle this issue in two points:
Do Christians sin?
The principle of Divine Discipline.
Do Christians sin?
Yes! To maintain otherwise is self-deception!
1 Joh 1.8
If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.
How, then, does the same author as the text above say this? It seems to be a contradiction of this text:
1 Joh 3.9
No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
To answer this apparent contradiction it is helpful here to see the text in the original:
No one who is born of God practices sin
πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἁμαρτίαν οὐ ποιεῖ
The phrase “practices sin” is a good translation (a present active indicative verb) because it highlights what John is saying: as a manner of life, the practice of sin does not occur in that person truly born of God. This is the force of the present tense verb.
[For those familiar with the Greek, you’ll notice that the NASB translator chose a “positive” translation. However, John uses negative and double-negative expressions several times in his epistles and in the Revelation; a literal translation of the text above is:
Every person born of God does not practice sin …
While not typical English here, it more accurately presents the force of what John teaches: the very nature of those who are God’s children is antithetical to the practice of sin!]
So, while Christians sin, a true Christian’s life is not identified with the habitual, day-to-day practice of sin. Moreover, the remedy for that fact is here (which immediately follows the text leading this section):
1 Joh 1.9-10
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.
All true Christians still live in the same “flesh” in which we were born (which is the reason that the Apostle Paul makes this point and the reason why sanctification is required and commanded):
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.
The true Christian daily fights the battle to overcome personal sin; this is the motivation and resource to the great truth just expressed:
For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.
Before salvation, a person is enslaved by sin; he/she can’t overcome it with any meaningful, consistent or real success. In short, he/she is doomed to fail; anyone who maintains otherwise is self-deceived. But after grace, the Christian has a resource he/she did not have: the presence of the LORD’s indwelling Holy Spirit. (1 Cor 3.16; 6.19; 2 Cor 6.16, Gal 4.6; 2 Tim 1.14; 1 Joh 4.13) Then, for those times when Christians sin, there is a remedy:
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins …
In case someone thinks,
“Well, then, I can sin whenever I want and everything will be fine—as long as I’m sure to ask for forgiveness afterward!”
This is the thinking of the lost person pretending to be saved—the self-professed “backslider”. The Apostle Paul encountered this wrong-headed thinking as well and responded with this great truth:
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?
The Apostle denies this attitude with the strongest possible negative in the Greek language: “May it never be!” (μὴ γένοιτο).
To let sin take the lead in your life is to identify as someone who is lost, someone who is still the slave of sin, someone completely opposed to the truth of those who are the LORD’s true slaves to righteousness.
[Romans chapters 6 and 7 are the best single place in the NT for a discussion of sin and righteousness in the life of the believer. I highly recommend that they be studied in depth. See "What about the Apostle Paul and 'Wretched man that I am!' in Rom 7.24?"]
The true Christian is commanded—and expected!—to resist sin! The following is one of the best-known of the NT passages on this topic:
You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons,
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
Nor faint when you are reproved by Him;
For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines,
And He scourges every son whom He receives.”
It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
The LORD’s disciple of Christians is fundamental to our relationship with Him: this text makes it crystal clear that if a “Christian” never receives divine discipline, he/she is not a true believer!
This immutable principle compels us to form the following conclusion:
If a “backslidden Christian” is never disciplined by the LORD, then that person can't be a true believer!
Stated another way: if a “backslider” lives a life which is indistinguishable from the lost, yet never encounters anything of the LORD’s rebuke and discipline for that life, then you are looking at a lost person. The LORD disciplines His own.
[I’ve been careful to phrase this principle as it requires: it is a “life”, not a one-off event! We need to be careful that we don’t jump to the conclusion that a person is lost after a day, or week, or month, etc. of falling into sin. However, the truth of the Lord Christ’s warning still applies:
You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.
Ultimately, a person’s life will reveal what they truly are.
So, while the LORD may or may not choose to punish the lost sinner during the span of his/her life (cf., The LORD, the Author of Calamity), the true Christian will always be disciplined for sin.]
But what is the nature of that discipline? How is it manifest? While not a frequent topic of the NT, it nonetheless appears in a few key passages:
- Sickness and death: 1 Cor 11.27-32 and 1 Joh 5.16-17.
- Handing over to Satan: 1 Cor 5.1-5 and 1 Tim 1.18-20.
There are times in which the LORD chooses to bring sickness or death to the disobedient believer as punitive measure.
[The intention of this section is not to establish that all difficulty, sickness or death of a believer is the result of deliberate, willing sin on the part of the true Christian. Rather, when the LORD chooses to discipline a disobedient believer, two of the documented methods by which the LORD does so are sickness and/or death.]
The most well-known of these cases is found here:
1 Cor 11.27-30
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep.
The Corinthians were very careless in their observance of the celebration of the Lord’s Table:
1 Cor 11.20-22
Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.
The Corinthians behaved as immature, undisciplined, selfish gluttons and drunks during their "fellowship" and observance of the Lord’s death and return! A solemn and reverent celebration turned Instead into a raucous, gluttonous, drunken “free-for-all”! It was the perfect storm of “adding insult to injury”. As a result,
“For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep …”
The LORD afflicted some of the Corinthians with sickness and death because of their carelessness and indifference.
[The term “sleep” is used occasionally in the NT as a metaphor for the physical death of a believer. It metaphorically highlights the fact that when a true believer dies physically, he/she will live again: that is, will awake from “sleep”. (cf., Joh 11.11; 1 Cor 15.51)]
There is another example of the same truth:
1 Joh 5.16-17
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.
The Apostle John makes an distinction regarding sin: there is sin “leading to death” and sin “not leading to death”. The phrase “I do not say that he should make a request for” “sin leading to death” is particularly terrifying. John leaves unanswered the question whether the one who observed the brother in the “sin leading to death” should attempt to intervene before the LORD in prayer for that brother. The clear inference is that, at least sometimes, an intervention should not be made and the sinning brother be left to the LORD’s discipline of death.
At this point, some of my readers will probably object with
“But that is so harsh! How could God do such a thing with His own children?”
The question should be, rather, why shouldn’t the LORD punish, even to the extent of death, His own deliberately disobedient children? He demonstrated with the Jews of the OT multiple times through multiple centuries that He punished continued disobedient to those He called His people—and He is the One who does not change! (Mal 3.6)
Remember, the LORD punished to death the Sinless One, His own Son, in the place of the truly guilty (Rom 5.6):
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
So, when the LORD said through Peter to the early Christian disciples:
1 Pet 1.14-16
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
that is exactly what He meant! The punishments of sickness and death are two means He has of enforcing that command. He will not allow His true children to live lives of sin with impunity!
[See, The LORD, the Author of Calamity on this site for the abundant demonstration that the sovereign LORD has the authority to enforce His commands.]
Again, I challenge any “backslider” to reconcile their life with this great text.