Backsliders — A Paper by Edward Dennett

No one who comes closely into contact with the people of God in various places can fail to be struck with the large numbers of those who, from various causes, have fallen under the power of the enemy. There are few believers, indeed, who cannot recall the names of some with whom they once walked in happy fellowship, but who are now lost to Christ as to any testimony for Him in the world. Satan cannot, and he knows it well, destroy a child of God; but he can turn him aside, if unwatchful, from the path of obedience and service, and thus make him useless as a witness. It is on this account that, speaking morally, the bones of thousands whiten the sands of the desert through which God’s pilgrim host are passing, to the triumph of the enemy, to the sorrow of God’s people, and as stumbling-blocks to many young Christians.

The causes of the defection are as manifold as the failures. Some even who once preached the word of God with power and the unction of the Holy Ghost have been, through unwatchfulness, betrayed into ungirdedness; and, losing the sense of dependence upon God, they have gradually become the sport of the enemy. With a large number their fall has been effected through the temptations which abound in the world; through the desire, in many cases, to succeed in “the race of life.” So much has this been the case, that the line of demarcation between Christians and the world has been growing ever fainter. New amusements, new adornments, and new exercises, which are ever being invented by the world’s devotees with startling rapidity, are almost immediately adopted by believers, to the loss of their Nazariteship. Time was when a godly Christian could be detected by his garb and demeanour, but it is scarcely so at the present day. It is freely admitted that external separation, in and by itself, is of no value before God; but if it be the expression of inward separation unto Him it is of great price. The consequence of approximation to the world has been the neglect of meditation upon the Word of God and of prayer, and it is in this that backsliding almost invariably originates. The moment there is the want of enjoyment of the Word of God and of prayer, the backsliding has commenced. Let us heed the warning.

There are, however, two classes of backsliders to be distinguished. There are, first, those whose backs are at present turned upon Christ; their faces are towards the world, and they desire to be left alone. Like Ephraim they have joined themselves to idols; and they are so impatient of any remonstrance or appeal that, like some of old, they are ready to slay the Lord’s prophets who carry His word to them, in the effort to reach their consciences. There are, secondly, a great many who, awakened to a sense of their miserable condition, are groaning over it, and are turning again to the Lord and to His people. But the unhappy feature in their case is that they themselves, while freely owning their failure and the dishonour they have brought upon the name of their Lord, remain as they are year after year, and do not seem to advance in the path of restoration. The way is open for their return, and yet they do not take it; and it must be sorrowfully confessed that there are few amongst the Lord’s people who seem qualified to reach out a succouring hand to rescue their brethren. The question, indeed, arises whether the state of backsliders is sufficiently entered into. The sick, the bereaved, and other sorrowing saints are, as may be heard in any prayer-meeting, continually remembered before the Lord; but how seldom are back-sliders the subjects of intercession!

We are, therefore, led to enquire a little into our responsibility for this numerous class. First, however, let it be remembered that the Lord never gives His people up, whatever their state or condition. When Israel seemed wholly given up to idolatry, Jeremiah cried, “Turn, O backsliding children, saith the Lord; for I am married unto you”; and, speaking through Hosea, the Lord says, “My people are bent to back-sliding from Me: though they call them to the most High, none at all would exalt Him. How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee, Israel? how shall I make thee as Admah? how shall I set thee as Zeboim? Mine heart is turned within Me, My repentings are kindled together.” (Chap. 11: 7, 8.) No! the Lord never forgets His people, however grievously they may have sinned. Surely the history of Peter on the sad night of his denial of his Lord proclaims this truth as with a trumpet-voice. If this, then, be so undoubted, it is very clear that all who are in communion with the Lord’s heart concerning His people will maintain His own attitude of unquenchable affection. If He does not forget backsliders, they will not forget them; if He yearns over them and pleads with them, they will do the same, if His own affections are active within their hearts. It could not be otherwise if Christ be formed in us, inasmuch as then we shall live; yet not we, but Christ liveth in us (Gal. 2: 20), and He thus will express Himself, His own heart, through us to His people.

But there is another aspect of the case which must not be overlooked. The apostle Paul says, writing to the Galatians, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” (Chap. 6: 1, 2.) It is not too much to say, with these words before us, that there is a direct responsibility resting upon the people of God concerning those who may have been “overtaken in a fault.” It is quite true that the exhortation is limited to the “spiritual”; but it has to be recollected that every Christian should be spiritual, although it is undeniable that, unless there be the state indicated by this word, it would be useless to attempt the work of restoration. For an unspiritual man to deal with a fallen brother would be almost a mockery, because, as pointed out, what is needed for such a service is communion with the heart of Christ. On the spiritual, then, there does lie the solemn responsibility of caring for those who may have sinned. In this sense, at least, they are their brethren’s keepers. If this were but remembered it would preserve us from all hardness of heart, from all censorious depreciation of those whom the enemy has overcome, and help us in the activity of that love which beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things, of that love which never fails to seek the grace of being used in the backslider’s restoration.

The passage, however, contains other instruction for those who would engage in this blessed work. The service must be entered upon in the spirit of meekness, “considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” The Spirit of God thus reminds us that it is only grace that has kept any of us, that if we had been tempted in a similar way we might have ourselves fallen. This feeling, produced by the Holy Spirit, would save us from any harshness and self-righteousness in dealing with an erring brother, and beget the spirit of meekness of which the apostle speaks. It is easy, comparatively speaking, to write or to read such words; but the object of this divine communication will be lost unless we are searched by it, and unless we challenge ourselves as to whether we have been marked in the past by the spirit here enjoined, whether it be our state of soul today concerning those who have been led aside from God’s path, and whether we are ready to humble ourselves before God if we find, in the light of His holy presence, that we have been governed by a contrary spirit. One word more should be added before passing on, as to our responsibility in restoration. We do not press it, but we may put it whether the language used does not involve our seeking to restore the one overtaken. By this we mean that we are not to wait until the wanderer comes to us for restoration, but that rather we are to tenderly watch over him, and to use such means as are permitted to effect it. In one word, it is active grace which is enjoined.

The next verse passes into a wider region, and points out what is to characterize the whole life of the Christian: “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” This will be best understood by explaining first “the law of Christ.” The law of His blessed life was to be a burden-bearer; “Himself took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses.” By this we understand that in His grace and sympathy He went down under the sorrows of His people, and taking them, as it were, upon His own shoulders He bare them before God in order to take them away. This was in His life, but in His death He bore, not our infirmities, but our sins in His own body on the tree. Whether, therefore, in life or in death He was the great burden-bearer, and we are exhorted by the apostle to tread in this respect in His steps. This is the service to which we are called in the midst of our fellow-Christians, and, in another way indeed, as we come into contact even with sinners. But the special application here is to those who have been overtaken in a fault. We are not to pass by such on the other side of the way, like the priest and the Levite in the gospel, but n heartfelt sorrow for their condition we are, in the power of a holy compassion through the Spirit, to go down before God under the heavy burden that lies upon the hearts of our brethren, that we may be enabled first to intercede for them, and then to minister to their need, and thus be used in their restoration.

We commend the whole subject most earnestly to the reader, in the hope that he, as well as the writer, may be stirred up to a sense of their responsibility for the many who can only be described as backsliders. The effect must surely be that intercession would be continually made to God on their behalf, and that His power would be manifested on every hand in their recovery and restoration. Thereby God Himself would be glorified, and the name of the Lord Jesus magnified.

Edward Dennett (1897).

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