The word “backslide” can have many connotations. We may even know people we consider backsliders. However, what does backslide even mean? If we write about this topic,  we need to make sure we are talking about the same thing. Though people have different ideas of what backslide means, the definition that I believe fits best is one sliding back from their closeness to Christ. For some reason, this person is growing cold in their relationship with Jesus (and sometimes engaging in behavior that signifies their life before Christ).  

The Backslider vs. the Never Saved

One of the confusing things when talking about backsliding is we confuse those who backslide with those who were never saved. To be a backslider, you must first have a true relationship with Jesus Christ—this means you have had a true salvation experience. Many people show outward signs of salvation. Maybe they start going to church or even serving in ministry, but they have never experienced salvation or entered a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We should not think this is strange because Jesus talked about it. 

“Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:22-23)

Some would attempt to categorize these people as backsliders, but there is greater evidence they were never saved. Because we can’t judge a person’s heart, we sometimes judge a person’s salvation by these outward activities. While these things are good to engage in, they are not what defines a person’s salvation. Though we tend to categorize these people as Christians, they may not be. If they are not Christians, then they cannot backslide.

Where Does the Bible Talk about Backsliding?

The term backslide appears in the Old Testament, referring most often to the people of Israel. They fit into the “backslider” category because they were God’s people first. None of the other pagan nations were ever called backsliders. Here are two scriptures that highlight backsliding:

“Although our sins testify against us,
do something, Lord, for the sake of your name.
For we have often rebelled;
we have sinned against you.” (Jeremiah 14:7)

“And my people are bent to backsliding from me: though they called them to the Most High, none at all would exalt him.” (Hosea 11:7)

Can Christians Backslide?

It is reasonable to ask if Christians can backslide. The answer is simple: not only can Christians backslide, they are the only ones who can backslide. Remember, a critical aspect of being a backslider is you must be a true Christian first. If a person was never in a relationship with Jesus Christ, they can’t backslide. 

Aside from knowing that Christians can backslide, another question is, how can this happen? While many reasons may lead a person to backslide, I believe they all point to one major cause. Jesus defines this in his message to the church in Ephesus in the book of Revelation:

“But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first! Look how far you have fallen!” (Revelation 2:4-5a NLT)

The main reason people backslide is that somewhere along the way, they forsake their first love. Something happens that causes their love for Jesus to go cool, turning away or falling back. This can come from distractions, disappointments, or even discouragements that we are all prone to. These things can come from internal or external influences, and they can cause a Christian to backslide.

Do Backsliding Christians Lose Their Salvation?

If there is any good news about a backsliding Christian, it is the fact they don’t lose their salvation. In Luke 15 Jesus tells us the parable we often refer to as the prodigal son. This is possibly the perfect example of what happens when a Christian backslides. When you look at the factors that contributed to the son’s departure, a key reason is he valued his inheritance over his father. Sounds a lot like forsaking your first love. This caused the son to leave his father’s house and live his life the way he wanted. Again, this resembles a person in a backslidden state. However, when you look closely, there are two truths in this story that I believe are true of Christians who backslide.

Takeaway 1: The Backslide is Temporary

If you recall in the story, after blowing everything, the son returned to his senses and realized what he had left behind by leaving the father’s house. This created in him a desire to return home. If you look back at the same chapter in Revelation, Jesus told the church in Ephesus to repent and “do the things you did at first.” The prodigal did exactly that after recognizing his error. I believe everyone who has entered a true relationship with Jesus Christ will have a similar experience: even in a backslidden state, they will come to their senses. The change will not just happen of their own accord, but the Holy Spirit will work in their heart, and they won’t be able to enjoy the sin they have returned to. This temporary condition speaks more to God’s faithfulness to keep us and never give up on us than it does to our ability to come to our senses. Once you belong to Christ, you belong to him forever. Even if you have moments where you are faithless, he will remain faithful to you.

Takeaway 2: They Never Lose Their Salvation 

There is another truth we must see in this story that lets me know when a Christian backslides, they don’t lose their salvation. In the story of the prodigal son, at no point did he stop being the father’s son. While his fellowship with the father was broken, his position as son remained intact. He was a son when he decided to leave, and he was a son when he returned. Again, this speaks to the father’s heart because he never disowned his son. I must clarify one thing: this truth does not give people license to sin freely and still be saved. Someone who thinks that way was probably never saved in the first place. 

How Can We Help Someone Who Is Backsliding?

Perhaps one more question we need to consider is how to help someone who is backsliding? I believe the answer is in Galatians 6. We restore them gently. 

“Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1)

We go after them with the same love and compassion that God goes after us. This does not mean we don’t speak the truth, but we do this with love. It is important to understand why their love for Jesus went cold. This will call for patience and grace, not necessarily criticism and judgment. Don’t forget backsliding is often connected to something that has happened in their life, and it is our responsibility to help them through it. 

I will finish this with one thought. Don’t give up on any believer who is in a backslidden position. Also, don’t talk about them. Instead, pray for them, love them, encourage them, and don’t leave them alone. Remember, Jesus left the 99 sheep to go after that one sheep (Matthew 18:10-14). You may not be that one today, but you could be tomorrow. Go after the backslider the same way you would want someone to go after you: when you remember that God’s kindness often wins back the heart leading to repentance.

“Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)

Further Reading:

Backslide - Easton's Bible Dictionary

Backsliding - Torrey's New Topical Textbook

The Prodigal Son Parable

What Is the Meaning of the Prodigal Son Story in Luke?

The Prodigal Son - The Gospel Awakening

Photo Credit: Getty Images/saharam


Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club.  He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. He has also just released his new book The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. Do you want to go deeper in your walk with the Lord but can’t seem to overcome the stuff that keeps getting in the way? This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.