Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Backsliding: Christian Cliches?

By Cameron Buettel
My early months as a Christian were a joyous feast of fellowship. There was nothing I loved more than to be with my new brothers and sisters in Christ. Every believer I knew seemed so sanctified and intimate with the Savior. I actually felt intimidated by lives that were seemingly lived on another plane of righteousness to my own sinful struggles. But it didn’t take long before I discovered a sub-culture my Christian peers described as “backsliders.”
Few things can match the shock we experience when brought face to face with those who abandon the Christian faith. And there was nothing that could have prepared me for the grief of seeing hands once raised in worship, now deployed in satanic vices—backslidden from their former Christian faith.
I could not fathom why anyone would abandon eternal rewards for a short season of wicked pleasure. My Arminian pastor assured me that backsliding was the only possible explanation, and that our job was to “persuade these backsliders to come back to church and restore the salvation they’ve lost.”
Indeed some people were quite effective at retrieving backsliders and over the years I saw an endless stream of people who would gain their salvation, lose it, and re-gain it only to lose it again—rinse and repeat. My eyes were slowly opening to the reality that my church was actually a spiritual transit lounge for people in my city who periodically ventured into the kingdom of God. I could smell the problem but was unable to pinpoint the source. Did the Bible have an explanation?
“Backsliding” is an Old Testament term found in the prophetic books and used within the context of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. John MacArthur describes it as “a word that the prophets used of apostate unbelievers.” [1] He concedes that Christians can backslide only in the sense that they “regress into a period of spiritual dullness or disobedience.” But he adds that such cases always incur God’s discipline (Hebrews 12:6–11) and produce repentance. [2]
That idea captures what most Calvinists mean if they use the term “backslider.” There is much that could be said about what constitutes a spiritual lapse, or how far you can go before you go too far. But the important principle to grasp is that the backsliding of a believer is always temporary and always involves God’s chastening which in turn produces repentance. It never means that their salvation was temporarily lost. (For further reading on this subject I would recommend two of John’s articles: Does Scripture Leave Room for Carnal Christians? and How Far Can Christians Go in Sinning?
John argues that “backsliding” can never refer to a person who professes faith in Christ but lives in a “perpetual state of willful rebellion or ungodly indifference.” [3] Such people are not backsliding believers but rather false Christians who were never accepted by Christ in the first place (Matthew 7:21–23; 1 John 3:4–10).
The backsliding doctrine I had been taught was actually the result of false shepherds preaching a false gospel that demanded no repentance. The result was providing false pronouncements of salvation on false converts who were more than happy to march out the door and back into the arms of the world they still loved more than Christ. The apostle John nailed the issue when he said: “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). As Ray Comfort summarized; “It's those we erroneously call backsliders, who fall away, because they have never slid forward in the first place”. [4]
Backsliding has become a theologically tragic Christian cliché—tragic because of the ways it impugns God’s character. It implicitly denies God’s sovereign power in regenerating sinners (Ezekiel 36:25–27), resurrecting them from being dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1) to a new and living creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). The idea that a Christian can backslide and lose his salvation also impugns Christ’s promise to eternally preserve the people He saves:

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27–29)
I’ll never forget John MacArthur’s simple and yet profound argument for the security of Christian salvation based on God’s power to keep His people—“If I could lose my salvation, I would.” [5] The very idea of keeping our salvation on the basis of our own efforts is as preposterous as the idea of attaining our salvation in the first place because of something we did.
The modern “backslider” cannot be persuaded back into a kingdom he never entered in the first place. He needs to be evangelized and called to repentance—like all unbelievers do. And if he repents, it should not be treated as a re-commitment to his salvation but rather as an outward sign of God’s inner saving work.


Saturday, January 16, 2016

How to live in a Pagan Culture

By Jeremiah Johnson
As believers, we know we’re called to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16). But are you ever discouraged or underwhelmed by what little difference your life seems to make? Are you concerned that your influence as salt and light might not reach very far or go very deep?
In a society obsessed with global impact and political change, it may seem like the life of one believer does not make much of a dent. But our success is not measured in this life. Moreover, it’s not our success to begin with, but God’s, as He works through us to reach His people according to His sovereign timing.
We have not been called to lead sweeping political changes and massive moral reforms, or to turn the world into a theocracy. That’s simply not how the Lord intends us to make a difference in this sinful world. In his book Why Government Can’t Save You, John MacArthur reminds us that the church’s influence is not broadly political, but personal.
The church will really change society for the better only when individual believers make their chief concern their own spiritual maturity, which means living in a way that honors God’s commands and glorifies His name. Such a concern inherently includes a firm grasp on Scripture and an understanding that its primary mandate to us is to know Christ and proclaim His gospel. A godly attitude coupled with godly living makes the saving message of the gospel credible to the unsaved. If we claim to be saved but still convey proud, unloving attitudes toward the lost, our preaching and teaching—no matter how doctrinally orthodox or politically savvy and persuasive—will be ignored or rejected. [1]
Those words echo Paul’s instructions for godly living in his letter to Titus (Titus 3:1-8). The final chapter of Why Government Can’t Save You is devoted to that passage, and Paul’s vital reminders for living as salt and light in the world.
Remember Your Christian Duties
Paul begins by reminding us of our place in the world—that we are not called to be rebellious revolutionaries, but that we must be humble, meek, and submissive to the authority God has placed over us, and that we need to reflect the character of Christ to the watching world. He writes, “Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men” (Titus 3:1-2).
As John MacArthur explains, such behavior stands out to the world and adorns the gospel:
Consistently demonstrating willing obedience for human authority shows unbelievers that, even though the things of this life are not our primary focus, we still have respect for government and loving concern for other citizens. As Christians, our true citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20), and our main focus must be on holy living and on reaching the lost, because our Lord Himself came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). When we do live as God wants us to in an unbelieving culture, that in itself can make the attitude of the lost more receptive to God (1 Peter 2:12). [2]
As we’ve already discussed in this series, the Lord has not saved us for the purpose of temporal political change. The first key to living holy lives in a pagan culture is to focus on the work of God’s kingdom, and not attempting to build our own.
Remember Your Unsaved Condition
There’s a second mindset believers need to cultivate if they’re going to be salt and light in the world. Rather than giving in to spiritual elitism and looking down on lost and depraved sinners, we need to remember that we were no better than them—and would still be no better—apart from the intervening and transforming work of Christ.
Paul describes our prior spiritual condition in stark detail: “For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another” (Titus 3:3).
As John MacArthur explains, our sinful past ought to make us sympathetic to the spiritual needs around us, and patient with the depravity of sinners who don’t know any better:
The preceding sins, along with other iniquities, have made unbelievers spiritually insensitive to what God demands of them and what He desires in a righteous society. Hence, non-Christians have produced the kind of culture we have today. And although we detest the sinful, unbiblical aspects of society, we must remember that the same ungodly characteristics once defined our lives. Such awareness will keep us humble and prevent us from putting down sinners simply because they rub us the wrong way by their values and lifestyles. Our unbelieving neighbors don’t need merely to be set straight about their political and moral choices; they need soul-transforming salvation through Jesus Christ, just as you and I once did. [3]
Remembering what you’ve been saved from helps protect you from spiritual pride, and motivates you to reach out to others with the only true source of lasting hope and salvation. It injects your evangelism with much-needed humility.
Remember Your Salvation
Along those same lines, Paul also wants us to remember the saving and transforming work the Lord has already accomplished in us.
But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)
Whereas reflecting on our past sinfulness makes us sympathetic to a lost world in need of salvation, reflecting on our new state in Christ and His transforming work in us reminds us to live as citizens of heaven, and not wallow in the wretchedness that surrounds us. As John MacArthur explains,
Being saved is the most precious and important reality that Christians can know and appreciate. Salvation has delivered us from the predicament of being spiritually dead, enslaved to the penalty of sin, living under God’s wrath, and on our way to hell (see John 3:16-17, along with verse 36). As a result, it has also granted us the privilege of being made “alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5), of being “conveyed . . . into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Colossians 1:13), of being able “to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4), and of attaining “hope of eternal life” (Titus 1:2). [4]
But those glorious truths aren’t just for our own edification—they ought to prompt us to reach out to others with the same truth that has transformed us. As John says, “Our position as people who are saved by the sovereign grace of God provides us with a great hope for the future that ought to daily motivate us and keep us focused on our real priorities.” [5]
Put simply, we can’t be salt and light in the world if we don’t remember how the Lord rescued us from the due penalty of our sin. We can’t hope to accurately testify to God’s work in us if we perpetually ignore it.
Remember Your Mission
Finally, Paul wants us to remember our primary means of preserving and influencing the world. He writes, “This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men” (Titus 3:8).
The reality is that preaching fire and brimstone might catch the attention of some people, but it will turn off just as many—if not more—to the glorious good news of the gospel. We need to faithfully preach the truth, but we also need to live lives that make our message believable and attractive. As John MacArthur explains, that starts with a life of good works:
How can we live in a pagan society in a God-honoring manner, in such a way that we do not alienate the very people God wants us to reach with the gospel? We must remember to be engaged in good works, which Scripture says will result from our salvation. [6]
Living as salt and light in the world is not just about confronting the deadness and darkness of society. It’s about living lives that adorn the gospel—that testify to God’s transforming work, and exemplify integrity, humility, and self-sacrifice. Not only do we need to preach Christ, we need to reflect His character to the world.
That, as John MacArthur writes, is how you and I make an impact in this ruined world:
If all that is true of you, you will recognize that it is not your primary calling to change your culture, to reform the outward moral behavior and professed political convictions of those around you, or to remake society superficially, according to some kind of “evangelical Christian blueprint.” Instead, you will constantly remember that the Lord has called you to be His witness before the lost and condemned world in which you now live. [7]