We have used the word ‘backsliding’ loosely to define someone who has been active in the church and then gotten away, and we usually say he is a ‘backslider’. I think that’s a rather inappropriate use of the term; i think ‘immature’ is a more proper description. Because the truth of the matter is that all of us in areas of our life are immature. Even the most mature of Christians would have to admit that there are days and times that we lose the control in maturity of most aspects of our Christian life. The New Testament often calls it carnality, or often identifies it with the dichotomy of the ‘flesh’ and the ‘spirit’. The Apostle Paul speaks about this concept in many of his books – the ‘Old Man’ and the ‘New Man’ (cf. Rom. 6:6). He sometimes speaks of the ‘Outward Man’ and the ‘Inward Man’ (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16), or the ‘Old Creature’ and the ‘New Creature’ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17), and many antitheses like these. Now usually when he talks about the ‘Old Man’ and the New Man’, he’s talking about the lost and the saved. He’s drawing a line through mankind, and saying, depending on whether you have ever met Jesus Christ by faith or have not met Him by faith, you are either the ‘Old Man’ or you are the ‘New Man’; better yet, the ‘Natural man’ or the ‘Spiritual Man’. So we’re talking about two different black and white kinds of things: those who know Him, and those who do not know Him. But what Paul also does is, he takes those that are indeed spiritual Man category; those who are redeemed and blood-bought people of God, the family of God, and then he breaks those into two halves, and he uses the same term that he used for the ‘lost’ and the ‘saved’, he’s now going to use inside the redeemed community. And the two terms he’s going to use now is ‘carnal’ and ‘spiritual’ again. I think that’s where the confusion comes.
In Romans 6:6, the dichotomy between the ‘lost’ and the ‘saved’ are well-defined; in that “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace”. It’s obvious that the mind set on the flesh (sarx) means death, and the mind set on the spirit is life. However in Romans chapter 6, Paul uses the very same term flesh (sarx) and spirit, but he is talking about the dichotomy or division within the Christian family. It is an admonition to Christians. The word flesh (sarx) is in the context of believers. Is it possible that there are Christians who walk after the flesh? Well, read 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:3 and you will agree with me that there were so-called ‘carnal’ Christians then as there are today. Paul calls them ‘babes in Christ’ which helps us get the idea that the word ‘carnal’, the word ‘fleshly’ in the sense of Christians is synonymous with immature Christianity. Paul says, “I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly (or carnal)”. A ‘baby Christian’ or an ‘immature Christian’ is someone who is dominated by the flesh, but every Christian starts as a ‘baby Christian’ – nothing wrong with that. We all were ‘baby Christians’ at some point in time, but if years, and years, and years have gone by and you’re still a ‘baby Christian’, something’s wrong with you! It’s not just you do not know any better, you have become truly dominated by the flesh. Your goals are self-centered, your dreams are world-oriented. You do not have the mind of Christ. You do not have the heart of Christ. You do not look at the world through the lens of God’s commission to us to go and make disciples of all nations. You look at the world with ‘what’s best for me and mine. What’s it going to do for me’ kind of attitude.
Christians who have been to church for years, and years and, years, and are characterized by an attitude of worldliness are called backslidden Christians, and they may be in church every Sunday. But you You see the truth of the matter is that every one of us in some areas of our lives are immature. All of us have cut off certain aspects of our personality, and have not allowed God to have complete control over all that we are. And the people we usually peg as ‘backsliders’ are simply those whose problem is more obvious to our eyes. But the trick is that every Christian at times in their lives are immature in many areas, and I do not believe it’s possible in our world to be fully controlled by the Spirit of God 24 hours a day/7 days a week. We move here and out of that kind of control of the Holy Spirit. Small wonder, Paul commands that we be ever filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18). The truth is, carnality is the problem of man. But when we became Christians we were indwelt of the Spirit of God, but the old nature was not removed from us. And therefore the Christian life is not reaching some plane of maturity; some level of sinlessness. But the Christian Life is a moment-by-moment struggle between what God wants and what we want, and when we win the battle we are carnal, we are fleshly, we are backslidden.
I believe that when we say we are ‘in Christ’, which means we have been bought with the blood of Christ, Christ cleanses us from all sin. And even immaturity does not make us inappropriate for the family of God., for we didn’t become Christians because of what we did and we all stay Christians for what we do (cf. Eph. 2:8-10). There is a thing known, as Positional Sanctification – we are right with God in Christ, totally apart from anything that we do except receiving Him, basically. But hopefully God wants to move us from Positional Sanctification in Christ to Experiential Sanctification in Christ, which means we’re moving from Grace as a gift to Grace as a way of life. We’re moving from forgiveness of sin to sinning less. We’re moving from knowing Him in salvation, and knowing Him day-to-day in our Christian life. So I think it’s very apropos to speak of ‘Sanctified in Christ’ and ‘be Sanctified in Christ’. God’s will for us is that we become more and more like His Son, which is Experiential or Progressive sanctification. The more we understand what God has done for us in Christ, the more should we allow Him to work in our lives. Seeing more clearly who Jesus is and the kind of no-strings-attached love God has for us, we then see that people are really lost and searching aimlessly in life, and that God can break our hearts to begin to serve Him out of gratitude and joy.