Backsliding Saint vs. Unregenerate Sinner

By Fredric A. Carlson

The Setup
I was a 15-year-old arrogant rebel — against my mother, my brothers, the whole world, and especially against God. I remember once telling God, "Stay out of my life!" Then God used an evangelist to convince me about my rebellion against Him. I recognized that it had condemned me to eternity in the Lake of Fire. Even though I became deeply sincere about repenting and receiving Christ, my real motive was pretty shallow: I wanted a fire escape from Hell. Since Christ had died for me, I received Him as that fire escape.

I thought that everything was fine between God and my soul. Elated even. Everything about life looked new. Later my younger sister said to me, "When you received Christ, I saw a dramatic change in you. That change helped me to receive Christ, too, just like my big brother did."

The Letdown
However, about three days into that new life, I found myself involved in a sin that I had been doing for several years. I remember dropping to my knees in the living room of our Wisconsin farmhouse. I prayed, "God I thought I was saved. Now I've sinned just like I did before I repented. If you didn't save me before, please save me now."

You can tell from my prayer that even though I knew very little about the Bible or the Christian life, I sensed then what I later learned, that Christ's salvation is supposed to rescue a sinner not only from the power sin's guilt and penalty but also from sinning. Romans 6:14 says, "Sin shall not have mastery over you." Romans 6:16-18, add:
Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey — whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. (See also Romans 8:1-17 which expands that theme.)
The Confused Fear
Yes, I needed an answer: "How do I, a follower of Christ, cope with the guilt and reality of continued sin? And how can I stop sinning?" Or, "Does my repeated sin demonstrate me to be still lost and without hope? Have I so disappointed God that He has given up on me? In falling back into old ways, have I committed the unpardonable sin? Is this whole salvation thing a sham?"

Since my sin made me uncertain as to whether Christ really had entered my heart, I started with that. Was it really Bible salvation that I had experienced? Or, could I have professed a Christianity that I so poorly understood, that it was something less than the new birth that Jesus described to Nicodemus in John 3? I had to be sure of the true nature of the repentance that demonstrates true salvation:

A Glimmer of Hope
I learned then, and increasingly later, that the Bible's description of personal salvation is not merely a feeling, a profession of faith (Acts 8:9-23), an "acceptance" of Christ, or a supposed ticket out of Hell and into Heaven. The new birth is the work of God in a sinner's life, a miracle of grace, an opening of the heart. The conviction of conscience that leads to true repentance is the realization that one has insulted and offended God. The heart senses how much it has failed God and violated His principles for life. The guilt and remorse involved is not merely over specific laws of God that one has broken, although it includes those. The guilt is in having rebelled against God Himself; over having insulted and offended His righteousness, justice, and love; over having opposed the One whose reality is everything, who rules everything, and who gave Himself in total sacrifice in order to rescue us. Such conviction leads to an about-face renunciation of that old life. It turns to face God in worship and love. The ability ot make this turn-around is also God's gift. It involves awareness of helplessness to do anything to earn or gain God's forgiveness. It leads to abject confession and humble recognition that if God doesn't save, nothing can. True salvation is not self-centered, that is, it is not interested only in what I, the sinner, get from God. Instead, in Bible salvation, I, the sinner lost in guilt, had to look away from myself, and to God, and give Him the grateful honor, faith, and loving obedience that He deserved. According to John 3:8, such salvation is not experienced as a result of mouthing a prayer, of being dipped in water, or in any other religious ceremony, but only by the miracle work of the Holy Spirit. In abject terror, I threw myself at the feet of that just God, hoping for nothing, but begging for mercy. I cried out, "God, be merciful to me, the sinner."

The Reality of New Birth
I learned further that the salvation the Bible describes is the work that God does in the hearts of sinners who were dead to Him (Romans 5:1 thru 6:14) so that they can properly honor him (Matthew 6:9-10). It is a new birth from heaven (John 3:5-8), the implantation and beginning of new spiritual life, a new nature. This life is not the result of anything that man is capable of doing for himself (John 1:12-13), or can earn or deserve (Ephesians 2:1-10). Instead, it is given by the Holy Spirit just as one's first birth is given a person by his parents (John 3:8). The Spirit gives that new life through His Word (James 1:18). Just as a newborn baby's first cry gives evidence that it is alive and breathing, the spiritually newborn's first cry is the prayer of repentance that expresses utter faith in Christ as the only One who can rescue and restore a life to God. It cries, "Yes, Christ, I receive you and your salvation."

In the person who previously was dead to God, the evidences of this new life begin with a radical turn from the old objects of worship — self and various substitutes for God — to sincere reverence and worship for God (1 Thessalonians 1:9). That reverential love is demonstrated by receiving or embracing Jesus Christ (John 1:12) into one's life as Savior and Lord (Romans 10:6-13). Such a 180 degree turn-around recognizes and confesses to God that in his old life, one has disbelieved (John 1:11; Romans 1:25), disobeyed (Romans 1:18-19), defied (Romans 1:26-27), disdained (Romans 1:29-31), despised (John 19:1-6), dethroned (John 19:13-16), and disowned Him (John 19:35̵-40), detached from His system and story (Proverbs 3:5-6), denied Him His rights (Romans 1:18-23), and disregarded Him (Romans 1:28). In other words, the repenting sinner admits and confesses to God that he has been resisting, insulting, and demeaning Him, and is turning from that self-centered and idolatrous life to God in utter faith and actively trusting obedience (James 2:14-18). To be sure then, this repenting event is far more than receiving forgiveness for a list of sins, a ticket out of Hell, or gaining permission to enter heaven someday, although these are among the new birth's results and benefits. When God gives the repenting sinner such new life, it shows in a radical new devotion to God that forsakes the old attitudes (2 Corinthians 5:17) and in gratitude for Christ's suffering and death (2 Corinthians 5:21) literally loves Him (Matthew 22:37; John 3:16), trusts only in his saving word (1 Peter 1:23), is identified with Him (Galatians 2:20; 6:14; Philippians 1:21), and sets out to fulfill His commission (Matthew 28:17-20). Such a person, far from renouncing Christ, wants to be identified with Him and His people as publically as he has become in his heart, even if it means resulting persecution (Matthew 5:10-12) from Christ's enemies.

An Assured Hope
Therefore, when I sinned again, I first had to determine whether I truly had been born from above, or whether I only performed a religious act by which someone told me that I became a Christian. As I examined myself, I knew that the Holy Spirit had changed my heart. He had changed the object of my faith from myself to God and His Word. What mattered now was not merely that I had faith, but who was the object of that faith! Now my hope is in who Jesus is, and what He did on the cross in my place. I no longer trust in myself, or even in my ability to believe, but simply in God's ability to keep his word, to keep his promises. He had changed the core direction of my heart, turning it to Christ (2 Corinthians 6:2; John 1:12; Romans 8; 10:9-13; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:36; 6:34-40; 10:15-16 and 25-30; and 1 John 5:13). Along with this, He had put deep inside me a real desire and intention to live a life that is truly set apart to God for his sake, a God-centered life (1 Peter 1). I had begun to seek God's kingdom and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33). I knew that such faith in God is God's gift. It can come from no other source, not from Satan, not from the old nature, and not from the world. God honors faith in him and his word because such true faith honors him above all.

And Even More Hope
I found another piece of the puzzle in 1 John. John wrote much of that letter to help doubtful believers gain assurance and peace about God's saving work in their behalf and in their lives. I found that John uses the word sin in two ways. Most often he means "to commit a sin." But in chapter 3:4-10, he means "to keep on sinning habitually." What John says is that when the Holy Spirit gives the new birth to a lost person, he installs a new nature in that person's heart (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). A changed heart shows in a new character. While the old heart essentially loves sin and hates righteousness, the new heart essentially loves righteousness and hates sin. The transformation is obvious. By implanting the new nature, the Holy Spirit transforms the heart, and therefore, the new believer's characteristic lifestyle. The believer's new nature hates it when he sins, and wants to get free of it, get clean of it, and avoid it. The old man's worst sin was failing to keep the first law of life, to love God supremely (Matthew 22:37-38). The new heart loves God, and characteristically wants to please Him. That explains why I feel so guilty and ashamed when I fail Christ now, when sometimes my old habits, aggravated by Satan, catch me up. Sooner or later, falling into some sin reminds every saved person that he is a rescued sinner. But his heart hates the failure, for the Holy Spirit has installed the new nature that loves righteousness. The new heart wants to give God the joy of a righteous life that loves Him. The new heart deeply wants to be good and to do good. The old heart doesn't care, and continues reveling in its lifelong habits of selfish, self-serving, lustful sinning, disbelieving, denying, disobeying, and disregarding God.

The Puzzle's Main Piece
Then why did I not automatically stop sinning when God saved me? Why can sin still victimize the true believer? I learned that when God gives a new nature through the new birth, He does not remove that person's old nature (Galatians 5:13-26) until the believer's death (Revelation 21:1-8; 22:14-15). Even the godly Apostle Paul wrestled all his life with his old nature (Romans 7:18-25; 1 Corinthians 9:27). That explains why all true believers sometimes still sin. Even those who think they are practically perfect still have room to grow out of their pride. Only God Himself is perfect: "There is but One who is good" (Matthew 19:17).

Why does God leave in place our sinful old man? Wouldn't He get glory from eradicating that old nature so that believers will not even be tempted to sin? The New Testament does not give us a straight-up answer to that question. Yet, it gives us several hints. Over many years, I have learned several of the factors that helped me to understand this, while I was learning how to deal with that old nature in my life:

The Old Nature
1. It is only in struggle that God can demonstrate His power that gives us the ability to say "No" to the old nature and "Yes" to Him. "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13). Apparently, God knows that when Christ gives a believer victory in the struggle, He gets more fame than He would if He just prevented the struggle. Who cheers a football team's "victory" when the opponent doesn't show up? The struggle lets us demonstrate His power as in it we say "Yes" to the new man and "No" to old man.

2. In that struggle, our Lord gives us the opportunity to experience joyful victory in the battle, joy we cannot feel if we never get off our spiritual couch.

3. In the Divine-human cooperative, the struggle with temptation keeps us depending on Him. Victory over sin is a shared victory, demonstrating the living Christ's work in us, enabling our cooperating choices. It's sort of a repeat of Eden's probation, proving that the resurrected Christ can preserve His believers. This battle has to take place during life, not just after death.

4. The struggle keeps us from getting cocky. Each failure reminds us of our utter dependence on Him. And it reminds us of the consequence of failure, loss of confidence in witness. If Christ's power is not enough to keep us from sin, how can we confidently preach it to others?

5. Our mastery over our old nature is a necessary step in restoring His name in us before finally removing our old nature at our death. For example, we could not practice forgiveness as Christ does unless others also demonstrate their old nature to us.

6. Perhaps He wants to demonstrate to the world's evil spirits that He is able to keep those that He has justified, to give us ability to treat as dead the old man that Satan must have sown in Adam. Only in battle can we show observers how God is able to defeat Satan's temptations to our old natures, as He stimulates our new natures to draw other righteousness-hungry souls as they see Christ's power overcoming the sinful nature in His kids. Only victories prove the ability of Christ to fulfill His promises of power over the practice of sin.

7. One by one, God is playing out the events of His story in the best way that displays His glory. In order to demonstrate His forgiving grace, He first allowed the occasion to do so, the sinfulness of man. He determined to show mercy first by declaring sinners just by His atoning self-sacrifice, then making them righteous through giving them the new nature, then by breaking the power of the lawless one along with the power of the old nature. He further demonstrates His power to preserve His child's faith and relationship with Him by giving him freedom to refuse sin. And He will reveal a further brilliance of His plan and power when He removes the old nature at the death of the redeemed.

8. Regret for failure, and longing for righteousness and goodness are evidence of, not of God's rejection, but of the work of the Spirit drawing us to repentance (Romans 7).

9. While He leaves us here to give witness to His rescuing, restoring grace, he reminds us of the marvel of His gift of a new nature.

This is how I learned that the same Christ whose victory on the Cross provided atonement and forgiveness for my sin, by that same death also provided for my victory over sin's power (Romans 6:1-10; Colossians 2:13-15). Just as Jesus is my Savior from sin's guilt and penalty, He is my Savior from sin's mastery.

I sinned because I had not learned my new Master's method of refusing temptation. I needed to put to work Jesus' victory over the sinful nature that remained in me.

Putting the Piece in Place What is that method? What is the process of growth in the ability to say "Yes" to the new nature and "No" to the old? I found it in Romans 6:11-23. The same faith that believes God about His salvation gives mastery over sinful temptation. Impulse control, according to verses 11-14, is found in treating the old nature as having been crucified with Christ. "Count yourselves dead to sin" means consider yourselves, believe yourselves, realize that you are dead to sin. So I learned to treat my old self as dead, not as my master. I needed to learn to get dressed every morning in the spiritual armor that God provided to protect me from Satan's attacks (Ephesians 6:1018; see also 1 Peter 2:1; 1 Corinthians 3:2; Colossians 3:1-9; Hebrews 6:1-2).

In practical terms, what does all this mean to be delivered from the power of sin? It means that the living Christ has given my new nature the ability to say "YES!" to Him while it says "NO!" to my old nature's lusts (Titus 2:11). This is God's viewpoint of today's taste of "salvation." He has freed me from sin's absolute rule. My old nature can no longer force me to sin when I am tempted. I am free to say "NO!" "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!" (Philippians 4:13). "All things" must include the ability to say "No" to temptation as I say, "Yes" to my Lord. He has given me self-control (Galatians 5:2223). Any time that I fail to exercise that freedom, it is my own fault for not receiving Christ's power to do so.

The same God that promised forgiveness on the basis of Christ's dying for me, promises Christ's death, resurrection, and living power to free me from bondage to the law of sin and death, and from Satan's power (James 4:7), so I can choose righteousness! Each time I do, He comes through and wins the battle.

The Cross and the Empty Grave
Jesus' work in my heart makes himself and his righteous name not only the true objects of my faith, but also my primary passions that overcome my selfish lusts. The integrating keys are my Savior's self-sacrifice and resurrection. He really did die to break sin's power, and He really is alive again to make that power real (Romans 6:10). In every tempting situation, He is saying, "Rely on my real and pure presence and power, keeping my word to give you supremacy over your temptation. This is the victory that I supply. Yes, it is the demonstration of my new life in you, the love for the righteous God that overcomes lustful love for self."

The result is praise to God, not only from my heart, but from those who observe His power in my life giving me victory over that old nature. He has peeled off another onion-layer of sinfulness, so as to make me a little more like Him (Romans 8:2831).

Why I wrote this
I share my experience as an encouragement to those who love Jesus, but who have failed Him by falling into sin. Instead of throwing you out as a failure, He is extending to you His forgiveness and His power to avoid future failure.

If you recognize that you, too, are "in Christ" (see the first two chapters of Ephesians), then your present need is to repent of your backsliding, and through honest confession (1 John 1:9) return to the Shepherd and Overseer of your soul (1 Peter 2:25). Your gratitude for His patience, His restoring welcome, and the completeness of the salvation that He paid for in His own blood (1 John 2:2) will be in equal but opposite proportion to the despair that you may be feeling. Then this experience of near-despair will prove to be a true gift of God to you, constantly reminding you to treat your old man as dead as you grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Published 7-11-16