Backsliding Saint vs. Unregenerate Sinner

Fredric A. Carlson

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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.

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Published on 4-11-16