God's Church Bent to Backsliding
And my people are bent to backsliding from Me.Hosea 11:7
I will heal their backslidings.Hosea 14:4a
Backsliding is a God-dishonouring, Christ-rejecting, Spirit-grieving, law-trampling, and gospel-abusing sin. In one word, to backslide means to depart from the Word and the ways of the Lord. It is a sin as common as it is terrible.
Backsliding is a sin warned against throughout the entire Bible, but it has pleased the Lord to use His prophets Hosea and Jeremiah more than any others to admonish Israel, and the church of all ages, of this evil. It was the special calling of Hosea and Jeremiah to lay before the ten tribes of Israel their long stream of received favors on the one hand (such as being highly favored with the means of grace, the Word of God, callings, and warnings as no other nation had received), and on the other hand, to lay before that same people their lack of desiring, valuing, and living out of the messages and ways of Jehovah.
The Lord sent His prophets Hosea and Jeremiah during a time in Israel's history when many were filled with religion without the Holy Spirit, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, reconciliation without confession, justification without satisfaction, salvation without regeneration, and heaven without hell. In a backsliding time so similar to our own day, Hosea especially had to bring an awful message to religious Israel: "O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself … My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge … The pride of Israel testifieth to his face … Ephraim (another name for Israel) hath mixed himself among the people … Ephraim is a cake not turned; Ephraim is a silly dove without a heart … Strangers have devoured his strength and he knoweth it not … My people are bent to backsliding from Me," (Hosea 13:9; 4:6; 5:5; 7:8, 9, 11; 11:7).
"My people," the Lord Himself had to complain, "are bent to backsliding from Me." In the wider sense of the word that means THE CHURCH IN GENERAL; the visible church. It was as if the Lord laments: "My Israel, My people, that nation in which I chose out of sovereign grace to plant My covenant and My church, is bent to backsliding from Me – the only living, covenant-decreeing, covenant-establishing, covenant-keeping, and covenant-fulfilling God."
These words are not only applicable for the church in Hosea's time. "My people are bent to backsliding from Me" calls today's church to examine herself whether she be in a better condition. Is the present-day church following the Word and ways of the Lord and abhorring all backsliding? Is the fear of God, love for the truth and for God's glory, the necessity to experience the truth, and the desire to walk according to all God's commandments prospering in the midst of God's church in general?
If we are honest, then we must confess before God and man: "NO." True, there may still be some outward truth, outward growth, and even outward spiritual privileges to an extent that the church of former ages scarcely ever possessed. But Israel could claim the same things: outward truth, outward growth, outward privileges, and yet it was a backsliding church.
The Lord looks upon the heart. He asks how the church is really doing underneath the outward services, buildings, numbers, activities, and the form of religion.
His servants and His people shall ask the same questions the Lord asks, for they have the same concerns, by grace, that the Lord has. Paul was not content to hear how the churches were growing and prospering outwardly by reports from mouth to mouth. To know only the number of professing and baptized members was not enough for him. No, but Paul said unto Barnabas, "Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the Word of the Lord and see how they do," (Acts 15:36). Paul did not say to "see how I do" but "how they do". Not my own reputation in the churches but the reputation of the Lord. "Barnabas, my heart is burning to know the real, inward, spiritual welfare of the congregations that we have founded by the grace of God in Western Asia. Let us go to see if they are prospering or backsliding, for it shall be one or the other. Let us see how they do: how the truth is prospering, how the office-bearers and members are doing, and if the name of the Lord is still exalted to the highest and man abased to the lowest. Let us go to find out if the Holy Spirit is laboring in their midst in a rich measure – if God's people are being led further into the exercises of grace, and if new, sound, clear, and true Spirit-wrought conversions are taking place."
I hope there are many amongst us who, by grace, may have the same burning, unquenchable, Spirit-wrought concern for our denomination. We have a rich church heritage and a rich church name: Netherlands Reformed. But friends, are there many amongst us who are living Netherlands Reformed doctrine "in" (that is: experiencing it in their hearts), and living Netherlands Reformed doctrine "out" (that is: walking according to it)? Are we Netherlands Reformed members with our hearts?
"My people are bent to backsliding from Me". In plain words, a church can slide and tends to slide from a right foundation. Therefore, the church has a calling to be aware of how backsliding begins, continues, and ends. It must be made acquainted with Satan's devices and how he labors step-by-step to bring the church into an abominable backsliding condition. Under the light of the Holy Spirit, the history of Israel and the church reveals to us an oft-repeated pattern of step-to-step backsliding. This pattern we now hope to consider together.
- When the church begins to backslide the first outward and visible sign is usually an increase in WORLDLINESS. In the way of life, in talk, and even in dress and fashions, the spirit of the world begins to be found more and more in the church's circles. What crept into the church ashamed in former times, so to speak, begins to walk in freely, often covered and overlooked instead of exposed and admonished. The black and white line of separation between godliness and worldliness, between the world and the church, between those who fear God and those who fear Him not, then becomes increasingly more gray.
Instead of walking opposite directions, the world and church then begin to have more in common with each other to the church's great detriment. Before long some of its members begin going to worldly places, partaking of worldly forms of entertainment, and become friends of worldly people. Some may even be so bold as to take the modern-day "sin-box and devil's classroom" (TV) into their own homes.
Worldly people, worldly entertainment, worldly fashions, worldly customs, worldly places – is this not what Hosea warned against when the Spirit directed him to write: "Ephraim hath mixed himself among the people"? Is not the sin of increasing worldliness the church's first downward and tragic step in an ever-increasing spiral of backsliding?
- “They are bent to backsliding from Me.” Worldliness causes the church to bend towards further backsliding into a hardening condition of UNBELIEF. Jesus Himself had to complain of His generation: “But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows, and saying, we have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented.” The children were playing. First they piped a joyful tune which resembled the custom at weddings, and later they mourned a sorrowful tune which corresponded with the custom at funerals – but their playmates responded to neither.
Is this not a picture of the church in general also in our day? If the funeral tune of the law is preached, how many sinners are mourning? If the wedding tune of the gospel is proclaimed, how many mourning sinners are brought to true rejoicing? In general must we not say that the law no longer seems to cause trembling and the gospel no longer seems to provoke jealousy?
How is it with us personally, friends? How is it with you? Must you not complain, “Oh, I have become law-hardened and gospel-hardened. Even, I fear, hell-hardened.”
In general today, even the preaching of hellish damnation makes little impression. And heaven? By nature we do not want that either. An atheist once said, “you can keep your heaven and your hell. Only give me this earth.” Although we would not dare to say this with our mouths, do we not live it with our lives?
Unbelief makes us practical atheists. It prevents hell from becoming hell, heaven from becoming heaven, grace from becoming grace, sin from becoming sin, Christ from becoming Christ, God from becoming God, and the Bible from becoming the everlasting Word of God.
Unbelief makes us truth-hardened, too. We may know the truth in our minds, but it only makes us ripe for damnation and shall burn us eternally if it does not lead to truth-ingrafting in our hearts. “Ephraim,” Hosea had to say, “is a cake not turned.” Burnt on one side and doughy on the other. That is our life when we have a hardened, cold head-knowledge instead of a softened, Spirit-worked heart knowledge.
Unbelief multiplies even to the point that we become adversity-hardened and prosperity-hardened just as Israel. Its final goal is total hardening.
“They are bent to backsliding from Me.” Unbelief leads the church to backslide further into a hardened condition of INDIFFERENCE. It leads us to have no concern anymore for the truth.
How many are truly concerned to hear the true doctrine from the pulpit both in preaching and reading services? How many are truly concerned to hear death in Adam and life in Christ? How many truly are concerned to hear the responsibility of man preached for 100%, in which the preaching of paradise must continually be placed on the foreground? How many are truly concerned to hear above all the 100% sovereignty of God?
Are we carefully guarding the central truth of God's sovereignty which does not allow one speck of man's responsibility to be taken away, but by which we must come to experimentally learn that we can do nothing with all our responsibility than fall into the hands of a sovereign God who is totally and righteously free to do with us what He will? Are we concerned that our doctrine keeps God's sovereign good pleasure as the center and heartbeat of all truth, as the “hub of the wheel” from out of which other doctrines flow as spokes to form the only true religion in the world which serves to the utter exaltation of God and the utter abasement of man?
Are we concerned to hear the rich “spokes” of doctrine preached in all their fulness? Are the doctrines of God's ancient love, the deep fall in paradise, the full redemption through the blood of Christ, justification, sanctification, perseverance, and the necessity of the Holy Spirit of high concern to us?
Are we concerned or indifferent with respect to EXPERIMENTAL doctrine? Are we concerned that we hear in every sermon the necessity of saving grace, the fulness of free grace, and the fruits of redeeming grace? Are we concerned to maintain the necessity of experiencing misery, deliverance, and gratitude?
Are we also truly concerned that the STEPS OF GRACE in the experimental life of God's people be continually preached to us? Are we concerned to maintain that there are steps within misery, within deliverance, and within gratitude? Are we desirous to hear sermons that distinguish in misery such steps as being made (1) a concerned sinner, (2) a miserable sinner, (3) an unworthy sinner, (4) a guilty sinner, (5) a lost sinner, (6) a total sinner (Due to our deep fall in Adam which must become my fall), (7) a condemnable sinner, and (8) a cut-off, reprobate sinner in personal soul-experience? Do we long to hear sermons that distinguish in deliverance the steps of (1) needing Christ, (2) receiving an ear for Christ, (3) seeing a glimpse of Christ, (4) experiencing a revelation of Christ, (5) receiving the application, (6) tasting the embracement and appropriation of Christ that may then follow, (7) more and more discovering Christ as All-in-all in His benefits, natures, offices, states, and Person, and (8) the personal, conscious knowledge of full deliverance through justification in the court of conscience via Christ's advocate-ship, as well as adoption, and coming to know each of the three Divine Persons consciously for the soul? Are we coveting sermons that distinguish in gratitude such steps as: (1) “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits towards me?”, (2) being cut off from our own praying and thanking, and standing in need of the praying and thanking High Priest at God's right hand, (3) learning that the Lord has to serve me for I can never serve Him, yes, learning that the Lord expects nothing from me and I must expect it all from Him as Peter was taught on the shore of Tiberias when he cried, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” and (4) surrendering everything (including the whole hellish mass within) over to a triune God for time and eternity, so that with respect to myself I lay with a dead will and as a dead person under the feet of Almighty Jehovah: “Thy will be done.”
Finally, are we concerned or indifferent to hear from sermon to sermon the MARKS OF GRACE – marks which make a separation between the wheat and the chaff, the precious and the vile, the work of God and the work of man, spiritual knowledge and natural knowledge, childlike fear and slavish fear, temporary faith and true saving faith, devilish trembling (James 2:19) and true trembling (Phil 2:12), common convictions and saving convictions?
We must be afraid that true doctrine – experienced, lived-out doctrine – is more and more dying in our day and in our hearts. We live in a fearfully indifferent and careless time. There is an alarming backsliding in real concern for the truth. Most of the distinctions mentioned are becoming increasingly unknown even in the minds of members outwardly. And if known, some would even deny such distinctions in the name of human feelings or human reasonings. Naboth set a better example for us. He said to King Ahab, “The Lord forbid me that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee.” He even lost his life for it, but, if we are honest, are not many of us willing to sell our inheritance for little or nothing?
There are some who can no longer hear the difference between Netherlands Reformed and Christian Reformed preaching. They say, “Both preach from the same Heidelberg Catechism, don't they?”
We do not hear a difference today because we are indifferent. Therefore we do not want to hear or look for a difference. We do not take the trouble and time to read our forefathers, to study the differences even with our minds.
By nature, we are like Gallio who cared for none of these things. We live on the same level as beasts: work, eat, sleep, and die. We are bent to backsliding because we bend the true doctrine for our own name's sake and our own life. We place self above true doctrine. That is why we go on living unconverted.
Some think doctrine to be boring. Luther once wrote, “Doctrine is heaven.” It was not boring for him. Do you know why? Because he experienced doctrine. Doctrine was applied to his soul by the Holy Spirit with life-giving and life-keeping power. Concerning the experiencing of doctrine he could say the same as Hezekiah, “By these things I live.” Is this also your life?
God's true people love close, searching, experimental, separating preaching no matter how much it kills them. By nature we prefer a carnal confidence, a dead hope, a false assurance, a presumptuous claim, but God's people would rather be killed than deceived. They have experienced something of “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can stand it?” They know, too, that it is far easier to be deceived than undeceived. Therefore no flood of tears, no prayer-nights alone with God, no quick venison (Gen. 27:20), and no counterfeit currency (no matter how close it is to the genuine), will satisfy that people. They need more than tears, prayers, repentance, unworthiness, and humility.
They need a solid and unbreakable foundation. They need something and someone outside of themselves. They need Christ. They need real doctrine burned experimentally into their souls. They need the Holy Ghost to burn everything of self out so there is room to burn everything of Christ in. It can never be enough. Even to have it burnt in is not enough for them. Then they cry, “Lord, seal it home, with Thy own Divine stamp of approval that I may know it is Thy doctrine inscribed on the walls of my soul and not my own doctrine, my own inscriptions, pen-marks, tears, and doings.”
That is their life: seeking for more and more Spirit-wrought, soul-experienced, heavenly-bedewed doctrine. They yearn for that truth which may set them truly free; drive away doubt with its overwhelming power; enlarge, melt, water, soften, and bless their soul; yes, that truth that comes down from God and leads back up to God. Is this also your life and desire?
Or, is it nothing but form religion mixed with common convictions now and then? Does a little religion, a little head-truth satisfy your conscience, but for the rest you set your soul to one side and live for your body? Are you content with the husk, shell, and scaffolding of religion without a heart knowledge?
Then you are doing nothing but backsliding further and further every day, every sermon, every Sabbath. It is a hard truth, but it is real truth: by nature we are doing nothing but asking the Lord for the shortest way to damnation. We are bent to backsliding ourselves directly into hell. May the Lord open our eyes to see it before it is forever too late.
- “They are bent to backsliding from Me.” Indifference produces its close companion on the road of backsliding: IGNORANCE. Something has been mentioned of it already. I would only add one thought. When we look back to Edwards, Whitefield, Owen, Bunyan and dozens more of our forefathers, and stop to think that their sermons were understood by the common people, must we then not fear that what the Lord said of Israel is also true of the church today: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6)?
- Spiritual and natural ignorance of the truth leads to the fatal plague of SPIRITUAL DEADNESS in the church. God's people have only to begin with themselves. What has happened to the “former times” when God's children were often weekly exercised by the Lord? Today must they not often confess: “Oh, that it could happen once a month, yes, once a year.” Yes, they still bring themselves into exercise occasionally, but it shall be a wonder if for 100 sell-exercises there is one exercise by and from the Lord. Where, where are the present, active, current exercises of spiritual life? “Oh,” they confess, “it is so dead, so dead. And the rest is all spoiled manna.”
If the Lord ever comes back it shall be a greater miracle for that people than the first time the Lord came, for they have sinned away all rights to received grace as well as to renewing grace. There was a time in their lives when they could shake every member of the church by the shoulders, saying, “How dare you walk so coldly, so dead out of church week by week: 'awake, thou that sleepest and arise from the dead'“, but now they wish they could shake and awake themselves. Oh, there is so little of Divine shaking of the dry bones within them. To the Lord's personal question, “Can these bones live?”, they are brought so low, dependent, and dry that all that is left is the answer of Ezekiel, “O Lord God, Thou knowest.”
“They are bent to backsliding from Me.” Spiritual deadness bends towards backsliding into MANCENTEREDNESS. If a man is the center of the church man becomes talked about, focused upon, idolized or criticized, and God and His Word are placed to one side. Talk about office-bearers, especially ministers, multiplies. Man judges man. One minister is good, one is half-good, one is not good at all. We must be afraid that we live in a day when more people have ministers figured out according to man-made scales than their soul's condition figured out according to the God-made scales of Divine Word and testimony. Then, for example, there shall be more looking into the church publication to see who wrote the articles, rather than what they wrote. Then when a sermon is read in church and another asks what was read the answer is not, “Isaiah 55:1 with the points and contents”, but it was a sermon of a minister named so-and-so.
Man-centeredness: an awful curse upon the church; an awful blasphemy of the name of the Lord; the fruit of spiritual deadness; a sure guarantee for no personal blessing unless the Lord comes in between to break it down. This is illustrated clearly in the well-known story of the woman who received such a blessing under the first sermon she heard of Ebenezer Erskine that the next day she travelled many miles to hear him again, but received no blessing. Puzzled, she brought her riddle to the minister. Erskine received the grace and wisdom to reply, “Woman, that is easy to explain. Yesterday you came to hear the Word of Jesus Christ and today you came to hear the words of Ebenezer Erskine.”
In the end man-centeredness places all expectation on man. Man becomes worshipped. And if we do not receive grace to cut it off like Erskine, or like Paul (“Stand up for I myself am also a man”), or like the angel to John on Patmos (“See thou do it not, but rather worship God”), then overnight we become dominees with a capital “D”, elders with a capital “E”, and idols to ourselves: (as we all are by nature) with a capital “I.” As long as we are anything with a capital letter there is no room for a God any larger than a small “g.”
- This brings us to the last step we shall mention of a bent-to-backsliding church: man-centeredness yields the fruit of both an “UNHOLY” and “NO HOLY” EXPECTATION FROM GOD. “Unholy” expectation is based on man's activities and is brought into being by attaching God's Name and Blessing to them, without any realization that we have forfeited all expectation from our side. “No holy” expectation is usually the fruit of a pious man-centered unworthiness which drags God down to the level of man.
Oh, for churches filled with souls who may receive a holy expectation in God, together with a proper realization of their own cutting off! Holy, Spirit-wrought expectation receives an eye outside of self and man, for man totally falls away. Holy expectation receives an eye to see that though our sins are piled up to the very heaven of heavens, yet that Christ's satisfying and substitutionary righteousness ascends still higher, comes even to the very throne of God, and sits upon that throne in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that all with the Father's own stamp of approval as Judge. On that basis holy expectation pleads, wrestles, and intercedes at the throne of grace – not with a small god, but with the great triune God of heaven and earth – that He might pour forth his blessings which are all (like the promise and Person of Christ Himself) yea and amen in God.
Holy expectation cannot be content with worldliness, unbelief, indifference, ignorance, spiritual deadness, and man-centeredness. Holy expectation abhors backsliding. It seeks the honor and glory of God, the conversion of poor sinners, and the welfare of the church.
“My people are bent to backsliding from Me.” That the church is so bent to backsliding that Satan can sleep with a smile on his face beside its dead orthodoxy, is also a fruit of the backsliding of God's people. But that we hope to consider, the Lord willing, in a subsequent issue.
The church's only hope is in God – that He may revive His backsliding church. That He may remember us in Christ Jesus, the only pleading and expectation ground. That He may send forth His indispensable Spirit and revive us before the candlestick of the established churches is removed to the heathen forever. That sons and daughters may be born again in Zion, man be crucified in the church, the world become despised, Satan ashamed, God's people rightly grounded for the never-ending eternity, and that the interceders at the throne of grace may be multiplied also in the midst of our denomination – yea, that God Himself may receive His rightful place amongst us by Divine conquest, "He: all in all; we: nothing at all."