The subject we wish to address is personal spiritual decline in the life of the child of God. Our focus is not on the apostasy that we see today in so many churches and in the lives of many of those who call themselves Christians. This is in itself a very grievous thing and ought to be the cause of greatest concern for every true child of God. It ought always to cause the child of God to walk in the fear of the Lord, being very careful lest he himself also fall. But even before we show concern about the apostasy that we see around us we ought to be concerned about the spiritual decline in our own lives, lest we have great concern about the weeds in another garden while our own garden is overgrown. Our concern must be with the real and constant danger of spiritual decline with which every believer is faced in his or her Christian life.
This decline is often called “backsliding.” The greatest of the saints of God have experienced periods of spiritual decline in their lives. This does not mean however that we ought to dismiss this subject lightly, imagining that it is something quite natural and to be expected in the so-called normal Christian life. Decline in our own lives ought to be a matter of greatest concern. The Christian cannot stand still in his life. He either progresses or declines. It is true that few today are spiritually minded enough to be interested in such subjects. The true child of God, however, is one who daily examines his own spiritual life.
Spiritual decline is a real possibility and we ought to be constantly on our guard against it. When we say this we do not in any way deny the blessed and wonderful truth of the preservation of the saints. God will never allow His saints to fall from His grace. Not one of God's elect shall ever perish. They are in the hands of the Good Shepherd, and no man can pluck them out of those almighty hands. The child of God is born again with an incorruptible life that cannot die. God's covenant with His people is absolutely sure. The work of Christ on their behalf is a perfect work, a work which He Himself will surely bring to perfection. The intercession of Christ for His own cannot fail. Our Lord gives us a beautiful example of this in connection with His prediction of the fall of Peter. After He warned Peter that Satan desired to have him and sift him as wheat, Jesus gave the sure and blessed promise: “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not” (Luke 22:32).
However, when God in His Word promises to preserve His saints, He does not thereby promise always to keep them from falling. In this too the Lord's sovereign purpose and wisdom in our salvation is fulfilled. Nevertheless, the falls of the saints of God can be very grievous and the consequences of these falls most dreadful. The Canons of Dordt speak of this matter very vividly in the Fifth Head of Doctrine, articles 4 and 5. In order to save space I will ask the reader himself to look up and read these articles in the Canons. Spiritual decline is possible for the child of God, not because of any weakness on the part of the grace of God, but because of the continuing presence of the old man of sin in the child of God and because of the weakness of our faith. Because of our sinfulness the Lord sometimes withdraws in a measure His grace and Holy Spirit from us, so that we suffer such spiritual decline, and in this deep way learn our absolute dependency on the Lord.
Backsliding is a grievous and ugly thing. When the Christian backslides he loses interest in God and in His blessed Son, Jesus Christ. He no longer makes God the supreme object of his affection and the reason for all his glorying. When the child of God backslides he forgets the blessedness of his salvation. His heart has grown cold to the amazing wonder of the love of God toward him according to which he has been adopted as His child and made heir of all the spiritual blessings of God's house and of eternal life. He has little regard anymore for the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ and the great price that the Lord paid in His suffering anguish through the sacrifice of His own body to pay for the redemption of His own. Let no child of God say that this is a small thing.
Spiritual decline takes place in varying degrees. It can happen that a Christian for a time in his life entirely departs from the Lord and leads a grossly sinful life. So dreadful is our sinful nature, even after we have been regenerated, that this is possible. During this time the life of such a child of God may be indistinguishable from the life of a worldly and ungodly man. It may seem, both to this child of God himself and to those who observe him, that he no longer is or ever was a true child of God, until the Lord by His sovereign grace and faithfulness renews such a one to repentance. Often, however, decline in the Christian's life is less drastic than that, though still very serious. The devil, in seeking to lead God's children away from the Lord, often does that little by little, sometimes in an almost imperceptible way. It is possible for the Christian to be in a state of spiritual decline even though outwardly he seems still to be living the life of a Christian. He may still be faithful in his church attendance and regular in his outward acts of worship and devotion. Spiritual decline begins with decline of the heart. When such decline is allowed to continue it will soon also appear in the outward life.
We are in a state of spiritual decline when the Christian life becomes dull and dry. We are in a state of decline when we have lost our zeal and devotion to the Lord. Prayer seems cold and unanswered and little more than the repetition of stock phrases. There is little interest in the study of the Word and little desire to speak of the truths of God's Word and of the blessings of salvation with others. The Christian in such a state finds the commandments of the Lord grievous and burdensome. He does not seriously and earnestly apply himself any longer to keeping the commandments of the Lord. Slowly at first he begins to make small compromises in his life. What he once condemned on the basis of God's Word he now justifies. He loses the consciousness of the seriousness of sin. He murmurs and complains about the hardships and trials in his life, unable to discern the hand of God and the goodness of God in them. He no longer enjoys the fellowship of God's people. He cannot bear with the weaknesses of his fellow saints, and he becomes critical and judgmental of their every fault.
This is a sad state to be in. The Lord is grieved by those of His children who are in such a condition. Their worship and service of Him, if there is any such at all, is unpleasant to the Lord. The Lord does not delight in mere outward service, when man's heart is far from the Lord. The backslider will often try to substitute ceremony and ritual and the giving of gifts for the true, loving worship of God, thereby seeking to appease an accusing conscience, or to appear pious before his fellow man. In the book of Isaiah, God says concerning such worship, even though it may be formally correct, this: “Away with it.” Such a person may still hold to an outward profession of faith and seem to be orthodox in his doctrine. He may even be able to carry on a great debate on theological questions and vehemently argue for sound doctrine, but the Lord is not pleased with him. Do you recognize yourself in all of this?
The Christian in a state of spiritual decline is vulnerable to the temptations of the devil. The classic biblical example of this is that of David. It was when he was in a low spiritual state that he was tempted by the devil to commit the awful sins of adultery and murder. That example ought to be a very serious warning to all of us. How serious it is to be in such a state!
When a Christian continues to live in such a state of spiritual declension, this will have a serious effect on his family. The next generation might depart from the Lord altogether because they have not been nurtured in a spiritually healthy home.
We have an example of the spiritual decline of a whole church among the seven churches addressed by the Lord in the book of Revelation. The church of Ephesus was from many points of view a commendable church. The Lord commends her for her works, her labor and patience, and even her steadfastness. This church must have been doctrinally strong and faithful in exercising Christian discipline, if we understand correctly what the Lord has to say about her. Yet the Lord had to rebuke her because she had lost her first love. Apparently this spiritual decline came to a church made up of members who were recent converts once zealous for the faith of the Gospel and eager in their service of the Lord. Yet the members of this church were in a state of decline. All spiritual decline is essentially a decline in love for the Lord. The Lord commands us to live out of the principle of love. He Himself has placed the principle of that love in our hearts through the working of the Holy Spirit. We are to love the Lord with all our heart and soul and strength and mind. We are always to abound in that love and never to allow it to diminish. Love for God must be the motive out of which we perform all our works before the Lord. In that love we dwell in the communion and fellowship of God and delight to do His commandments. When that love diminishes we begin to decline. The Lord had to warn the church of Ephesus to remember from whence she had fallen and to repent. So serious was the state she was in that if she did not repent the Lord would take the candlestick away from this church.
Spiritual decline is something so serious that it must be repented of before we fall into great sin. In order to repent from that sin we need to know the causes of our decline. Above all we need to know that God alone by His Holy Spirit is able to restore us from such a spiritual state.