There is no such thing in the New Testament as a believer whose perseverance is so guaranteed that he can afford to ignore the warning notes which are sounded so frequently.
(Sinclair Ferguson)[1]

The great nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologian William Plumer tells of someone accusing a minister of opposing the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. The minister affirmed that he was in fact against the perseverance of (unrepentant) sinners, while fully supportive of the perseverance of the saints. Not satisfied with that, the accuser replied, “Do you think that a child of God cannot fall very low, and yet be restored?”[2] Without denying the possibility, the minister calmly remarked that it would be “very dangerous to make the experiment.”[3] Plumer agrees and adds, “He who is determined to see how far he may decline in religion and yet be restored, will lose his soul.”[4] While I might prefer to say “will likely lose his soul,” Plumer’s instinct appears correct: it is a dangerous thing to willfully drift away from God, otherwise known as Christian backsliding.

Christians generally accept the plain teaching of the Scriptures that, once in Christ, they are to become like him in holiness (Rom. 8:29), as they die unto sin and live unto righteousness. The life of faith (Gal. 2:20)—the sanctified life—is a journey “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). But Christians also realize that remaining, indwelling sin keeps us from pursuing Christ as we should and, worse yet, sometimes leads us to pull away from him. Such a drift, left unchecked, we call backsliding.

A pull away from living well for God, and by God’s grace, seems a constant thorn in our flesh. Speaking on backsliding, Charles Spurgeon said to his congregation on March 13, 1870, “I fear the disease is so rife among the people of God that there is scarcely one of us who has not at some time or other suffered from it.”[5]

If there is one consideration more humbling than another to a spiritually-minded believer, it is, that, after all God has done for him,—after all the rich displays of his grace, the patience and tenderness of his instructions, . . . the tokens of love received, and the lessons of experience learned, there should still exist in the heart a principle, the tendency of which is to secret, perpetual, and alarming departure from God.

So wrote Octavius Winslow, a nineteenth-century pastor and contemporary of Charles Spurgeon and of J. C. Ryle, in his outstanding work Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul.[6] Truly, few children of God are exempt from the humbling acknowledgment that we quickly and easily depart from living for God as we turn away from our Savior and thus grieve the Spirit.

Do you sense a general decline in faithful biblical zeal toward God in the church today? I do not think we can argue that things are worse now than they have ever been. This seems hard to prove and reveals a naive understanding about church history and people. Naturally, we tend to think that we are now living in a time of real spiritual distress. And in a sense, we are! If statistics are to be believed, as well as common observations, since roughly 2015 we have been facing a “de-churching crisis,” so to speak.

We are living in precarious times. Yet the Puritan John Owen felt the same way in his day. In his work On the Nature of Apostasy, he opens “To the Reader” by arguing:

That the state of religion is at this day deplorable in most parts of the Christian world is acknowledged by all who concern themselves in any thing that is so called. . . . The whole world is so evidently filled with the dreadful effects of the lusts of men, and sad tokens of divine displeasure, that all things from above and here below proclaim the degeneracy of our religion, in its profession, from its pristine beauty and glory.[7]

One wonders what Owen might have to say today (probably a lot!).

We should not think that we are the worst of all, but we also need to be careful not to think that we are experiencing an age of unprecedented blessing. Speaking as a pastor, I see the reality of the recent worldwide global pandemic (COVID‑19) as exacerbating certain issues that were likely present in the church but are now openly manifest in unique ways (e.g., lack of or indifference to hospitality).

Many Christians are lamenting their own personal declension during the past few years. Some seem genuinely concerned about their continued personal apathy and lukewarmness toward the things of the Lord, but they are not quite sure how to “rebound” and rediscover their first love. Others appear to be aware that their Christian living does not look or feel as it used to, but they seem indifferent about their malaise. Many willfully miss corporate worship, and their consciences don’t appear to prick them as they may have in the past because these people are living off various excuses that no longer seem entirely justifiable. Some still claim to watch online services, but even those who do so will admit that they tend to watch when convenient and often with little attention.

We can have some sympathy for how difficult many aspects of Christian living have become because of the pandemic. Christian fellowship and hospitality, for instance, were relegated to Zoom meetings in many countries, which simply catalyzed a struggle with being inhospitable toward others and so toward the Lord (Matt. 25:40). Even so, that does not change the reality for many that they are backsliding. Indeed, many parents are realizing how their children have not made great progress in the past few years, and so their concern is heightened by the stress they feel about the spiritual condition of their beloved offspring—and many of these parents will humbly acknowledge that they share some blame for the spiritual lethargy, indifference, and ignorance in their children.

Such manifestations of spiritual lethargy and unfaithfulness reveal a spirit of backsliding that must be repented of. Indeed, backsliding of any sort is extremely serious in God’s eyes. In the words of Thomas Adams, “backsliding has ever been a sin most odious to God; yes, it is a pack or bundle of sins trussed up together, all derogatory to his honor, and contrary to his nature.”[8] We reveal our hypocrisy to a God of truth; we reveal our inconstancy to a God who does not change; we reveal our infidelity to a faithful God; and we reveal our ingratitude to a gracious God.[9]

There must (and can) be a return to God and Christ by the Spirit. Hosea, concerned with Baal-worship in the northern kingdom that primarily manifested itself in sexual idolatry, pleads, “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity” (Hos. 14:1). Repentance leads to life and promises:

I will heal their apostasy;

I will love them freely,

for my anger has turned from them. (Hos. 14:4)

God’s love is a drawing, wooing love to himself for the repentant backslider; it is a free love: “I will love them freely.” But repentance is not a guarantee, as the Scriptures plainly testify. There are some who either slowly or quickly depart from the Lord and apparently never return. Peter and Judas jumped into a cauldron of sin, but only Peter emerged from it. As Andrew Fuller notes in his perceptive work The Backslider, “But whatever difference there be between a partial and a total departure from God, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the party himself at the time to perceive it.”[10] Similarly, Richard Baxter wisely remarked that “partial backsliding has a natural tendency to total apostasy, and would effect it, if special grace did not prevent it.”[11] The slippery slope does exist, and some who slide continue on it till they fall off into eternal darkness and despair.

We must reckon with the fact that the Scriptures offer plenty of salient examples of total abandonment from the faith. This is called apostasy. “After having made a profession of the true religion,” says Fuller, “they apostatize from it.” He adds: “I am aware it is common to consider a backslider as being a good man, though in a bad state of mind: but the scriptures do not confine the term to this application. . . . Backsliding, it is true, always supposes a profession of the true religion; but it does not necessarily suppose the existence of the thing professed. There is a perpetual backsliding, a drawing back unto perdition.”[12] We cannot merely consider backsliding without therefore also considering the consequence of unrepentant backsliding: apostasy.

The goal of this book is not merely to establish the fact of backsliding and apostasy, but to diagnose it in such a way that we are aware of the dangers and symptoms of drifting from the Lord and so apply the various remedies offered by God in his Word for healing the backslidden soul. I am incapable of preventing the total apostasy whereby it is impossible to be restored again to repentance (see Heb. 6:4–6). I can only hope to assist in alarming and awakening the backslider to the real threats and dangers of personal declension that lead to apostasy. So while the diagnosis is crucial, the remedy is even more so—and it must be one that wins backsliders back to God from their turning away.

If you are reading this book, you may be concerned about your own spiritual condition or the spiritual condition of others you love, and so you are seeking help. Or you are someone, perhaps even a pastor, who senses that something is not quite right with some of your people, and you are looking for help on how to recognize and deal with the dangers you are witnessing. May God be pleased to help all pastors develop such a caring sensitivity toward their wayward congregants. Or you may be a concerned family member who fears for the soul of a loved one. Many of us find ourselves in that position at some point in our lives. Take comfort; the Lord’s arm is not too short to save (Isa. 59:1), and his arm is his Son, Jesus Christ, who finds his sheep and brings them back into the fold. But those who wander must be identified so that they may be found.

“I once was lost, but now am found,” from the hymn “Amazing Grace!,”[13] could in fact have some application to the returning backslider, who, we pray, can again sing those words with a newfound fervor for God’s patient, unchanging, amazing grace.

Mark Jones is the author of The Pilgrim’s Regress: Guarding against Backsliding and Apostasy in the Christian Life.

Mark Jones (PhD, Leiden University) is Senior Minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA) and Research Associate at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He has written and edited several books and most recently coauthored A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life.

[1] Sinclair Ferguson, The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1981), 174.

[2] William S. Plumer, Vital Godliness: A Treatise on Experimental and Practical Piety (New York: American Tract Society, 1864), 148.

[3] Plumer, 148.

[4] Plumer, 148.

[5] Charles Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: Sermons (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1871), 145. The remainder of Spurgeon’s sentence adds: “and I fear that the most of us might confess if we judged our own hearts rightly, that in some measure we are backsliding even now.” I think I understand the sense of what Spurgeon says here, especially considering his phrasing “in some measure.” Yet my definition of backsliding as something more obvious and sustained rather than our general failures as Christians leads me to say that I likely wouldn’t try to cast such doubt on my own flock that they are all basically backsliders. If everyone is a backslider, then nobody is a backslider.

[6] Octavius Winslow, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 9.

[7] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. W. H. Goold, 24 vols. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1850–53), 7:3.

[8] Thomas Adams, An Exposition upon the Second Epistle General of St. Peter (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848), 570.

[9] Adams, 570.

[10] Andrew Fuller, The Backslider (London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1840), 19. Sinclair Ferguson likewise notes: “The solemn fact is that none of us can tell the difference between the beginning of backsliding and the beginning of apostasy. Both look the same.” “Apostasy and How It Happens,” March 14, 2023,

[11] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor [. . .] (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1860), 125.

[12] Fuller, The Backslider, 16–17.

[13] John Newton, “Amazing Grace!” (1779).