Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 03/10/1996
Luke 22:54 And having arrested him, they led him away and brought him to the house of the high priest; but Peter was following at a distance. 55 And after they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter was sitting among them. 56 And a certain servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the firelight, and looking intently at him, said, “This man was with him too.” 57 But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” 58 And a little bit later, another saw him and said, “You are one of them too!” But Pete said, “Man, I am not!” 59 And after an hour had passed, another man began to insist, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he is a Galilean too.” 60 But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, a cock crowed. 61 And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he told him, “Before a cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” 62. And he went out and wept bitterly.
We come today to consider a depressing topic denominated by an ugly word: backsliding. Webster defines backsliding as “a loss of zeal in religion or morals.” Therefore, only a Believer can really backslide, for only he has any true zeal to lose.
Yet backsliding is a word I hesitate even to use, for it seems to me a word much abused. I hear people say of someone, “He is a backslidden Christian” when there is no evidence of any love of God, no hatred of sin, no regular attendance at public worship, no commitment to a Bible-believing church, no regular Bible reading or prayer as part of the person’s life, etc. All this is true of the person, and he does not seem to be the least bothered by it or concerned about it. But this is not the description of a person who is backslidden so much as of a person who is lost! I fear that many whom we think of as backslidden Christians are really just lost sinners; many people we think of as backslidden Christians are really apostates. It is not ultimately possible for us to judge, for only God sees the heart. But Scripture is plain that the kind of person I have been describing, the kind of person we might be tempted to describe as “contentedly backslidden,” is in a spiritually perilous position indeed. We should not give people the false hope of applying to them the doctrine of eternal security as to “backslidden Christians” when they give no evidence of conversion!
Yet this is a topic that we must discuss, for it is a thing that happens. We lose our first love, we begin to drift, to grow cold, to become spiritually aimless. A real Christian can lose, for a time, not his connection with Christ or his relationship with him, but his joy in him and his testimony for him. If he is a real Christian, he will not be able to do so contentedly or with impunity. If he is a real Christian who was truly converted, not just one who professed faith for a while, he will not be able to do so permanently. And all this we see in Peter in the sad passage that is before us today. It can teach us something about the beginnings of backsliding, the bitterness of backsliding, and the way back from backsliding, the way beyond it.
Backsliding does not happen over night or out of the blue. It has its beginnings in a slowly growing neglect of our walk with the Lord. And therefore there are early warning signs, as it were. Brothers and sisters, I want you to look for these early warning signs in yourselves this morning, and to take them even more seriously than you would the early warning signs of cancer! You know full well that if you find a lump in your breast that was not there before, if you notice a change in the size, shape, or color of a mole, you need to get yourself to the physician without delay. And if you see these early warning signs of backsliding, you need to get to your knees with the same alacrity. For they are the signs of a spiritual cancer potentially as dangerous to your soul as physical cancer is to your body. What are these signs?
Peter’s failing here did not come on him out of the blue this night. It has its origins in things that were already going on in his life. For we see him saying, with absolutely no clue what he was talking about, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death!” (Luke 22:33). Look back there and you will see that this is the statement that caused the Lord to predict Peter’s betrayal, his denial three times before the crowing of the cock.
Scripture is replete with warnings on this score. What did Paul say? “I find then the principle that evil is present with me, to one who wishes to do good. For I joyfully concur with the Law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin.” This conflict comes to a climax in the agonizing cry, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” And the answer is “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:21-25a). If we ever forget that law in our members and think we can live the Christian life by our own strength or in our own wisdom apart from moment by moment upholding by the grace of God: from that moment the process of backsliding has begun. On our own small scale we will come to experience the bitter irony in the contrast between Peter’s “I am ready!” and his “I don’t know what you are talking about.” The moment we forget that we are only branches, the moment we try to live the Christian life without abiding in the Vine, the moment we forget that “Apart from me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5); from that moment we are on the path which will lead us , if we follow it, to that fire in the courtyard.
A Christian should indeed be supremely confident. But it must be confidence in our Lord Jesus Christ, and not in ourselves. Pride goeth before a fall. When you think you stand, take heed lest ye fall. When you think you are safe from sin and temptation, you are the most vulnerable. Self confidence in spiritual things is the sign of a hard or a shallow heart with little understanding either of the power of sin or of Christ in your life. It is the first step on the road to spiritual impotence and unreality. It is the first step on the path of backsliding.
Do you remember that in our message from last week we rehearsed the multitude of verses, statements by the Lord that Peter had heard, which clearly taught the necessity of a suffering Messiah? Yet when the crisis came, we find Peter drawing his sword to cut off the servant’s ear (22:50). Peter had had the teaching of the Lord’s prayer, the example of Jesus’ prayer life, and yet in the Garden we find him falling asleep despite the Lord’s exhortation to pray that he enter not into temptation (22:40, 45-6). Somebody has not been paying attention! Somebody’s attention to the Word of God has been only perfunctory at best. And if Peter had indeed been praying “Lead us not into temptation” and meaning it, would he have behaved differently in the courtyard? Alas, we will never know.
The Bible and Prayer are two of the most important life-lines of the Christian life. By extension we can add to them Christian fellowship, regular attendance at public worship and the sacraments, and Christian service, the means of growth. To grow lax in these things, to grow neglectful of them, is to be like an athlete who eats only junk food, who never runs laps or visits the weight room, who is late to practice or absent from it—and then wonders why his performance drops off! To neglect these things is a sign either of pride (“I don’t need them”) or of a lack of love for Jesus (“I don’t want them”). In either case, it is a danger sign of the greatest magnitude.
When sinful pride and confidence in the flesh leads us to neglect of Bible study and prayer, unless they are corrected they will eventually produce the third symptom—no longer an early warning sign, but a sign of great danger. And that is a Deliberate Distancing of Oneself from the Lord and from spiritual things. We see it in Peter in verse 54: He was “following the Lord afar off,” as the King James says, or “at a distance” as our text renders it. Pride and neglect can be passive; we can slide into them almost without noticing. But now there is an active choice. We are still following—we aren’t apostates—but not too close! We find other places to be on Sunday morning. Increasingly minor and trivial excuses become acceptable reasons for missing worship. At this point spiritual things may become actually distasteful to us. We therefore avoid them, because they remind us of how far we have fallen, how unworthily we are walking. This bothers us—if it didn’t, it would be a sign that we are not truly Christians at all—but we are not yet ready to do anything about it. But things will get worse still if they do not get better. Instead of witnessing for the Lord we begin to avoid the topic. A worldly lifestyle may start to creep in. Our danger is great.
The final stage of this process comes when with Peter we reach verse 55. “And after they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter was sitting among them.” There is now a positive effort to melt into the crowd and be just like the world. We have not yet denied Christ openly, but we are following him afar off. And if this process continues unchecked, we will find ourselves in verse 57: “Woman, I do not know him.” It is inevitable. Peter did not mean to say this. He never thought he would hear such words come out of his mouth. And he still did not mean them. But he said them. Do you think you are better able to navigate such waters than our Lord’s Apostle? Beware! If even the faintest beginnings of these warning signs are detectable in your life, your danger is great.
Now we are in a position to understand the true bitterness of backsliding. And fortunately there is no need to linger over it and analyze it like we did the Beginnings of Backsliding. But we do need to note it. Now we are ready to hear verse 62: “And he went out and wept bitterly.” The one who is truly a backslidden Believer is a person like Peter. The one who has tasted the good things of the Lord and maybe even professed faith in Christ and joined the church but never been truly converted has a different problem. For him, this process simply leads him out of a faith that never really took hold in his life. But the backslidden Believer is a person who, like Peter, really does love the Lord deep down, but who, like Peter, has presumed on his relationship with Christ rather than really living by faith in him. And so he will come to a point where the knowledge of his denial, the knowledge of his betrayal, the knowledge even of his neglect, will be a far more bitter experience to him than he ever could have imagined when he was letting himself slip. Some never reach that crisis of bitter anguish. But they experience a loss of meaning, of purpose, of fulfillment, of joy—for what? For the path of least resistance? For the approval of men? Dust and ashes! Dust and ashes! Dust and ashes.
What then is the cure for this spiritual cancer? Like with any physical disease, the best cure is never to let it get started. The best treatment is prevention! And so I plead with you to examine yourself today. Do you see any of the early warning signs? Admit them! Confess them! Forsake them! Do not give this horrible syndrome a chance to get started in your life.
But it may be that there is someone here today who is already far gone along this path. You have already begun to feel the bitterness of backsliding, and maybe like MacBeth you think that you are so far in that to go back were as tedious as to go on. Is there hope for you? Yes! You are not yet so far gone as Peter was. So let us pay careful attention to what got Peter started on the road to recovery. What snapped him out of his pattern of denial and got him started on the road to the sorrow that led to repentance and restoration? The answer is found in verse 61: “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord.”
What do you think Peter saw in that look? Was it a reproachful “How could you!”? Was it a triumphant “I told you so!”? We know the Lord Jesus better than that. And we also know human psychology well enough to realize that such glances might have produced shame, self hatred, or despair, but would have been very unlikely to produce godly sorrow leading ultimately to repentance. I think we know very well what Peter saw in that look: a sad but compassionate “I love you!” I love you? Think of it! At the moment his whole life had led to, at the turning point of all of history, before captors out to kill him, facing mockery and brutality, Jesus had time to think of Peter. I love you! No wonder Peter’s denials came to an abrupt halt. There was no doubt a lot of shame, self hatred, and despair present in Peter’s tears at first, especially until after the resurrection. But there was also the godly sorrow leading to repentance, at least embryonically, and we know this because of the outcome. “Feed my sheep.”
Backslidden Christian, can you see that gaze? It is directed at you even now! Jesus still loves you. In spite of all your sin, in spite of all your neglect of his provision for you, in spite even of your betrayal and denial, he still loves you. If that does not stop you in your tracks and turn you around and make you start to follow him again, nothing will. But it can! What it did for Peter it can do for you as well. You may need spiritual counsel, you may need to make some adjustments in your approach to living the Christian life, you may be burned out on “doing church” or trying to follow Christ in your own strength. There may be lots of things you need to learn or unlearn. But the path back to spiritual health doesn’t start with any of that. It starts with coming back to the basics. “Jesus loves me, this I know / For the Bible tells me so.” Will you come back today?
Backsliding is a horrible spiritual cancer, but there is preventive medicine: Never forget how much Jesus loves you. Recognize the early warning signs that you have forgotten Jesus’ love, and act on them before they become serious. Never entertain the thought that you can live the Christian life apart from Christ. Never neglect your Bible, your Prayers, your Church. Never get into the habit of following afar off. By this and by God’s grace we can avoid the bitter experience of Peter. But even if you are already there, the way back starts in the same place. If you have forgotten how Jesus loves you, remember it. And you can remember it best by looking to that place to which all these verses are driving us: the cross. By that cross and God’s grace you may also experience the restoration of Peter. May the Lord grant it to the glory of his Son. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams