It is a sad thing – a dreadful thing – to watch someone spiral out of control spiritually. We've all seen it happen. Perhaps it was a family member who left the Faith, or a fellow church member who slowly stopped coming to worship, or maybe even a spiritual role model who left his or her first Love. Despite the popular idea of ‘once saved – always saved,’ the fact is that Christians can – and regrettably some do – fall away from Christ (Gal. 5:4; 1 Cor. 10:12; Heb. 6:4-6, 10:25-31). Paul warns those who think they are immune to the efforts of Satan should “take heed,” otherwise they will fall (1 Cor. 10:12).
I do not believe that spiritual backsliding occurs ‘over night.’ Yes, we may be shocked by the outward manifestation of this terrible sin, but the process of falling away from Christ is usually the result of small changes in the heart over a long period of time. It is a gradual process of Satan ‘chipping away’ at one’s Christian stamina. The author of Hebrews warns Christians to pay close attention to their faith; otherwise they will “drift” from it (Heb. 2:1). ‘Drifting’ isn't a fast process; it happens slowly.
Sadly, when one falls, it is usually permanent. The book of Hebrews warns about the rarity of someone realizing their error once they have left the Faith (Heb. 6:4-6). Peter warns that “it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them” (2 Pet. 2:20-22). Interestingly, Peter wrote those words. He understood the reality of backsliding; he had 'been there, done that.' Though starting out as a dedicated disciple of Jesus, his faith slowly deteriorated to the extent that he flat-out denied his Savior. Let us carefully examine the characteristics of Peter’s process of falling away from our Lord, learning from his example:
1. Pride. On the eve of His crucifixion, Jesus prophesied that all of his disciples would “fall away” (Mk. 14:27) from Him for fear of persecution. Peter, ignoring the Lord’s divine prophecy, boastfully said he would not fall away (v. 28). In so doing, he took the first step in his spiritual backsliding: being prideful. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). Many Christians have given themselves to their pride and the call of popularity, which leads to the next step.
2. Laziness. As Jesus was “distressed and troubled” (Mk. 14:33), praying to God in Gethsemane immediately before He was arrested, Peter was caught falling asleep (v. 37). Not once, but three times – even after Jesus asked him to keep watch (v. 34). Peter’s pride lowered his guard and therefore he failed to prepare himself for the difficult times that would soon follow. Thinking he was strong, he became lazy. The same can happen to you and me. As we begin thinking we are great and therefore don’t need to mature (1 Pet. 2:1-2), we begin to pray less, study less, do less, and become less than what God intended. Such a mindset easily leads one to the next step of falling away.
3. Cowardice. As Jesus was being led to the high priest, Peter followed Him “at a distance” (Mk. 14:54). Due to the unpopularity of Jesus, Peter stood far enough away so as to not be identified with Him. It turned out he was unprepared to face the ridicule and persecution a faithful disciple would have to endure. Without preparation, we too can become guilty of Peter’s cowardice. We can become ashamed to be seen carrying a Bible, praying before a meal at a restaurant, or even to be seen with other Christians. Some may resort to ‘watering down’ Biblical teachings, so as to not receive any flack from society. When we become afraid to teach truth because of its unpopularity, we shouldn’t teach at all. Note the words of Jesus:
For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. (Mk. 8:38, ESV)
But as for the cowardly… their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. (Rev. 21:8, ESV)
4. Worldliness. Still keeping his distance from Jesus, Peter went into the courtyard of the high priest and sat with the guards and warmed himself with them by the fire (Mk. 14:54). He found it natural to associate with the very people who were responsible for incarcerating his Master. Christians who are ashamed to be seen with Christ find it easy to mingle with those of the world and enjoy their comforts. Can we have such close fellowship with those outside of the body of Christ and not become increasingly vulnerable to sin? The Bible tells us in no uncertain terms not to love the world and the evil things in it (1 Jn. 2:15-17). When we love the world, we become an enemy of God (Jas. 4:4). Because the world wallows in wickedness (1 Jn. 5:19), how can those in its company withstand its influence (1 Cor. 15:33)? By the time we become ‘friends with the world,’ it can only be a short time before we fall away completely.
5. Denial. When accused three times of being a disciple of Christ, Peter denied it every time (Mk. 14:66-71). Away from Christ, enjoying the comfort of the world, Peter found himself denying His Lord and Savior! In so doing, he put himself in grave danger. Consider the warning of Jesus:
So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 10:32-33, ESV)
Though we may never verbally deny Jesus, we can easily fall away to the point of denying Him in our lifestyle and actions. We are called to worship Him, but make excuses why we cannot. We are called to serve Him, but give Him little or no service. We are called to carry His cross and suffer for His name, but stand afar off in the world’s comfort.
When we deny Christ, our falling away is complete. Unless we repent, the only thing left to do is face the Lord on the Day of Judgment where we will fully realize the error of our ways. Luckily, Peter realized his sin when the Lord looked at him in the courtyard and when he heard the rooster crow (Lk. 22:60-62). Imagine the feeling of guilt and shame in Peter’s heart as his Savior’s eyes pierced his soul!
Years later, Peter wrote about how we can prevent ourselves from making the same mistake. He warns us to guard against “pride” (1 Pet. 5:5-6), “laziness,” (1 Pet. 5:8-9), “cowardice” (1 Pet. 4:16), “worldliness” (1 Pet. 2:11-12), and “denial” (1 Pet. 3:15). We would be wise to learn from the experience of Peter, lest we fall away ourselves – and in so doing deny our Savior.
You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. (2 Pet. 3:17-18, ESV)