“For day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer” (Psalm 32:4 NASB). “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3 NASB). How tragic is our experience as believers when we have broken fellowship with the Lord! We are away from the Lord! Fellowship that was once sweet and joyous has turned sour. The joy of salvation has gone (Psalm 51:12). We may wrap something of temporal satisfaction from the passing scene (2 Timothy 4:10). We may wrap the robe of self-justification about this wretched state by appealing to circumstances. Yet this lamed condition has no inner satisfaction in the present life for a true child of God. Beyond this, there is loss of eternal reward in the life to come (1 Corinthians 3:14-15). We have despised the love of the Savior, who reproves, disciplines and calls us to repentance (Revelation 3:19).
We must see that broken fellowship is a miscarriage of God’s purposes for us to be fruitful in this life (John 15:2). We are saved unto a life of good works (Ephesians 2:10; Titus 3:8). To be estranged from God is to make such a life impossible. One ought to consider well the attitude of the Lord Jesus toward fruitless trees (Matthew 12:33; Luke 13:6-9). As disease, pests and drought blight the trees of earth, so do spiritual scourges blight the intended fruit of God’s Spirit. We will do well to heed the call of the Lord, “Return unto Me, and I will return unto you” (Malachi 3:7).
The Christian world commonly uses the word “backsliding” to refer to this condition of broken fellowship. It is amazing how often it is used to explain the conduct of those who show little evidence of being regenerated to a new life in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Yet we should note that the word “backsliding” is not even used in the New Testament. Its occurrence is confined to the books of Jeremiah and Hosea, with the possible exception of Proverbs 14:14. It is used especially of Israel as a nation far from God, not of individuals out of fellowship. It basically describes a condition of apostasy (rejection of the faith) and is so translated in such verses as Jeremiah 5:6; 8:5; 14:7 and Hosea 14:4 (NASB). Considering Hebrews 6:4-6; 2 Peter 2:20-22 and Jude 5-19, one scarcely would describe a child of God as an apostate. Contextually then these Old Testament verses which use the word “backsliding” do not generally describe true believers.
Out of Fellowship—or Unsaved?
The first consideration in examining the life of one who claims to be a Christian but whose ways do not confirm the claim is to look for genuine conversion. Are we born again? The question is not whether we once prayed a prayer and asked Jesus into our heart; or whether we worked with some Christian group; or whether we were a member of some local fellowship. The question is, “Did we receive the Holy Spirit when we believed?” (Acts 19:2 NASB). If we did not, then we are not born again. How can we be sure? If we continue to be sexually immoral, drunken, a thief, or a jealous, envious, angry trouble-making person, we will never inherit the kingdom of God, no matter how sure we are of salvation (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:20-21). If we say we know the Lord Jesus but do not keep His commandments, God says we are a liar (1 John 2:4). “But who of us always keeps these commandments?,” says the objector. Of course, no one does this sinlessly. According to 1 John 3:7-9 (NASB) it is the practice of sin, or continuing in sin, that is in view. There is no example in Scripture, other than the Lord Jesus, of a sinless person. The rest of us still sin and, therefore, must confess and forsake sin to maintain fellowship with God (1 John 1:9-10). Thus a distinction is made between single-action sin and the practice of sin. Therefore, we must make sure our life and testimony support our claim to be born again. If in doubt, we must submit ourselves to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and turn from our sin. We must have a relationship with God before speaking of broken fellowship.
Causes of Broken Fellowship
There can be no fellowship with God if we walk in darkness (1 John 1:6). “When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long” (Psalm 32:3 NASB). The sin of sinner and saint alike always has the effect of separating from God. “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2). One may cease to abide in Christ. “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up” (John 15:6 NASB). What begins as wrong priorities and neglect of fellowship with God soon moves to decline in interest, loss of commitment and then absorption in the things of this life (Matthew 13:22). A later stage is reached when one begins dabbling in questionable things, is drawn away by lust (James 1:14) and finally commits flagrant sin.
New Testament examples of broken fellowship are less common than one would suppose. Yet here is a sample of warning symptoms:
1. Loss Of Love For Christ (Revelation 2:4). Our “first love” for Christ begets a deep appreciation for Him and a warm zeal. It is like the love between an engaged couple and is one that God cherishes (Jeremiah 2:2). When we let this change to indifference and take Him for granted, much more than the “honeymoon” is over. We are in danger of becoming like the lukewarm person whom the Lord Jesus promises to spit out of His mouth (Revelation 3:15-16).
2. Bad Attitudes (Ephesians 4:31; Hebrews 12:15). Some bitter attitude, rather than forgiveness and reconciliation, may be left to linger. Argument and turmoil may replace kindness and peace within. Resentments toward God and man become like ugly weeds in the soul.
3. Lax Conscience (1 Corinthians 11:28-29). If we do not judge sin in our lives, God will judge it for us (1 Corinthians 11:31). He will discipline us that we may be partakers of His holiness (Hebrews 12:10). We must be sensitive toward God and His claim upon our lives and conduct. As one has said, “Keep short accounts with God.”
4. Worldliness (Titus 2:12). The system of values, morals, power, pride and ambition which pertains to this world scene has no part with Christ, nor should we have part with it (John 17:14). We are instructed to forsake worldly desire and to live unto godliness in this present age. The desire to accumulate possessions is a part of that system and it is ruinous (1 Timothy 6:9). When we love the world system, rather than recognizing its ugliness and passing nature, we are disobeying God (1 John 2:15-17). Consuming our time with worldly activities is also a danger sign.
5. Missing Church Meetings (Hebrews 10:25). When we love Christ, we love His people. When we love His people we want to be with them. People can be away from the Lord while still attending services. Yet it is a bad sign when departure from God has reached the point of neglecting the assembling of ourselves together at the church meetings. It was the custom of the Lord Jesus to be in the synagogue on the Sabbath day (Luke 4:16). It is never recorded that He used the excuse that it was not necessary to do this to be in fellowship with God.
6. Unbelief (Mark 16:14). When we refuse to believe what God has said, or to lay hold of it because of hardness of heart, we justify His solemn rebuke. “Where is your faith?” was His frequent challenge (Luke 8:25). Direct disobedience to God, such as marrying a non-Christian (2 Corinthians 6:14), is an evidence of unbelief.
Other symptoms include the neglect of our devotional time alone with God, the failure to confess Christ openly before men and withholding of resources from the needy or the servants of God. Immaturity and carnality (pleasing the flesh) is the seedbed of estrangement from God (1 Corinthians 3:1-3).
Cost of Broken Fellowship
Once we understand the difference between relationship and fellowship, we need not fear that a breach with God will cause loss of salvation. We will not come into judgment for our sins because we have been set apart through the once-for-all offering of the body of Jesus Christ on the cross (Hebrews 10:10). We will not come into judgment for sins because we have passed from death to life (John 5:24). That being the case, why not enjoy our salvation and the world as well? Why worry about sin if Jesus has paid for it all? God forbid such thinking (Romans 6:1-2)! It is symptomatic of a loss of perspective about eternity and the love of God. The consequences of fellowship broken through sin are enough to make us pause, if not tremble.
1. To You. There is the possibility of ruining your testimony. The unsaved will trample it under foot as so much salt without flavor (Matthew 5:13). You will come under the discipline of God (Hebrews 12:5-7). You may experience emotional distress, physical illness, even death (1 Corinthians 11:30). You may lose opportunities for service. You may lose the joy of salvation (Psalm 51:12). The Scriptures no longer will come alive as you read or hear them. You pray but He does not hear (Psalm 66:18), for the heavens have turned to brass. Fellowship with other believers is no longer the same. Satisfaction goes out of even the simple pleasures of life. You will lose reward at the Judgment Seat of Christ for the wood, hay and stubble with which you are building your life (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). You may become a shipwreck on the shores of life (1 Timothy 1:19).
2. To Others. You will put a stumbling block in the way of believers who have looked to you for an example (Romans 14:13). You may give the unsaved an occasion to reject Christ because you became one of the “hypocrites in the church.” You may cause the loss of life of someone close to you (2 Samuel 12:14) or those under your responsibility (1 Chronicles 21:14,17).
3. To God. You will bring reproach upon the name of Christ (1 Timothy 5:14). The unconverted can sneer at the Lord because of the conduct of those who profess to be His followers (2 Samuel 12:14). You testify by a lagging or wayward life that you have no real devotion to the blessed One who loved you and gave Himself for you. He is nothing to you.
Do you now say that nothing matters in life as long as you are saved?
Cure For Broken Fellowship
God will not leave us to despair if the calamity of being away from God has occurred. However, the enemy may tempt us to give up. In his book, “There’s a Way Back to God,” William MacDonald characterizes the voice of doom with these phrases: “It’s hopeless. There’s absolutely no use trying. You might as well give up. All you can do is cooperate with the inevitable. Things could never be the same anyway… . You’ve sinned away your day of opportunity. You’ve passed the point of no return.”‘ Of course, this is a denial of the Word of God for one who is the child of God. To begin with, nothing can ever separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). We are never ejected from His family for misconduct (John 10:28). In the second place, He is the Great Shepherd of the sheep. He will ever seek those who stray (Luke 15:4). The Lord sought Adam while he was still seeking to hide from God (Genesis 3:8-9). He is the God of Recovery. He found Adam and restored him. He sought out David and restored him (2 Samuel 12:13) and gave him lasting rejoicing which is enshrined in the Psalms for our comfort (Psalm 32:1-2). He restored Peter with a triple confession which blotted out the memory of his triple denial (John 21:15-17).
What is the road to restoration? We begin at the point where we got off the track. We confess and forsake our sin (Proverbs 28:13). He will not despise a broken and contrite spirit (Psalm 51:17; Isaiah 57:15). We repent and do the deeds we did at first (Revelation 2:5). We must bring forth fruit (deeds) in keeping with our professed repentance (Matthew 3:8). Confessions which do not involve forsaking sin and changing our lives are empty words. We need to deal with sin— root and branch. We must cry out to God with deep sincerity just as we see in Psalm 51.
Can we be sure that He will forgive us? We have only to believe His Word on this point. He will have mercy and abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:7). He will bind us up and heal the wounds (Hosea 6:1). His way is to deal with sin and then be done with it. There may be temporal consequences, such as debts, unholy alliances, sinful children and damaged health. Yet we can have sweet fellowship once again with Him who loves our souls. That is the priceless possession that we forfeited so lightly, then regained with such pain. Those who fear they have committed the “unpardonable sin” (Matthew 12:22-32) should study the words of our Savior carefully. The wide-spread fear of this sin is heaviest with those who have the least knowledge of what it is. The wicked men of Jesus’ day said that His miracles were done by the power of the Devil rather than by the power of the Spirit of God. Their willful refusal to believe those works of God and their insult to the Spirit were the works of ungodly men, not believers.
Commitment to Unbroken Fellowship
The blessedness of restoration should not tempt us to believe that straying from God has an easy remedy always available. We should learn a lesson which will prevent any repetition. We should resolve to stay close to God. If we have dealt thoroughly with sin in major areas that have stumbled us, recurrence is less likely. Yet the one who thinks that he stands secure should take heed lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10:12). We must learn to hate sin as that which brought suffering to our Lord Jesus and which has ruined the lives of millions and cast many into hell. We need a healthy fear or awe of God, which will not trifle with His holiness or presume upon His grace. We must learn to abide in Christ and to draw daily from the spiritual resources available in Him. Day by day, we must learn to draw near unto God and know that He, in turn, will draw near unto us (James 4:8). Then our new perspective on life will reflect the desire to live daily only for the glory of Him who loved us so deeply and gave Himself for us so sacrificially. Hopefully, He will restore unto us the “years that the locust hath eaten” (Joel 2:25), the wasting of precious days which could have been spent for the kingdom of God.
Away From The Lord
l. What are the tests of being a real Christian in the following verses? Romans 10:9-10
1 John 2:4-5; 5:2-3
1 John 3:14
James 2:14-26; Ephesians 2:10
Galatians 5:19-21; 1 John 3:8-10
Galatians 5:22-24; 1 John 37
Why is it important to establish reasonable assurance that a person is a Christian before labeling him as “out of fellowship” or “backslider”?
2. Identify the causes of broken fellowship in the following verses, and make a specific application as to how these might apply today:
Jeremiah 2:13; 5:6-7
1 John 2:15-16
3. What did David do that caused him to turn from God (2 Samuel 11:1-4)?
4. What does a person usually do after committing a sin if he does not immediately confess it (2 Samuel 11:5-17; Proverbs 25:5-6)?
What method does God often use to get the attention of someone out of fellowship (2 Samuel 12:1-7)?
5. From the following verses write a brief definition of confession (Psalm 32:5; 38:18; 66:18; Proverbs 28:13).
How have you applied this in your own life?
6. What steps did David take that brought him back to God (Psalm 51:1-10)? List the steps.
7. Some people get the idea that a Christian can sin and get away with it. What did David’s sin cost him?
Psalm 51:12 2 Samuel 12:10,14b
2 Samuel 12:14a 1 Chronicles 22:8
8. What may happen to someone who does not confess and forsake his sin (1 Corinthians 5:3-5)?
9. When we truly repent, God promises to restore “the years the locusts have eaten” (Joel 2:25). How do the following references illustrate this principle in the life of David?
Psalm 51:12 Matthew 1:1,6,16
Psalm 51:13 1 Chronicles 22:9-10a
10. In your own experience what have you found has helped you ‘‘ get back on the right track’’ when you were away from the Lord?
What aspects of “preventive maintenance” are indicated in the following verses?
Matthew 18:21-35 Romans 13:14