As you begin this study, remember to emphasize the fact that we need not fail the Lord and backslide. The Lord can and will help us to keep our salvation. When people do backslide, however, we must hold out God's mercy and forgiveness to them.
Another point you will want to make is that there are times when we all will feel correction from the Lord. While this necessitates repentance to God and making the matter right, it might not constitute backsliding.
Certainly you will want to conclude with a success story of someone who, though he or she failed God, later returned to be an asset to His Kingdom. You can use a Bible character, such as King David or Peter, or perhaps a teacher or one of the students can offer their own testimony on this subject.
The students will be able to explain how God will forgive them, if they either backslide (commit sin) or fall short of God's perfect plan for them, and how He will help them to avoid similar actions again.
Genesis 6:3; 1 Samuel 9:21; 10:9,22; 13:9-13; 15:22-26; 16:14; 1 Chronicles 21; Psalm 51; Ezekiel 33:11-13; Luke 22:32; John 6:44; Galatians 6:7,8; Philippians 3:7-14; 1 Timothy 4:2; Jude 1:24; Revelation 2:4,5; 3:2
Question 1 - The topic of backsliding is controversial in many Christian circles. Is it possible for someone who knows the Lord to fall away from Him? Ezekiel 33:11-13 answers that question for us, making it clear that it is possible for us to sever our relationship with God and to void our born-again experience. A person backslides if he or she turns against the gift of God's salvation because of willful disobedience to His revealed will.
There are times when we make errors in judgment or make wrong decisions even though our motives are correct. The Spirit of the Lord is faithful, during those times, to bring these errors to our attention and to help us make them right if necessary. In these cases, the deeds—although wrong—bring no condemnation since they were done in ignorance.
It is important to know where we stand in God's sight, so we can make the right choices to draw closer to Him. Read Revelation 2:4,5 and Revelation 3:2. Using these Scriptures as a basis, what should our response be toward God and toward others if we have backslidden? How should we rectify an unwise decision or action?
Response 1 - There are two initial points which need to be brought out in discussion. First, it is possible to backslide, and if that happens, one must repent and return to God. A backslider will never be restored as long as he believes he is eternally secure no matter what his actions. Once a backslider admits he is separated from God, he can begin to turn back to God in repentance for his sins.
Second, the students should recognize that we might make errors that are not sin but which still need to be rectified. God is willing and eager to help those with honest hearts to correct their errors. As Christians, we need to come continually before Him with the prayer, "Search me, 0 God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23,24). The distinction between a sin and an error lies in the motive of the heart. We might have used poor judgment, jumped to conclusions, or otherwise stumbled. Your group should see that the only right thing to do under these circumstances is to go to God, identify the problem, and discover the reason and the remedy.
Question 2 - Some people might feel that if they have repented and started toward God, their problems are over. The Biblical principle of reaping what has been sown (Galatians 6:7,8), however, is still in effect, and the consequences might have to be faced even after repentance. In 1 Chronicles 21, we find the record of King David's sin of numbering Israel. Even though he repented, his error caused tragedy for all of Israel. David was grieved by this, and he quickly moved to rectify his action by building an altar to the Lord. Make a list of the people or circumstances that might be affected if you failed God, even though you later repent. Then, apply David's response. What should someone do if he or she fails God and hurts His people?
Response 2 - We will often alter our actions if we know others are affected. Emphasize the fact that our decisions, both positive and negative, almost always affect others. Even if we are not in a position of leadership like King David, very likely someone looks to us as an example. Discussion of the "reaping and sowing" issue should bring out that we shouldn't be discouraged if we begin to reap for our wrongdoings, but that we should flee to the Lord for refuge and begin sowing righteousness. King David was a model for us in his repentance and humbling of himself before the Lord. He exhibited compassion for his subjects and asked for them to be spared, taking responsibility before God for his actions and moving quickly to offer the sacrifice as instructed by Him. A humble spirit should be exhibited to any who have been hurt or wronged. "I'm sorry" should not be foreign words to a Christian.
Question 3 - Since we live in an increasingly wicked world, God must check, chasten, polish, and instruct us in order to help us become increasingly Christlike. Satan might tell us we have received this discipline from the Lord because we have sinned. We can, however, go through this process without losing our relationship with God. Paul the Apostle told the saints in Philippi (Philippians 3:7-14) of his desire to give everything to his relationship with the Lord. In verses 12 and 13, he admits his shortcomings, but he does not let them stop him from pressing forward. Instead, he puts them behind him and pursues God's will for him in the future. How does God strengthen us and help us to forget the past and to look ahead to the future?
Response 3 - The attitude of the heart is the central issue as we deal with mistakes and errors. Bring out in your discussion that God knows the attitudes of our hearts just as He knew Paul's attitude. He often speaks to us about what we should have done. Are we mature enough to learn when He speaks to us in this manner? What are some ways He might bring these matters to our attention? After making this point, discussion should shift to the importance of keeping our eyes on the goal. We must not fall and then stay down. We must get up even if our confidence is shaken. God will help steady us and will help us to "forget those things behind." We have not reached the finish line, and there is still time to get up and run. All who finish this race will hear the words "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."
Question 4 - Apostasy—the abandoning of one's faith or belief in God—has two parts. The first is when a person abandons the Lord. The second is when the Lord, after much patience, wooing, and conviction, withdraws His Spirit from dealing with that person. You might say, "God loves us too much to do that." It is true that God loves us infinitely, but it is also true that we can harden our hearts to the point where we cannot respond to His love. In Genesis 6:3, we read that God limited man's appointed time on earth in order to let man know the urgency of responding to His love. We are on dangerous ground when we harden our hearts against God, because no one can find salvation unless God draws him John 6:44). In 1 Samuel 16:14, we read of when God's Spirit was withdrawn from King Saul because he lost his humility and was filled with his own ways. See 1 Samuel 9:21; 10:9,22; 13:9-13; 15:22-26, and record some of the things King Saul did that led to this. What is the dreadful consequence of such continued action? See 1 Timothy 4:2.
Response 4 - As the class lists the actions in Saul's life which led to his downfall, have someone write these on a chalkboard or overhead. Make sure discussion centers on the fact that God is not willing that any should perish. It should also be made clear, however, that there is a line that must not be crossed. Consider 1 Timothy 4:2 with your group, discussing what it means to have a conscience that is "seared." They should see that it is just as when our physical body is burned-many nerve endings are destroyed. In the spiritual, our faith "nerves" are destroyed as we continue to reject God's voice. If enough damage is done, we have a major problem, because Scripture says that "without faith it is impossible to please him."
Question 5 - If we fail, what is the main issue when it comes to God's giving us another chance? It certainly is not a question of His love for us. It is a question of our love for Him, and of our response to His love for us, that makes the difference. David failed God, and his beautiful prayer of repentance is recorded in Psalm 51. Jesus predicted Peter's denial; He knew that Peter would fail Him, but He told Peter, "I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren" (Luke 22:32). Scriptures do not tell us when Peter repented, but we could suppose he shed tears of repentance when he "went out and wept bitterly." How can we show our heart's true motive, or intent, if we have failed the Lord?
Response 5 - Discussion should bring out that, if we fail the Lord, the first step is to turn back to Him and to repent. We need to do everything in our power to make things right with others.
You might wish to draw attention to Jesus' plans for Peter, even though He knew Peter would first need to recover from failure. Peter was not "kept on the bench" because of the past. Instead, on the Day of Pentecost, he became a mighty man of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Lord wants all of us to be successful in our Christian walk. Discuss the issue of our love for the Lord. The more His love is rooted into our hearts, the better chance we have of withstanding the onslaughts of the devil.
Question 6 - Even though it is possible to backslide, it is not necessary. Jude says that Jesus is "able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy" Jude 1:24). What are some ways we can guard against failure?
Response 6 - Your students should see that, as we attempt to guard against subsequent failure, we must resist every temptation to be discouraged or to give up. We must recognize that any growth or progress in the life of holiness will require the utmost honesty with God and with ourselves. We must determine to be attentive to the slightest check of the Spirit. We should choose our close friends from those who are spiritually minded. Faithful study of God's Word and daily communion with the Lord are invaluable. Mention also the importance of drawing near to God and of not following "afar off' as Peter did before his repentance.