The Returning Backslider
The following is from John Bunyan’s “The Intercession of Christ,” also known as “Christ a Complete Saviour.”
A returning backslider is a great blessing (I mean intended to be so) to two sorts of men. 1. To the elect uncalled. 2. To the elect that are called, and that at present stand their ground. The uncalled are made to hear him and consider; the called are made to hear him, and are afraid of falling. Behold therefore the mystery of God’s wisdom, and how willing he is that spectators should be warned and made take heed. Yea, he will permit that some of his own shall fall into the fire, to convince the world that hell is hot, and to warn their brethren to take heed that they slip not with their feet. I have often said in my heart, that this was the cause why God suffered so many of the believing Jews to fall, namely, that the Gentiles might take heed. ‘O brethren,’ saith the backslider that is returned, ‘did you see how I left my God? did you see how I turned again to those vanities from which some time before I fled? Oh! I was deluded; I was bewitched; I was deceived: for I found all things from which I fled at first, still worse by far when I went to them the second time. Do not backslide. Oh! do not backslide. The first ground of your departing from them was good; never tempt God a second time.’
And as he gives us a second testimony, that the world and himself are so as at first he believed they were; so by this his returning, he testifies that God and Christ are the same, and much more than ever he believed at first they were. This man has made a proof before, and a proof after conviction, of the evil of the one and good of the other. This man has made a proof by feeling and seeing, and that before and after grace received. This man God has set up to be a witness. This man is two men; has the testimony of two men; must serve in the place of two men. He knows what it is to be fetched from a state of nature by grace; but this all Christians know as well as he. Ay, but he knows what it is to be fetched from the world, from the devil, and hell, the second time; and that but few professors know: for few that fall away return to God again. Ay, but this man is come again, wherefore there is news in his mouth; sad news, dreadful news, and news that is to make the standing saint to take heed lest he fall.
The returning backslider therefore is a rare man, a man of worth and intelligence, a man to whom the men of the world should flock, and of whom they should learn to fear the Lord God. He also is a man of whom the saints should receive both caution, counsel, and strength in their present standing; and that should, by his harms, learn to serve the Lord with fear, and to rejoice with trembling.
This man has the second time also had a proof of God’s goodness in his Christ unto him — a proof which the standing Christian has not. I would not tempt him that stands to fall; but the good that a returning backslider has received at God’s hands, and at the hand of Christ, is a double good; he has been converted twice; fetched from the world and from the devil, and from himself twice (oh grace!), and has been made to know the stability of God’s covenant, the unchangeableness of God’s mind, the sure and lasting truth of his promise in Christ, and of the sufficiency of the merits of Christ, over and over.
Of the manner of this man’s coming to God by Christ, I shall also speak a word or two. He comes as the newly awakened sinner comes, and that from the same motives and the knowledge of things. But he hath over and above (which he had as good have been without) that which the newly awakened sinner has not, namely, the guilt of his backsliding, which is a guilt of worse complexion, of a deeper dye, and of a heavier nature than is any guilt else in the world. He is also attended with fears and doubts that arise from other reasons and considerations, than do the doubts and fears of the newly awakened man; doubts built upon the vileness of his backsliding. He has also more dreadful scriptures to consider, and they will look more wishfully in his face (yea, and will also make him take notice of their grim physiognomy) than has the newly awakened man. Besides, as a punishment of his backsliding, God sometimes seems to withhold the sweet influences of his Spirit, and is as if he would now take all away from him, and leave him to those lusts and idols that he left his God to follow. Swarms of his new rogueries shall haunt him in every place, and that not only in the guilt, but in the filth and pollution of them.
None knows the things that haunt the backslider’s mind; his new sins are all turned talking devils, threatening devils, roaring devils, within him. Besides, he doubts of the truth of his first conversion; consequently he has it lying upon him, as a strong suspicion, that there was nothing of truth in all his first experience; and this also adds lead to his heels, and makes him come, as to sense and feeling, more heavy, and with the greater difficulty, to God by Christ. As the faithfulness of other men kills him, he cannot see an honest, humble, holy, faithful servant of God, but he is pierced and wounded at the heart. ‘Ay,’ says he, within himself, ‘That man fears God; that man hath faithfully followed God; that man, like the elect angels, has kept his place; but I am fallen from my station like a devil. That man honoreth God, edifieth the saints, convinceth the world, and condemneth them, and is become heir of righteousness which is by faith. But I have dishonored God, stumbled and grieved saints, made the world to blaspheme,and, for aught I know, been the cause of the damnation of many.’
These are the things, I say, together with many more of the same kind, that come with him, yea,they will come with him, yea, and will stare him in the face, will tell him of his baseness, and laugh him to scorn, all the way that he is coming to God by Christ (I know what I say); and this makes his coming to God by Christ hard and difficult to him. Besides, he thinks saints will be aware of him, will be shy of him, will be afraid to trust him, yea, will tell his Father of him, and make intercession against him, as Elias did against Israel, or as the men did that were fellow servants with him that took his brother by the throat.
Shame covereth his face all the way he comes. He doth not know what to do; the God he is returning to, is the God that he has slighted — the God before whom he has preferred the vilest lust; and he knows God knows it, and has before him his ways. The man that has been a backslilder, and is returning to God, can tell strange stories, and yet such as are very true. No man was in the whale’s belly, and came out again alive, but backsliding and returning Johah; consequently no man could tell how he was there, what he felt there, what he saw there, and what workings of heart he had when he was there, so well is he…
From the conclusion in this book: The priestly office of Christ is the first and great thing that is presented to us in the gospel; namely, how that he died for our sins, and gave himself to the cross, that the blessing of Abraham might come upon us through him. But now because this priestly office of his is divided into two parts; and because one of them, namely, this of his intercession, is accomplished for us within the veil; therefore (as we say among men, “Out of sight, out of mind”) he is too much as to this forgotten by us. We satisfy ourselves with the slaying of the sacrifice; we look not enough after our Aaron as he goes into the holiest, there to sprinkle the mercy-seat with blood upon our account.
God forbid that the least syllable of what I say should be intended by me, or construed by others, as if I sought to diminish the price paid by Christ for our redemption in this world. But since his dying is his laying down his price, and his intercession the urging and managing the worthiness of it in the presence of God against Satan, there is glory to be found therein, and we should look after him into the holy place.
The second part of the work of the high priest under the law had great glory and sanctity put upon it, forasmuch as the holy garments were provided for him to officiate within the veil; also it was there that the altar stood on which he offered incense. There was the mercy-seat. And there also were the cherubims of glory, which were figures of the angels, that love to be continually looking and prying into the management of this second part of the priesthood of Christ in the presence of God. For although themselves are not the persons so immediately concerned therein as we, yet the management of it, I say, is with so much grace, and glory, and wisdom, and effectualness, that it is a heaven to the angels to see it. Oh! to enjoy the odorous scent, and sweet memorial, and heart-refreshing perfumes that ascend continually from the mercy-seat to the place where God is, and also to behold how effectual it is to the end for which it is designed, is glorious; and he that is not somewhat led into this by the grace of God, there is a great thing lacking to his faith, and he misseth of many a sweet bit that he might otherwise enjoy.
Wherefore, I say, be exhorted to the study of this part of Christ’s work in the managing of our salvation for us. And the ceremonies of the law may be a great help to you as to this; for though they be out of use now as to practice, yet the signification of them is rich, and that from which many believers of the gospel have got much. Wherefore I advise you that you read the five books of Moses often; yea read, and read again, and do not despair of help to understand something of the will and mind of God therein, though you think they are fast locked up from you. Neither trouble your heads though you have not commentaries and expositions; pray and read, and pray and read; for a little from God is better than a great deal from men; also what is from men is uncertain, and is often lost and tumbled over and over by men, but what is from God is fixed as a nail in a sure place.
I know there are times of temptation; but I speak now as to the common course of Christianity. There is nothing that so abides with us, as what we receive from God; and the reasons why Christians at this day are at such a loss, as to some things, is because they are content with what comes from men’s mouths, without searcing and kneeling before God, to know of him the truth of things. Things that we receive at God’s hand, come to us as things from the minting house; though old in themselves, yet new to us, if they come to us with the smell of heaven upon them. There belongs to every true notion of truth a power. The notion is the shell; the power, the kernal and life. Without this last, truth doth me no good, nor those to whom I communicate it. Hence Paul said to the Corinthians, “When I come to you again, I will not know the speech of them that are puffed up, but the power. For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power.” Search then, after the power of what thou knowest; for it is the power that will do thee good. Now, this will not be got but by earnest prayer, and much attending upon God. Also thy heart must not be stuffed with cumbering cares of this world; for they are of a choking nature.
Take heed, moverover, of slighting that little that thou hast. A good improvement of a little is the way to make that little thrive; and the way to obtain additions thereto. Improve them to others by laboring to instil them into their hearts by good and wholesome words, presenting all to them with the authority of the scriptures.
Lastly, Let this doctrine give thee boldness to come to God. Shall Jesus Christ be interceeding in heaven? O then be thou a praying man on earth; yea, take courage to pray. Think thus with thyself, “I go to God — to God before whose throne the Lord Jesus is ready to hand my petitions to him; yea, he ever lives to make intercession for me.” For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom he will. (John 5:21)