(Excerpted from the book, Go and Sin No More)
There is nothing more important than your relationship with the Lord. Nothing. Yet sin, in its very essence, is an assault on that relationship. That’s why sin must be uprooted from your life. That’s why sin’s hold must be broken. That’s why sin must be hated and rejected. It’s goal is to steal the one thing that you cannot live without: intimate communion with God. It’s goal is to separate you from your Savior. Don’t let it succeed!
You can lose your friends and still be blessed. You can lose your possessions and still be rich. You can even lose your health and still be fruitful. But if you lose your relationship with Jesus, if you forfeit your communion with Him, all the friends in the world, all the possessions in the world, all the health in the world won’t buy you a moment’s joy or true satisfaction. You will wither at the root! Soon enough, the leaves on your branches will dry up and die. Soon enough, your very branches will die. Soon enough, you will die. You have forsaken the Fountain of Life! And one day – God forbid it should come to that – when the winds of temptation blow, they may expose a house without foundations or a tree without roots. The house may fall with a crash; the tree may be toppled with a thud.
We were created to know and serve the Lord, to walk with Him, to love Him, to enjoy Him, to work for Him. But as a race, we chose instead to go our own way, trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment through money, achievements, food, sex, education, sports, music, arts, family, work, religion – the list is almost endless. But still there is that gaping hole in our spirits, that wound that cannot be healed, that heart cry that cannot be answered. Only God can fill it! Only God can mend it! Only God can answer it!
And so, in the infinite love of our Father, He sent His Son to seek and save us, giving His own life as the bridge that stretched across the gulf of our sins, making the way for us to come home to God. And we’re almost all the way there! We have already been made His sons and daughters, we have already been grafted into the true Vine, and we can already call the Creator of everything “Abba.” Soon enough, we will leave the filth of this world and stand before our Maker, free forever, perfect for eternity, without blemish or spot throughout the coming ages. In Jesus, our destinies will be fulfilled. In Jesus, we will be complete – totally. The reality of all this feels so close that I can practically reach out and touch it. It’s nearer than we know!
But right now, we find ourselves locked into this world, and there’s simply no way for us to fully escape it’s miserable condition. All of us have more than enough hassles, problems, distractions, temptations, battles, and difficulties. That’s just the way it is, like it or not, and the devil only leaves us alone until he can find a more opportune time to attack (see Luke 4:13; 1 Pet 5:8-9). We won’t get rid of him as long as we are in these bodies, and, even though we can resist him and make him flee, sooner or later, he’ll be back. The war shows no signs of abating.
What then do we do? How then should we live? What should be our highest goal and number one priority in life? The answer is simple: We must pursue intimacy with the Lord. Knowing Him and walking with Him must be our highest goal, our number one priority, the focus of our energy and attention. All the ministry and all the spiritual activity and all the gifts and power cannot substitute for a solid relationship with God. In fact, ministry and “anointing” and service without intimacy is just so much performance or showmanship or religiosity or good works – if it doesn’t flow from our heart for God. As Vance Havner said, “The primary qualification for a missionary is not love for souls, as we so often hear, but love for Christ.”
Everything we do – praying, studying, soul-winning, discipling, worshiping, preaching, teaching, parenting, serving, giving – must flow out of our love for God. He is the Source, He is the Motivation, He is the Foundation.
Consider the Lord’s rebuke of Ephesus in Revelation 2. Here was a congregation that excelled, a church that worked hard, a group of believers that hated false doctrine, an assembly that persevered. In many ways, they were a model church, rich in good works, attentive to the warnings of Paul their spiritual father (cf. Acts 20:28-31 with Rev 2:2), and willing to endure hardship for Jesus’ sake. And they did all this without growing weary. What more could the Lord want? These Ephesian believers certainly outclassed most of us.
“Yet,” Jesus said to them, “I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev 2:4-5). What a solemn warning!
Hard work was not enough. Sacrifice was not enough. Doctrinal purity was not enough. Fine pastoral oversight was not enough. Perseverance in the midst of suffering was not enough. This congregation had left its first love, and if it didn’t repent – notice that this is a corporate call – the Lord would actually remove it from its place. There would no longer be a church of Ephesus! Do you see how important it is in the eyes of the Lord that we maintain our first love?
- It is possible for a church as a whole to backslide from intimacy and devotion to Jesus while working hard for Him and staying doctrinally and morally pure.
- It is possible for individual believers to backslide from intimacy and devotion to Jesus while working hard for Him and staying doctrinally and morally pure.
- The Lord speaks of our first love as a height – a glorious, wonderful height – from which we can fall. He calls us to return to that height!
- We forsake – not “lose” – our first love, meaning that we leave that place of spiritual passion by the choices we make and the lifestyle we adopt. Our “first love” is not something that we accidentally misplace.
- The Lord calls us to repent of the sin of forsaking our first love, meaning that we can be restored to that place of spiritual passion by the choices we make and the lifestyle we adopt.
What then are those choices and what is that lifestyle? What must we do to be restored, to make that return, to regain our first love? Jesus gives us the answer: “Repent” – meaning make an about face – “and do the things you did at first” (Rev 2:5). There are things we can do to restore the intimacy!
Have you ever read a Christian book on rekindling the spark of love in a failing marriage? In a book like this, you will not only be shown how to diagnose the nature of your marital problems, but you will also be given specific, practical steps that will help you to correct the problems. For example, a book written to men might remind the husband about the early days of his relationship with his fiancée/wife. In those years, he used to call her several times a day, send her flowers once a week, take her on a special date every Saturday, be sensitive to her unspoken needs and desires, always put her first, leave her little love notes, and let her know how special she was. But all that was a long time ago – to be exact, five children, three apartments, one house, four moves, six jobs, and about twenty pounds for him and forty pounds for her. Things aren’t quite the same anymore!
What does this husband need to do? He needs to do the things he did at first. He needs to re-ignite the romance and make an effort to renew and deepen the relationship. He needs to set aside quality time with his wife and for his wife, making her happiness his number one priority. He needs to let her know how important she still is to him and break away from his routine for her sake. He needs to love her again as his bride!
That’s exactly what we need to do with Jesus when our love turns cold. We need to renew the relationship! How? We set aside blocks of quality time to meet with Him, pouring out our hearts to Him in prayer, sharing our innermost thoughts and burdens. We lift our voices to Him in worship and adoration, singing the songs and hymns that have been so precious to us through the years, expressing our appreciation to Him with thanksgiving and praise. We saturate our minds and hearts with His Word, meditating on His truths, learning of Him, receiving from Him, growing in knowledge and grace. We think back to the awe and wonder of those early days, and we seek to recapture that sense of divine nearness. And whenever we feel prompted, we share our faith with those who don’t know the Lord.
According to Matthew Henry, believers who have left their first love
. . . must return and do their first works. They must as it were begin again, go back step by step, till they come to the place where they took the first false step; they must endeavour to revive and recover their first zeal, tenderness, and seriousness, and must pray as earnestly, and watch as diligently, as they did when they first set out in the ways of God.
Then, over a period of time, as we do these things – not with a “time-clock” mentality, not as a spiritual performance or out of a religious habit, not to earn brownie points or somehow merit His favor, but rather because we love Him and long for Him and want to deepen our fellowship with Him – His Spirit begins to flood our hearts, and before you know it, He becomes the most precious One in our lives. He becomes the reason for all we do, the center of our attention, the highest objection of our affection. Then, all our good works – serving Him, sharing our faith, giving sacrificially – become expressions of love, the overflow of a heart enamored with the Master.
That’s what it means to “do the things we did at first.” That’s what it means to return to the height from which we have fallen, to repent and return to our first love. God eagerly awaits our move back towards Him! He remembers what our relationship used to be like, and He expresses it in vivid terms as a mournful husband:
The word of the Lord came to me: “Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem: ‘I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved Me and followed Me through the desert, through a land not sown’” (Jer 2:2).
And He expresses His longing toward us as a father, thinking back to the days of our infancy when we were totally dependent on Him. This is how God expressed His heart towards His people Israel:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from Me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them (Hos 11:1-4).
but now they were far from Him! Yet the Lord continued to love them:
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboiim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. . . . “Is not Ephraim My dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him,” declares the Lord (Hos 11:8; Jer 31:20).
As He said through Jeremiah, “Turn back, O backturning children; I will heal your backslidings” (Jer 3:22, my translation). That is the Word of the Lord!
On Monday, January 1, 1750, John Wesley made the following entry in his journal:
On several days this week I called upon many who had left their “first love,” but they none of them justified themselves: One and all pleaded “Guilty before God.” Therefore there is reason to hope that He will return, and will abundantly pardon.
Yes, God will abundantly pardon. The Lord will receive you again, no questions asked.
Does anything hold you back? Does anything stop you from renewing your relationship with the Lord? He has promised to draw near to those who draw near to Him (Jam 4:8a), and, as John Bunyan quaintly put it, when we take a step towards God He takes a step towards us, but His steps are larger than ours! Now is the time to pursue the Lord with all of our being.
It is in this pursuit that we become holy, as Oswald Chambers said, “Holiness is the characteristic of the man after God’s own heart.” We were made for Him, and in Him we thrive. In fact, the ultimate thing that will keep us from sin is the nearness of the Lord in our lives. If God is near to us – and we are conscious of the fact – sin will be far from us. In this light, M. P. Horban could say that, “True holiness is learning to enjoy friendship with God.” That is the key to all our growth in grace, knowledge, obedience, and service. Everything flows out of knowing Him. In fact, knowing God is actually the essence of eternal life: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
I think of the impassioned lyrics of Keith Green’s song, “You Love the World and You’re Avoiding Me,” in which the Lord asks us, “If you end up losing Me, what will you do?” What will we do if we lose our closeness with the Lord? What is left for us in this world – or in eternity – if we leave the one we once loved?
If we know Him, we will serve Him. But if we try to serve Him without knowing Him, we insult the very purpose for which He created us and rob our service of its meaning. He did not make to be robots or puppets but rather sons and daughters.
Yes, it is wonderfully true that forever we will serve the Lord (Rev 22:4a) and under His rule we will reign (Rev 22:5b). But right in the middle of the two verses that say this (viz., Rev 22:4a and 5b) it is written: “They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light” (Rev 22:4b-5a). He will be our all in all! He will be our portion. His face will be our light. As expressed so wonderfully by the saintly Robert Murray M’Cheyne:
Christ Himself shall be the greatest reward of His people. . . . Any place would be heaven if we were with Christ. No place would be heaven without Him. . . . Oh to talk with Him as Moses and Elijah did on the mount of transfiguration, to hear Him speak gracious words, to lean our head where John leaned his, to hold Him, and not to let Him go, to behold that countenance which is as Lebanon, excellent as the cedars, to have Him turning upon us His eyes of divine tenderness and holy love – that will be a reward.
And so, everything we do in this world should ultimately be done in anticipation of that day when we see Him face to face. That’s the purpose of it all. Don’t you want Him to express approval to you when your eyes first meet? How glorious it will be to see Him smile!
There could be no higher joy possible and no greater satisfaction imaginable. It will be the most indescribable moment of all. In a second’s time, all the pain, all the suffering, all the disappointment, all the hardship, all the labor, all the agony, all the questions will fade into oblivion – when we see the Savior’s face. And that is what we must keep in mind every day of our lives: Soon we’re going to meet the Lord in person, and we should be getting ready for that moment every hour that we breathe.
God Himself – not so much His reward, or His blessing, or His anointing, but the Lord Himself – must be our goal. Therefore, each of us must cultivate our relationship with Him. Each of us must settle in our hearts once and for all that anything of eternal good that we can do is birthed in Him, and anything truly good within us is birthed in Him.
So why are we spending so much of our time laboring and planning and running in our own strength and wisdom? Why aren’t we communing more with Him in prayer and spending more time at His feet in worship and taking counsel with Him more through His Word? Why? And how can we even think about being holy without first knowing the Holy One? How can we have a measure or norm for holiness when we have forsaken the very Standard of holiness? And how can we receive strength to be holy when we have abandoned the Holy Spirit who empowers us? How can we even imagine that we can attain any kind of holiness without feeding on Him and learning from Him and becoming like Him? Becoming like Him – which is the essence of holiness – requires being with Him.
Tragically, we can have all the outward trappings of Christian zeal and service without having a vibrant relationship with the Lord. According to New Testament scholar Robert Mounce, “at Ephesus, hatred of heresy and extensive involvement in the works appropriate to faith had allowed the fresh glow of love to God and one another to fade.” In other words, “Every virtue carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction.”
So, it could be that our very zeal for truth and purity coupled with our penchant for hard work and sacrifice could rob of us our love, both for God and man. Charles Finney commented on this, explaining that even with a backslidden heart, a believer could remain active in Christian service. For Finney, backsliding consisted in: 1) “taking back that consecration to God and His service, that constitutes true conversion”; 2) “the leaving, by a Christian, of his first love”; 3) “the Christian withdrawing himself from that state of entire and universal devotion to God, which constitutes true religion, and coming again under the control of a self-pleasing spirit.”
Yet even in this state, Finney noted that
. . . there may be a backslidden heart, when the forms of religion and obedience to God are maintained. As we know from consciousness that men perform the same, or similar, acts from widely different, and often from opposite, motives, we are certain that men may keep up all the outward forms and appearances of religion, when in fact, they are backslidden in heart. No doubt the most intense selfishness often takes on a religious type, and there are many considerations that might lead a backslider in heart to keep up the forms, while he had lost the power of godliness in his soul.
Backsliding can be subtle, but its origins are always the same: Something has broken down in our relationship with the Lord. Somehow, our love has grown cold. Somehow, our devotion has waned.
“But,” a troubled believers asks, “if I can seem to be on fire for God, keeping busy for the Lord and staying true to His Word, and yet be backsliding at the same time, how can I really know the state of my heart?”
Let me give you some symptoms of a backslidden heart, some tangible tests by which you can examine yourself. There’s no reason to be in the dark when it comes to your own spiritual life. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
1) Is there a decrease in your personal devotion to Jesus? This will be reflected by a decreased desire for intimate and private times with the Lord (especially in prayer and worship) and decreased hunger and passion for the Word. (According to John G. Lake, everyone who backslides first backslides in their lessening hunger for the Word, while Leonard Ravenhill often said that backsliding begins with backsliding in prayer.)
Remember: When you were hot, Jesus was everything! You couldn’t wait to spend time with Him. Praising Him – even with the simplest little choruses – was pure joy. If there was a prayer meeting, you were there. You devoured the Word. You could relate to the words of Paul: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ . . .” (Phil 3:8). But something happened. Something changed.
You spend time with the one you love. You share your heart with the one you love. You are jealous for the one you love. You think about the one you love. Do you love Jesus today as you once loved Him before?
You may enjoy the forms of worship – good music, singing, dancing, being part of the exciting corporate experience – but what about the object of worship? What about the Lord? You may have a vision. You may be caught up in a movement. You may have a message or a burden. Theology may intrigue you. Spiritual issues may interest you. The ministry may consume you. But all these things are mere idols and distractions in comparison with coming into the light of God’s presence and fellowshipping with Him. You only grow and bear fruit to the extent that you abide in the vine (John 15:1-9).
2) Is there a decrease in your personal satisfaction in God? This will be reflected by the need for other things to gain fulfillment, an increased social orientation in place of private devotions, and an increased desire for recognition and acceptance by flesh and blood. The Word says that, “The desires for other things come in and choke the Word, making it unfruitful” (Mark 4:19), and, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). What do you desire? What brings you satisfaction? Do you love God, or do you love the world? “Remember those earlier days . . . .” (Heb. 10:32-39).
At one time promotion on your job was not your primary source of satisfaction, nor was a big paycheck, a nice home, a new car, a special boyfriend or girlfriend, an exciting sports event, or even a happy family. (Yes! Even spouses and children can take away from your delighting in the Lord above all.) Walking with God used to satisfy you. Does it still satisfy you? Fully and completely? If not, you have left your first love.
M’Cheyne put it like this: “If ever you are so much engrossed with any enjoyment here that it takes away your love for prayer, or for your Bible, or that it would frighten you to hear the cry, Behold the bridegroom cometh – then your heart is “overcharged.” [Luke 21:34] You are abusing this world.”
3) Is there a decrease in your passion for spiritual work? This will be reflected by a decreased burden for the lost (both home and foreign “missions”, both domesticated heathen and undomesticated heathen), a decreased burden for revival and visitation (often replaced by good works, and more subtly, by good spiritual programs), and a penchant for respectability in place of radicality. “Unrefined” preaching of the gospel now embarrasses you. Holy zeal makes you uncomfortable and you are, slowly but surely, becoming ashamed of Jesus and His reproach.
How often do you share your testimony? You used to be a house on fire! You used to seek out opportunities to talk about Jesus. Witnessing used to come naturally. But now, you almost avoid the subject. You simply don’t care about the ones Jesus died for. You don’t fully believe that they are lost. Unbelief is always a result of backsliding somewhere, somehow. Do you find yourself spiritually numb?
And what about revival and visitation? How would you feel if the Spirit fell in power? (In other words, not necessarily in some “cultured” – and totally “containable” – way, but with intensity and suddenness and upheaval.) Are you willing to let Him be in control – of the service, of the leadership, of you? Are you hungry anymore for a real moving of God? Or have you become satisfied with a comfortable seat in the theater while the show itself never goes on?
Beware of a powerless spiritual sophistication. The world admires it, but it has no teeth.
4) Are your standards of holiness becoming lower? This will be reflected by your permitting things in your life, family, or congregation that would have been unthinkable when you were on fire and your ability to engage in certain activities, watch certain movies, enjoy certain sports and forms of entertainment, attend certain functions, etc., which the Lord at one time convicted you of – but now there is no conviction!
Beware! This type of backsliding is often done in the name of spiritual maturity. I warn you as one who once fell into this very error: It is a trap and a lie! Absence of divine conviction does not mean absence of divine displeasure. It may actually point to a withdrawing of His presence. In fact, if the Holy Spirit is dealing with you even now, cry out to Him for restoring grace right where you are. Do not harden your heart against your Lord, your King, and your Friend. It is spiritual suicide. The fact that something doesn’t “bother you” may be the loudest warning you will ever hear.
Can you sin freely without feeling grief? Then fall on your face and cry for mercy before it’s too late. Otherwise you might disqualify yourself from receiving the prize. Do not be deceived: You are not experiencing the freedom that comes as a result of trust; you are experiencing the insensitivity that comes from hardness.
Have you actually deceived yourself by giving yourself a license for sin in the name of “liberty”? Have you despised the precious closeness you once enjoyed with Jesus by calling it “legalism”? Run back into His presence -- with all the discipline and devotion that demands -- while His arms are still open wide. Where godly sorrow is found, abundant grace is also found.
5) Are you backsliding in your spiritual authority and personal victory? This will be reflected by lack of victory over the flesh, falling back into old habits and lusts and inability to resist and drive out the devil from strongholds in your life or the lives of those to whom you minister.
Remember: You can fool others, but you can’t fool the flesh – and you can’t fool the devil. As Ravenhill often asked, “Are you known in hell?”
Are you moving from victory to victory, or do you find yourself more and more entangled every day (or, month, or year)? Peter taught that “a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him” (2 Pet. 2:19b). You must ask yourself if Jesus is your Master, or if you are mastered by sin. Are you an overcomer or are you overcome? Is Jesus your Lord, or are you ruled by your belly, or your sexual lust, or your temper, or your greed, or your bitterness? Who, or what, governs you?
You once chased the devil; now you tremble at his shadow. You once cast off fear like a dog shakes off water; now you are paralyzed by anxiety and dread. You once forgave from the heart instantly; now you remember and hold a grudge. My friend, you are backsliding!
You once made effective inroads into the devil’s kingdom. Now he’s making inroads into you. What has become of your victory? You are backsliding from the place of spiritual authority! How tragic that Satan has paralyzed you, be it with theological questions, or with fear of failure, or with massive self-doubt. Press back in to Jesus! He is as victorious today as He ever has been! He will restore your faith.
I will never forget the words spoken one night by the pastor of the church in which I was saved. He said, “It may take a man twenty years to backslide” (referring to a complete apostasy from the Lord). This is a sobering thought. You grow old gradually. Your hair turns gray gradually. You can backslide just as gradually. Before you know it, you have wasted your whole life.
In which direction are you heading? Where is the present course and pattern of your life taking you? If you continued for ever on the same path you have been on -- be it of progress or regress -- if you continued eternally down this same course, would you wind up in heaven or in hell? Are you moving towards the Lord or away from Him?
Again I ask you: Are you backsliding in your spiritual authority and personal victory? What makes you think that things will be better tomorrow? It will be only downhill from here, unless you humble yourself and turn back.
Let me share with you a little more from my own life experience. At one time in my walk (in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s) I began to backslide, but all the while I claimed to be growing and maturing. My prayer times decreased; my devotional reading of the Word decreased (although my linguistic reading of the Scriptures may have increased). My fasting all but stopped; my witnessing dropped off. I became more interested in social action than in spiritual action. I had less and less control over the flesh. I virtually never took authority over the devil (I really couldn’t have done much anyway!). I fell in areas that I had never fallen in before. (Don’t get me wrong. I never touched another woman or misused ministry funds or stole anything or even had a fleeting thought about going back to drugs or drinking, but still, I slipped up a few times in ways I never had before, and even though these slips were many months or more than a year apart, they scared me.) I even became addicted to video games!
I felt the presence and joy of the Lord less frequently and less abundantly, yet all the while, I was an active leader in the church, I taught the Word with conviction, I preached with fervor (and even some anointing), I ministered actively, I sought to keep a pure testimony before the world, I was considered by many to be zealous, I was engaged in many good and even sacrificial works – yet I was backsliding!
I will be eternally grateful to my sister-in-law who, without my knowledge – in fact, if I had known, it would have been without my approval! – helped to pray me back on fire. How I praise God for His miraculous intervention, planting the first seeds on New Year’s morning 1982, then lovingly rebuking me in March of that year, awakening me with a vision of a spiritual outpouring in May, showing me how far away I was drifting in September, calling me to lay everything on the altar in October, and then sending a visitation November 21, 1982. I have never been the same since then.
I encourage you in the words of Psalms and Hebrews, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart” (Ps 95:7b-8a; Heb. 4:7).
Respond fully to the Lord today. Pour out your heart to Him. Pray through. Allow His Spirit to move freely. Don’t be ashamed! He can – and will – fully restore. Obey whatever He speaks to you. Set a new pattern for your life beginning now. And then, every day, whenever you can, take another step closer to the Lord, one step at a time. Don’t let the devil set you up for a fall by lying to you about what God requires.
Pray more (and with more focus and direction), read His Word more, speak His Word more, share your faith more. Listen to tapes, watch videos, and read books that will help keep the fire burning. Keep your conscience clear. If you know something is displeasing in God’s sight, don’t do it. Be sensitive. He understands your weakness, and He will give sufficient grace. But He will not put up with determined and willful hardness. Bow your knee to the Lord, and He will lift you up. Your future can be just as bright as the promises of God.
It’s time to rekindle the flame!
Dr. Michael L. Brown