BACKSLIDERS AND THE CHURCH
By Philip A. Matthews
In the Fifteenth Chapter of Luke Jesus gives us three parables, all of them about backsliders. For the sake of brevity and space, we ask that you have your Bible handy so that you can look up the scriptures and we won't have to reprint the entire chapter here.
Beginning with verse three, we have the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Paraphrasing, a man loses one of his one hundred sheep, but leaves the ninety-nine to go find the lost one. When he finds it, he tenderly carries it back home and calls his friends in to rejoice with him for finding his sheep.
Verse eight begins the Parable of the Lost Coin. Here a woman, having lost a valuable piece of silver, determines to find it by lighting a candle, turning the house inside out, and sweeping it thoroughly, until she finds her coin. Then she calls her friends in to rejoice with her.
Finally, from verse eleven until the end of the chapter, Jesus gives us the Parable of the Lost Son, commonly called the "Prodigal Son." In this story, a brash young man gets high and mighty and decides he is tired of living at home, and it is time to move out and go see the world. He asks to have his inheritance immediately, then goes as far away from home as he can go, to a "far country," where he wastes all of his money with debauchery: wine, women, and song. He ends up in a pigpen, comparable to skid row today, at which time he "comes to himself" and realizes that even if he were his father's slave he would be better off than he presently is as his "own man." He then determines to go back home, repent and apologize, and serve his father as a servant since his right to be a son has been squandered. The father, who, all the while, has been watching and waiting for him, receives him gladly, forgives him completely, and throws a big party and lots of rejoicing on his behalf.
Important Lessons Learned
Here are the important lessons we learn from these three parables: The three items-sheep, coins, and sons-all represent people. Specifically, they represent sinners. This we know from verses 7, 10, 18, and 32. Even more specifically, these parables are talking about backsliders, i.e., people who once were at home or in the fold but who strayed away from God and got lost some kind of way. Verses 4, 8, 24, and 32 make this plain, especially verses 24 and 32, which both say that the son was "alive again," thus implying that he had once been saved.
One of the main purposes of the parables seems to be to show the great significance of one soul. Jesus is saying that even one soul is worth going to any expense or inconvenience to save or to rescue.
Thus, the second main purpose of the parables is to show the great love and mercy of God. He is indeed the God of forgiveness and second chances. His steadfast love comes through in almost every verse, as shown in verse 5 by His special tender treatment of the sheep He has found.
The third message is to let us know that rescuing a lost soul is cause for great rejoicing in both heaven and earth (verses 6, 7, 9, 10, 22-24, and 32), thus demonstrating the great, eternal significance of getting saved. Even the angels are shouting happy.
But the most challenging lessons learned from these parables are found by focusing on why these people backslid in the first place and what we, the church, must do about it. We will discover that there are three types of backsliders, each parable representing a different type.
The Lost (Prodigal) Son
The lost son represents those who, because of pride and willfulness, deliberately turn their backs on God and voluntarily leave the safety of their spiritual home. No one had done anything to him to cause him to leave home; his own wicked heart led him away. So we notice that no one went out looking for him; he had to "come to his own senses" and go back home, just as voluntarily as he had left. The Father carried a daily burden for him, kept praying for him, faithfully kept looking down the road for him, etc., but never once did he go out searching for his son, as did the shepherd for his lost sheep.
The message is this: there are people who leave God on their own; they will have to come back on their own. Talking and pleading is usually futile until they come to their senses. Our job as the church is to faithfully pray for them, to never give up on them, to keep expecting God Almighty to move on their hearts and turn them around, to avoid succumbing to "I told you so; that's what you deserve" attitudes, and to keep feeding the "fatted calf" (i.e., to keep our own hearts forgiving and merciful, ready to celebrate and receive sinners with open arms and friendly, nurturing attitudes and practices, no matter how dirty or smelly the sins that bind them may be). Needless to say, there are lots of Christians and churches who do not know how to handle these types of sinners.
The Lost Sheep
The lost sheep represents those people who find themselves away from God almost inadvertently. They were merely doing what is natural for sheep to do: just keeping their eyes to the ground while constantly reaching for "greener grass," not being alert and aware of one's surroundings, not listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd, not watching, praying, and paying attention to spiritual things like they should have, just being naive and foolish in a spiritually perilous world. As sheep are prone to do (Isaiah. 53:6), they just wandered away. They were not being rebellious and willful like the Prodigal Son, nor did they really mean to turn their backs on God and walk away, but they did. So, still, they are lost.
Jesus told us what must be done for such a backslider. The shepherd must leave and inconvenience the well sheep and go seek and find that one lost sheep. He searches the surrounding wilderness and calls to the sheep by name. The sheep hears His voice, then bleats pitifully until he is located by the shepherd. Then, in love, the shepherd tenderly picks up and carries that sheep back to the safety of the fold.
This process is to be repeated, not only by the Lord Himself, but by and through the church, His body in this world. We are to "leave the ninety and nine," that is, not spend all of our time and resources on those who are already saved. We are to go into the places where lost sheep hang out, as Jesus said, in the "highways and hedges." We are to earnestly, fervently, frequently, and effectively call for all lost sheep that have wandered away and may be trapped in the bushes somewhere. We are to treat each one we rescue with the utmost care and most tender nurturing possible. We are to do our best to keep them from ever wandering away again.
The Lost Coin
This third type of backslider is the most challenging to the church. This is because the lost coins represent those people who are lost because of someone else's negligence. Notice Jesus said the woman lost her coin. Coins do not get high and mighty and walk away as did the prodigal son. Coins do not wander away as did the sheep.Coins do not lose themselves. They are lost by someone who is responsible to keep up with them, but who did not. It is not the coins' fault that they are lost; it is the fault of the one or ones who were supposed to keep up with them. Somebody who was supposed to be watching was not watching. Somebody who was supposed to take care of the coins did not take care of them but instead, allowed them to slip through their fingers and get lost. Someone who was supposed to insure that the coins were in safekeeping allowed something to happen that caused the coins to be lost. So now, they are hidden somewhere, nobody quite knows where, in some dark nook or cranny of the house, waiting to be found.
We will understand how great a challenge this is to the church when we answer the question, "Who is responsible for the coins? Who, through negligence and carelessness, lost them?" The answer, brothers and sisters, is the church. The church itself lost them. How, you ask, does the church, which supposedly is set up to win souls, lose them? Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, when we allow negative conditions to persist in the church, we lose souls. When we do not bond new converts to the church but allow them to keep slipping through our fingers, we lose souls. When we do not make sure that what we have to offer people is what they really need, when they visit our services and go away feeling unfulfilled, we lose people. When we do or say anything that offends or discourages them, we lose souls. When we close down a local congregation, or simply do not do everything within our power to revive a dying congregation and make it attractive, edifying, and able to feed and nurture souls, we lose them. When we allow selfishness, politics, hypocrisy, personal failures in the leadership, or even abuse, to persist in the church, we offend-and lose-people. Tragically, they quit loving God because of us.
People are looking for something spiritually alive and satisfying, and, without being too critical, sometimes we must admit that we Christians do not always exhibit this. Some of these "lost coins" are our own children and loved ones. They have been left somewhat hanging by the church itself. Sometimes, they do not like "us," and it is not always their fault. Many times they have had negative church experiences, and we were at fault. May God help us to do better about this kind of backslider, because in some geographical areas, the church has literally thousands of "lost coins" just waiting around to be found.
Of course, ultimately one's soul is in his or her own hands. No one will be able to blame anyone else or any church for losing their soul for them. However, it is true that God makes certain people partially responsible for the souls of others, and if these responsible people fail in their duty, the blood of the souls they allowed to die will be upon their hands. This is made clear in both the Old Testament and the New: "The same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand" (Ezekiel 3:18); "For they watch for your souls, as they that must give account" (Hebrew 13:17); and "It would be more profitable for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were hurled into the sea, than that he should cause to sin or be a snare to one of these little ones" (Luke 17:2 Amplified) Thus, although people may be lost because of someone else's fault, they may not have an excuse but they do have a reason.
Since the church (especially the leadership) is responsible for the souls of many people, it would pay us all to do what Jesus said should be done for the lost coins. He said the woman did three things to find her lost coin:
(1) First of all, she "lit a candle." What this says to us is that we must begin holding up the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ as never before. "Jesus only" is what the world needs to see today; not a movement, not a church, not another man no matter how great, not a certain brand of Christianity, not a doctrinal slant, nothing but "Jesus only" (Matthew 17:8), as never before. The true Light is a rallying point for all people (John 12:32). And what is that true light? "That God"-the Father and Lover of every soul ever born-"was personally present in Jesus Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, no longer counting people's sins against them" (2 Corinthians 5:19).
We must make it plain to all that God has opened up a way for each person, no matter who they are or how lost they may have been, to have a loving relationship with Him that does not depend on the church or on other people. And in that loving relationship with God there is everything that a person may need: forgiveness, peace, security, joy, deliverance, restoration, and the complete healing and rebuilding of their entire lives. It's all in Jesus-that's the true Light. The emphasis must be that this relationship is centered on God's love, not on following a set of religious rules that an angry God is holding over one's head nor a certain list of "magical" religious rituals or practices that God is expecting everyone to obey.
(2) Next, we must "sweep the house," i.e., clean the camp of sin and selfishness, right any wrongs, eliminate the neglect, remove the offenses, eradicate any unloving attitudes and behavior, clear out the church politics, and straighten up all negative conditions that may unnecessarily offend or drive people away. Get rid of all deadness, spiritual dryness, hypocrisy, and spiritual inconsistency. Get on fire for God as never before, so that our lost coins and everyone else will see that we are serious, faithful, and selfless disciples of Christ..
We need to go back and openly apologize to the "lost coins" for our actions, attitudes, failures, false teachings, and other offenses. Look at ourselves objectively through the eyes of an outsider and see how much of Jesus Christ we are really exhibiting. Spend some time and effort trying to make the Christian life attractive. People coming into the church should not be expected to put up with the many negative conditions we have allowed to persist in the church. God should not be given a bad reputation because of us Christians.
(3) Then we need to "seek diligently" until we find our lost coins. That is, we need to make every effort we can to go back and collect all the "lost coins" we can possibly find and bring them into the great Kingdom of God. We will have to go where lost coins hang out, meeting them on their level right where they are living. We will have to build trust by building non-church relationships with them. We will have to approach them on their terms at their times, just as Jesus did.
The chief objective must always be to bring the "lost coins" back to God, not necessarily back to the church. Get rid of the idea of making people believe that they can only come to God through your church or that they can only find His approval by living your particular brand of Christianity. The early Christians proved that people could be equally saved both in Jerusalem, the center of the established, politically-correct religion of laws and traditions, AND in Antioch, the center of non-traditional religion based on liberty and loyalty to Christ alone.
One critical change in attitude is very necessary: Just as in the "Parable of the Prodigal Son" the brother needed to change his negative attitude, so it is necessary for those who are not directly involved with seeking the lost coins to be supportive of those of us who are. It should be a whole church effort, at least in spirit, although everyone will not be directly involved in actual evangelistic activities.
But every Christian should give the right hand of fellowship, i.e., his/her acceptance and approval, to those who are going out to rescue the lost coins. Unless sin is involved, don't condemn the methods used just because they are new. Don't harshly prejudge the practices and paradigms needed to win lost coins. Just realize that Jesus and His disciples used whatever means necessary to get close enough to people to love them and win them. Seeing that the church itself lost these coins in the first place, the established church should definitely be willing now to provide moral, spiritual, and even financial support to those who have dedicated themselves to win these lost coins back to God.
And we need to do this soon. Time is running out!
© 2008 Philip A Matthews