The Backslider in Heart

In the early 19th Century, Charles G. Finney wrote and delivered a timeless sermon on the precepts, causes, effects, and the solution to the backslidden Christian heart.  The sermon, practical and relevant in Finney's day, also resonates with biblical truth in today’s Christendom and should be revisited by any pastor serious about the consecration and sanctification of all believers, namely their home congregations. Though the technological landscape may be vastly different, the relative state of the human heart has not changed at all.  Rather, the tendency and bent towards a stale, or in a worst-case scenario, dead, Christian life looks to consume every follower of Christ. Finney, like many great, God inspired authors of the past, the message resounds relevantly and draws a direct bead toward the sanctified life that all believers should actively seek.

Though Finney offers enumerated points  for the reader to self-assess their heart attitude, he begins with what a backslidden heart is and is not. First, what a backslidden heart is not. Finney said, “It does not consist in the subsidence of highly excited religious emotions.”  In other words, a backslidden heart isn't soley a lack of spiritual zeal. (Finney clearly decouples emotion from faith.  Though they can, and do, run in tandem, one is not exclusive to the other). Finney observed, as we might do today, that many believers express religious conviction emotionally, judging their relative closeness to God by the spiritual temperature of their holy fire.  Finney does not conclude that proximity to God wouldn't yield a fire or zeal, but does explain that one can be close to God, and not gush, at least in such a way as to be glaringly obvious to the casual observer.

Most would agree that those recently brought into the faith often exhibit a zeal that is both appealing and encouraging. However, if this zeal becomes the measure for closeness to God, what happens when one wakes without feeling as if they could charge hell with a squirt gun? If believers are reliant on feeling alone, they will live a defeated Christian life and be ripe for Finney’s enumerated effects of a backslidden heart. Thus, Finney wisely promotes fact over feeling, or the truth of the Gospel, which trumps the daily turbulence of emotion, so easily effected by situation. Knowing Finney’s definition of what a backslidden heart is not, we move on to what it is.


What happens when one wakes without feeling as if they could charge hell with a squirt gun?

Finney offers four measurable indicators that help ferret out the poison of a backslidden heart to anyone interested in testing their own spirit. Primarily, he offers that a backslidden heart “takes back the consecration to God and His service,” which rightly places the burden of the aberrant situation squarely at the feet of the believer, thus removing situational excuses that are so tempting to invoke. Finney makes no allowance for a “devil made me do it” thought process.  Rather, he encourages personal responsibility in one’s faith walk. Finney continues with verbs and phrases like “leaving,” “withdrawing,” “coming again under the control of a self-pleasing spirit,” and “keeping up outward forms and appearances of religion.” 

Again, he clearly indicates that the backslidden heart is the fault of the believer, who must consciously decide to walk away from God, which makes the counterpoint that God does not walk away from us. In some way we can look to the Suzerain treaty found in Genesis 15, where God, as the more powerful ruler makes a covenant with Abram, the vassal representative of the people. In this treaty the vassal, Abram, would walk the bloody trail of bifurcated animals led by God as a warning of breaching the covenant, yet what we see is God himself walking in the vassal’s place.

Genesis 15.17-18aWhen the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram,” (NRSV).

The smoke and fire were traditional representation of God’s presence; thus, God says here that he will be responsible for our failures and will take the punishment in our stead, redeeming our covenant in blood. This First Testament story reveals much about the character of God, and further indicates God’s continuing commitment to humankind.

The beauty of this truth highlights the reality that a backslidden heart remains the property and responsibility of the human, not the faithful God. Now that we understand what the backslidden heart is and is not, from Finney’s perspective, we will move forward toward signs of this condition, what God has done, and what we can do to resolve the pitiful state.


Darkness of mind and emotion will consume the interest in God’s Word that was once present, rendering the prayer life impotent.

Finney enumerates 32 concrete evidences of the backslidden heart, each more troubling than the next. The common theme for all 32 points is a reversion to self-pleasure and self-loathing, which manifests itself in personal bitterness that is often attempted to be covered up by increased religious duty. This religious duty, rather than yielding the sweet fruit promised by the Gospel, creates a foul miasma that repels God and poisons the very air surrounding the sufferer.

Firstly, Finney explains that the backslidden heart will seek to camouflage itself in “Manifest formality in religious exercises, that is clearly the result of habit, rather than the outgushing of the religious life.” The backslidden will seek to draw no attention to the sad state thus it will continue doing what it has always done, yet with no “enjoyment,” but rather in a state of “religious bondage” who only “serve because they must." The hopeless bondage will lead to feelings and actions counter to the love of God, like: bitterness, uncharitableness, fault-finding, equaling “a state of mind entirely incompatible with a loving heart.” 

The darkness of mind and emotion will consume the interest in God’s Word that was once present, rendering the prayer life impotent, and squelching the desire to see the lost come to faith in Jesus, which is a denial of the purpose the redeemed remain on the earth in God’s name. 

Finally, the backslidden heart will turn completely inward in focus, making the “indulgence of one's own spirit” the highest of priorities to the exclusion of all others. The conscience becomes seared and moral principle all but scoured away.  All in all, the backslidden heart becomes its own god, sad and alone, ruler of nothing and only able to determine the eternal fate of one single soul, its own.


We must next take personal responsibility for ourselves and our position

Finney describes the course of the backslidden heart. Once completing its conquest of the personal throne, it begins to have outward effects, drawing any who encounter it towards its dark center. The working verb chosen by Finney to make the consequences abundantly clear is “filled.”  He lists an ever-worsening lineup of evil that attempts to fill the newly created spiritual black hole, which like its cosmic counterpart, is never satisfied.

He says there will be a filling with pridefully dead works, a focus on one’s own feelings, an entrenchment in one's prejudices, an insatiable appetite and lust for personal satisfaction, which will lead to a universe of pain and suffering all swirling around its lonely core. I know of no legitimate Gospel-driven pastor that does not shudder at the image painted by Finney of those who walk away from God, nor any honest pastor who does not remember when they themselves were far away and more.

This message may appear a time capsule to some, but an honest appraisal makes it as relevant today as ever. The true landscape of the Church is scattered with many such individuals, but hope is not lost. Finney completes his discourse with the beauty of the Gospel message: We can always come home.

The completion of the sad storyboard of the backslidden life ticks sharply upward as the hope of Christ settles over the matter. Finney’s prescription for redemption is not easy and involves personal pain, but the juice is worth the squeeze, as a right relationship with God is restored and fortified. We are told that the first step of redemption is to remember where we have fallen from.

We compare the state of communion in God’s presence with the sad state of spiritual bondage we find ourselves in. The picture is that of the prodigal son who found himself in the swine pit wishing to eat the bitter carob pods they chewed on. The prodigal had nothing left but to remember what life was like within the father’s house, and that memory gave strength to the young man and drove him back into his father’s arms.

What a beautiful picture and it's why Jesus encourages his church to practice communion, to never forget the gift of God. Finney explains that we must then take personal responsibility for ourselves and our position. Next, repent, turn from the sin, and actively pursue a course to God. Though he does not go into detail, it should be noted that acknowledgement does not equate to repentance, though that can be easily understood in the totality of Finney’s message.

The essence of the discourse is that we have gotten ourselves into the mess by walking away from God, and we begin the process of redemption by turning and walking back towards God. Finney moves deeper into the path of redemption by addressing the insidious belief that we think we could somehow work our way back into God’s grace. He said, “Do not think that you must ‘reform, and make yourself better’ before you can come to Christ, but understand distinctly, that coming to Christ, along, can make you better.”

The power of redemption remains the jurisdiction of God himself.  Our only power is to walk away. We plead the blood of Christ humbly at the feet of the Savior, and it is his graceful redemption that draws the backslider home. Lastly, Finney issues a warning, that we should never think we are arrived or are incapable of falling again; we are not. We must be vigilant and guard our hearts against the wiles of that inborn bent toward sin and the magnetic influence of the fallen all around. We must crucify this wicked nature daily, yielded and placed squarely under the flow of grace in Christ Jesus. 

Finney’s work is a masterpiece of simplicity, backed by hard, verifiable proofs that any honest believer can reference. In the same way that C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters applies to all readers, Finney’s The Backslidden Heart provides a warning buoy on the sea of this often tumultuous life.

The real lessons provided here should be included in the regular preaching and teaching of any modern church that takes the consecration and sanctification of people seriously. Finney’s message is one for the ages, at least until the next age, where we kneel in the presence of God, hopefully with none of the trappings of the backslidden heart layered upon us.


Kooy, Brian K. "Christian Classics Ethereal Library 2011305 Harry Plantinga. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Grand Rapids, MI, URL: Gratis Last Visited April 2011." The Backslider in Heart, 2011, 1-19. Accessed April 12, 2019. doi:10.1108/09504121111168424.


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