Backsliding Stems from Indifference to the Necessity of Christ

Indifference to the Necessity and Benefits of Christ and His Mediation

There are reasons that are peculiar unto every especial instance of backsliding in any kind. First, ignorance of the necessity of Jesus Christ and the benefits of his mediation unto life and salvation, has betrayed them first into an indifferency about them, and then a defection from them. They want1 a true and in their own souls a full, conviction of their personal want2 of these things. Such apostates arise out of loose, notional professors, who never had any sound convictions of the want of Christ; like them, Acts 2:37, or him, Acts 16:30. And although they lived, some of them, a long time in the outward profession that such a conviction of the worth and use of Christ and his grace was necessary unto them that would be saved; yet dare they not own that ever themselves had any such conviction. For if they had, why do they now forsake him as unto those ends for which they were convinced he was so to be desired? That faith alone will never forsake Christ, which springs out of, or is built on a conviction of the want of him. They who are well and in health will not always esteem the physician.

Apostasy from the Gospel

John Owen, Joel R. Beeke

Volume 14 of The Complete Works of John Owen explores the dangers of heresy and the importance of preserving the purity of Christian doctrine, holiness, and worship. It has been edited for modern readers by Joel R. Beeke.

Unto this conviction of the want of Christ two things are required in all men, according to the measure of the light which they have received.

Knowledge of Sin and Its Guilt Is Essential

The knowledge of the nature, guilt, filth, and desert3 of sin. For he came to save us from our sin. And no man will look after him to be delivered from he knows not what; or look to the brazen serpent,4 who is not stung. Few have any knowledge hereof but what they cannot avoid, and fewer are sensible of these things in a due manner. The great design of Satan at this day in the world is, to extenuate sin in opinion, and so countenance it in practice. Indeed it ever was so; but it is in a peculiar manner at present visible and open, though the conspiracy be so strong, that a public resistance unto it is scarcely maintainable. His aim in it is and ever was, to take off from the necessity and usefulness of Christ and his grace, against which his malice is principally bent. And when once he can convey away the relief, he will be ready enough to aggravate the evil. Hence are those opinions so diligently advanced and greedily embraced, against the guilt and power of original sin, and the depravation of our natures, wherein men of all sorts conspire. Whatever some men may design, his end in them all is no other but to prevent a conviction of the want we have of Christ. So also are sins in practice extenuated, spiritual sins against the gospel are made nothing of, yea, laughed at; and immoralities against the law are lightly esteemed, and easily passed over. To take off at present a sense of the want of Christ, and to make way for future apostasy, is the end of these and the like corrupt opinions. Accordingly it is come to pass in the world. Never was there less regard of the person and offices of Christ, of his grace, and benefits of his mediation, among them that are called Christians, than is found among many at this day. Unless God graciously relieve, the world is like to lose Christ out of the gospel, as to the true glory of his person, and use of his mediation. Thus was it with the generality of them concerning whom we speak; they never had a thorough practical conviction of the want of Christ; for if they had, they would not so shamefully have left him as they have done. The general notions they had hereof, serve only to entitle them unto a defection. I know these things are despised by many, unto whom the want of Christ, and the receiving of him, or an interest in him, are contemptible things. But that is all one; we must not forgo the gospel, with our own experience, and ruin our souls, to escape their reproaches. Sin will be sin, and Christ will be Christ, and salvation by him will be what it is, when they have done what they can.

Knowledge of the Insufficiency of Our Duties Is Essential

Hereunto is required a knowledge and sense of the weakness of the best of our duties, and their utter insufficiency to abide the trial in the sight of God. Without the former we cannot have, and without the latter we can never abide in a sense of the want of Christ. A right consideration of the instability of our minds in them, the weak actings of grace for the most part, the weariness of the flesh that accompanies them, secret impressions from self and inward oppositions from sin that attend them, with the greatness and holiness of God with whom we have to do in them, is indispensably necessary to keep the Lord Christ and his grace always desirable unto us. Want hereof makes some dream of a perfection in themselves, and others of a justification by their own obedience; the first tending to the contempt, the latter unto the neglect of Christ and his grace. This is the beginning of transgression unto many apostates. They never had a due sense of the want of Christ, either as to their deliverance from the guilt of sin, or as to the procuring of a righteousness wherewith they might appear in the presence of God. This are they to inquire after, who shall endeavor their recovery. To contend with them about their own imaginations, is for the most part endless and fruitless. Let it be inquired, whether they ever had any conviction of the want of Christ for the pardon of sin, or for the obtaining of life and salvation. If they shall grant they had, it may be asked, why they do not make use of him unto the ends with respect whereunto they were convinced of the want of him; and if they do so, we have no contest with them in this matter. If they acknowledge that they never had any such conviction, this is that which we are to confirm, that such a conviction of the want of Christ, is indispensably necessary unto the salvation of all that are adult.

And herein we have the testimony, upon the matter, of the whole Scripture, the law and the gospel, to confirm the truth we contend for. Want therefore hereof was one spring of this defection. For, those who have owned the necessity of him, or an interest in him, for the ends mentioned; and afterward declare, that there is nothing of goodness or truth in what they have found and discovered, for which they should continue so to do, their profession is, that they have considered this matter, known it, and do condemn it; wherein the formal nature of apostasy does consist. And all those disciples which they draw after them, they do it, by hiding from them or drawing them off from, any sense of a want of Christ, or of his mediation. That which is the foundation of our profession in opposition hereunto, which we lay the weight of all our eternal concerns upon, is, that without Christ, before we receive him as set forth by God to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, we are in a lost, undone, and accursed condition; that our closing with5 him, our believing in him, is upon a conviction of our want of him for life, righteousness, and acceptation with God, both before and after believing. And it is in vain for Satan himself to attempt the faith of God’s elect herein. A concurrence6 of plain revelation and evident experience is invincible. But he who never knew, who never was made deeply sensible of the want of an interest in Christ, will never persevere in the pursuit of it, nor abide in what he has attained when attacked by any vigorous temptation.


  1. I.e., lack.
  2. I.e., need.
  3. I.e., deserved punishment.
  4. Num. 21:4–9; John 3:14–15.
  5. I.e., entering into or completing an agreement with; drawing near to. In Puritan writing, “close with Christ” means renouncing all reliance on one’s own righteousness, esteeming Christ as the only mediator and help for sinners, and believing in Christ (that is, placing one’s faith in him). See William Guthrie, “The Duty of Closing with God’s Plan of Saving Sinners by Christ Jesus,” in The Christian’s Great Interest (1654; repr., Glasgow: William Collins, 1833), chap. 2. The result of the Spirit’s “effectually working faith” in one’s heart is “that we may close with Christ.” Francis Roberts, The Natural Man Directed to Jesus Christ (London: T. R., 1673; repr., Crossville, TN: Puritan Publications, 2015), 130. Conversion inclines one’s will “to close with Christ on his own terms.” Thomas White (d. 1672), “Of Effectual Calling,” in The Morning Exercises at Cripplegate, ed. James Nichols, 5th ed. (London: Thomas Tegg, 1845), 273.
  6. I.e., combination; simultaneous occurance.

This article is adapted from Apostasy from the Gospel (Volume 14) by John Owen.

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