The Repentant Backslider

Genesis 35

Charles Hodge, the great professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1800’s once said this: “The sure test of the quality of any supposed change of heart will be found in its permanent effects. ‘By their fruits you shall know them’ is as applicable to the right method of judging ourselves as of judging others. Whatever, therefore, may have been our inward experience, whatever joy or sorrow we may have felt, unless we bring forth fruits meet for repentance, our experience will profit us nothing. Repentance is incomplete unless it leads to confession and restitution in cases of injury; unless it causes us to forsake not merely outward sins, which others notice, but those which lie concealed in the heart; unless it makes us choose the service of God and live not for ourselves but for Him. There is no duty which is either more obvious in itself, or more frequently asserted in the Word of God, than that of repentance.” Do we see the fruits of repentance in our lives? Or do we see backsliding? But then we must ask this question: if I backslide, does that make me a non-believer? These are some of the most plaguing questions that a Christian can ask. I believe that our text has something to say to these questions.

Jacob, you will remember, had relied on his wit and on his swindling ability for most of his life. He had used it to devastating effect time after time. However, that ability also came with certain drawbacks. His family picked up on his ways. His sin led to terrible consequences. God wrestled Jacob to the ground. And yet, Jacob often just went back to what was familiar. He slid backwards. We call such a person a backslider. Now, we are all backsliders to a certain extent. We all have tendencies to go back to our old favorite sins. We all enjoy that comfort that comes in old remembered sins newly minted in fresh situations. However, it comes with a terrible price-tag on our conscience, doesn’t it? We think that there is no hope for us, since we have crucified Christ afresh. We think that there is no more salvation left for us, since we have sinned our way out of God’s kingdom. How do we tell whether our fears are correct or not? How do we tell if we are genuine Christians or not? Well, let’s look at Jacob.

We have seen Jacob’s half-hearted obedience in chapter 34, and the terrible consequences to which it led. Now, in chapter 35, we see God commanding Jacob to be obedient to his vow, and go back to Bethel. Bethel was where Jacob had the dream with the ladder, or staircase. Bethel was where Jacob had seen God. God wanted him to go back there. God had said back in 31:13, “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.” Here in chapter 35, God gives a very specific command to Jacob: “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” This call is something Jacob obeyed. And finally, we see that there is some fruit in Jacob’s life. He tells his household to get rid of all the foreign gods that are in their midst. This would include the teraphim that Rachel had stolen. You remember that Rachel had stolen the household gods of her father Laban. Those were still in Jacob’s household somewhere. Jacob tells his family to get rid of them. This was preparation for worship, you see. Worship is a very important factor in this whole chapter.

The text says that Jacob buried the gods under the oak tree near Shechem. This was probably the same tree under which God had appeared to Abraham in chapter 12. It was near Bethel, where Abraham also had built an altar to the Lord God. Like grandfather, like grandson. But notice that Jacob buries the household gods. This is one last jab at the foreign idols. They have to be manufactured, they have to be guarded, they can be stolen, they have to be protected by a woman having her period, and now they can be buried. Talk about having your head buried in the sand! These gods are not even powerful to look out after themselves, much less anyone else. What about our idols? Do we have to take care of them? How about money? You have to earn it, then guard it. You can sit on it, allowing it to do nothing, and it can certainly be buried, can’t it? Money is perhaps the closest idol to these household gods that I can think of. Money certainly cannot take care of us. Just when you need money the most, seemingly, is just when you don’t have it. Money deserts you right when you most need it. It is quite the fair-weather friend. Only God is a rough-weather friend. Let us bury our idols out of sight, and out of mind, even as Jacob did. And let us prepare to see God, even as Jacob was doing.

Notice that with such preparation goes cleansing. We have to be purified, and we have to change our garments from the filthy robes of sin that we have been wearing into the spotless robe of Christ’s righteousness. We do this when we come to faith in Christ. But we also do this when God cleanses us day by day. There is a daily renewal and cleansing as well as a once-for-all cleansing. When we come to worship God, we must have clean hands and a pure heart, as the Psalmist says. How do we have that? By confessing our sin and turning away from it, by God’s grace. That happens once for all when we turn to Christ. But it also happens day by day when we confess our sins.

Now Jacob journeys to Bethel. Ironically, the neighboring people are all afraid of Israel. You will remember that Jacob had said that the neighboring peoples would attack and annihilate him because of Simeon and Levi’s massacre. Here, however, it is the neighboring people who are intimidated by Israel, as they will be later on Israel’s history, when Israel comes in to invade Canaan.

In verse 8, we have a curious notice. Deborah, who was Rebekah’s nurse, dies. We hear nothing of how Rebekah died. Her death is not recorded. But her nurse’s death is recorded! Moses is clearly telling us here that Rebekah’s death in total obscurity is some sort of punishment for her part in the deception of Isaac.

After this curious notice, we have God reiterating His promise to Jacob. This is the same promise He had made to Abraham, and to Isaac. Now, it is made to Jacob. We have the promise of a nation, a company of nations, and many kings. We also have the promise of the land. When we hear these promises, we have to look beyond the physical promise to recognize that God promises that Jesus Christ will come, the King of Kings, and that Jesus Christ will lead us into the Promised Land, the new heavens and the new earth.

So we see that Jacob is here renewed to repentance. When we are renewed in this way, we receive the promises again. Jacob, who had repented, and turned away from his idolatry by burying the idols, has now received the promise of salvation again. His sense of assurance is at its full extent again.

But God does not let His people rest on their laurels. He will shortly send trials and tribulations in order to test our faith an purify our faith. Jacob next has to undergo the death of his wife. She meets her end giving birth to Benjamin. This is sadly ironic. For it was Rachel who had said, “Give me children, or I’ll die.” Here she has children, plural, and she dies. The text says that her sould was departing. That is another way of saying that her soul went to be with Jesus. Her soul did not sleep, and it did not perish. Rather it went away. With her dying breath, she named him “Ben-oni,” which means “son of my sorrow.” She felt that her life had been one of complete sorrow. Hardly an uplifting thought. Jacob certainly thought that the new son needed a better name, a more optimistic name. So he renamed the son “Benjamin.” “Ben” means “son,” and “jamin” means “right hand.” The phrase then means “son of the right hand.” We know that the right hand in Scripture is honored, and it is the symbol of strength. Benjamin is going to be Jacob’s “right-hand man.”

The second trial is the rebellion of his own son Reuben. Verse 22 tells us of Reuben’s shameful practice of lying with his father’s wife, a thing forbidden by OT law. However, what Reuben did needs to be understood against the background of the times. We must understand that when the patriarch died, the son who inherited the estate would also inherit the concubines. So what Reuben does here is an attempt to seize the position of head of house from Jacob. It doesn’t work, and later on in chapter 49, Jacob passes Reuben by in favor of Judah, precisely for this incident. A second reason that Reuben did this was probably for his mother’s sake. Leah had always been less favored than Rachel. Z

ilpah, who was Leah’s maidservant, would be easy to control. But Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah might become Jacob’s favorite wife after Rachel died. Reuben wanted to prevent that from happening. So he insured that Bilhah would never have a chance to become the favorite wife. However, his plan backfired, since the right of the first-born passed to Judah, a son of Leah!

The third trial is the death of his father Isaac. Yes, it is a time of reunion with his brother Esau. That old feud seems to have ended completely, since they both together buried their father Isaac. However, the trials are not over. To lose a parent is always difficult.

Through these times of trial, however, the Lord was teaching Jacob that he must rely on God alone for salvation. He must not rely on his own wit. His new identity is confirmed when God again gives Jacob the new name of Israel. God keeps reminding Jacob of his new identity so that Jacob will really believe it.

That must be true of us as well. God keeps reminding us of our new identity in Christ Jesus. We are a new creation in Christ. Do you want to know whether or not you really are a Christian? Then listen to 1 John 5:13: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” You can know that you have eternal life. How can you know? If you rest in Christ Jesus. That is your new identity. That is who you are. If you are in trials and tribulations, then do not say of yourself that you are a distressed person. Trials do not define who you are. The real you is hidden away in Jesus Christ. And it is He who has given us the Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we come into possession of it, as the apostle Paul says.

But if you do not rest in Christ alone for salvation, then you have no right to this assurance. There are many who will say, “Lord, Lord,” but Christ will say to them, “I never knew you.” But those whom God loves, He chastens. If God is letting you run pell-mell into sin, and you don’t even put up a fight, and it doesn’t bother you, then be very, very afraid. However, if you are a soldier, and are fighting, but occasionally lose; if you occasionally backslide, that does not prove that you are going to hell. Indeed, if you are fighting sin in God’s strength, that is one of the key clues that you are a Christian. As God did to Jacob, bringing him back to his identity in Christ, bringing him back to worship, cleansing him of idolatry, testing him with trials, so also God does to us in Christ Jesus. As Christ was tempted, so are we. As Christ was found to be pure gold, so will we. God needs to purify us yet, but that is what our whole life is about. It is the Christian life.


  1. Julien said,

    February 24, 2007 at 11:21 am

    Thank you. I needed that badly today.

  2. greenbaggins said,

    February 24, 2007 at 11:52 am

    Julien, welcome to my blog. I think it is something that most Christians need today. Praise the Lord that you found it helpful.

  3. Julien said,

    February 24, 2007 at 12:41 pm

    Thank you again. Mine has been a long walk and most of it has been in defeat. I have never lost faith in Christ but I have certainly been out of fellowship with the Church because of my wanting to sin. God has been very merciful to me but sometimes I become afraid that I am fooling myself and that God gave up on me years ago. Then again, I struggle until I find hope again. It’s hard when you have fallen into sin over and over and repented over and over. I have alway’s known that what I was doing was wrong though, maybe not while I was doing it but as soon as I was through. The head would hit the pillow when the flesh had nothing more to engage in and I would cry to the Lord for mercy, night after night. I would drink and sin. He gave me back pain that did not respond to treatments other than narcotics. After a few years I could no longer drink, it would make me sick. Then the libido began to go. Then I came to a place where I had nowhere to go but to God. He removed all the distractions. He is very merciful and persistant. I have fully come to my senses and now am starting on the road to doing whatever I must to get off these painkillers and i’ll trust Him to heal me completely. (pray for me) I have a little bit of concern that when I am clean and well I might slide again but it is a fleeting thought that I ward off by my knowing what I now know of my Lord and His mercy. What use is it for me to flee from Him, whereever I go, He is there. I have finally come to “see” something I only read and heard about before, that I am dead. I am no longer related to Adam. God placed me in Christ and I died. I now am related to God through Christ and now that I know this I can, indeed, reckon myself dead to sin. I would try to reckon without knowing and it didn’t last too long. I found that a struggle with sin was alway’s a losing battle. I will no longer strugle with sin but rather I will reckon myself dead to sin, knowing that I am indeed dead with Christ. He has showed me that I do not need to crucify the flesh but that He placed me in Christ. Watchman Nee showed me this in his book, “The Normal Christian Life”, that it is impossible to commit suicide by crucifixion…
    I have been reading that and another book “The Saving Life of Christ” by Major Ian Thomas and now I have “The Mystery of Godliness”, which is a bit harder but I am going slow.
    Still, I have days like yesterday and today where I fall into depression and begin to fear that I am fooling myself but not as often and I persevere until I find His assurance. Yesterday He brought me to tears with Psalm 139: 17-18, How precious are Your thoughts to me oh God! How great is the sum of them! If I shoulld count them, they would be more than the sand; When I awake, I am still with You.

    I am going to spend some time here reading.


  4. greenbaggins said,

    February 24, 2007 at 12:48 pm

    I would highly recommend Walter Marshall’s book _The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification_. You can order it here:

    This is the best book for what you need of which I can think.

  5. Julien said,

    February 24, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    Thank you, I will get it. I have a question; can you define, for me, in simple language, post-modernism?
    I have been wondering what is the “emergent Church”? I started to read “By Grace Alone” part one, and I see the emergent church mentioned. I did a Wiki and it mentions “post-modernism” but the definition is in a very intelluctual manner and i’m not sure I quite understand. I think I know of such a church here in Atlanta, I cannot remember the nane, my daughter went there a bit and did not care for it. It was based in Australia, that’s all I remember.
    FWIW, I currently attend a Calvary Chapel.

    Is there another way to contact you if I have questions?



  6. greenbaggins said,

    February 24, 2007 at 1:46 pm

    Post-modernism, in basic form is a denial of meta-narratives. A meta-narrative is simply a story that explains everything and everyone. Most major religions have a meta-narrative. Post-modernism means that everyone has to determine their own meaning, their own story, their own narrative. Existentialism is thus very closely related to it. The book to read on the emerging church is undoubtedly that of D.A. Carson:

    Email me at

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