You will remember when you first become a Christian, how your heart burned with holy zeal and gratitude, and you felt the thrill in your soul just to read the Word of God or to sing hymns. You were ready to go unto the uttermost part of the world to preach the gospel, come what may. But soon your zeal and enthusiasm cooled down. You are no longer as fervent. You begin to realise your limitations and shortfalls. You begin to feel your struggle against sin acutely. You no longer feel you are fit to be sent as a missionary to Tibet. And you longed for the experience of initial conversion again, and to regain the initial zeal because your conscience is pounded over the pulpit as you are reminded again and again that you have left your first love.

Well, beloved, I do not think that the Lord is referring to this kind of initial love in Revelation 2:4. In the first place, He is referring to the church, not to the individual. In the second place, while we ought to lament our lack of zeal and coldness, and a lack of assurance is sin, I would suggest that it is normal for every Christian to go through a cooling down phase after the initial excitement. You see, the first love of a new believer is often more emotional than mature. When a person first becomes a Christian, he is so overcome with joy that the reality of his own spiritual condition is clouded out. But soon, reality begins to assert itself and the love founded upon feelings fades away. In the Lord’s Parable of the Sower, the stony ground would have the same initial experience but eventually fall away. On the other hand, for the true believer, the love founded upon feelings is replaced by a matured, firmer, deeper love that is rooted in the heart and founded upon a sanctified will. The mature believer understands his limitations and the corruption of his nature. He looks to the cross of Calvary and he is thankful to the Lord for all that He has done for him, and he demonstrates his love to Christ by seeking to obey His commandments constantly. But generally, he would no longer have that unstable initial zeal which is founded on his emotions.

Thus, it would be quite normal if you no longer have a burning zeal to want to evangelise the world. But before we become too comfortable, let us realise that not all of us, who have settled into a matured love for God in Christ, continue in that love with the same constancy. You see, there remains in everyone, who has been effectually called, some remaining corruption so that there is always a propensity and even a tendency to depart from God’s ways. This remnant of corruption is more and more put to death through the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification. But as long as we remain in the flesh, there will be this continual and irreconcilable war: The flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh (Gal 5:17). This battle is to be expected and will result in the final and decisive victory of the Spirit when we shall put off this body of sin and be translated to glory.

However, experience teaches us that very often, a child of God, after an initial period of fervour, can settle into a complacent attitude in which his spiritual growth either stagnates or declines. Iniquity begins to abound as love for Christ waxes cold (cf. Mt 24:12). Eventually, the heart gets hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb 3:13); the world and the comforts of this present life begins to have more priority than the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (1 Jn 2:15; cf. 2 Tim 4:10); godly contentment gives way to covetousness and jealousy; and fervent spiritual worship is replaced by empty formalism and hypocrisy (2 Tim 3:5). When this happens, the soul has stepped out of the narrow way of life and has begun to walk on the broad road that leads to destruction. The soul has begun to backslide. And if he continues in that state of spiritual slumber without recovery, then it would be evident that he has never ever been a genuine child of God. In fact, it is likely that such a person will eventually renounce his faith and become indifferent to the gospel. But woe is such a person! Thomas Watson is surely right that "He falls deepest into hell who falls backward" (cf. Heb 6:4–6; Mt 11:20–24).

How could a child of God ever degenerate to such a dangerous state? We have no doubt that it is always through sin and the neglect or abuse of the means of grace. But it does not happen over night. Usually it is through a period of declension, during which the person may not even be aware that he is experiencing backsliding or spiritual hardening. The symptoms of spiritual declension are, however, easily identifiable; and if we are ever going to treat the ailment, we must begin by being aware of them. What then are the symptoms? Let me suggest 25 of them, some overlapping somewhat. Bear in mind that this list is not exhaustive, but I would suggest that the more items describe you, the more backslidden you are, and the more concerned you should be about your spiritual state. May I suggest you read the list prayerfully with a pen in hand to circle what describes you.

1.     When you prefer to read the newspaper rather than the Bible, spending much time on one without feeling tiredness but falling asleep on the other; and moreover, the reading of the Bible is done perfunctorily and grudgingly.

2.     When you prefer to and spend much time to watch television rather than read a meaningful Christian book.

3.     When you would rather opt for convenience rather than obedience, though you know the requirement of the Word of God; or when you know a particular duty but refuse to perform it for any reason.

4.     When you want to do something in the church not out of love for Christ, but to pacify guilty conscience or to be seen as a religious person.

5.     When you pray only if you have time to spare on hand or when you want to appear religious to others; and moreover your prayer is mechanical and general.

6.     When in your confession of sin, you not only minimise the seriousness of your sin by justifying your actions, but fail to forsake the sin.

7.     When you are critical about sermons, complaining that they are too technical or too simple; and hate it when the sermon exposes your sin or is designed to prick your conscience,—even though you are not stirred by it.

8.     When you find sermons that speak about the glories of Christ or the greatness of God to be boring because they do not directly address the need of man; and when sermons about the suffering of Christ do not move you at all.

9.     When you fall asleep during worship service not on account of legitimate physical tiredness such as due to old age, medication or from looking after a young infant the night before.

10. When you seek to please man rather than please God because you crave the praises of man which can be heard by others rather than the praises of God which no man hears; or when you justify your hypocritical compromises under the name of diplomacy or maintenance of peace.

11. When you have no regards to the oaths and vows you have made and are ready to break them at the slightest excuse.

12. When you are more concerned with your outward appearance rather than the hidden adornment of your inner man.

13. When you feel threatened by the legitimate strictness of others and seek to justify your laxity by labelling them as extreme or legalistic.

14. When you hate to be corrected; and when it is evident that your accuser is correct, you would always have a ready excuse for your actions.

15. When you are secretly gratified by the fall of some professors of faith, rather than grieving with them.

16. When you are quick to blame others or to judge them when conflicts or quarrels arise, but are not willing to take any part of the blame.

17. When you feel uncomfortable in the company of those whom you perceive to be holier than you, but delight in the company of those whom you perceive to be less strict in religion than you are.

18. When you are most comfortable in worldly conversation or small talk, but become silent or uncomfortable in religious conversation.

19. When you give more priority to the pursuit of the world than the pursuit of Christ and His righteousness, and so choose career advancement even though you are fully aware that it will greatly affect your devotion to Christ and His cause.

20. When you are easily detained from Sabbath worship; and are secretly glad that you have a reason to stay at home, though the reason may be trivial.

21. When you absent yourself from prayer meeting or evening worship not by necessity, inability or difficulty but by preference.

22. When you are normally punctual for work or personal appointments, but perpetually late for worship services or church meetings.

23. When you can discuss the differences between supralapsarianism and infra-lapsarianism or the differences between covenantalism and dispensationalism, but loath to hand out a tract to an unbeliever.

24. When under temporal chastisement of God, you are more concerned with your pain and loss than to examine what could be the Lord’s purpose for your suffering.

25. When you have to be coerced by someone to read this list because you feel that the subject of spiritual declension is either unimportant, or does not apply to you; or when you feel that such a list is unrealistic and asks too much from a child of God.

Dearly beloved, how do you fare? Most of us, I believe, will fail at some points, at least. But do not despair. There is yet hope for remedy if you are not apathetic to what this list has revealed about you. Next Lord’s day, God willing, we shall look at some remedies which we may apply for our sanctification. But for now, will you not, beloved, apply immediately to the Lord for His help and restoration? The Lord has said: "My people are bent to backsliding from me" (Hos 11:7); but He also promised: "I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely: for mine anger is turned away from him" (Hos 14:4). What the Lord says of the Church, he would surely say to every true child of God. Therefore, "Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls" (Jer 6:16a). Do not be like Israel of old, who is depicted in the remainder of this verse, saying, "We will not walk therein" (Jer 6:16b). Amen.