I know. Your mind reasons, “Isn’t this title the converse of John Bunyan’s book The Pilgrim’s Progress?” You’re correct. This article’s title is the opposite of Bunyan’s work. Actually, C.S. Lewis wrote a book of the same title – The Pilgrim’s Regress – and like Bunyan’s I too have a copy of his book. However, I will not talk about Lewis’ book here. I do believe however the Bible teaches not only spiritual progress but also spiritual regress. Ministers are hesitant or afraid to discuss the matter of spiritual regression among Christians. Often the alibi is that if one regresses he is not truly saved. I don’t think so. Both Scripture and contemporary evidence show Christians do regress, even ministers themselves. Some regress for some time; others regress for good.
A pilgrim is a person who journeys from one place to another. He is a sojourner, looking for a much better place to live. Hebrews 11:13 says “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” A biblical example of someone who was a pilgrim was Abraham. From the Ur of the Chaldeans God told him to move to Canaan and he obeyed. God’s people too are pilgrims. They move from earth to heaven. “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come” (Heb. 13:14). The apostle Peter told believers in his day, “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11).
The life of a pilgrim is never easy. He never stops fighting the urges to stop him in his pilgrimage. Also, there is no sense of permanence in a pilgrim’s life. Permanence only comes when he reaches his place of destination, his desired haven. Likewise, believers in Christ need to be reminded that nothing is permanent in this life – things, people, relationships – and the only permanent thing is the kingdom of God. “We are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken” says the author of Hebrews (Heb. 12:28). And the only way to get into God’s kingdom is through the new birth. “Unless a man is born again he cannot see…he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:3,5). Thus, “you must be born again” (v. 7).
The Bible teaches there were pilgrims who regressed. To regress means “to return to a former or less developed state.” It also means “to deteriorate, worsen, decline, backslide, fall away, apostasize, degenerate.” Not every one who have faith in God and Christ spiritually progress. Some or many unfortunately regress and become much worse. Examples were the fallen angels, the Israelites, the kings of Israel, the false teachers, some named individuals and some churches. Let’s look at them in some detail.
The fallen angels. Angels are called “sons of God” (Gen. 6:1; Job 1:6,7, 2:1,2, 38:7; Luke 20:36). God created them good and holy but some chose to abandon their blessed state and fell to earth alongside their leader Lucifer (Luke 10:18; Rev. 12:3,4). The apostle Jude says, “And the angels who did not keep their proper domain, but left their own abode, He has reserved into everlasting chains under darkness for the judgment of the great day” (Jude 6) and Peter said, “For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment” (2 Peter 2:4).
These good and holy angels regressed and turned vile and wicked and will one day with their leader be cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10). It is amazing to know that someone created blameless or perfect like Lucifer chose to become corrupt, proud and evil (see Ezek. 28:15-17). Regression or apostasy started with an angel and infected other angels and the entire human race. If a perfect or blameless being like Lucifer who knows God and worships him face to face could fall, how much more humans who are born sinful and are still indwelt with their sinful nature even in their redeemed state.
The Israelites. Jude says, “the Lord, after saving a people out of the land of Egypt, subsequently destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 5). These unbelievers started off as believers (Heb. 11:29) but along the way – between Egypt and the Promised Land – they lost faith, and God had no choice but to destroy them – “their bodies were scattered in the desert” (Num. 14:32,33,35; Heb. 3:17; 1 Cor. 10:6-10). The story of Israel in the Old Testament was one of apostasy after apostasy that finally God got rid of their idolatry (the cause of their apostasy) by sending them to Babylon for seventy years. And soon after, while in their own land God finished off talking to them telling them that they were cursed (the book of Malachi). The Israelites never stopped regressing, that even during the time of Christ they were the ones who had him crucified (Mt. 27:25). To punish them for their regression God finally sent the Roman army and in AD 70 destroyed their temple, city and scattered them all over the world. They were only restored as a nation in 1948. Even until today most Jews do not believe in Jesus as the Messiah and await someone else.
The Israelites kings. The Jewish monarchy officially started off with King Saul, their first human king (1 Samuel 8,10). But what a pity he was. He was chosen by God to be king in his anger (Hos. 13:11) and never stopped failing God. Soon after other kings followed: David, Solomon, etc. After Solomon the kingdom was divided into two parts: north (Ephraim or Samaria or Israel) and south (Judah and Benjamin, often called Judah). The lineup of rulers in both nations showed terrible and tragic stories of kings after kings departing from God and giving in to idolatry, immorality and evil of all sorts. The northern kingdom had no good king whatsoever. The southern kingdom has some few good kings. In the end even godly Judah regressed and their last king Zedekiah was taken captive to Babylon.
Demas. This man is an interesting New Testament character. Some say he was an apostate; others say he was not. No doubt however Demas spiritually regressed as a Christian. Three times Paul alluded to him as part of his missionary team and called him a “fellow laborer” (Col. 4:14; 2 Tim. 4:10; Philemon 24). Demas deserted Paul while in prison in Rome and returned to Thessalonica. Desertion by teammates is quiet common in ministry. Pastors should not be surprised when friends, fellow workers and members abandon them.
Demas’ regression is seen in Paul’s description of him as “having loved this present world” (2 Tim. 4:10). He was pleased and contented with the present age. The word “world” is the Greek aion and means age or period of time. He lost regard for the coming world which he used to believe and now embraced the present world as his own. He lost sight of heaven, of Christ who is in heaven, of eternity future and settled quiet comfortably with what is now, this “now world.” John and James had no sympathies with the world (both used the word kosmos for “world”). John warned, “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15) and James said, “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). Clearly, from a doctrinal and pastoral point of view Demas regressed and very well might have become an apostate for loving the world. There are many Christians today who are very much like Demas. They love and enjoy the world and feign their spirituality. It shows they have no more love for God and God in turn treats them as his enemies.
The false teachers. The Bible does not mince words about false teachers. They are called “wolves,” “dogs,” “ministers of Satan,” “evil workers,” etc. The apostle Peter in particular described the false teachers as those who were “bought” by Jesus (2 Peter 2:1). Biased commentators explain that these false teachers appear or feign to be saved but were not. I beg to disagree. The word “bought” (Greek agorazo) is used always to refer to Christians. Three Bible versions translate it as “redeemed” (GNB, TEV, NKJV). Paul called the Corinthians “bought” (agorazo, 1 Cor. 6:20, 7:23) and John said Jesus “redeemed” (agorazo) men for God with his blood (Rev. 5:9) and the 144,000 Jews were also “redeemed” (agorazo) by Jesus (Rev. 14:3,4). Another word Peter used for “redeem” is lutroo (see 1 Peter 1:18). Clearly, he used lutroo and agorazo to refer to people who are redeemed.
Second Peter chapter two is a chapter about believers regressing. I consider it as a chapter on the pilgrim’s regress. I have already explained this regression in my other works and I will not explain it here again. When Jesus’ disciples chose to forsake him (John 6:66), he asked Peter and the others if they want to do the same (v. 67). Peter chose to remain in Christ (vv. 68.69). Regression is a choice believers make. They can also choose not to regress and progress instead.
The Laodicean church (Rev. 3:14-22). The Laodicean church was not only an actual historical church; it also represents churches in the end of days. This church had everything that would make a church alive and functioning, yet it was regressing. Everything a pastor, member and outsider desire of a church they all have. Most of all they have the money. It was what I would call “the church of millionaires.” Yet Jesus called the church “lukewarm” (indifference, pathetic, complacent, care free) and good only to be spit out (this is not good!). He also described them as “wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked” and need to ignite their zeal and repent.
The churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia were the opposites of Laodicea. They were persecuted, poor, weak and had little strength, yet they were blessed and pleasing to Christ. They were spiritually progressing. It goes to show that spiritual progress have nothing to do with how much money you have in your pocket or bank account.
The book of Revelation ends with an intriguing verse which both combines progression and regression. “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still” (Rev. 22:11). Regression seen in the words “unjust” and “filthy” are choices people make; as well as “righteous” and “holy,” indicating progression. In Revelation God gives people a choice, “And the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say ‘Come!’ Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17). Theologians debate if salvation is God’s sole work or God and man together. Well, it’s both. God chose the elect and man decides to be saved. Here God offers him a choice to be saved. God invites people to “come” and “take” free salvation. At the same time, to progress or to regress is a choice we make.