Anatomy of a Backslider

Genesis 20

June 9, 1996 | Ray Pritchard

One of the great proofs of the supernatural origin of the Bible is that it tells the truth about people. As you read the Bible, you will find that it discloses the whole range of human activity—including the dark side. On the pages of God’s Word, you will find stories of murder, theft, embezzlement, drunkenness, adultery, rage, moral perversion, rape, revenge, mass murder, corrupt officials, bribery, religious charlatans, to name only a few examples.

In short, the Bible tells us the “whole truth” about the human condition. It does not shy away from painting the darker tones of human sin. Theologians call this the doctrine of total depravity. That doctrine teaches us that sin has affected every part of the personality—body, mind, spirit, emotions, will, conscience, intellect, and soul. All of us are tainted with sin and that tainting has reached to every part of your life. Someone explained it this way: “If sin were blue, we’d be blue all over.” Some of us would be light blue, others sky blue, others dark blue, but all of us would be blue in one shade or the other.

All of us have sinned and all of us have fallen short of the glory of God.

To say that is simply to observe that Romans 3:23 is still true even of the best saints. All of us have sinned and all of us have fallen short of the glory of God.

A Saint Who Acted Like a Pagan

Our text proves the point. Genesis 20 is the story of two people who appear to have switched roles. Abraham is the saint and Abimelech the pagan, but Abraham looks like a pagan and Abimelech like a saint. The story begins this way: “Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, ‘‘She is my sister.” Then Abimelech king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her” (vv. 1-2).

Gerar is in the area we now call the Gaza Strip. When Abraham and Sarah entered the area, word came to Abimelech the king that a beautiful woman had come to town. As was the custom of the day, the king could take any unmarried woman for himself and add her to his harem. Abraham, fearing that the king might have him murdered in order to obtain Sarah, lied about Sarah, calling her his sister instead of his wife.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because this is not the first time Abraham has told this particular lie. According to Genesis 12:9-20, he did the same thing many years earlier during his sojourn in Egypt. Now some 23 or 24 years later he does the same thing.

I. Why Abraham Lied Again

1. He feared for his life. v. 11

Abraham replied, ‘‘I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ Abraham made two mistakes. First, he assumed that no one in Gerar feared God. But in this story Abimelech clearly respected the Lord. Second, he ascribed evil motives to Abimelech for no good reason. It’s true that they might have killed him because of his wife, but the men of Gerar had given no evidence of that fact, and even so, that still would not have justified his sin.

2. He rationalized his lie. v. 12

Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. That is, Sarah was his half-sister, so in a sense he could justify his lie by saying it is partly true. But in this case, a half-truth is really a whole lie since Abraham’s intention was to cover the truth, not to reveal it.

3. He talked Sarah into joining him. v. 13

“And when God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, ‘This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, ‘‘He is my brother.”’” This verse reveals the low state of Abraham’s thinking. In a sense, he appears to be blaming God causing the problem by making him leave his father’s household. He further compounds the problem by using a line that men have been using on women since time immemorial: “If you really love me, you will … “ While Sarah may be faulted for going along with the lie, clearly the responsibility rests squarely on Abraham’s shoulders.

We do not have to look far for the underlying cause of Abraham’s sin: Lack of faith in God! Because he doubted God could take care of him, he decided to lie in order to “help God out.” But God doesn’t need that kind of “help.”

There are basically only two kinds of theology:

Big God & Little Me

Little God & Big Me

When your God is big, your view of yourself will be small enough that you won’t stoop to foolish deception as a way of life. It is only when your God is too small that you are forced to compromise your standards. At this point, Abraham has a “Little God” and therefore he feels compelled to take matters in his own hands.

When Good Men Do Wrong

What can we say about Abraham’s sin?

1. It was cowardly

2. It was deliberate

3. It was dishonest

4. It jeopardized Sarah’s purity

5. It misled an innocent man

6. It dishonored God

7. It destroyed Abraham’s testimony

That last point deserves some mention. No doubt God could have used Abraham as a witness in Gerar if only he had told the truth. But because he lied, he not only lost his testimony, he lost any opportunity to witness for the Lord.

Consider the following statement: “When good men do wrong they do worse harm than when bad men do wrong.” That’s because we expect bad men to act bad, we expect fools to be foolish and the ungodly to be ungodly. So when they do wrong, we are never surprised. In fact, we’re surprised when the ungodly do good.

We’re surprised when the ungodly do good.

But the world expects Christians to have higher moral standards. They expect us to live differently than they do. When we don’t, we hurt the cause of Christ and drive men and women away from the kingdom of God.

How much better it would have been if Abraham had

A) told the truth

B) trusted God

C) accepted the Consequences!

II. How God Judged Him

“Early the next morning Abimelech summoned all his officials, and when he told them all that had happened, they were very much afraid.  Then Abimelech called Abraham in and said, ‘‘What have you done to us? How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that should not be done.” vv. 8-9

Once again God allowed Abraham to be publicly exposed and humiliated in the eyes of pagans. Just as had happened earlier in Egypt, Abraham’s clever duplicity was shown in all its ugly reality. This, too, was the grace of God at work because unless we see our sins as they really are, we will be tempted to excuse ourselves and say of sin, “Well, that may be wrong but it’s not so bad.” In this case, Abraham cannot blame any lack of experience (as he perhaps could some 25 years earlier) or any lack of knowledge of God (because he had walked with God for at least a quarter-century or could he accuse the people of Gerar of making any untoward insinuations regarding Sarah. No, there is simply no excuse for what he did, and public humiliation is exactly what he deserved.

God specializes in uncovering the hidden sins of his children.

Proverbs 28:13 reminds us that he who covers his sin will not prosper. Because he can see in the darkness as well as in the light, God specializes in uncovering the hidden sins of his children, which is why the things whispered in secret will one day be shouted from the housetops. What happened to Abraham will happen sooner or later to any one who attempts to sin secretly.

III. How God Protected Him

Having said that, it may seem strange to speak of God “protecting” Abraham, but that is exactly what this passage teaches. Even though Abraham is clearly in the wrong, and even though no overt evil may be ascribed to Abimelech, still God has his children and the devil has his, and never shall the two be confused in the eyes of the Almighty. God still fixed his electing love on Abraham, and since he was still God’s child and Abimelech was not, he would be supernaturally protected by God, whether he deserved it or not (and in this case clearly he did not deserve protection).

We may see God’s protection of Abraham in at least four ways:

1. By warning Abimelech in a dream.


“But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to him, ‘‘You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.” Now Abimelech had not gone near her, so he said, ‘‘Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” Then God said to him in the dream, ‘‘Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die” (vv. 3-7).

Clearly, Abimelech had no idea who Sarah really was and for that matter, he had no conception of Abraham’s importance in the plan of God. When he claims innocence before, it is the innocence of the man who unknowingly violated a law. But just as “innocence of the law is no excuse” in a human court, neither will that excuse suffice in the Courtroom of the Lord. Here God not only warns Abimelech, he also shows him the way of escape. He must return Sarah to Abraham and then ask the prophet to pray for him. If he does not, then he and all his household will die.

2. By striking Abimelech with physical sickness. 

“Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech” (v. 17). Evidently God struck Abimelech with a disease (perhaps a sexually-transmitted disease) that prevented him from physically consummating a relationship with Sarah. As painful as it may have been, this was also God’s grace shown to a pagan because it kept the king from committing the sin of adultery, for which he would have died at the hand of God.

3. By closing the wombs in Abimelech’s household.

Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his wife and his slave girls so they could have children again, for the LORD had closed up every womb in Abimelech’s household because of Abraham’s wife Sarah (vv. 17-18).

This closing of the wombs served as a warning of Abimelech of the terrible mistake he had made in taking another man’s wife into his harem. As the king, he had the right to have any unmarried woman he wanted, but he could not take a man’s wife, especially the wife of a prophet of God. By closing the wombs, the Lord would thus end Abimelech’s line, meaning he would have no heirs and his throne would eventually be taken by someone else. Thus did God show how greatly he esteemed Abraham and how far he was willing to go to protect his own children even in their disobedience.

4. By exposing his sin publicly.

This public exposure served several purposes. First, it forced Abraham to deal with the reality of his own sinful behavior. Second, it exposed a continuing a weakness in his own life. Third, it prevented him from continuing on in sin and possibly making even greater mistakes. Fourth, it served as a warning to those watching that God hates adultery. Fifth, it established the fact that God will not sit idly by while his children live in sin. Sixth, it protected Sarah from the sin of adultery. Seventh, it protected the promised “seed” from corruption at the hands of pagans.

Over a hundred years ago Charles Spurgeon wrote that “God will not allow His children to sin successfully.” We may sin, and sin repeatedly, and some sins we may indulge in for long periods of time, but the truth remains that God will intervene in the lives of his children to frustrate and foil them when they make desire to live in sin. We may go to the “Far Country,” intending to spend all that we have on riotous living, but in the end, like the Prodigal Son, we will end up eating pigslop from the devil’s trough. God sees to it that all his children must fail at sin eventually. This, too, is the grace of God, though it will not always seem so at the time.

IV. What We May Learn From This Story

1. We may struggle in some areas of life till the day we die.

I suppose that no statement I have made in recent sermons has attracted more attention than this one. In putting the matter this way, I realize that I am at odds with certain optimistic views of the Christian life currently in vogue. There are those people who insist that to speak of recurrent or besetting sins is to deny the reality of the new life given to us at the moment of salvation. Some people appear to believe in a watered-down form of sinless perfectionism that downplays the reality of sin and the inner corruption that is ours by virtue of our union with Adam.

Someone sat in my office yesterday and said, “Why do you tell us that we will struggle with some sins till the day we die? Isn’t that a discouraging message?” To which I replied, “It may be discouraging but it is also true. Suppose you notice a nagging pain in your knees that renders walking difficult and tennis impossible. Upon examination, the doctor tells you that you have a kind of degenerative arthritis that may be treated with medicine but never completely cured. With appropriate medication, the pain can be brought under control, but the condition will stay with you forever. How do you respond to the news? If you are like most people, you thank the doctor for telling you the truth and for not giving you false hope. The same must be true in the spiritual realm.”

If Romans 7 means anything, it must mean that we will struggle with sin till the day we die. I agree with Bishop Ryle who says that Romans 7 describes, not the immature or “carnal” Christian, but rather the “advanced” believer who daily struggles with the inner desire to sin. No one in this life ever grows to the place where sin no longer tempts you.

No one ever grows to the place where sin no longer tempts you.

Having said that, I hasten on to confess that I believe that through God’s grace, we may see great victories won in the struggle with sin. Some sins will be conquered, thank God. We can grow in the grace of God by putting to death the deeds of the flesh. And it is certainly true that we will see some measure of spiritual victory as we day by day struggle against sin. Yet having won the victory against some particular sin, we must never say, “I’ll never do that again.” You simply don’t know what you might or might not do given the right circumstances. Let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:12).

Genesis 20 seems to prove this point. It appears that Abraham and Sarah made a covenant to lie about her martial status from the earliest days after he left Ur of the Chaldees. Perhaps (though we don’t know this for sure) Abraham had often lied about his wife through the years. Certainly we know that he lied in Genesis 12 and again in Genesis 20—events separated by over 20 years.

Some years ago, under pressure, and in a bad situation, I lost my temper and said things to some dear friends that I should not have said. In the days after that outburst, I paid a heavy price for my foolish behavior. Those ill-chosen words would come back to haunt me again and again. One day a friend heard my story and said, “Ray, that was the grace of God at work in your life.” How so? He explained that as we grow in Christ, we may begin to think to ourselves, “I am beyond a such-and-such a sin.” That is, if we were once troubled by lust, we may think that we have arrived at such a state that lust will trouble us no more. Or it may be envy, or greed, or sloth, or it may the temptation of drunkenness or drug abuse, or it may be a temptation to angry outbursts. We may even convince ourselves that we have “victory” over sin to the degree that we believe it is simply impossible for us to sin that particular sin again. Few of us would state the matter so boldly, but many of us secretly think these things.

As we are conformed to his image, our awareness of sin should increase, not decrease.

But it is not so. Sanctification is a gradual process by which we are made more and more like the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18). And as we are more and more conformed to his image, our awareness of sin should increase, not decrease. That happens because sin is not just something we do, it is something we are. Our natures are so utterly fallen, so deeply corrupted, that in this life we will never arrive at a state of perfect holiness. It is true that through our union with Christ the righteousness of God has now been imputed to us. It is also true that in him we are sanctified, but this work, though begun at the moment of conversion, and continued throughout the Christian life, is never completed until we arrive in heaven.

Therefore, my friend said, God had been good to me because in allowing me to lose my temper, he also humbled me in front of my friends, and caused me to see my sin in a new way. No longer could I boast about my presumed “victory” in that area. God had, as it were, pulled back the covers and revealed to me the sinfulness of my own heart.

I am not proud of this, nor am I happy about the fact that sin remains in me. Yet I can not deny the fact that I am both a saved person and “the chief of sinners” (to borrow Paul’s phrase in 1 Timothy 1:15) and these things are true at one and the same time.

Having said that, I emphasize again that we should not be surprised that we struggle with some areas of life for many years, that any “victory” over sin will be partial and temporary, and that sin itself will remain with us until the day we die.

2. No one ever arrives at a state where they are beyond temptation.

This conclusion follows logically from what we have just said. A careful reading of 1 Corinthians 10 reveals that the temptation to sin, while coming in many different forms and under many different guises, will be with us forever. In fact, the great danger against which Paul warns us is the danger of presumption. It is precisely when we think we have “arrived” spiritually that we are in the most danger. Temptation is “common to man” precisely because all of us face temptations every single day. In fact, we may recall Luther’s teaching that “temptation” or testing is one of God’s means of developing us into mature Christians.

When we think we have “arrived” spiritually, we are in the most danger.

It is at this point that I must mention one teaching that I have heard often stated in recent months. Sometimes I hear it said that “Satan put that thought into my mind,” usually in reference to some terrible thought that we are sure did not come from ourselves. For instance, I have heard people say that during the taking of communion, while bowed in solemn meditation, some bizarre and inexpressibly evil thought suddenly came to mind. Where did it come from? Surely such a thought must have come directly from Satan since the person was meditating on the death of Christ. Would not Satan want to interrupt such a holy moment by injecting an evil thought, and the more shocking the better to distract the believer?

In evaluating this, I must begin by saying that I have had such experiences myself many times. Sometimes it may happen during prayer, other times during the singing of a hymn, sometimes before communion, and occasionally such a thought has come to me in the moments before I rise to deliver a sermon. The thoughts in question are truly evil and heinous, and of such a nature that I would not repeat them here.

Do such thoughts come from Satan? I know of no way to answer that question with certainty. That is, I do not know how you can separate one variety of sinful thought from another. That Satan may directly tempt us (as he directly tempted our Lord) I do not doubt. That he may inject thoughts into our minds I presume to be true, though I am not sure how to prove that biblically. No one knows the full extent of Satan’s power or how he does his infernal work, and anything said beyond the clear teaching of Scripture is mere conjecture at best.

My concern at this point is to address what seems to me to be a tendency to ascribe “really bad” sin to Satan while attributing the rest to ourselves. It is as if we are saying …

Small sin = Definitely me

Medium sin = Might be me

Terrible sin = Must be Satan!

Such an analysis is not particularly helpful because it may tend to lead us away from accepting personal responsibility for our own thoughts and actions. How do you know that that terrible, uninvited thought came directly from Satan and not from yourself? I submit that you don’t know that fact and no particular purpose is served by speculation in this area.

However you may feel about this matter, I suggest that Genesis 20 teaches us that even “advanced” believers will face repeated temptation in many areas of life and that we have to fight against some sins many times.

3. When we refuse to deal honestly with our own particular weaknesses, God will allow us to be tested in those areas again and again.

I learned this principle from Bob Boerman who explained how God deals with a rebellious child. If a child refuses to learn obedience to his parents, God will then place that child under a tough coach in high school, or a demanding English teacher. If the child still doesn’t learn obedience to authority, God then does the same thing during college years. If the child still rebels, God allows him to work under a harsh employer or may put him in the military where he will be forced to learn submission. Ultimately, if a child will not learn this lesson, he may end up in prison.

The same principle applies to many areas of life: Sexual temptation, crude language, anger and bitterness, a tendency to lie, and so on. If we refuse to face our own weaknesses, we will simply be tested in those areas over and over again.

Marriage is the ultimate testing ground. We may hide our faults before others, but sooner or later the sandpaper of married life will rub off all our hypocrisies. They say that “love is blind, but marriage is an eye-opener.” True, and marriage is one of God’s best tools to help us see ourselves as we really are. In a sense, marriage is a “means of grace” God uses not only to expose our faults, but also to motivate us to spiritual growth and maturity.

4. Honest pagans sometimes appear to be more righteous than backslidden Christians.

In our text Abimelech looks much more righteous that Abraham. That fact should not surprise us because when the righteous sin, they may sink ever lower than an unbeliever. That’s why I’ve heard Christians say, “I’d rather hire an honest unbeliever” or “I don’t want to work for a Christian.”

You are the only Bible some people will ever read. What message will the people of world take from your life?

5. God’s grace will most often be seen in the aftermath of our own personal failures.

This is a word of hope we all need to hear. Abraham experienced God’s grace throughout this story and in spite of his own deception. The same is true for you and me. Even though grace is always at work in our lives, we will comprehend it most often after a great personal failure. That’s when we need grace the most.

6. God does his best work with imperfect people!!!

Think of some of the manifest weaknesses of the men and woman of the Bible:

Abraham was a two-time liar

Sarah laughed at God

Moses who killed a man

Samson slept with a prostitute

David committed adultery

Peter denied Christ

I am sure that Abraham justified his sin by saying that he was only trying to take are of his wife. He assumed that God would not take care of him if he told the truth, so he sinned. But God demonstrated he could take care of Abraham even when he sinned.

I find it most encouraging that when God spoke to Abimelech concerning Abraham he said, “He is a prophet, and he will pray for you” (v. 7). Here we see the grace of God at work even during Abraham’s sin. Though he lied and placed his wife in jeopardy, God still regarded him as a prophet. A sinning, disobedient prophet, to be sure, but a prophet nonetheless. Once a prophet, always a prophet. Once a child of God, always a child of God. Once saved, always saved.

I find it instructive that this sorry episode is never again mentioned in the Bible. It is included here so we will be warned. It is never mentioned again so we will be encouraged.

There’s hope for all of us. Backsliders included.

Backsliders Welcome

What should this story do for us? First, it ought to lead to a time of honest self-examination. Are there hidden areas of your life where you have harbored sin in your heart? Have you coddled sinful tendencies and made excuses for sinful habits when instead you should by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the flesh? If we are not ruthless with ourselves, we stand in danger of doing exactly what Abraham did.

Second, this story is given in order to drive us back to the Cross for the forgiveness we need. If you feel some a bit of a failure because of some lapse in your life, you need not despair. Grace abounds to those with the courage to confess their sins.

If you are a Christian, you may find forgiveness and healing by returning again to Jesus Christ, who is “faithful and just to forgive and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (see 1 John 1:9). Backsliders are always welcome. God never turns away anyone who comes to him in the name of His Son.

And if you are unsure of where you stand with the Lord, or if you feel the weight of your sins very heavily, that is a most positive sign. The only person who can never be saved is the person who thinks he doesn’t need salvation. For the rest of us, there is abundant grace and mercy to pardon all our sins.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?