Whether we became a Christian at a young age or took every wrong road before surrendering our lives to Christ, we all have a past. While each of our blessings and struggles are unique, every person carries baggage to some degree: a missed opportunity, a wrong decision with devastating consequences, victimization in one form or another, or the many horrors that result from our own sin or from that of another person.
This is a subject that people spend countless hours in counseling trying to deal with, often finding little or no help. Why is that? Because so often we try to break through the walls of our heart with man’s wisdom rather than bringing everything first to our Savior, realizing that sin is at the root of it all. Man’s wisdom says we can find healing if we look inwardly. However, while we may have the ability to change our outward behavior, we do not have the power to fully understand and change the deep places of our own hearts.
I went to Christian counseling for a season, and while I found it a helpful resource, no actual change occurred in me until the Holy Spirit broke through the stubbornness and hardness in my heart, bringing me to humble desperation before him. I believe gospel-centered counseling can have great value, but we must first look upward to the One with the power to change our hearts.
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
Regardless of your past, whether it has been a smooth ride or a painful one, there is one truth that speaks into each and every life: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel Speaks Into Our Past
God created the heavens, the earth, and everything in it. We were born into sin, meaning that, not only do we sin externally, but our nature and entire “being” was born in rebellion against God. This is why we can never be good enough to earn God’s favor. But in his perfect love and mercy, Jesus came to earth to live a sinless life and take the complete wrath of God that we deserve by sacrificing himself in our place. Then he rose again to defeat the power of sin. If we believe that Jesus Christ is our Savior, confess that we are sinners in need of his forgiveness, and give our lives completely over to his Lordship, then we are forgiven, redeemed, and given assurance of eternity in heaven.
For those who have received the gospel, we are completely forgiven and have a new nature in Jesus Christ. What then do we make of our past? Should it no longer affect us since we are a new creation? 2 Corinthians 5:17 states:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
While the sin of our past has been washed clean in our standing before God, we often still have to deal with the consequences of some of those sins committed while in the flesh. Though we know we have been forgiven, the memories of our past can still tempt us to feel otherwise. It can be a struggle to allow the truth that we are redeemed, forgiven, and seen as righteous to penetrate the shameful or self-righteous memories stored in the secret places of our hearts. But in God’s great mercy, he does not leave us there. While we always live with the memories of our past, we do not need to live in bondage to it.
I admit that while I am confident of my salvation, I still occasionally grieve over some of the choices I made, the scars I received, and the painful memories that I can’t erase. For many years after coming to Christ, I tried to block them out as if they had never happened. But what I found is that the harder I tried to push down my feelings of shame and hurt, the more bitterness and self-protection grew in my heart. But praise be to God for his faithfulness, patience, and grace to gently plow the fallow ground within me in order to “multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness” (2 Corinthians 9:10).
Four Ways the Gospel Speaks Into Our Past
Here are four ways that I believe the gospel speaks into our past.
1. When we are tempted to feel shame or embarrassment over our past, we must remind ourselves that Christ came to save sinners. Why then are we surprised and ashamed, hiding the fact that we lived a life of sin before seeing our need for a Savior?
Once we are saved, we may look back at our past with shame and embarrassment over the choices we made. It’s not wrong to feel sadness for the ways we grieved the Lord before we were Christians, but why would we expect ourselves to have done anything other than follow the path of sin before we had the power of Christ in us to see our sin and defeat it?
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Romans 3:11-18)
While it isn’t beneficial to dwell on the past as if we have no hope, it is beneficial to reflect on it at times for the purpose of displaying Christ’s saving power, guarding ourselves from pride, and driving us to our knees in thanksgiving and dependence.
Anytime we catch ourselves going down the path of shame and regret, however, we must preach the gospel to ourselves and be reminded that, while the memories of our past no longer define us, they can drive us back to the grace and undeserved gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.
2. Those who are tempted to look back with pride at the good choices they have made are on the slippery slope of self-righteousness. The gospel reminds us that every good choice we make is by the grace of God alone, driving us to the cross in gratitude for what the Lord has spared us from.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:23-25)
Less outward sin does not make us less of a sinner by nature. We tend to want to put everything on a grading scale and judge the state of something by comparison. But the gospel breaks right through that way of thinking and tells both the outward rebel and the self-righteous that we are equally deserving of the God’s wrath and equally offered the free gift of salvation. Praise God for that!
It’s important for us to be aware of two common traps of the enemy. He often uses shame in a believer’s life to keep them from experiencing the full freedom of the gospel. Likewise, he can use a false sense of righteousness in a person to keep them from seeing their need for the gospel. The temptation is to believe you are a sinner but to never really grasp the depth of your sin, preventing you from true dependency on Christ.
Whatever our spectrum – a broken and shameful past or one where we toed the straight line – we are all in need of a Savior. Instead of looking at the past of another person and judging their choices as if we are superior or inferior, let’s humbly allow God to use our unique journeys to magnify the truth of the gospel to each other and to those who are still in desperate need of a Savior.
3. Nothing that we have done, nothing that has been done to us, is outside of God’s sovereign control. Therefore, we can have confidence that Christ’s saving power is strong enough to cover any filth, shame, scar, pain, or weakness we bring to the foot of the cross.
God’s perfect sovereignty over our lives is so magnificent and wise that it is impossible for us to fully grasp. But he has assured us throughout his Word that nothing lays outside of his control and perfect will.
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-30)
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I do not say these things lightly. You may be thinking, “You have no idea what I have gone through!” While you may be right, I believe that nothing lives outside the truth of the gospel. Somehow, every single pain, heartache, and horrific sin in our lives is under the sovereign control of the Lord, a part of the story he is writing in each of our lives to make us more into the image of Christ and display his glory.
4. One day, those of us who are in Christ Jesus will be free from the struggle of shame or self-righteousness over our past. The gospel assures us of an eternity not only free from sin but from the effects of it as well.
Do not lose hope if you feel weary from the battle within you. While Christ can free us from bondage to our past, sin still tempts us to forget how the gospel speaks into it. But one day, we will be able to see our past through the eyes of Christ and be free from both the heartache and pride that it can cause.
He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of His people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 25:8)
Are you tempted to hide from your past, living in quiet shame? Is your confidence in yourself? Whatever kind of past you have come from, if you have been covered by the blood of Jesus, it is part of a one-of-a-kind redemptive story that is being woven through each of our lives. What a privilege we have to be a part of something so much greater than ourselves! What a privilege to know that God will take every moment of our past, present, and future and use them for our good and his glory.
Praise God that the gospel redeems what was once lost and hopeless.