“Making Peace with the Past”Categories: M. W. Bassford, Sermons
As you know, I like to preach on sermon requests, unless I forget what they are first. This one came to me in one of the church-building hallways after services. A member here asked me to preach on forgiveness, especially forgiving oneself.
This request does not surprise me one little bit. I’ve been hearing similar concerns from Christians for decades. It’s been true in Texas, true in Illinois, and true here. I’ve even seen aspiring hymnists wanting to write hymns about the subject because it’s such a struggle for them.
When I see the topic come up so much, it tells me that a lot of Christians feel like they don’t have good solutions to the problem. We all know that Christians rise from the waters of baptism to walk in newness of life. However, what do we do when guilt from the old life keeps intruding into the new one? For that matter, how do we handle it when we start accumulating sins in the new life too? We know that Jesus forgives our sins, but sometimes we don’t feel forgiven. This morning, then, let’s consider what it takes to make peace with the past.
The first thing that we must do is PUT THE BURDEN IN THE RIGHT PLACE. Here, let’s look at Ephesians 2:8-9. One of my primary rules in studying the Bible is always to seek to explain the text rather than explaining away the text, and this passage illustrates the importance of doing so perhaps better than any other. When I was growing up, I never heard this verse cited in church without somebody following it with “But you still have to be baptized!” The only people I heard quoting it approvingly were people from the denominations. I got the impression that this was a denominational verse instead of a church-of-Christ verse.
Sadly, it is no less dangerous for us to turn away from the whole counsel of God than it is for others to do so, and the consequences of our minimizing this passage are obvious. It shows up in two main places: in all the faithful Christians who are scared to death that they aren’t good enough to go to heaven and in those who are so caught up in their own guilt that the forgiveness of Jesus doesn’t register. You know what both of those things are? They’re symptoms of believing on some level that our salvation is from ourselves.
In fact, if we’re being perfectly honest, both of those things are symptoms of a desire to boast in ourselves. We want to be good enough on the day of judgment, and we want to have been good enough that we don’t have those regrets in our past. The problem is, though, that we know that we have failed and continue to fail, so we suffer beneath all this fear and guilt.
There’s only one way out of the trap. It’s to put the burden of our righteousness on Jesus. Of course we failed in the past! It’s why we became Christians in the first place. Of course we will continue to fail! Otherwise, we no longer would need His grace. We cannot hope to save ourselves or boast in ourselves, but He can and will redeem us.
Second, we must EMBRACE RENEWAL. I like the way Paul puts this in Colossians 3:9-10. It’s a passage that highlights both kinds of renewal. The first is the spiritual change of clothes that is so prominent in Ephesians and Colossians. When we obeyed the gospel, we put off the old self and put on the new self. We are different people now than we were before we were baptized. All the evils that the old self did were left in the water.
However, renewal for the Christian is not just a one-time event. It’s a continuing process. We have put on the new self, past tense, but we are being renewed, present tense. In context, Paul discusses our renewal in knowledge, but this is not the only kind of renewal we experience. In Lamentations 3, Jeremiah observes that God’s mercies are new each morning. We are constantly renewed in knowledge, renewed in righteousness, and renewed in every one of His great blessings.
When we look back, then, on one of those sins that gives us so much guilt now, we must ask if God has renewed us since. Are we still practicing that sin? Is our heart such that we would do it again if given opportunity? If so, we absolutely should feel guilty! We need to repent and get our hearts and our lives right with God.
However, for the Christians who can’t forgive themselves, that’s usually not the case. They usually experience such agony over their past sins because they have repented, aren’t practicing the same thing, and don’t want to.
If that’s where you are, guess what? Those sins don’t belong to you anymore. You’re a different person. You’ve been renewed. You’ve been renewed in your knowledge, renewed in your heart, and most of all, renewed in God’s grace. Those sins have been removed from you as far as the east is from the west, and it doesn’t make any more sense to feel guilty about them than it does to feel guilty about the sins of a stranger.
Finally, we must LEAVE THE PAST IN THE PAST. Paul makes this point in Philippians 3:13-14. It’s interesting that contextually, Paul is talking about forgetting the good things that were part of his life before Christ. He was working on leaving behind things like being a Pharisee of Pharisees and blameless according to the Law.
However, these kinds of unpleasant memories are joined to guilt over past sins by a common thread of regret. The devil was whispering in Paul’s ear that it would have been better if he had gone on being a wealthy, honored Hebrew of Hebrews. Likewise, he uses even our sorrow for sin as a tool to drag us back into the past.
Indeed, the devil wanted Paul thinking about the past and wants us thinking about the past for the same reason. He doesn’t want us thinking about the present because in Paul’s present and our present is Christ. No matter what pretty shiny worldly things the devil dangled in front of Paul, once the apostle compared them to Christ, he saw them for the garbage they were.
So too for us. The devil wants us to dwell on our guilt, our crushing, agonizing, overwhelming guilt. He wants us to lose sleep over it. He wants us to be unhappy. However, what he does not want us to do is to compare our guilt to the grace of Christ.
He does not want us to think about the infinite love of Jesus that led Him to die on the cross. He does not want us to think about the infinite grace that His sacrifice made possible. Remember too that infinity divided by any finite number remains infinite. Jesus didn’t just love the human race infinitely. He loved you infinitely and me infinitely too, and the grace that cleanses each of us of sin is infinite too.
It's good for us to learn from the mistakes of the past, but we must not define ourselves by those mistakes. Instead, we must define ourselves by the grace of Christ. None of us are or can hope to become anything more than a redeemed sinner, but that’s all we have to be because His grace is enough.