When You Try to Let Go of Your Past, and Your Past Won
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Sunday, September 30, 2012 - 6:00 p.m.  Sermon #: 1596
Pastor Don Horban

The subject continues to be spiritual weariness - where do you begin to look when you know things are not going well spiritually. You don't have to be a Christian very long to discover that it's not all smooth sailing. But there are better answers than giving up and quitting or getting mad at God or other people in the church.

Last week we took quite a bit of time analyzing the proper foundation and starting place in the Christian life. In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul says that the foundation has to be right - 1 Corinthians 3:9-11 - “For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building. [10] According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. [11] For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

Paul knows how important this foundation is. Notice the way he uses that word in verse 10. Everything else slides and crumbles when the foundation isn't right. We spent two weeks studying some prevalent misconceptions about how a Christian is born and how he is formed.

The purpose of today's message is different. We’re moving on to other causes of spiritual weariness. Tonight’s teaching is to give encouragement for those who wrestle with the past after starting their Christian walk.

Christian's wrestle with the past in two related ways:

i) There can arise condemnation for past sin - There can arise a feeling of lingering guilt that gnaws - that grinds like gravel or broken glass - as the wheels of spiritual life try to turn.

ii) There can also arise regrets about wasted time and misspent opportunities. This can happen even when you know you’ve been forgiven. Regrets can quickly fester. We all know that. Even while forgiven, past failures can never be taken back again. You can't undo all of the mistakes. You can't undo all of the consequences of foolishness. That robs many people of joy in their walk with Jesus.

Now Paul deals with both of these problems. He has written so powerfully by the Spirit of God to provide solid help and encouragement for people in exactly those positions.


1 Timothy 1:15-16 - "The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. [16] But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”

Most people didn't believe Paul when he told them he was a Christian. Ananias didn't even want to pray with Paul when directly commanded by God Himself to do so. When Paul walked into a prayer circle people starting leaving to go to the bathroom. Nobody trusted Paul.

And nobody had any reason to. Paul was the greatest enemy the first century gospel had. Paul wasn't your typical atheist. He didn't just ignore God. After all, he blasphemed and cursed the name of Jesus - 1 Timothy 1:13 - “....though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent....”

How do you feel, if you're the mom of one of the teenagers who, after getting saved at the youth convention last Friday night, suddenly hears that Paul and his soldiers broke into the meeting? Your son was taken away. Now he's dead. Paul had him killed because he wouldn't renounce his faith. Would you want to kneel down in a prayer circle next to this guy?

And let's switch feet for a minute - and this relates to the subject of condemnation for past sin - how do you think Paul felt about all of the things he had done? Because the more he loved Jesus after his conversion, the more his hatred of Jesus before his conversion knifed his heart. And that deep love for Jesus would only make the sting of his former life register more deeply.

Look at these verses in 1 Timothy:

a) As he looked at the unbelievable events of his life and conversion Paul felt there had to be some reason why God had shown such marvelous grace to him. There certainly was nothing in his past to merit such mercy. There was nothing but a humble feeling of unworthiness in Paul's heart.

But what he says is very calculated as he thinks through the wonder of his own conversion. He ponders the forgiveness of his sins. He says that his conversion right at the beginning of God's unfolding of redemption in Christ Jesus had a definite purpose. And the purpose has to do with you and me.

He says the reason God saved someone as visibly rebellious as he was is to give hope and assurance to millions of others who would be tempted to feel unworthy and condemned about the sins of their past when they came to Jesus.

He says he was an "example" - literally, "an outline sketch" - like those used by an artist before actually doing the full painting. The sketch shows what is still yet to come. The pencil sketch shows what the actual painting is going to look like.

Paul would say to each of us today - "Don't ever doubt God's unbelievable forgiving power over your past. Christ's whole purpose in coming into this world was to save sinners. And I'm the worst of the bunch! If it worked for me, it will work for anybody who puts his trust in Him"

Paul would say to each of us today - "When you’re tempted to doubt God's marvelous grace - when you think it's just too good or too free to be true - the account my conversion - and my persecution of the church before my conversion - was put in the Bible for you!”

Others have written great words of encouragement to underline the very same truth: Annie Johnson Flint - "His love has no limit; His grace has no measure; His power has no boundary known unto men. For out of His infinite riches in Jesus, He giveth, and giveth and giveth again."

b) There are also lessons in these verses about how a Christian should look at his past sin

i) First, I don't think that Christians should continue to pray about sins that have been confessed and forsaken. I’m not saying we shouldn’t remember the lessons of past failures. But there’s a sense in which bringing that same issue over and over to the Lord only serves to focus your mind and attention on it rather then on the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God the Son.

I'm not talking about being carelessly mindless about some area of continued disobedience. I’m not talking about confessing the same sin over and over because you want to claim forgiveness while continuing in the thrill of sinful indulgence. Certainly God doesn't hear that person's prayer anyway.

But while recognizing those kinds of spiritual distortion, we still need to remember that there is another consideration for all who would be serious about following Jesus. If the devil can't take your salvation, the next best thing he can do is rob you of your confidence in your redeeming God. He’ll whittle away at your joy. He is not called the “accuser of the brethren” for no reason. He takes twisted delight in keeping us wallowing in past guilt and shame.

ii) So how should a Christian look at his past sin? Should he try to just block it out of his mind? Not think about it?
I don't think that's the answer. Paul thought and talked about the sins of his past. He wrote about them in the Scriptures. There is nothing but good in remembering our inclination toward sin and our weakness without the inward work of the Spirit of Christ.

The issue is how Paul looked at his past sins that's the important point - 1 Timothy 1:13-14 - "....though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, [14] and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

The Christian must never look at his past sin by itself - as a stand-alone entity outside of or apart from the historic reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Devil wants past sin viewed in isolation. That takes the wind out of our sails. The Christian looks at past sins against the glory of the cross.

Paul talks quite a bit about his past: "I was once a terrible blasphemer. I did some terrible things against the church and my Lord" He admits that. There is no pretending of blind, optimistic denial here. But notice what he does not say. He never says, "I guess I have no business being a preacher of the gospel. I'll just go and sit quietly in a corner and humbly mourn over my past"

No. He has something much more positive and productive. Paul had learned the secret of glorying in grace. You can learn from looking at past sins as long as you view them through the lens of grace and atonement.

This was Paul’s take. “What an unbelievably merciful and mighty God I have! Look what he's done in my life! What power in the blood!"

Look at how he finishes this little autobiographical section of this letter - 1 Timothy 1:17 - "To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

What makes Paul sing these songs of praise? He has been thinking and rejoicing about God's provision for those past sins. This is miles from being spiritually depressed about his sins. He doesn't ignore them. He doesn't pretend they never existed. But now he's ready to shout for joy and move ahead in victory.

When Jesus said "It is finished," He meant it. Those are mighty words. It means He will never go back to the cross again. Nothing was left undone in dealing with the sins in my past.

iii) There's one more lesson to consider from these verses. They draw out the important question, why does God save bad people, anyway? "Well, He just loves us, Pastor Don." Yes He does. But that's not the whole answer. It's not even the biggest part. There's a bigger and more important reason. God saved you while you were still a sinner for the very same reason He saved Paul in his sin - for the same reason He saves anybody.

God saves bad people so that He alone will be glorified for their salvation. God does everything for His glory. Everything. All of creation exists solely to glorify God.

"The heavens declare the glory of God.” There. That’s the sole reason there is something in this universe rather than nothing at all. Or consider Revelation 4:11 - “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created." The creation of all things and the worthiness of God to receive all glory are not linked in this verse by coincidence.

Now, nature glorifies God just by its existence. And all people glorify God in the marvel of their human bodies - "fearfully and wonderfully made." But the redeemed glorify Him by celebrating His grace in redemption. We exalt Him in a way no one else can - not even the angles in heaven. Our motives are so much greater. Our reason for holiness and obedience are so much greater. So much has been invested in us.

That's why Paul is horrified that any Christian would ever think of continuing in sin (Romans 6:1). "You just don't get it! God's whole purpose in redeeming you wasn't just to get you out of hell. It was so people would look at you and say, "Wow! What an unbelievably wonderful and merciful and powerful God!"

I said at the beginning of this teaching there were two ways in which past sins can trouble the Christian. The first was feeling of guilt for wicked deeds that stand in the past, that can never be redone. Now on to the second trouble:


Paul deals with this subject in a different passage:

1 Corinthians 15:8-10 - "Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. [9] For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. [10] But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

You just can't help but notice that Paul puts himself at the bottom of the list of the Apostles. All of the others saw Jesus before His ascension. They ate and slept and walked and ministered with Jesus right here on earth. They sat right with Him as He taught. There were so many blessings Paul never got in on.

While John would sit with his head on Jesus' breast, Paul was killing all the Christians he could get his hands on. That's why he says he was “untimely born.” He had missed so much. He says he had seen Christ "last of all" (1 Corinthians 15:8). After everyone else. Later than everyone else. Missed opportunities.

Paul had spent valuable time persecuting the church. What would that be like for a man who now said that "for me to live is Christ"? Where could he have gone with the gospel had he not wasted so much time? If only he hadn't been so blind - so stubborn in unbelief!

We will never know everything that went on in Paul’s mind every time he had a sleepless night. And many Christians are paralyzed with those kinds of regrets. It's not quite the same as guilt over past sin. They know they're forgiven. They don't doubt God's love. In fact, it's because they love Jesus so much that they regret their misspent lives!

"How could I have been so blind?" "How could I have been so cruel? So stubborn?" I hear that kind of thing all the time. Sometimes people actually think they are pleasing God because they aren't being too easy on themselves. You don't have to be Roman Catholic to believe in doing some kind of penance for a misspent past. Many Christians believe God looks down from heaven and says "That's right. Don't you be too easy on yourself. You just sit and stew in your own juices for a little while!"

The devil is tickled with that kind of spiritual depression and deception. He'll tell you, "That's right. In fact, that's what real repentance is all about. Wipe that smirk off your face. You should feel ashamed of yourself. After all, you can never get those years back!"

So what about it? What's a Christian to think? After all, it's true - you never can get those years back. You never can undo the deeds done in "ignorance and unbelief". How is the Christian to deal with vain regrets?

Here again, Paul has two marvelous lessons for all of us:

a) While what you were is an unchangeable fact, it's not the most important thing about you any longer

There's something so tender and encouraging in these words - "But by the grace of God, I am what I am"(10). "What does it matter what I was? I am what I am by the grace of God."

Again, the hymnwriter caught the spirit of it in the far too seldom sung "Praise My Soul the King of Heaven" - "Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven - Who like me His praise should sing?"

"What does it matter what I was? I can't do anything about that. It just wastes more time to mope over it. Certainly I'm not proud of what I did. I would change it if I could. But I can't. I'm not going to drive through life looking through the rear-view mirror! It's what I am that counts! And it fills my soul with praise to God!"

b) If you did waste too much time in the past, don’t waste any more time in the present - I like Paul's reasoning - 1 Corinthians 15:10 - "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

Do you see that wonderful logic in these verses? Paul clearly thought a great deal about being the “last one in” in terms of his apostleship. But he processes that reality with wonderful optimism. “If I started later than everyone else, that’s OK because I now I work harder for the Lord than everyone else too! Because of God's wonderful grace, I'm not wasting another minute moping. I work harder than anybody else for the Lord!"

Do you see what his attitude is? It's not destructive and worrisome. It's totally productive. "If I wasted time before, now, by God's grace, I'm making up for lost ground!"

Don't play into the enemy’s hand. Do take sin seriously. Do a thorough job in repentance. But don't regurgitate past sin. Don't waste precious life regretting missed opportunities. Live your life in full and rich appreciation of the power of the cross - filled with praise, thankfulness, and a consuming zeal to make every minute count for His glory from here on in.