Everyone has a past – moral failings which blot our life histories like blue ink on a white shirt. Outbursts of rage, episodes of immoral behaviour, illicit relationships, lifestyles of violence and aggression, and dark secrets shut out from the prying ears of friends and neighbours. These hang around our necks and minds, pulling our consciences below the earth.
Our sinful past sometimes stands as an obstacle from receiving God’s love and forgiveness. We wonder, ‘Can God really forgive that?’ ‘Surely, I have sinned away hope and mercy.’ But it is precisely in this seemingly hopeless situation that God’s grace shines fairest. As Paul wrote,
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:6-8, ESV)
God’s grace is directed at the guilty. Redemption presupposes a sinful past; without a past you don’t even qualify! And Christ clearly stated: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). It is no surprise that the greatest of his apostles, and the author of almost half of the books which make up the New Testament, was a man who described his past as ‘chief of sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15, KJV).
If there was someone who should have nothing to do with someone with a past, it was Jesus. The eternal Word, who had been with the Father (John 1:1-2), and in whom there is no sin (Hebrews 4:15). Yet among his disciples was Matthew, a tax collector. Tax collectors didn’t just have a past; they had a distasteful present. They were viewed as traitors to the commonwealth of Israel. They were instruments of an oppressive foreign government, exploiting their own kinsmen for personal gain. Yet Jesus not only met with him in his home, he enlisted him in the hallowed circle of disciples. His past was evil but forgiven. That is what Jesus does; he forgives our past and opens a new chapter in our history.
The so-called ‘Hall of Faith’ in Hebrews chapter 11 is another illustration of how God relates to our past. We would expect such an illustrious list to include the holiest of people, the Mother Theresas of the ancient world. But whom do we find? We see Jacob the schemer and deceiver; Rahab, a prostitute from the idol worshipping tribes of Canaan; Samson, the Jewish judge who was so captivated by his lust for women that it eventually cost him both his sight and his life. We also find David the great King of Isreal who had sexual relations with one of his poor subjects and killed her husband in order to conceal his sin. These were God’s heroes of faith.
What made the difference for them was the fact that their past was but a record which their faith in God had overcome (1 John 4:4). Yes, the record was there, but it was now irrelevant. They trusted in God their redeemer, and by faith, they had received forgiveness. And the same is true for us today. The Saviour of the world has shed his blood for all who believe. And their sins he will remember no more, provided they come to him in faith. If we have trusted in Jesus as Saviour, this is our privilege. ‘Though our sins are as red as crimson, they shall become like wool’ (Isaiah 1:18). Thus is the assurance of the gospel.