I’ve been watching the news lately. I’m a bit addicted to it. The political battles that take place in our nation display a reality that illustrates an untenable situation. What is that reality, you ask? It is the reality that no one’s past mistakes are ever truly in the past.
Do you remember when Rand Paul in Kentucky needed to defend himself against a bit of alleged youthful foolishness? Can you recall the time when, in Delaware, Christine O’Donnell declared “I’m not a witch” in order to refute something that occurred in high school. All across the country political hopefuls are hammering each other with snippets and vignettes of their opponent’s past, desperate to bring out any uncomfortable issue in order to win points with the voters.
But does this same situation exist in the church?
I’m afraid it does. I know many who suffer the unrelenting sting of the past. The former mistakes and sins of those who have come out of the darkness of the world and into the light of Christ seem to hang onto their lives far longer than you might expect. Should all Christians expect that their past will continually be a source of pain and anguish, even after repentance and restoration to God?
What does the Scripture say?
God’s Approach to Past Sins:
“If we confess our sins, He [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” – 1 John 1:9
“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of His inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” – Micah 7:18
A Christian Approach to Past Sins:
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” – Ephesians 4:32
“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” – Colossians 3:13
So, what is a church (or individual) suppose to do when a person enters into the fellowship of God’s people—and that person has a colored and shame-filled past?
There are three things:
Look for genuine repentance.
God spoke through Isaiah the prophet, “Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” – Isaiah 55:7
Genuine repentance is not simply a matter of a person saying, “I’m sorry.” There are actions that follow a person who has repented and turned to God. The text above gives two actions and both are there to demonstrate a real repentance. The first action is to forsake that which is evil. The second action is to turn to the Lord. These must be recognized both in words as well as conduct. John the Baptist said, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).
Receive him/her with grace.
In 2 Corinthians it says, “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now, instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” – 2 Corinthians 2:6-7
If true godly sorrow is in effect and genuine repentance has occurred, how can that person remain outside the loving comfort of the church? I fear that today there are many who are “overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” They believe that their life is ruined and their usefulness to the body of Christ is at an end. Though repentant, they find little acceptance in the church. There are three things the church is meant to do: forgive, comfort, and reaffirm love. If love is the heartbeat of the church and God’s word is its blood, then forgiveness and mercy must become the left and right arms that reach out to embrace those who have repented.
Let the past remain forgiven.
“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” – Colossians 3:13-14
God promises that our iniquities will be cast into the depths of the sea and our sins removed as far as the east is from the west (Micah 7:19; Psalm 103:12). There are, however, some spiritual “scuba divers” who have the desire to remain ever vigilant to remind others of their past sins. To do this is to join in the devil’s work for he is called the “accuser of our brothers” (Revelation 12:10). The church must become the voice of grace to those who need to hear love and not accusation.
The church should be the place for those who are escaping “the corruption of the world caused by evil desires.” Let the world say what it will. In the church, a person’s past must not become the singular consideration and only means of comprehending a person’s life.
If there is genuine repentance, let there be genuine restoration. If you are unwilling to forgive, then hear the warning from our Lord: “In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” – Matthew 18:34-35
Michael Duncan is a multi-published author, including From Vision to Victory and Shadow Remnant. He is co-host on the Alive in Christ radio network and serves as a pastor in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. He is a keynote speaker and conference presenter and can be contacted at: http://www.authormichaelduncan.com and you can follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/michaelduncanbooks.
All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Holy Bible.