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Biblical Motivations for Putting the Past in the Past

What shall we do when our past sins accuse, question, and taunt our present state of justification?

Jun 8, 2022

Recently, I had several counseling situations in which people struggled with the past because they chose to believe their self-accusations. They were practicing that which is seen in Psalm 37:8. They were not heeding the warning of generating further evildoing. They fret rather than accept the promises of God.  

In one instance, I promised to send one of my counselees a homework assignment (If you please, a prescription). Just the proper homework assignment did not come to mind. This morning I returned to First John for my meditation time. I did not get past 3:3, “And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure,” before the Holy Spirit communicated a homework prescription. These people needed to meditate on these three Scriptural facts instead of fretting and living under the dark cloud of their past: we must purify ourselves, we have the assurance of eternal life, and Christ’s work is sufficient for all our sins.   

When we come to Jesus, He deals with ALL our sins. 

First John 3:3 provides reason one when John tells us what the person does who hopes to see the resurrected Jesus. We sinners are reconciled to the Holy God when we trust His testimony that the death and resurrection of Jesus are sufficient to “cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). In turn, they are called to purify themselves.  

We come to Jesus; enemies become His friends. 

Reason two is the inclusive pronoun “we”. We have the hope (assurance) of seeing the resurrected Jesus, and “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). The “we” who have the hope is everyone who has the assurance of eternal life because they have believed that Jesus died and rose again to reconcile them to God (see John 1:12, 5:24 and 2 Corinthians 5:19)—WOW!  

Paul indicates that when we are cleansed, we change from enemies of God to reconciled friends of God. Here is his statement— “For if while we were sinners, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:10). 

However, James indicates that as believers, we can choose to act like unfaithful marriage partners and become friends with the world, that is, think as the world thinks, and in doing so, we put ourselves at enmity with God. Here is how James puts it— “You are like unfaithful wives. You have love affairs with worldly views of life (including secular understandings of guilty and culpability) resulting in acting like enemies of God” (James 4:4, my paraphrase). In response, James continues in verse five, “Or do you think the Scripture says without reason that the Spirit He caused to dwell in us yearns with envy?” In other words, the Spirit of God yearns to restore us to our friendship with God whether our sin was one of commission or omission. Repentance gains the response of God’s forgiveness. 

When we come to Jesus, we agree with Jesus. 

The third reason is articulated by Jesus in John 14:15 when he tells us that since (Greek word here translated “if” can be, and I think correctly translated, “since”) you love me keep my commandments. While not going into detail here, we can certainly conclude that a commandment of Jesus for us is to agree with God, who has promised to put our sin as far as the east is from the west, which is undoubtedly in order. When we cease from our self-flagellation over sin already forgiven, we agree with Jesus’ last words on the cross, “It is finished!” (John 19:13). He declared the sufficiency of His work! 

A case study of James 

James was in his late seventies when a television program he was watching (one of those cop shows) conjured up the ugly memories of an incident in which he did not participate but stood by while his buddies engaged in sin when he was about 13 or 14 years old. “I knew it was wrong. I knew not to participate. But I stood there and watched it,” opined James. “I remember her name. It was Helen. I don’t remember the names of the guys. I don’t remember hanging out with them after that. I just forgot about it. It happened, and it was in the past, and I did not do it. Some years later, I became a Christian, repenting of all past sin, and lived a Christian life, married a Christian woman, and have a lovely family.” 

“Then that stupid show! It is as if those writers were there that night. I filled in the names, and the onlooker was me. I can’t shake it. I’ve been depressed ever since. I wake up in night sweats. My wife is almost frantic with fear. I can’t tell her why I’m depressed. I can’t tell her what a wretch I am. I know I am supposed to believe that God forgave me, but I can’t! I cannot get in a car or go to bed without great anxiety of dying and going to hell.” 

James had a truckload of doubt generating anxiety that yielded a severe depression. Here was his question, “Pastor, am I losing my mind? Do I need to see a psychiatrist? Can medication help me? Am I really a Christian with any hope of going to heaven?” 

What is a Pastor to do? 

The scenarios may differ, but the questions are always the same. What is a Pastor to do? The answer is simple but profound. The Pastor may start with Psalm 37:8 and point out the warning to repentant sinners to not fret since it leads to evil doing, winding oneself into depression for example. Contrary to our common English understanding of the word ‘fret’, Hebrew has the idea of a wave of burning anger. It can lead to violence and crime. In the case of James, a strong emotion of self-recrimination (a form of intense anger) despite his knowledge of God’s promises. The Bible is very clear about not fretting over evildoers (including ourselves) and trusting the Lord for our justice. 

First, he must address this put-off, “fret not.” His “I can’t” must become “I can because God has promised to enable me.” Second, he must engage in renewed thinking with the aforementioned Scriptural truths. Third, he must embrace a thankful spirit by bowing in humble repentance for doubting God’s promises. And fourth, he must trust God by choosing to rejoice in the Lord’s marvelous promise to bury his sins in the deepest sea (Micah 7:19). 

This is simple to state and establish from God’s Word, but dynamically complex requiring implementation of the godly discipline encouraged by Paul (I Timothy 4:7-8). These truths are powerfully redemptive, freeing, and reinvigorating spiritually and physically (Romans 6:11-17; Psalm 32). 

My prayer response 

Thank you, Holy Spirit, for once again enlightening my mind about how to implement the Word to counter the impact of our sin on our lives and move us onward in sanctification—conformity to the image of Jesus. Be pleased, Holy Spirit, to remind me of these truths when my past raises its ugly head and bless others by this meditation in the same manner. Amen.