In preparing for my sermon this past Sunday, I ran across a quote from Kyle Snodgrass in his book Who God Says You Are:“Conversion is an autobiographical revision.” I like that. Wouldn’t it be nice to rewrite the past? What if we could take our most embarrassing moments and reframe them? In the revision, that awkward joke we told actually made people laugh; or, that off color comment we made never left our lips. More importantly, the lie we told—which caused so much pain and confusion for those we love most—suddenly became a moment where we told the truth and avoided the heartache. That time when we gave in to momentary lust and were unfaithful to our spouse suddenly is rewritten and we refused the advances of another. Maybe that conversation you had with a friend, where you had a chance to mention Jesus but was too afraid, suddenly becomes a time when you were courageous enough to speak up. It might not even be something you have done, but something done to you. We are both victims and victimizers.
Unfortunately, the past is written in permanent marker; no Magic Eraser, Oxi-Clean, or Tide-to-Go pen can erase what’s been done. People write autobiographies, not to create the past, but to record it. Even if they reframe the events in a better light, it doesn’t change how things actually played out. Even worse, we can’t forget the past; its always there haunting the present and holding us captive to guilt, grief, and fear. Our past often defines who we are and determines where we are going. How oppressive our history can be.
That being said, how can we possibly hope to be unshackled from the past?
This week I have really focused on this question, hoping to discover the Biblical response to engaging our past (we discussed it in the sermon where I minister). What I discovered was enlightening and empowering. The world often offers only two possible solutions which are both summarized in the popular animated film The Lion King: 1) The Hakuna Matata method of Timon and Pumba (i.e. forget it and move on); 2) Learn from past pain method of wise Rafiki (learn from it and move on). There may be some wisdom in this, but we also realize something more is needed.
The gospel calls us to something deeper; it calls us to a God who takes our ruined past and redeems it. In this redemption, he makes our broken past a place of conquered grace where His glory is most clearly seen. Sadly, we often don’t see ourselves in this light. We see the brokenness, but we don’t see how God can make this better. If we could just have an example of a real, historical person where God’s grace transformed the past to make a better present, we could possibly believe it.
Thankfully we are given that within the apostle Paul. The former Christian wrangler turned Christian witness writes in 1 Timothy 1:12-16 about his dark past, God’s present grace, and the hope it brings for the future. Here are three ways in which Paul says the gospel redefines our past.
Our Service is Sanctified
From the very beginning, Paul had immense talent. He was trained under the most preeminent Jewish rabbis, knew the Torah extensively, and was a well-versed public speaker (Acts 22:3). Yet, for some time, those talent were used against God and His people; he was “kicking against the goads” (Acts 26:14). God had a purpose for his abilities, but he was using them in the wrong way. Sin hijacked Paul’s service, but through the gospel the Lord sanctified them for His use. In 1 Timothy 1:12 he says that Jesus “judged me faithful, appointing me to his service.”
While Paul’s apostolic appointment was a special calling that we don’t receive today, the gospel does call us into the service of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:6-7). Part of this demands a reframing or our abilities, and thus our identity. Whereas previously our talents were used for the service of self, sin, and false religious practices, we are now “His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10). The gospel redeems our past by sanctifying our service. Through Jesus Christ we are given a greater, and far more glorious purpose: to serve him by serving others. Our imagination, intelligence, and ingenuity all become means of magnifying the name of our God.
Our Sin is Justified
Notice the word Paul uses to describe himself in 1:13: blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. When you look at the Greek, these words paint a picture, not of some innocent bystander, but an active, arrogant person who hated Jesus and his people. Yet, that isn’t the end of the verse; it gives a contrast with an extremely important word: “But.” He then gives four things which transformed his past: mercy, grace, faith, and love (13b-14). These four elements are the means by which our sins are justified (declared righteous before God), and thus our past is rectified.
So many Christians remain captive to the past because they are constantly looking to their lack of perfection. They are so busy focusing on how bad that they are, they can’t see how good God is. They fail to recognize that their salvation isn’t based on their own good works, but on the good work of God through Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:19-20; 24-25). The gospel doesn’t make us forget our past, but it does make us forgiven.
Our Story is Glorified
Being justified by the grace of God and sanctified for His service, Paul now sees his life in a different light: instead of a broken, shattered series of hateful, prejudiced actions, he is now a storyboard for the “perfect patience of Jesus Christ” (v. 16). The best conversion accounts have the darkest backstories. Without Jesus, Paul was a persecutor fighting against God’s kingdom, hating and harming himself and others. Yet, with the gospel, he became Paul the former persecutor who’s life was one of the greatest apologetic arguments for the reality of His Lord.
Jesus can take a broken mess and make it a beautiful masterpiece by His grace. If we are are willing to trust in Him, give our life to him in repentance, confess Him as Lord, accept His mercy and forgiveness in baptism, we then can arise to “walk in the newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Within Him, “Old things have passed away, behold all is new” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Salvation is a transformation of who you were without Jesus, to who you are in Jesus. Through the gospel, your ruined past becomes a redeemed one. Only the cross can unshackle us from the past and give us the hope of a future in which all is made new (Rev. 21:5).
Will you break the chains today?