The Remembrance of Old Sins
It is of great importance to every believer that he should understand how to think of his own sins. Many of the mistakes which we make and miseries of mind which we suffer are closely connected to our ignorance about our present relation as Christians to our sins both past and present.
We assume that all well-instructed and experienced believers are agreed on the following points: that every sin, however small in our eyes, is most hateful to God; that the best actions of the best Christians are all defiled with sin; that sin in the Christian is still sin; that all the sins of a believer are pardoned for Christ's sake; and that a believer's life-long duty is to strive towards unsinning perfection.
Putting these points another way, we may say that the following is our starting-point as we review our relationship as Christians to our sins. First, sin in itself, in whomsoever it exists, is highly displeasing to God. Second, the best Christians have not in this life got beyond the commission of sin. Third, sin is not less sinful when committed by Christians. Fourth, no sins committed by a Christian can ever bring him into condemnation. Fifth, a Christian must not rest satisfied in his mere forgiveness but should daily strive after complete and sinless obedience to God, even though he knows it to be impossible in this life.
Proceeding from the above assumptions, we may consider our many-sided relationship to our sins in terms of the following headings:
1. The Elect are No Less Sinful than Others when God Calls them to Himself
The habit of fallen minds is to slide continually into a spirit of self-righteousness. But, in order to cut away all glorying, God informs us that we 'were by nature children of wrath even as others' (Ephesians 2:3) right up to the point of our conversion. It was not for our moral or spiritual superiority that God stooped down to save us, but out of his mere good-pleasure and inexplicable grace.
It was as men and women who were 'in our blood' (Ezekiel 16:6) that God saved us, by a gracious casting of the skirt of covenant mercy over our nakedness (Ezekiel 16:8). As unregenerate and once-born sinners we were formerly, like all mankind, helplessly lost in our guilt and defilement. No difference of nature existed between the Christian, before his conversion, and the finally-impenitent sinner. So far as moral character is concerned, we were once 'even as others' (Ephesians 2:3) who do not believe the gospel. There may have been a measure of respectability or decency. But even these blessings were the fruits of God's common goodness towards us. In our inward and true character we differed nothing from those who were already in hell. The elect began life as sinners who hated God and as men whose wills could not be obedient to God's will. Had not distinguishing love halted us in our tracks, we should most certainly have chosen that 'way which seemeth right unto a man' but whose end is 'death' (Proverbs 16:25).
It is wholesome to the soul for believers to remember these dark facts about themselves. It is biblical to do so. We dare not go far along the pilgrim path without picturing to ourselves afresh this mortifying truth about ourselves. There was once a time in our life when we were 'afar off' (Ephesians 2:17). We too were 'sometime alienated and enemies in our mind by wicked works' (Colossians 1:21). Again and again the Apostle Paul pauses in the course of writing his Epistles to call his readers' attention to what they were before God's mercy changed them. Old sins should be remembered.
What advantages we should all have if we remembered our old sins oftener! Our love to God would be purer because our gratitude would be warmer. Our adoring praise for electing love would be more full and ardent than it is. We should get into mischief less often than we do. Our heads would hang lower with evangelical repentance and our talk would be more exclusively of a Cross and of a Saviour.
Half the complaining and half the censoriousness which mars our lives as Christians would vanish if we called to mind more frequently the state in which we were born. We are therefore to practise often this exercise of soul: to tell ourselves that we are but 'brands plucked from the burning' (Zechariah 3:2); coals taken from a fire in which others will burn eternally, pieces of sinful clay fit for the furnace of God's wrath till mercy saved us.
2. Though God will Not Judge a Believer's Sins in the Sense of Condemning Him for them, yet God will in this Life Judge a Believer's Sins in the Sense of Chastening Him for them
There is no inconsistency in God's dealings with us as Christians. He has 'justified us freely by his grace' (Romans 3:24). There is 'therefore now no condemnation' (Romans 8:1). Our past and present sins will, in a judicial sense, be 'remembered no more' (Hebrews 8:12). He has 'cleansed us from all unrighteousness' (1 John 1:9).
However, the God who promises to pardon promises also to chasten his children. These two facts, so far from being at variance with one another, are both equally elements within the covenant arrangement which God has made for his people. These terms are stated most clearly in such a passage as Psalm 89:28-34: 'My mercy will I keep for him for evermore, and my covenant shall stand fast with him. His seed also will I make to endure for ever, and his throne as the days of heaven. If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; if they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless my lovingkindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail. My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips'.
The Christian should live in a healthy fear of God's chastening. To have such fear is not to 'despise' God's chastening (Hebrews 12:5). Rather, it is a part of the respect which he owes to God's holiness and love. God's chastisement, after all, is an expression of his anger. It is the anger of a Father, certainly, and not of a Judge. But it is anger nonetheless. No believer in his right mind can make light of God's chastisement, since he knows that God may take strong measures to correct his sins. We may smart for our evil behaviour in ways that we shall feel most keenly — perhaps all our life. Indeed, our sins may stir God to chasten us, not only in our own persons but in the persons of our children for generations after us.
Noah understood this when he prophetically cursed Canaan for centuries to come (Genesis 9:25). Eli's sins of omission as a parent were not the subject of a chastening which ended with his own death. The judgment was to carry forward to a generation still future and to children yet unborn. Eli's indulgent treatment of his wicked sons brought them to untimely deaths and made their posterity into beggars who for years to come must 'crouch ... for a piece of silver and a morsel of bread' (1 Samuel 2:36). Similar lessons come to us from God's chastisements on Solomon and on Hezekiah (1 Kings 11:11; Isaiah 39:7). And both were great men of God.
The message for us is plain. We are to rejoice in our free justification; but we must never presume to think that exemption from condemnation means exemption from chastisement. The only path of peace is the path of Christian obedience. If we are to enjoy peace there must first be holiness of life. Those who use justification as a pretext for sinning boldly must discover sooner or later that God will not long suffer sin in his own children. The Christian who angers God will never lose his soul, but he may lose more or less everything else.
It must be clearly seen from God's dealings with chastened saints in Scripture that sin is sin in the justified as well as in the unjustified. The believer, moreover, sins against God's love as well as against his justice. Our sins as believers are more sinful than others' sins in that wicked men, who have never enjoyed God's saving grace, cannot sin as we can against the love of a heavenly Father.
3. Though Christians have Every Right to Believe that they are Loved by God and Fully Pardoned, yet there Remains a Sense in which they Must Still Hate Themselves and Mourn Over their Past and Present Sins
It is a sign of great ignorance when a believer is at ease with his present state or at too great peace with himself. To have such an attitude is to be too healthy, and therefore to be unhealthy. The healthy believer is always suspicious of himself, always watchful over his own heart, always hungry for more holiness.
This attitude, which we here represent as healthy, must not be misinterpreted as morbidity or as lack of assurance. Evangelical assurance, when genuine, is sure of coming glory but also watchful over present temptation. Furthermore, evangelical assurance is entirely consistent with profound regret for past sin and awareness of present imperfection in oneself. Paul himself, whose assurance of salvation was strengthened by many supernatural favours, gifts and revelations, still felt it necessary to buffet his 'body and bring it into subjection lest, by any means, when he had preached to others, he himself should be a castaway' (1 Corinthians 9:27). He feared the possibility of being finally lost and so took the requisite steps to protect his soul from so fearful a prospect.
Not only so, but the same Apostle, though outstanding in holiness, still groaned under the felt impression of his own indwelling sin (Romans 7:24). Also, he took with him to his dying day a sad recollection of the sins he had committed against Christ before his conversion (Galatians 1:13; 1 Corinthians 15:9; 1 Timothy 1:13). His estimate of himself, arising from his grief for the way he had once persecuted the church, was that he was the least of the apostles and unfit even to bear the title of an apostle ( 1 Corinthians 15:9).
From the above attitudes of Paul we may learn that it is good for the believer to carry with him a gospel-sorrow for the sins which he has committed in the course of life — not only for sins done after conversion, but also for the 'old sins' (2 Peter 1:9) of his unregenerate days. Such gospel-sorrow does not consist of unconsolable anxiety or despair. It is not that haunting fear of divine vengeance which Paul may refer to as the 'spirit of bondage again to fear' (Romans 8:15). Still less is it an obsessive or pathological sense of guilt found in some sad persons who are emotional cripples. Evangelical sorrow is a due sense of grief in a believer's soul arising out of his consciousness of having offended the God whom he supremely loves.
It is our conviction that such sorrow of soul is a sign of spiritual health. It is one element in the experience of a Christian which he must expect to have. Paul clearly had it. Augustine had it. The Reformers and Puritans knew and felt it; and so did the best of our evangelical forefathers. But, as far as the eye can see, this felt sense of sin is comparatively rare today. We no longer grieve over what we are. We no longer weep to think that we are corrupt in heart and blemished in character. Tragically, believers speak of human depravity as if it were a mere point of theology and not also a felt infirmity. Sin, if it is confessed at all, is confessed with careless formalism. A visitor from another world, if he attended our modern prayer meetings, might be pardoned for thinking that sin is only a religious term for an evil which believers talk about, but do not personally experience.
Old sins are of use to teach us new lessons. Old sins are often a photo-fit picture of our present spiritual deficiencies. Old sins are an index to unobserved infirmities. He who would be familiar with tomorrow's temptations, let him consider well yesterday's shortcomings. Every man, like the weather, has his own prevailing wind of susceptibility and will blow soonest towards his besetting sin. When grace is low in the soul the tide of our corruptions will carry us out towards the same old jagged rocks as they did in the past.
If to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Let us remember our old sins.