I learned last night that my brother’s roommate and my parent’s tenant almost died in a car crash while under the influence of alcohol. While speeding down a steep road, he struck a guardrail and rolled over several times before landing in the bottom of a canyon. He suffered severe internal injuries and is in the ICU at the hospital.
This person has a past history with alcohol problems. My brother has witnessed it. Everyone has a past. It is something we all have in common. We all have some regrets back there. There are some people who would rather ignore their past, who are stuck in their past, who embrace their past, who are working on conquering their past or who dwell on their past. The past affects all of us. People can be haunted by their past. Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. Interestingly, we all fall into both of those categories. Our pasts may have marked us, but they do not have to enslave us.
What enslaves people in their past?
First, people can be enslaved by successes or expectations from their past. All of us have some shining moments and glory days back there. We have these memories that seize us, and we think we felt most fully alive back there. There were times of great accomplishments and when relationships felt close. It’s awesome we have great memories of our past. The problems occur when we wrap our identities around something that happened back there. We tie who we are today around who we were back then. Some of us have expectations back there that we carry into today. Some people may have tried so hard to impress Mom and Dad back then that they spend there entire lives trying to please others.
Second, people can be haunted by the lure of sin that brought them pleasure in the past. There are things back there that fed our egos and our feelings of self worth. There are addictions that started back there. Some of us may be in the place where we say, “Even though I’m older, more mature and/or a Christian now, I can’t seem to shake my sin that started back there.”
Third, people can be haunted by guilt and shame. It actually blocks the flow of grace. For some of us there is something that we went through or brought upon ourselves or something done to us that is just dark. We carry this shame and guilt, and it actually blocks grace from flowing into our lives. Our thoughts are filled with would haves, could haves and should haves. For people in this cycle there is a worldly sorrow that has a tendency to overcome us. Shame builds upon shame and there is a cycle of guilt that just paralyzes us and keeps us from finding freedom.
Your past has marked you, but it does not have to enslave you.
We will look at a passage of scripture that provides some foundational keys to breaking us free from our pasts. Let us read Colossians 1:21-23: “ Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation — if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.” Paul first discusses the problem that has seized mankind. There is a separation between us and God caused by sin. We are alienated and enemies of God because of our sin. There are things wrong in our world. When we are honest with ourselves we recognize there is something wrong with us too. Sin is our rebellion against God. Sin means to miss the mark.
Let us examine two keys that break the chains of our past that are in the above passage:
1) The first key is substitutionary atonement. We have had a fundamental change in our standing before God. When we came to Christ, we went from being alienated and enemies of God to being holy without blemish and free from accusation. Atonement is the way we are made right in our relationship with God and substitutionary means there was a substitute to help us out. There is an innocent third party that takes our place, so that our sins can be forgiven and we can be made right with God.
Adam flagrantly disobeyed God, and then he blamed it on the woman God gave to him. The earth had never seen disobedience until then. God warned Adam and Eve there would be consequences for their sin. God’s response wasn’t to immediately strike Adam and Eve dead. God didn’t turn a blind eye to the problem either. God explained how the entire universe would be tainted by sin and death. God promised to women that childbirth would be painful. God promised to men they would struggle and toil to manage creation and also their own lives. God said human relationships would be complicated by ego, and humans bodies will eventually grow old and die. These are ongoing consequences for the sin of mankind. God explained that people who live in a consistent pattern of rebellion and resistance of God would eventually be charged guilty for their crimes against God and banished to hell for all eternity. Sin is SERIOUS.
Adam and Eve felt the effect of guilt immediately. Adam and Eve used to run to God in the Garden of Eden. Sin drove such a wedge between their relationship that when God came wandering to the garden instead of running to Him, their natural response was to run away from Him and hide. God found them hiding behind a tree, covered. They felt they needed to cover their shame from God. In Genesis 3:21 it says God made skin garments for Adam and Eve and clothed them. God is a fair and righteous judge, so sin cannot go unpunished. In his love and compassion, God provided an alternative way to pay for their crimes. Adam and Eve crouched behind a tree, and they watched death be introduced to the world for the first time at the hands of God. They heard the squeal of an animal and watched the struggle in silence as God made them coverings of sin from an animal. In order for wrongdoing to be paid for, an innocent third party had to bear the penalty that is rightfully ours. There was a sacrifice involved for sin and guilt and shame to be covered over.
Fast forward a couple thousand years later to God’s chosen people, the Israelites. They were in captivity and slavery and being worked to death by the Egyptians. Finally, it pushed God to His breaking point. God sent the Angel of Death to kill all of the firstborn of the land, but God provides a way out, just as He always does. God said the people should take an unblemished male lamb and slaughter it and put the blood on the doorposts of the home. God promised that when the Angel of Death came by the home, he would pass over instead of killing the firstborn inside of the home. Passover is the day that God spared the Israelites. Sin must be paid for. This was God’s arrangement. The people had to make a choice.
Now imagine being a 15-year-old child. The oldest child in your family. You follow your dad out back one day and watch your dad chase the prize lamb out in the backyard. Then you watch your dad slaughter the best lamb and put its blood on your door. He looks you in the eyes and says, “Son, tonight sins are going to be paid for. It is either the lamb, or it is you.” Again, an innocent third party had to be sacrificed, so the guilty party could go free. It was a visual reminder to the people that sin is serious to God, and it must be paid for.
Then the prophet Isaiah started talking about one who would be wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. He said the Lord would lay on this one the iniquities of all of us. Isaiah made it sound like someday, somewhere there would be a human sacrifice that would pay the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of the world. One day the rumors became a reality when Jesus was born. There were clear indications his whole life that He was God. His birth was heralded with these words: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Jesus began teaching and talking in sacrificial terms. He lived a sinless life, was falsely accused, then beaten, and finally led to the cross to die. The saints and angels in heaven looked on in horror as Jesus was nailed to a wooden cross outside of Jerusalem. Imagine heaven as God Himself bled to death! He was hanging there in front of the people who should have been bowing down. Instead they were auctioning his clothing to the highest bidder.
The price is high. We are the ones that lie when we should tell the truth, hate when we should love, and hold back when we should give. We put people down when we build people up. You and I are the ones. But the truth remains that as holy and righteous as God is, He has this thing about YOU. He knows your name. His heart is moved with love when He thinks of you. We can be forgiven and blameless from the sins of our past because God made an arrangement that the ultimate, innocent third party would take our place. This is substitutionary atonement.
What do we do with it? The Bible says that we receive through faith the grace that has been extended to us. There are some of you reading this that have been chased around by a God who will not let you go. You have resisted time and time again. I want to challenge you to stop running. Some of you are upset because you are living in pain right now. You are in that place where you are shaking your fist at God. You question whether you even believe in God because of what you are going through. You are experiencing consequences for sins of the past. It doesn’t seem fair to you. Consequences for sin are birthed out of a deep, rich, passionate, ferocious love for you by a Father who loves you. Our God doesn’t want to see us get hurt or destroyed.
Your past has marked you, but it doesn’t have to enslave you because Jesus paid the ultimate price on the cross. He has set you free.
2) The second key to breaking free from your past is progressive sanctification. Sanctification is becoming free from sin and becoming more like Jesus in our lives. Progressive means that it will continue in increasing measure for the rest of our lives. It is expected that once people come to Christ, their journeys become increasingly more Christlike. The proof the gospel has really taken hold of us and we have received true salvation is that our lives will match up. Where there is true salvation, there will be good works that accompany it. They will continue to progress and develop until the day we die. Paul says in 2 Corinthians that we are being changed in Christlikeness from one degree of glory to another. We are to put on a new nature that is being renewed in the knowledge and love of Christ. There is a growth pattern that occurs throughout the Christian life. It only makes sense this would be an important part of breaking the chains of the past. As we grow deep in our faith, the sins we were once enslaved to will slowly begin to fall away.
The problem for many Christians is that this is not their experience. There are right and wrong ways to live as Christians caught in the struggle to live for Christ and to fall into sin. We can get caught in this cycle of doom. Religion is the wrong way. It is wrong to become more like Jesus in our own strength and to artificially manipulate our behavior so as to somehow earn God’s favor. Many people become Christians and find it is harder to live this way then they thought it would be. At some point they fall back into their pasts. They know they have blown it, and they try to fix it themselves. They go crazy trying to make it work through their own willpower. When it doesn’t work people either give up or they fake it.
If you push a repeat button on this cycle you are talking about many Christians out there today. People often go to their pastors and say they’ve tried everything. They manipulate their external environments, but the problem is that it is not an external thing. Christianity is a heart thing. In Matthew 7 the Bible says a healthy tree bears good fruit while an unhealthy tree bears bad fruit. It isn’t so much the fruit as it is the tree. We can’t duct tape waxy plastic apples on the tree thinking we are fooling people in the process. We need to solve this problem by placing ourselves in situations that constantly stir our desires and passions for Jesus to the point that they outweigh our desire for sin. Our hearts should be so moved towards Christ and the things of Christ that the other things that were important to us slowly begin to fade away. We need a soul-satisfying life under the loving rule of God so that sin will no longer look good. Put yourselves under the waterfall of grace. Go wherever God’s name is being lifted up. This struggle is solved not with religion but with relationship. We need to press in to our relationship with God and our relationships with other people.
The right way to struggle with Christlikeness is to sometimes fall. We all sin, but we can still keep trying to move into the right direction at the same time. Continue in your faith established and firm, not moving from the hope held out from the gospel. If you reading this message right now and you are sitting in the seat of punishment for your own sins and you have never received the substitute of Jesus’ life and death for you, acknowledge this to God right now out loud. May the Holy Spirit pour into your life. Your position before God has been radically changed. May you provide proof of the truth of this experience by committing yourself to progressive sanctification by becoming more and more like Christ from this day forward. God will bring assurance into your life. Thank you Jesus for your salvation and for extending it to the likes of us. Thank for those that have taken a step today. There are others of you that are enslaved Christians. Put yourself back under the waterfall of grace. Do not lean on religion but on a relationship with Jesus. Move forward in your faith. Drop your chains today!