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“Great is the power of memory, exceeding great is it, O God, an inner chamber vast and unbounded!” ~ Augustine (354–430)[1]

“[O]ur heart especially inclines by its own natural instinct toward unbelief. Besides this, there are innumerable and varied temptations that constantly assail us with great violence. But it is especially our conscience itself that, weighed down by a mass of sins, now complains and groans, now accuses itself, now murmurs secretly, now breaks out in open tumult” ~ John Calvin (1509–1564)[2]

“When the tempter me pursu’th
With the sins of all my youth,
And half damns me with untruth,
Sweet spirit, comfort me!” ~ Robert Herrick[3]

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Memory is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, past memories make us smile, as our mind’s eye is filled with images of our laughing and smiling children and grandchildren, or images of our family’s yearly vacation destination or prized holiday family traditions. Such reflections are succulent to the soul. On the other hand, flickering images of youthful rebellion, hurtful words spoken either intentionally or unguardedly, along with calculated acts of deception and malice, result in guilt and shame. Such reflections are unsavory to the soul.

In short, memories can make us smile or sigh.

If God providentially reigns over our memories, what place does the recollection of our past sins play in our lives, especially in positive ways?

Recollection of past sins reminds us of God’s mercy and grace. God told Adam that on the day he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he would die (Gen. 2:17). Through the prophet Ezekiel, God declared, “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). Additionally, “the wages of sin is death,” Paul told the Romans (Rom. 6:23). Thus, the point is simple: Sin brings death. Frankly, we should not have lived all that long . . . but here we are. We continue to witness the beauty of creation, feel the warmth of the sun, marvel at the changing leaves of fall, and experience the unearned expressions of love from family and friends—all signs of God’s largesse toward us.

Are your eyes open? You’re swimming in the ocean of his grace.

The recollection of past sins humbles us. He who is forgiven much, loves much (Lk. 7:41–50), and the realization of the magnitude of our sin against God and his gracious call to repentance and subsequent bestowal of forgiveness issues forth in humble gratitude and zealous devotion (Luke 19:1–10). We serve the King, though, knowing that when we stand before him we’ll say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Lk. 17:10). We don’t live with the notion that God owes us anything. Yet the realization that he continues to bless us in spite of our past (and present) misdeeds begets both humility and thankfulness.

The recollection of past sins restrains our present behavior. The Apostle Paul asked the Romans a heart-probing question: “But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed?” (Rom. 6:21). Simply put, why would we repeat behavior we know induces such shame—and not to mention is so offensive to God (Ps. 51:10)? Knowing that sin is odious to God should create a hatred for sin within our own hearts.

In fact, John Calvin referred to the hatred of sin as “the beginning of repentance,” and notes that Christ “reveals himself to none but poor and afflicted sinners, who groan, toil, are heavy-laden, hunger, thirst, and pine away with sorrow and misery” (3. 3. 20). Those who genuinely live with these realities can say with Samuel Rutherford (1600–1661), “The thoughts of my old sins are as the summons of death to me.”[4] Such a posture will serve as a restraining measure against our sinful proclivities.

And Yet . . . 

Though guilt and shame stalk us because of our past sins, struggling Christians must not live in perpetual mourning, constantly re-repenting for their past sins. Pleading with God for purification, though admirable, can easily slide into assuming that one must suffer incessantly in order to merit God’s forgiveness. Thus, we must fill our minds with the twin realities that we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ (Rom. 5:1; 8:1), and, as his beloved children, God our Father is disposed toward us.

To souls at the point of despair due to past transgressions, Reformation era Pastor Johann Gerhand (1582–1637) counseled, “We must never think that God shows Himself to us outwardly as merciful and benevolent but inwardly burns with flames of hatred. Remove from your mind such thoughts about God, who is Truth itself and for whom all hypocrisy is utterly detested.”[5] And he said believers must never say to themselves, “Greater is my iniquity than the pity of our merciful God.”[6]

In the words of Richard Sibbes (1577–1635), “There is more mercy in Christ than sin in us.”[7]

With these thoughts in place, we live each new day knowing that our God is for us and not against us (Rom. 8:31), we press on through the valleys that make up our journey toward the Celestial City, calling on fellow strugglers to remind us of the truth we profess along the way. We fix our eyes on the King, longing for the day to see him in all his beauty (Isa. 33:17).

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[1] The Confessions of St. Augustine (trans. John K. Ryan; NY: Doubleday, 1960), 10. 8. 5 (p. 238).

[2] Calvin, Institutes, 3. 2. 20.

[3] Robert Herrick, “His Litany to the Holy Spirit,” in Poems That Live Forever, ed. Hazel Felleman (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 344.

[4] Letters of Samuel Rutherford (1664; repr., Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), 69.

[5] Johann Gerhard, Handbook of Consolations for the Fears and Trials That Oppress Us in the Struggle with Death, trans. Carl L. Beckwith (1611; repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 24.

[6] Ibid., 21.

[7] Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed (1630; repr., Carlisle, PA :The Banner of Truth Trust, 2005), 13.