Have you ever wondered whether your past disqualifies you from ministry? Are there things you’ve done that make you think you’re unworthy to be a leader, pastor, or church planter?
I can relate. When I first started considering whether I was called, I battled the strongest impression that I was guilty and unqualified to preach the gospel. A voice from the past told me that I was too polluted to preach. Here’s what happened.
Before I became a pastor, I worked as the head of security in a high-end retail store. Things could drag sometimes, but occasionally a creative thief might spark an adrenaline rush. That’s how it felt one day as I watched a guy through a one-way mirror pile valuable merchandise into a bag and then walk out of the store. I tried to intercept him as he left the store but he dropped his loot and ran, leaving me no option but to tackle him to the ground. He remained violently uncooperative so I was forced to…shall we say, arrange an introduction between his head and the concrete. The police arrived, took him into custody and then drove him over to the hospital for the necessary stitches.
Not a big deal, right? Sure, in the monotonous world of retail security, it was a day on the mean streets. But for most law enforcement officers, such an event would hardly qualify as serious police work.
But a funny thing happened. When I began to consider my own pastoral calling, I had this overwhelmingly strange impression that I was utterly disqualified for ministry because I was “a man of bloodshed”. Busting a head hardly compares with some of the stuff King David did, but for some odd reason, it was that particular passage in which David is called a “man of bloodshed” (1 Chronicles 28:3) that repeatedly accused me, like I was an unholy criminal. I still don’t completely understand it, but I’ll never forget the force of those words upon my soul – haunting me, condemning me. I was convinced that I could not move forward because of what had occurred in my past. Fortunately, a good pastor got a hold of me and said, in a most appropriate way, “Dave, you’re an idiot.”
Thank God for pastors who know how to interpret the past!
Can you relate at all to my story? Some men exploring the issue of pastoral calling are haunted by their past. The sins of their pasts preach to them, causing them to question whether they could ever be fit to step into a pulpit.
If you fall into that category, I want to encourage you by calling attention to a guy who was probably worse than you – a man with a very sordid past. His name is Paul.
The Preacher With A Past
Paul had some serious baggage in his past. In 1 Timothy 1:13, he says, “..formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.” Before becoming a Christian, Paul was on a warpath against Christians. He wanted an inquisition. He wanted to discredit Christ and engineer the collapse of Christianity. Paul was a bloody, brutal, religious predator.
But God’s call upon Paul was irresistible, and in one blinding, breathtaking moment, God rescued Paul from his sins.
But Paul never forgot who he was. He didn’t try to bury it or forget it. In the book of Acts, Paul shares his story two different times (Acts 22:3, Acts 26:9). In fact, Paul often led with his story (Phil. 3:4-14, 1 Tim. 1:12-17).
Here’s my point: Paul was able to see his past in such a way that it didn’t condemn him, destroy him, slow him down, or send him down a path of self-accusation. He understood that Christ, in a sense, had flipped his story. The bitterness of his past made Christ all the more sweet to him.
Do you see the early chapters of your life through the same gospel lens?
The good news is that the gospel transforms our sinful past from being the source of our identity to being the source of our testimony. I was once this, but in Christ, I am now this! Once a blasphemer, now a Christ-lover. Once an arrogant opponent of God, now a humble servant of God. The past no longer defines us – Christ and his imputed righteousness define us. As Sinclair Ferguson said, “The determining factor of my existence is no longer my past. It is Christ’s past.” (Sinclair B. Ferguson, Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, p. 57)
The Preacher Who Knew When to Forget
In Philippians 3:13-14, Paul says, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
It wasn’t that Paul denied his past or dismissed his past. He simply didn’t let his past define him or dismantle his ministry. He reveled in how Christ had transformed him, and his joy in Christ propelled him forward in ministry. Paul boldly referenced his past, not as a source of pride, but as a testimony to the transforming power of the gospel.
As you consider the call to pastoral ministry, you need to examine your past through the lens of the gospel. Your past is not irrelevant, it is simply not the defining factor in your life. Christ’s righteousness – his past! – is the defining factor of your life. And it is the reality of Christ’s imputed righteousness (Rom. 4:22-25) which silences the deafening accusations of the past.
Certainly an honest discussion of your past with a wise pastor, like the one I had, will help to guide and refine your sense of calling. For instance wisdom, legal considerations, or protective measures may necessarily restrict a convicted felon from certain ministry opportunities. But his record of sins has been wiped clean at the cross and replaced with the record of Christ’s righteousness. God no longer sees his past, God sees Christ’s past! And the Savior who works daily to save us is always identifying good works for us to walk in, regardless of our past (Eph. 2:10).
Preach the Gospel to Yourself
Remember, through the gospel God flips our story. He uses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise. He uses the weak to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:27). If you have been called to proclaim the gospel, your past is probably not a liability. Rather, you can point to your past and say, “If God did such an amazing work in my life, he can do the same for you.”
If you’re feeling accused, preach the gospel to yourself and flee to the power of the story-flipping Savior!