Richard Collings, Caerphilly, Wales [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Can past sins prevent current service for the Lord?
Years ago I worked with a colleague who had the annoying habit of not supplying a direct answer to a direct question. Stephen’s responses were invariably prefixed with the phrase ‘it all depends’, a trait that often resulted in the simplest of queries taking on a complexity not intended by the unwitting enquirer. Without wishing to emulate this tiresome trait, the above question leaves me no alternative but to commence my answer with the words ‘it all depends’.
That we have all sinned since our conversion is beyond dispute, yet this doesn’t preclude us serving the Lord - if it did then no one would be able to serve Him. Therefore, it all depends on the nature of the past sins as to whether specific areas of service are not possible. Furthermore, whilst some sins will prevent us engaging in certain aspects of Christian service they will not exclude us from all facets of the Lord’s work. For that reason, it also depends on the nature of the service as to whether a person would be barred from such work.
One past sin was sufficient to prevent Moses from leading the children of Israel into the Promised Land, cf Num. 20. 11-12. When Paul sets out the qualities required in overseers he states that they ‘must be blameless’ 1 Tim. 3. 2. To be blameless indicates that there is nothing in the overseer’s life, past or present, that would give anyone just cause to point a condemnatory finger. This means that the wicked person who was excommunicated in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 and who was subsequently restored would never be able to serve as an elder in Corinth, or anywhere else.
Without attempting to enumerate every possible nuance of evil we may summarize by stating that, as a principle, brethren with criminal records will not be able to serve as elders. People on a sex offender’s register, or its equivalent, would not be able to serve the Lord in children’s work. However, to balance these things out we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that God is patient and forgiving. He ever seeks the restoration of His people, albeit such restoration is possible only on the basis of genuine repentance.
Prior to seeking to engage in any form of spiritual service the primary need for believers is to ensure that they have a right relationship with the Lord, for only thereby are they suitable for His work. This would necessitate the confession and forsaking of former sins for as the proverb states, ‘He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy’, Prov. 28. 13 NKJV.
In his final letter Paul writes extensively concerning the features that must mark those who are God’s workmen and he exhorts Timothy to ‘be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed’, 2 Tim. 2. 15 NKJV. The apostle is urging Timothy to make every effort to present himself approved unto God. To gain that divine approval he would need to discipline himself so that he would consistently manifest to God those qualities that satisfy His requirements for service.
Later in that section, Paul states, ‘Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity. But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honour and some for dishonour. Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel for honour, sanctified and useful for the Master’, 2 Tim. 2 19-21 NKJV. In His sovereignty God can employ anyone or anything, but if we desire to be suitable for His service we need to ensure we are living sanctified lives. The hymn rightly states, ‘Emptied that Thou shouldest fill me, a clean vessel in Thy hand’.
We must also be alert to the wiles of the devil, for he will seek to do anything to prevent the rise of those who would serve the Lord. One strategy he uses is to rob saints of the blessedness of forgiveness, by perpetually reminding them of past failings. How many believers have confessed, repented of, and forsaken things that had taken place in yesteryear but allowed those failings to hang over them. Feelings of guilt, stirred up by the ‘accuser of our brethren’, Rev. 12. 10, cause these saints to think they are not eligible to engage in service for Christ when, in many instances, they could, and should, be serving Him.
Peter is an excellent example of someone who sinned and yet was subsequently restored and mightily used by God. The Lord said to him, ‘Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren’, Luke 22. 31-32 NKJV.
Within the constraints of this answer, it is not possible to think of every permutation of sin and query whether such would, or would not, debar someone from ongoing service for the Lord. Where anyone has concerns about their former behaviour they should seek the counsel of spiritually mature leaders. These brethren would need to examine each individual case and, based on the direct or general teaching of the scriptures, come to a decision about that person’s suitability for service.