In this article Peter Reynolds helps us think about whether it is right for us to look into our past since we have been made new creations in Christ.
Anyone who is involved with offering spiritual direction and counselling within the Christian community may well find themselves having to do business with the Biblical texts 2 Corinthians 5:17 (“Therefore if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” NIV), and Philippians 3:13 (“ .. but one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on …. “NIV).
Someone comes to you who gives voice to a struggle, doubt, fear, or any issue in their lives that is causing them concern. Questions are often asked by you, the careful listener, with a view to understanding that person’s personal circumstances and wider life situation. In the process of this questioning information may be sought regarding past experiences, perhaps even from childhood, that may have a bearing on the present day difficulty. It is at this point that the objection is often raised, “Why are you asking me questions about my past? I have been made a new person in Jesus Christ so there is no need to delve into these past issues. I have to forget what lies behind me, and just press forward!” Recourse is often made to the two texts mentioned above, 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Philippians 3:13, when this kind of objection is raised.
I propose to take each of these two texts in turn and consider their meaning in the light of this objection. I will first consider the context in which these texts are found, namely the theology and writings of the Apostle Paul.
Each human writer of Scripture wrote within their own historical context, frame of reference, and particular circumstances. This largely accounts for the diversity of the Biblical writings. Yet each human writer also wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, reflecting the intentions of the Divine Author. This accounts for the unity of the Biblical writings (1 Peter 1:10-12). So within the diversity of say the New Testament it is possible to speak of the theology of Peter, or the theology of Paul, or John, without losing the overall unity intended by the one Divine Author.
Both the texts being considered in this paper were written by Paul and reflect his theological perspective. What was that perspective? In his writings Paul picks up and develops, or unpacks, among other things, the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels regarding the two ages in which we now live, this present age, and the age to come. In Matthew 12:32 Jesus speaks of this age and of the age to come as the two ages which account for all of history past, present and future. (In Luke 20:34-35 Jesus applies this two age concept to the married state, while in Mark 10:30 he applies it to present and future Gospel blessings). In the Gospels this “age to come” is often referred to by Jesus as “the Kingdom of God”, and is associated with the personal presence of Jesus himself. So where Jesus is there is the kingdom of God, or the age to come.
This last point is very important. Jesus has come and he has brought with him the kingdom of God, or the age to come. It is here with us now. To be sure the full experience of this age to come awaits the second return of Christ, but the reality is here with us now, because the reality of Christ by way of his Spirit is here with us now. We are even now the children of the kingdom, the recipients of the age to come, since we are in Christ and possess his life, the life of the age to come (1 Cor 10:11c, Hebrews 6:5). But what about this present age of sin in which we live, isn’t it also with us now? Yes, indeed it is, and will be until Christ returns and does away with this present evil age forever. So Christians are people who live simultaneously in two ages. This present age and the age to come are both present realities for us, a dual experience for us. In this life we can never escape the tension of living at the same time in these two ages.
This is why so often we find ourselves one moment feeling elated over our relationship with Christ and the blessings of grace and forgiveness, and in the next moment (so it seems) discouraged over the misery of living in a fallen world. Both experiences are to be expected because each belongs respectively to the two ages in which we live.
For Paul, the Gospel delivers us from “this present evil age” (Galatians 1:3-4), or “dominion of darkness” (Colossians 1:13), and places us even now in a new age, the age to come (Ephesians 1:21). The blessings of this new future age are for us now both a present reality (Colossians 1:13-14) as well as a future promise (Galatians 5:21). The age to come is already here in the present power of the Holy Spirit, but it is not yet here in the full glory of the returning Christ. But this present evil age also remains a present reality. In the first coming of Jesus Christ this evil age was put on notice. At the return of Christ this present evil age will come to an end. In the meantime it is still here and we still participate in it. In our present situation then we have to contend with two realities. We are part of this world, or age, that is passing away (Colossians 3:5) while at the same time we are participating in the eternal reality of the age, or world, to come (Colossians 3:1-4). These two realities are simultaneous for us. We experience new life in Christ and at the same time we struggle with this present evil age. The tension we experience by living in the overlap of these two ages will be with us until we die, or until Jesus Christ returns. There is no escaping the two-age tension in this life.
This is the framework of Paul’s theology as developed by him in continuity with what Jesus taught in the Gospels. Now we can bring this understanding to the two texts in question.
2 Corinthians 5:17
In this verse Paul is speaking of the present here and now reality for the Christian of the new age, the age that is to come. So “old” in this verse refers to this present evil age. It does not refer to our personal past histories and experiences, but rather to the old world order, this present evil age that is presently passing away. Likewise, “new” here does not speak primarily of personal Christian living, but to the new age, the eternal age of bliss which those in Christ have already been placed and have been made a part.
So this verse describes our standing with respect to the two ages, rather than to our personal history before and after conversion. The New English Bible puts it rather well. ’When anyone is united to Christ there is a new world: the old order has gone, and a new order has already begun.”
2 Corinthians 5:17 does not require us to deny the present reality of past or pre-conversion experiences that continue to entangle and distract us from enjoying age-to-come blessings. This verse does not make our questions about our past histories illegitimate, nor does this verse negate the ongoing tension of struggling with the influence of this present evil age upon us as believers. This verse is not speaking to our personal histories, rather it is speaking of our new position in Christ, our placement into the age to come, the kingdom age that is already here, but not yet here in all its fullness.
We are no longer held captive by this present evil age (Titus 3:3. Romans 6:14), but we do continue to struggle and suffer as we live in a world that is no longer our home (Romans 8:22-23).
In this verse what does Paul mean by the phrase, “forgetting what lies behind”? The answer is to be found in the verses earlier in the chapter. (In verse seven he repeats the same idea, “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ”). What is behind him (what he now wants to forget and forsake) are the things of verses five and six, the things in his life he used to exult and trust in for God’s favour. What is behind and must now be forgotten is his past reliance on good works and exemplary traditions. These things are now a liability and must be put aside. Paul must now press away from those things that would call him back from a life of faith and reliance on the Gospel promise of new life in Christ.
Furthermore, verses thirteen and fourteen show that for Paul this struggle was on-going. He was very aware in his personal experience of the tension between forsaking the things of this present evil age (the things of verses five and six), and pursuing Christ; pursuing the new life of the age to come.
Interestingly, in verse fifteen Paul calls “mature” those who like him understand this tension and who don’t deny the struggle, and who reflect productively on their past as he did. For these mature ones the Christian life consists of “fear and trembling” (2:12) as they face life in a fallen world, seeking to know more of the power of Christ; more of age to come blessing.
So “forgetting what lies behind” is not a phrase that renders illegitimate any questions that cast light on the on-going struggle to live by faith as Christians in a non-Christian world. Rather we must forget and forsake those past things which we have relied on, or worshipped, as a means of making this present evil age bearable or workable.
A spiritual counsellor or encourager should see the Christian they are talking with as one who lives between two worlds, in the overlap of two ages, one earthly and one heavenly. The on-going tension of this overlap gives rise to the present struggle, the presenting problem, and provides a way forward in our inquiries. We ask questions of the past and present history of personal experiences because we take seriously the struggle and pain of living all our lives as children and as adults in this present evil age. Our past is still with us to the extent that this present evil age is still with us. Insights gained by such gentle and sensitive questioning may point the inquirer to unconsidered aspects of their living and thinking, past and present, that contribute to their difficulties and struggles.
The New Testament writers nowhere encourage us to live as if the blessings of heaven were here now in all their fullness and thus deny the on-going reality of struggle in this life. This would only encourage arrogant triumphalism that denies or, at best, provides superficial remedies for the present pain and suffering. Nor do the New Testament writers encourage us to live as if heaven’s blessings were all future and all we can do now is grit our teeth and hope we can make it until Jesus comes back. This would tend towards despair and hopelessness.
The focus is rather on both struggle and joy as dual or present day realities. We must help each other bear with our struggles, whether they are sourced in our past or present histories, and at the same time offer one another tastes of the life of Christ, knowing with certainty that the full reality of heaven’s joy awaits us.
We are told in Scripture that God is Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last (Rev 22:13). When he looks at us he sees the whole of our lives, not just parts of it, not just our present. He sees the beginning, the end, and everything in-between. And in his gospel mercy he deals with all that he sees, and he brings his saving grace to bear on all of it, and so we must apply his gospel grace to every part of our life, past, present and future.
“Why are you asking me questions about my past?”
Because your past and present experiences of life in this present evil age may be getting in the way of you experiencing the present day blessings of the age to come.