I met Michael while working at a Christian drug rehab center in Cleveland, Ohio. He was a coworker of mine, and he has one of those testimonies you’ll never forget. But there was one part of it that has especially stuck with me.
One day in between working with clients, we had a few extra minutes to chat, so I asked what his story was. Michael had been a hardcore heroin user for over thirty years. How did he escape this vicious addiction that had controlled his life for so long? It was partly due to two little old ladies who kept inviting him to church.
He was familiar with their church because he use to sell drugs in a field nearby. After getting out or prison, he knew he needed a change, and so he finally accepted their invitation.
The funny part, he explained, was that right at the time he decided to give this church a visit, they had recently constructed a new building, and it just so happened to be on that same plot of land nearby where he use to sell drugs. As he looked up at the pastor proclaiming God’s word in the pulpit, he suddenly realized he was sitting in a pew that was literally right near where he used to stand in the field to sell drugs.
“Mark,” he said with deep sincerity in his voice and seriousness in his eyes, “it was only by the grace of God I was set free from that old life. It was so crazy. I was literally sitting in church right where I used to sell drugs . . . .”
Although that took place over a decade ago for Michael, I could tell the whole experience was fresh in his heart. Once he finished his testimony, we got up and went back to work, trying to help men recover from drugs just like Michael had been helped so many years ago.
Through the Grace of God, Our Past Failures Can Become the Place of Our Future Ministries
God doesn’t just clean up our messes. He is so lavish, sovereign, and gracious that he actually creates good out of what was meant for bad. This is seen so clearly in the life of Paul. He was a Pharisee totally committed to Jewish traditions and laws. But God redeemed his past and made him one the greatest champions the world has ever known for gospel of grace to Gentiles everywhere.
“Redemption” wasn’t just theoretical for Paul. God’s power didn’t just affect Paul’s doctrine. No, God literally redeemed Paul’s life so fully that the places of his greatest failures eventually turned into the places of his future ministries.
In Acts 8:1-3, we learn that Paul, formerly known as Saul, was a part martyring Stephen. After he helped kill Stephen, Paul followed this up by persecuting the church in Jerusalem, “Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women [who believed in Jesus] and put them in prison” (Acts 8:3).
But God in his sovereignty was not done writing Paul’s story. In Acts 9, Jesus appeared to Paul, softened his heart, opened his eyes, and Paul actually became a follower of Jesus himself. Not only did Paul put his faith in Jesus, he then made it his life’s mission to advance the gospel and preach to people everywhere. And now for God’s dramatic twist to the plot. Enter Acts 11:19-26.
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. . . . 25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”
Did you catch that? After the death of Stephen and Paul’s ferocious persecution of the church, many people fled in fear. In the process, however, people all over the place, including in Antioch, were coming to faith in Jesus because those who were fleeing were also sharing the gospel. And then in a twist of fate only God Almighty could dream up, Paul found himself in Antioch teaching these very people.
The place that should have reminded Paul of his greatest past failure was now the place of fruitful ministry for him.
Not only did God turn Paul’s persecution of Stephen into a preaching opportunity in Antioch, God turned Paul’s past knowledge of the Old Testament as a Pharisee into foundational knowledge used to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. God turned Paul’s Jewish disdain for unclean Gentiles completely around and made this very people group the main target of his ministry for the rest of his life. Paul tried to kill Christianity before it could begin, but through God’s power Paul ended up discipling some of the first people who ever took the name “Christian.”
The place of Paul’s past mistakes ended up being his future ministry.
God Wants To Do the Same For All of Us
Stories like these are amazing, but they are not unique. Countless people have been so redeemed by the power of the gospel that their former lives of sin became the launching point for ministry.
Porn addicts have become accountability partners for those who are trying to claw their way out of sexual addiction. Alcoholics have become the ones leading the recovery meetings. Atheists have turned into apologists (e.g. C.S. Lewis). Unfaithful adulteresses have been transformed into faithful spouses. David, for example, knew that when the grace of God would restore him after his sin with Bathsheba, he wouldn’t just be forgiven but he would be equipped to help others, “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (Psalm 51:13). On and on it goes through the history of God’s redemptive work in the world.
This is what God wants for everyone. Yes he offers complete forgiveness. But forgiveness is not the complete gospel. There’s also the resurrection, transformation, and restoration.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful beyond belief. Wherever you’ve struggled, however you’ve sinned, whatever shame is buried in your past, God not only wants to forgive you, he wants to redeem you so completely that the place of your past failures can become the place of your future ministry.