January 25, 2024

I Still Feel Shame for My Past Sins. What Should I Do?

Nathan W. Bingham & Sinclair Ferguson
I Still Feel Shame for My Past Sins. What Should I Do?

No matter how long someone has been a Christian, sometimes remembering sins from the past can bring feelings of shame. Today, Sinclair Ferguson explains how the gospel brings us peace when these thoughts arise.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Joining us this week on the Ask Ligonier podcast is Dr. Sinclair Ferguson. Dr. Ferguson, many Christians still feel shame for their past sins. What counsel would you give them, and how can the gospel help?

DR. SINCLAIR FERGUSON: Well, this is a great pastoral question. We feel shame for our past sins. What can we do to find help? I think the first thing I would say to somebody who said that to me would be: “I feel exactly the same way. And God’s people throughout the ages have often felt that.” In fact, Paul seems to assume that we will think that. In Romans, he says, “You think about the things you did in the past and you feel ashamed of them, and you realize that they brought no fruit to you.” So maybe the first thing to say is, “If that’s true of me, then I’m not alone,” that it’s been the experience of God’s people throughout the ages.

I remember reading Samuel Rutherford, who loved the Lord Jesus so much and wrote about Him so marvelously. In his letters, he says that the memory of the sins of his past were like a new fire being set off in his life, and that can happen. So, I think maybe one of the first things to say is we always need to look out for Satan. You know, financial people speak about “gilt-edged” stock in the United Kingdom. And I’ve sometimes thought that’s a good way of thinking also about the way Satan works, although you spell the word guilt in his case differently. He loves to dabble in our guilt. Calvin has an expression he uses in that connection. He says, “Sometimes Satan seeks to drive the saint to despair in this way.”

So, how do we respond? Well, I think there are two things to say here. First of all, we need to get the gospel right. And then second of all, we need to get the Lord Jesus right.

So, first of all, we need to get the gospel right. What does that mean? It means remembering that Christ died for our sins once for all. That means He did it once. He doesn’t need to do it again. He has done absolutely everything that is needed to pardon all my sins. He has done everything that is needed to deal with my shame.

If you think about what He went through at the cross, perhaps even stripped bear and assaulted, made an object of shame, why would His father allow that to happen? Why would they agree that He would do that? It was so that He would not only deal with the guilt of my sin by dying for me on the cross, but that He would also deal with the shame of my sin by the way in which He died as someone who was crucified. So, I think we need to remember that everything needed for our forgiveness has already been done.

The second thing to remember is that when we come to faith in Christ, our justification in Christ is absolutely perfect. I sometimes put it this way: if you could find the oldest and saintliest person in your church and bring them forward to the front of the congregation and then find the newest Christian, just a baby Christian just struggling to begin the Christian life, that elderly saint who may have suffered so much, been so faithful so long, is no more justified than this young Christian, and this young Christian is no less justified. Sometimes we allow Satan to absorb our minds with our shame because we’ve fallen into the temptation that our justification ebbs and flows, but it doesn’t. It’s given to us fully and finally—the righteousness of Jesus Christ fully and finally given to us the moment we become Christians.

So, we need to get the gospel right, and we need to ask the Spirit to help us to appropriate the truth of the gospel, to realize that as Jeremiah puts it—and interestingly, this is quoted twice in Hebrews, in Hebrews 8 and 10—God says to us, “In the new covenant, in Christ, I will remember your sins no more” (Jer. 31:34; Heb. 8:12; 10:16–17). So, we need to appreciate that God is not remembering them and not allow Satan to insist that we remember them, and when we do remember them, to bring them back to the Lord and seek and enjoy His forgiveness again.

And then, as I said, the second thing is to get the Lord Jesus right. I think there are Christians who feel that Jesus is just waiting there to hammer them. And I hope I’m not being misunderstood in saying this, but I think it’s so important that we understand Jesus is far more concerned about us than He is about our sins. I think sometimes we can have a view of Jesus that suggests what He’s really interested in is our sins because He died for them. But you see, He died for them because He was more interested in us than He is interested in our sins. He died for us in order to get rid of our sins, not to keep bringing up our sins.

And so, what we need to do is to keep turning our eyes to Christ. Many of the past masters of the spiritual life—and I’ve encountered this saying in several of them—have said something like, “For every look you take at yourself, make sure you take ten looks at Christ.” And I think if we begin to do that, we’ll begin to find that the Lord helps us to deal with the shame of our past.