I’d been caught in an off-limits room making out with my girlfriend. This wasn’t the first time. I’d been warned over and over about breaking curfew, sneaking out to the pub, and going places I wasn’t allowed.
When Charles Price, the principal of Capernwray Hall, called me to his office I sheepishly made my way, firing off prayers for mercy.
When I arrived, I received mercy, just not the kind I was hoping for. As he expelled me from the Bible School where my parents met decades ago, Charles said, “Jonathan, one day you will thank me for this.”
I stepped out of the castle doors onto the crushed rock drive, turned back to wave goodbye to all my friends, and wiped the tears from my eyes. Shame, not gratitude, was on my heart.
SHAME ON ME
After returning to the States, I got involved in a college ministry where I was discipled for the first time. A staff member took me and my best friend under his wing. I was still a mess.
Although I was earnestly seeking Christ, studying the Bible, sharing my faith, and being discipled, I couldn’t keep my hands off women.
The dating relationship would start off alright: shared attraction to Christ, fellowship over eternal things, fun dates—but then things would get physical. I couldn’t say no. I slept with more Christian women than I want to admit.
Afterwards, I always felt guilty. The tension between my flesh and the Spirit was so taut, it felt like just a nudge and my soul would rip in two.
Guilt compounded into unbearable shame. One day, I sat in the driver’s seat of my little white car in the university parking lot. I was so weighed down by shame, I couldn’t go to class. Sobbing over the disrepute I’d heaped on the name of Jesus, I pulled out my pocket knife and pressed it to my flesh.
The wrist is where they always do it.
WARRING AGAINST THE FLESH
Then I was seized by a question: What would suicide do to my family and friends? If not for myself, then for them, I should go on living. But what was I to do with this weight around my neck, this war in my soul?
Eventually, I began living a sexually pure life. The tension between my flesh and the Spirit eased as the Spirit won out more consistently. I had a “gospel awakening”—I embraced the idea that Christ’s flawless obedience, not my moral performance, was the bedrock of my relationship with God.
I began to live a moral life, not to measure up to God but because Christ measured up for me. Now I could obey, not to get love, but because I am already wildly loved in Christ. I matured in my faith, began discipling others, and took leadership positions in local churches.
Eventually, I got married to someone way out of my league, graduated from seminary, and became a pastor. But whenever we drove back home to visit my family, the old shame would creep up. Driving down the main street, I saw places where I’d slept with old girlfriends.
Everywhere I looked I saw failure.
GRACE CHANGES EVERYTHING—EVEN YOUR PAST
Then one day it hit me: I hadn’t allowed the gospel to work backwards. Sure, I was forgiven, but I hadn’t allowed God’s grace to seep back into my past. It was like I only saw myself as receiving grace from my gospel awakening forward. No wonder I saw failure everywhere I used to live.
Then, in a stroke of mercy, I embraced God’s acceptance of the past version of myself. I begin to grasp that Jesus died not just for pre-Christian sins, but also post-conversion sins. I allowed the timeless, eternal gospel to touch down in other parts of my timeline. Redemption began to work in reverse.
The effect was liberating. The old shame lifted. Christ became sweeter. Sin became more bitter. Grace, all the lovelier.
Have you allowed Jesus to redeem your past? Are there places, stories, on your timeline where you need to let grace in?
Paul writes, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). The Greek verb for “have peace” is continuous, meaning we are put right with God through Jesus Christ, which gives us continual peace with God!
God doesn’t wag a finger of shame at us because of Jesus. We are not defined by our failures because of Jesus. We are wildly loved and unflinchingly accepted because of Jesus.
The next verse says, “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Rom. 5:2). The Greek verb for “stand” means “to stand with ongoing effects.” This means there’s grace we’re meant to stand in, to enjoy ongoing peace.
Jesus invites us to stand in his grace and allow it to continually recondition us; to reinterpret the way we see ourselves by seeing ourselves the way he sees us. In Christ, God sees us as beloved, forgiven, righteous, accepted—forever!
BACK AND FORTH IN GRACE
God accepts all of us (past, present, and future) based on all of Christ—crucified and risen—for us. Grace works backwards and forwards.
I thank God I got kicked out of Capernwray. I deserved it, and worse. But God is rich in mercy. That mercy is sometimes stiff, but it’s always good. And the mercy he secured at the cross works backwards, as does his redeeming grace. Now, my heart is filled with gratitude.
A version of this article was first published in the Capernwray newsletter.
Jonathan K. Dodson (M.Div., Th.M.) is the founding pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas, and the founder of Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He is the author of Here in Spirit; Gospel-Centered Discipleship, and The Unbelievable Gospel. He enjoys listening to M. Ward, smoking his pipe, watching sci-fi, and going for walks. You can find more at jonathandodson.org.