New Believer's Series #2
Terminating the Past
By Watchman Nee
Today we come to the question
of how a person deals with his past after believing in the Lord. After believing
in the Lord, a person still carries many things of the past with him. How should
he terminate these things?
I. THE TEACHING OF THE
BIBLE BEING CONCERNED WITH WHAT ONE DOES AFTER SALVATION
The entire Bible, both the
Old Testament and the New Testament, but especially the New Testament, shows
that God does not pay attention to what a person does before he believes in the
Lord. Try to find a verse from Matthew 1 to Revelation 22 on how believers
should terminate their past, and you will see how hard it is to find something
on this subject. Even the Epistles, which touch on our wrong doing in the past,
mainly tell us what we should do hereafter, not what we should do about our
past. The books of Ephesians, Colossians, and I Thessalonians all cover
something about our past, but they do not tell us how we should terminate our
past; they only tell us how we should go on.
You may recall that someone
asked John the Baptist, "What then shall we do?" John answered,
"He who has two tunics, let him share with the one who has none; and he who
has food, let him do likewise." He did not talk about their past but about
their future. Some tax collectors came to John and asked what they should do.
John answered, "Exact nothing more than what you have been ordered
to." Some soldiers also asked, "What shall we do?" John replied,
"Extort nothing from anyone by force, nor take anything by false
accusation, and be content with your wages" (Luke 3:10-14). This shows us
that John, who preached repentance, emphasized the things that we should do
hereafter, not the things of the past.
Let us also consider Paul's
Epistles. He always emphasized what we should do in the future, not what we
should do regarding the past, because everything of the past has been covered
under the precious blood. If we err a little in this matter, we will corrupt the
gospel; we will corrupt the way of the Lord, the way of repentance, and the way
of restitution. We must deal with this subject carefully.
"Or do you not know that
the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be led astray;
neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor effeminate nor homosexuals
nor thieves nor the covetous, not drunkards, not revilers, not the rapacious
will inherit the kingdom of God. And these things were some of you" (I Cor.
6:9-lla). Here Paul speaks of the believers' past conduct, but he does not say
how they should deal with it. "But you were washed, but you were
sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in
the Spirit of our God" (I Cor. 6:llb). The emphasis here is not on dealing
with the past, because we have a Savior who has already dealt with all our past.
Today the emphasis is on what we should do hereafter. A saved person is already
washed, sanctified, and justified.
'And you, though dead in your
offenses and sins, in which you once walked according to the age of this world,
according to the ruler of the authority of the air, of the spirit which is now
operating in the sons of disobedience; among whom we also all conducted
ourselves once in the lusts of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of
the thoughts, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest; but God,
being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when
we were dead in offenses, made us alive together with Christ" (Eph. 2:1-5).
These verses do not tell us how we should terminate the things of the flesh.
There is only one termination--our Lord's termination of everything for us based
upon the great love with which God loved us and the rich mercy of God.
Ephesians 4:17-24 also speaks
of our past condition. "This therefore I say and testify in the Lord, that
you no longer walk as the Gentiles also walk in the vanity of their mind, being
darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the
ignorance which is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; who, being
past feeling, have given themselves over to lasciviousness to work all
uncleanness in greediness ...that you put off, as regards your former manner of
life, the old man, which is being corrupted according to the lusts of the
deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind and put on the new
man, which was created according to God in righteousness and holiness of the
"Therefore having put
off the lie" (Eph. 4:25a). This refers to the things hereafter. It does not
tell us how to deal with our past falsehood but that henceforth we should no
longer remain in falsehood. Today we must "speak truth each one with his
neighbor.... Be angry, yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your
indignation, neither give place to the devil" (Eph. 4:25b-27). These verses
do not refer to the past but to the future. "He who steals should steal no
more" (Eph. 4:28a). Paul did not say that he who steals needs to return
what was stolen. His emphasis is still on hereafter. What was stolen in the past
is another matter. "But rather should labor, working with his own hands in
that which is respectable ... Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but
only that which is good for building up, according to the need, that it may give
grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.... Let all
bitterness and anger and wrath and clamor and evil speaking be removed from you,
with all malice" (Eph. 4:28b-31).
"But fornication and all
uncleanness or greediness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for
saints, and obscenity and foolish talking or sly, filthy jesting, which are not
becoming, but rather the giving of thanks" (Eph. 5:3-4). These words are
still in the same principle. They speak of things after one believes in the
Lord. They are not about the termination of things done before one believes in
After reading all the
Epistles, we find a marvelous truth: God pays attention only to what a person
should do after he has believed in the Lord. He does not pay attention to the
things he has done in his past. He does not tell us what to do with them. This
is a basic principle.
Many people are in bondage
because they have accepted a wrong gospel. Such a gospel places too much stress
on dealing with one's past. This does not mean that we do not need to deal with
our past. Certain things of our past must be dealt with, but such a dealing is
not the foundation of our going on. God always draws our attention to the fact
that our past sins are under the blood. We are fully forgiven and saved because
the Lord Jesus has died for us. Our salvation is not based on how we deal with
the past. Man is not saved by repentance for his past bad deeds, just as he is
not saved by trusting in his past good deeds. Man is saved through the salvation
accomplished by the Lord on the cross. We should .hold fast to this foundation.
II. NEW TESTAMENT EXAMPLES
OF DEALING WITH THE PAST
What then should we do with
the things of our past? In reading the New Testament, I have spent much time to
find out how one should terminate his past after believing in the Lord. I found
only a few passages where the subject is mentioned briefly. However, they are
not teachings but examples.
A. Matters Related to
Idols Needing to Be Dealt with Thoroughly
First Thessalonians 1:9 says,
"You turned to God from the idols." When a person believes in the
Lord, he must deal with all idols. Please remember that we are the temple of the
Holy Spirit. What agreement does the temple of God have with idols? Even the
apostle John, in addressing the believers, said, "Little children, guard
yourselves from idols" (I John 5:21). Hence, this is not as simple a matter
as many may think.
One thing we must take note
of is that God forbids man to make an image of anything. We cannot consider a
man-made object to be living. The moment we have such a thought, the object
becomes an idol to us. Of course, idols are nothing, but if we consider them to
be living, we fall into error. This is why God forbids the worship of such
things. Even an inclination in the heart towards them is forbidden. One of the
Ten Commandments forbids the making of idols (Deut. 5:8).
Deuteronomy 12:30 says,
"Be careful... lest you seek after their gods, saying, How did these
nations serve their gods?" This shows us that we should not even inquire
how the Gentiles worship their gods. Some who are curious like to study how the
nations worship and serve their gods. But God forbids us to inquire about such
matters. If we inquire about them, the next thing we will do is worship their
gods. Hence, we are forbidden from being curious.
Second Corinthians 6:16 says,
"What agreement does the temple of God have with idols?" The meaning
here is quite obvious. Christians should not visit temples. There are exceptions
of course, such as when a person is stranded on a deserted mountain and cannot
find a place for shelter at night and there is only a temple for lodging. But
generally speaking, believers should not visit any temple. This is because 2
Corinthians 6:16 says clearly that we are the temple of the living God. It also
says that there is no agreement between idols and the temple of the living God.
Unless one is pressed by special occasion or circumstance, it is inadvisable to
go near or purposely tour any temple. John says, "Little children, guard
yourselves from idols." Guarding ourselves from idols means staying away
Psalm 16:4 says, "Nor
will I take up their names upon My lips." Even at the pulpit, we should
carefully avoid the names of other gods except in the case of a necessary
illustration. We should not hold on to any superstition, fear of misfortune, or
taboo for certain associations or words. Many believers still pay attention to
fortunes, the reading of facial features, and destinies. Everything related to
fortune-telling or horoscopes is prohibited. Everything in the realm of idolatry
should be dealt with thoroughly before God. We should sever our relationship
with it completely.
A new believer must give up
his idols from the very first day of his salvation. He should not mention the
names of idols, be involved with fortune-telling, or visit any temples. We
cannot worship anything with an image. Even the thought of worshipping such
things is forbidden. We cannot inquire about the worship of other religions. All
these things belong to the past, and we should deal with them. Anything that
falls into these categories should be destroyed; they should not even be sold.
We should destroy, exterminate, and remove them. I hope that new believers will
not take this matter lightly; they have to be very careful about these things,
for God is extremely jealous of idols.
If you cannot take a strong
stand against idols today, you will have a hard time escaping the greatest idol
on earth in the future. Of course, we should not worship idols made of clay or
wood. But even if there is an idol that is living, we must not worship it. There
are actually living idols the man of lawlessness (2 Thes. 2:3) being one. Please
remember that you cannot worship any idols; you must reject all of them, even
images of the Lord Jesus and Mary.
We must deal with this matter
thoroughly. Otherwise, we will be distracted to follow another way. We are those
who serve not in the flesh but in spirit. God is seeking those who serve Him in
spirit, not in the flesh. God is Spirit, not an image. If all the brothers and
sisters take care of this matter, they will not fall into the hands of Roman
Catholicism in the future. One day Antichrist will come, and the power of Roman
Catholicism will be greatly expanded.
In the Bible, the first thing
one has to do in dealing with his past is to reject all former idols. We must
turn away from idols and wait for the coming of the Son of God. We should not
even keep any picture of the Lord Jesus. Such pictures are not the real image of
the Lord Jesus; they are worthless. In the museums in Rome, there are over two
thousand different images of the Lord Jesus. All of them represent the
imagination of the artists. In some countries artists often look for people who
resemble their idea of Jesus and then pay them to pose for portraits of Jesus.
This is blasphemous. Our God is jealous God, and He will not tolerate such
things among us. There should not be any kind of superstition. Some people like
to say, "It is not a good day today; there are bad omens." Such
remarks are directly from hell. God's children should get rid of these ideas
from the very first day and deal with them in a thorough way. They should not
allow any flavor of idolatry to come in.
B. Improper Objects
Needing to Be Terminated
"And a considerable
number of those who practiced magic brought their books together and burned them
before all; and they counted up the price of them and found it to be fifty
thousand pieces of silver" (Acts 19:19). This is another matter which new
believers should deal with and terminate.
This is not a command or a
teaching; it is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit moved
in such a strong way that the Ephesians brought out all the improper books in
their possession. Here it says the price was "fifty thousand pieces of
silver," which is a considerable sum. They did not sell their books and
give the money to the church. Instead, the books were burned. If Judas had been
present, he certainly would not have allowed this. This was much more than
thirty pieces of silver which could have been given to the poor. But the Lord
was pleased to have them burned.
Apart from the kind of
objects mentioned above, there are many other questionable objects that need to
be dealt with. Some of them are clearly related to sins. Gambling instruments-
and improper books and pictures are some examples. These must be burned or
destroyed. There may be many luxury items and objects of indulgence which cannot
be burned. However, they still need to be removed. Burning, however, is the
general principle in dealing with these things.
After a person believes in
the Lord, he should go home and check through his persona] belongings. In an
unbeliever's home, there is always something related to sin. He may have things
which do not befit the saints. Things related to sin must be burned or
destroyed; they cannot be sold. Luxury items should be converted and altered if
possible. If they cannot be altered, we must sell them.
The garments of the lepers in
Leviticus 13 and 14 are a good illustration. Garments which have become leprous
and cannot be washed must be burned. However, those which can be washed should
be washed for reuse. If the style of our clothes is unbecoming, we can alter
them. Some garments may be too short, and we can lengthen them; others are
odd-looking, and we can make them look more inconspicuous. Some objects cannot
be salvaged; they have the element of sin in them, in which case we have to burn
them. Those that can be sold should be sold, and the money should be given to
There should be a termination
of improper things. If every new believer will go through all his belongings
thoroughly, he will have a very good start. Superstitious objects have to be
burned. Others can be altered or sold after being altered. Once we learn this
lesson, we will not forget it for the rest of our lives. We must realize that
being a Christian is a very practical matter; it is not just a matter of going
to "church" and listening to some sermons.
C. Repaying Debts
"And Zaccheus stood and
said to the Lord, Behold, the half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor,
and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore four
times as much" (Luke 19:8). Zaccheus did not do this as a result of
doctrinal teaching; he did this as a result of the working of the Holy Spirit.
If it had been the result of doctrinal teaching, only the exact amount would
have been repaid, no more and no less. But since it was the working of the Holy
Spirit, the amount could vary; it could be a little more or a little less.
Zaccheus said, "If I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I
restore four times as much." Actually, a double compensation would have
been more than adequate. The principle in the book of Leviticus is to add
one-fifth to the original amount. For one thousand dollars, you would have to
repay one thousand two hundred dollars. But if one is touched, he can pay as
much as the Lord's Spirit directs him to pay. He can be moved to repay four
times or ten times as much. What is spoken of here is only a principle. In
reading the Bible, we must be clear that what is covered is not a mere teaching.
It is the result of the leading of the Holy Spirit when He operates in man.
Suppose that before you
became a believer, you had extorted or defrauded others, stolen from them, or
obtained things by improper means. Now that the Lord is working within, you have
to deal with these things in a proper manner. This has nothing to do with the
forgiveness you received from the Lord, but it is very much related to your
Suppose I stole a thousand
dollars from someone before I was saved. If I have not dealt with the matter
clearly, how can I preach the gospel to that person after I am saved? While I am
preaching to him, his heart may still be on the thousand dollars. No doubt, I
have received forgiveness from God, but I do not have a proper testimony before
man. I cannot say, "Since God has forgiven me, it does not matter whether
or not I repay him." No, this matter is related to my testimony.
Please remember that Zaccheus
restored four times as much for the sake of his testimony. At that time everyone
was saying, "How could the Lord lodge in this sinner's home? He has
extorted and defrauded many people!" They were all indignant. While they
were saying this, Zaccheus stood up and said, "If I have taken anything
from anyone by false accausation, I restore four times as much." This
fourfold restoration was neither a requirement for becoming a son of Abraham nor
a requirement for God's salvation coming to Zaccheus's house. This fourfold
restoration was the result of God's salvation coming to Zaccheus's house and of
his becoming a son of Abraham. Due to this act of restoration, Zaccheus had a
testimony before man. This was the basis of his testimony.
I knew a brother who was not
very upright in financial matters before he believed in the Lord. Many of his
classmates were upper middle-class people. After he believed in the Lord, he
became rather zealous in leading his classmates to the Lord. But he did not see
much fruit. Although he earnestly preached the gospel to them, they said in
their heart, "What is this? What about all the money?" His past had
not been eradicated from them. This brother did not follow the example of
Zaccheus. His sins were forgiven before God. All his problems were solved. But
the matter concerning his money before his classmates was not resolved. He had
to confess and make recompense for all his past wrong doing before he could
testify to others. The restoration of his testimony depended on the termination
of his past.
As I have mentioned, Zaccheus
did not become a son of Abraham by restoring four times as much. Neither did he
gain salvation by restoring four times as much. Rather, he restored four times
as much because he was a child of Abraham. He restored four times as much
because he was saved. By restoring four times as much, he shut the mouths of
others. They could no longer say anything. His fourfold restoration went far
beyond what he owed, thus shutting the mouths of others and restoring his
Brothers and sisters, did you
wrong anyone in any way before you became a believer? Do you owe anyone
anything? Have you taken things home which belong to others? Have you taken
anything by improper means? If so, you have to deal with all these things
properly. The repentance of a Christian has to do with confessing his past wrong
doing, whereas the repentance of ordinary men only involves a change in his
present conduct. For example, as a human being, if I have a bad temper, I need
only to refrain from my temper. But as a Christian, in addition to refraining
from my temper, I have to apologize for my former temper. Apart from not losing
my temper before God, I must also apologize for my former temper before men.
Only then can this matter be terminated.
Suppose you stole from others
in the past. Your problem before God is settled as long as you no longer steal.
Likewise, if you have ever taken things that belonged to others, your problem is
settled once you stop doing it. However, this is not enough for you to have a
testimony before men. Even if you have not stolen anything in three years,
others may still consider you as a thief. After believing in the Lord, you must
testify before men; you must deal with all your mistakes in the past. Only then
will your position be clear.
But here is a difficult
problem. Suppose you stole ten thousand dollars from someone. What should you do
if you do not even have one thousand dollars now? In principle you have to
confess to the person from whom you have stolen. You should tell him frankly
that you cannot repay him at the present time. Whether or not you can repay him
immediately is another matter; you should still confess and testify to him. If
you do not testify now, you will not be able to testify for the rest of your
Please remember that in the
course of giving your testimony, you may be affected by personal problems. But
you cannot avoid dealing with these problems. You still must deal with the
problems. You can have a testimony before men only after you have dealt with
Some have committed murder in
the past. What should they do now? This is a part of their past. In the Bible
there are two murderers who were saved. One was involved directly with the act
of murder, while the other murdered indirectly. The first one was the robber on
the cross. It is clear in the Greek language that the word robber does not just
mean an ordinary robber; it means a criminal who engages in such acts as murder
and arson. He was not just a thief but one who robbed and killed. After he
believed in the Lord, his sins were forgiven. The Bible does not tell us how he
terminated his past. The other person is Paul. He was not involved in any direct
murder. However, he was an accomplice in the murder of Stephen, and he watched
over the garments of those who killed Stephen. After Paul was saved, nothing was
said about how he dealt with this matter.
In principle I believe that
once a murderer has believed in the Lord, his sins are behind him. There is no
sin which cannot be cleansed by the blood. The robber did not have to do
anything to terminate his past. In fact, he had no opportunity to do anything.
The Lord said to him, "Today you shall be with Me in Paradise" (Luke
23:43). Therefore, when we encounter such cases, we should not overly burden the
conscience of others, unless of course God has first worked in that person's
heart. This is because in the two New Testament cases that deal with murder--one
directly and the other indirectly--God did not pay attention to the
rectification of the past. However, I believe that some have no peace in their
conscience, not because they are suffering from ordinary accusations, but
because God is working in them. In such cases, we should not stop them from
expressing their regrets to the victim's family.
D. The Termination of
When a person is saved, he
surely has many unsettled secular matters at hand. These may easily hinder him
from following the Lord. What should he do? "Follow Me, and let the dead
bury their own dead" (Matt. 8:22). This is another biblical case of
terminating the past. Here, a man came to Jesus and said to Him, "Lord,
permit me first to go and bury my father" (v. 21). The Lord said,
"Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead." The word their
refers to the first use of the word dead, whereas the second dead refers to the
man's father. The first dead refers to those who are spiritually dead. In God's
eyes those in the world are spiritually dead. The Lord was saying that the man
should let the dead bury his father, while he should follow the Lord.
I am not exhorting new
believers to not make funeral arrangements for their fathers. I am saying that
the dead should bury their own dead. We must lay hold of this principle. We
should let go of unfinished business. If we wait until we have finished settling
them before we become Christians, we will never have the time. There are
hundreds and thousands of items of unfinished business in our families, with our
fathers, and in our lives. Who then could become a Christian? There is only one
word to describe the principle behind all of these things--these are dead
people. Let the dead bury their dead. Let the spiritually dead handle the
matters of the dead! This is the principle. This is not to exhort new believers
to neglect their family. It means that they should not wait until they have
settled all their earthly matters before coming to the Lord. If they do, they
will not be able to follow the Lord.
Many people want to settle
all of their affairs before they believe in the Lord. If so, they will have no
opportunity to believe in Him. We should not be bound by matters of the dead.
Instead, we should just regard the unsettled matters as settled. If we want to
settle them before following the Lord, we will never make it. Matters concerning
idols, improper things, and debts must be dealt with thoroughly. As for other
unsettled matters, we should just let them go!
With regard to the attitude
of a new believer towards his past, I can only find the above four categories of
things in the Word of God. As for many other unsettled affairs, we should regard
them as settled. As to family duties, we should let the dead take care of the
dead. We have no time to deal with them. We want to follow the Lord. Those
things are not for us to settle; they are for the dead to take care of. Let the
ones who are spiritually dead handle them.
A brother asked: If I have
offended a person and he is not aware of it, must I also confess to him?
Answer: It all depends on
whether or not he has suffered material loss. If the other party is aware of
this loss, you should deal with the matter by following Zaccheus's example. Even
if he is unaware of this loss, you should still confess to him, especially when
material loss is involved. It is best to bring the matter to the church and let
the more experienced brothers help you solve it because they know what is most