Was God at Work in My Pre-Conversion Life?
God was at work in my life when he saved me. Amen! But was God at work in my life before I came to Christ? And if so, how should we talk about God’s work in our lives before conversion? What does that season of my life before Christ tell the world about who God is? I’ve never really considered this, to be honest. And I suspect most of us haven’t really given it that much thought either. Well, the apostle Paul did. And he spoke with specificity about what his pre-conversion life displayed about the character of God.
Here’s the sharp question from a listener named Shawn, who lives in Canada: “Hello, Pastor John. I have a question concerning the life that we, as believers in Christ, lived before we came to faith. Paul writes about his life before conversion as being one of the largest opponents of God (1 Timothy 1:13). He later says his life as an unbeliever was used to display God’s ‘perfect patience,’ going from a persecutor of Christians to a Christian (1 Timothy 1:16). God was revealing his patience in Paul’s pre-conversion life. So, looking at Paul’s testimony, my question is this: Was God present and active in our lives when we were unbelievers? And should we too speak of what our pre-conversion life reveals about the character of God? Because, quite honestly, that’s something I really don’t do.”
The answer to both of those questions is yes. God is always at work in this world in everybody’s life. “He works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). And when we come to Christ, we are given a perspective on that prior work that is true and helpful. It is cause for thankfulness in us, and it’s a cause for benefit to others. In other words, we experience it as worship, and we experience it, hopefully, as witness.
Before we turn to Christ, there is, so to speak, a veil over our eyes so that we can’t interpret what’s happening in our lives in its proper relationship to God before we’re a Christian. In a profound sense, we are blind to what God is doing in our lives. So we can’t tell any true stories about God’s work in our lives before our eyes are open to see what he’s really doing in our lives.
But when we come to Christ, the veil is lifted, and we see our past life for what it really is, both in its darkness and in the bright light of God’s work in it. So here’s the text that makes that amazingly clear. This is John 3:19–21:
This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.
“When we come to Christ, the veil is lifted, and we see our past life for what it really is.”
That’s interesting. That’s really significant. In other words, when a person turns to Christ and comes into the light, he is able to see not only the path that is in front of him and how he should walk now that he’s a Christian, but he is also able to see for the first time what was really going on in his life before he was led to Christ and crossed over the line between unbelief and belief. The light of Christ shines in both directions: it shines forward to show us how to live, and it shines backward to show how God worked in our lives to bring us to himself.
God’s Perfect Patience
Now, one of the remarkable things about the passage in 1 Timothy 1:12–16 is that Paul shows that there’s a double reason for why we should think about God’s work in our lives before we became Christians. One is thankfulness. It should cause us, when we look back and watch the providences of God in our lives bringing us to him, to worship and be amazed at the great mercy of God that he did not let us go our own self-destructive way.
For example, Paul begins 1 Timothy 1:12 by saying, “I thank him who has given me strength.” So Paul worshiped — that’s his first response when he looks back on what God did in his life. If any of us rightly understands our true condition before we were called into Christ, we will respond the same. Oh yes, we will. Whether you were 6 years old or 66 or 86 when converted, the Bible makes clear, even if our memory doesn’t, that we were hopelessly dead in our sin and were made alive by sovereign grace.
“We were hopelessly dead in our sin and were made alive by sovereign grace.”
But the main thing Paul is doing in 1 Timothy when he recalls his former life as a blasphemer, persecutor, insolent is trying to help others who are despairing of their own salvation because their past life is so terrible they can’t imagine God ever being patient and merciful with them. Those are the people he’s really writing for when he talks about his past, and Paul’s point in telling of God’s work in his own past is to encourage them. “No one is beyond hope.” Here’s the way he does it:
I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. . . . But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:13, 16)
In other words, he speaks of God’s work in his pre-conversion life, first, in order to celebrate the greatness of God’s mercy, and second, in order to help strugglers who have no hope. He wants them to have hope.
Past Life of an Apostle
He did the same thing in Galatians 1. He knew that the churches of Galatia were struggling with whether they could really trust Paul as an authentic apostle. And one of the ways that he helped them trust him and his gospel as true was to tell the story of his past life in Judaism, and how the only reasonable explanation of why he’s risking his life now — to advance the faith he formally tried to destroy — is Christ’s amazing intervention in his life. Here’s what he says:
You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. (Galatians 1:13–17)
- Before he was converted and before he became an apostle, God set him apart from his mother’s womb.
- God allowed Paul to become a radical anti-Christian zealot, with zeal that surpassed everybody.
- Christ appeared to him on the Damascus road and saved him.
- Christ led him away to Arabia and turned him into a mighty apostle.
All that recounting of his past was to help the Galatians know he was true, he was an apostle, and that they could trust his message, his gospel, and hope in the truth.
So the answer to Shawn’s questions are yes and yes. (1) Was God present and active within our lives when we were unbelievers? Yes. (2) Should we speak of what our pre-conversion life reveals about God? Yes, and for those two reasons: both for the glory of God in our own thankfulness and praises, and for the good of others who might be helped to have hope in Christ by our story.