If you were saved when you were six years old, can you feel the greatness of the sinfulness from which you were rescued?
Or to put the question even more pointedly: If you have no recollection of ever being an unbeliever, can you really sing, “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me”?
Is Memory the Measure of Reality?
My mother told me that I professed faith when I was six. She told me the time and place. I have no recollection of it. In fact, I have no recollection of anything when I was six. If memory is the measure of reality, my life is becoming more unreal every day! So, my question is this: Does my experience at six dictate the measure of my amazement that God saved me?
No. At age 71, with no memory of ever being an unbeliever, I am amazed that God saved me. I know of no season in my life that I would want to go back to when I felt more wonder and thankfulness at God’s saving grace in my life. The sinfulness from which I have been (and am being) saved is as appalling to me in this season of my life as it has ever been. I have no hesitation in singing, “He saved a wretch like me.”
How can that be?
There are six reasons that Christians like me can feel the greatness of our sinfulness, and the wonder of grace, even if we have no recollection of ever being an unbeliever.
1. First is the correction of a common misconception that those saved out of a life of open decadence will have a deeper sense of the sin they were saved from. This is a superficial belief.
It is naïve to think that a person rescued by God from drugs and crime and sexual immorality will have a deeper, truer sense of his own sinfulness than someone who is saved from those things before they happen. He may. He may not.
Why is this misconception superficial and naïve? Because the true measure of the greatness of sin is not the way it ruins human life, but the way it dishonors God. This means that a person may be stunned and amazed and joyful that God rescued him from so much ruin, and yet have an immature grasp of God’s nature and scarcely any grasp of the true essence of sin — that it belittles and dishonors the infinite holiness of God.
Only those who see sin primarily as messing up human life, rather than seeing it primarily as demeaning God’s glory, will assume that people whose lives were wrecked by sin will automatically have a greater sense of the seriousness of their sin than others. But in fact, many who are rescued from debauchery and ruin never go deep in their grasp of what sin really is.
They may spend decades telling people about what a messed-up life God saved them from. But they may never go deeper in the Scriptures to discover that they don’t know the half of how serious their sin is! They are stuck at the level of the story that the world likes to hear. The world can comprehend a rescue from a messed-up life. But the world has no spiritual categories for comprehending the greater outrage of a dishonored God.
Many Christians who were rescued from the miseries of their sinful lifestyle are like a person who had cancer and suffered terribly, not from the cancer itself, but from the terrible sores it produced. The doctor saw their true condition and healed their cancer. Their sores went away, and they have been singing the doctor’s praises ever since for taking away the misery of their sores without ever seeing the fullness of his glory in healing their cancer.
2. But it is possible that the Holy Spirit would take the person who was saved when he was six years old, and show him the greater horrors of sin from the word of God itself.
In fact, there is no other way to know the exceeding sinfulness of sin than to see it revealed by God in his word (Romans 7:13). We cannot know sin simply by looking in the mirror or at our past. We know the true nature of sin the same way we know the true nature of God’s holiness. For sin is a falling short of the glory of that holiness. But the holiness of God is not discernible by the natural mind. Only the Holy Spirit reveals it. And he reveals it in the word of God.
Therefore, the person who was saved when he was six years old from demeaning and offending the glory of God through indifference and unbelief and selfishness and disobedience is at no disadvantage in seeing and feeling the depth and horror of his own sin. That horror is only seen by the Spirit through the word. The mere experience of life’s ruin will never reveal the true depths of sin — just its consequences. Only God’s word opens us to the real outrage.
3. Being rescued from a dissolute life of debauchery does not reveal the truth of original sin. Only the word of God reveals that.
Who shudders at his sin the way he should, until he knows that his corruption is rooted in Adam’s fall? “One trespass led to condemnation for all men. . . . By one man’s disobedience the many were appointed sinners” (Romans 5:18–19).
How shall we know and feel the desperate condition from which God saved us when we were six years old? Not by remembering great acts of immorality, but by reading and believing the fifth chapter of Romans! The person whose eyes are opened to the truth of Romans 5, and the appalling magnitude and fixedness of our sinfulness, will be able to sing “Amazing Grace” as heartily, and with as many tears, as anyone who only knows he was on drugs when God saved him.
4. The most vivid and moving picture of our sin is not the memory of lying in our own vomit after an overdose, but the picture of the Son of God nailed to the cross.
In fact, there is no comparison between the horror of these two pictures. We will never know the greatness of our sin by consulting the memories of our ruin. That misery was a tiny fraction of the misery of the Son of God. And his misery was totally undeserved. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. . . . He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:22, 24).
The person who was saved at six years old is at no disadvantage in seeing the magnitude and horror of his own sin from which God saved him at six. The picture of that sin is not some scrapbook photo of a grumpy, six-year-old face. The picture of that sin is blood running down the face of Jesus.
5. The horror and duration of hell, for those who don’t go there, show us the unspeakable greatness of our sin.
“He will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur. . . . The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.” (Revelation 14:10–11)
God is just. Therefore, hell is not excessive. Therefore, my sin is infinitely evil. I would be in hell, except for sheer grace. No memory of any debauchery before my conversion could add anything significant to the seriousness of my sin which hell does not tell.
6. Finally, 65 years of dealing with my own saved, sinful heart has proved to be a horrible revelation of who I am without Christ and without the work of the Holy Spirit.
The memory of what we were before we were saved may fade. But the memory of yesterday is fresh. Yesterday’s pride. Yesterday’s selfishness. Yesterday’s sulking and self-pity. Yesterday’s anger. All of this, after 65 years of the Holy Spirit striving with me! I need no memories of pre-Christian wreckage in order to show me what I would be without sovereign grace.
Yes, I Can Sing About My Wretchedness
The bottom line is this: We know the depth and outrage of our sinfulness only by the work of the Holy Spirit, who reveals its true nature in Scripture. Memories and introspection can help if they are interpreted in the light of God’s truth. But many people think they know the greatness of their sin because they remember a season of rebellion and ruin. That memory will never reveal the exceeding sinfulness of sin. Only God’s word can do that.
Therefore, though I was never a slave trader like John Newton, nevertheless I will lift my hands and sing with the fullest conviction, “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!”