Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future

‘You gotta have faith’ was the headline of a Sunday Times ‘Style’ article on the opening of L’oscar last year when the central London premises of the former Baptist Church House were turned into ‘a glamorous place to party’.  In the words of the hotel’s website:

There is a hint of irreverence, a nod towards decadence, a touch of the risqué. There is theatre, entertainment, humour and wit in its presentation. The business of L’oscar is to put every temptation in front of its guests, gastronomically, visually and tangibly.

I confess that I find it sad to see how – following the move of the Baptist Union’s resource centre to Didcot in 1989, – ‘a place of piety has been transformed into a place of decadence’.  Although at the time the coming together of the offices of the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the Baptist Missionary Society into a new office suite in Didcot was seen as a sign of progress, on reflection I now feel it was a wrong move.  Yes, the sale of Baptist Union’s premises in Holborn released £10 million for mission and ministry, but at the same time the move was effectively a sign that Baptists were no longer part of the mainstream of national life.  Certainly, as far as this new luxury hotel is concerned, it represents the triumph of ‘sensual devotion’ over devotion to God.

Ironically, however, the hotel in lampooning the Christian past of its building, unintentionally makes a Gospel statement. For on the home page they reproduce the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘Every saint has a past and every sinner a future’ (found in Act 3 of A Woman of No Importance), not realising that in fact these are words originally attributed to Saint Augustine of Hippo.

Although I cannot find where Augustine actually said this, as Augustine detailed in his Confessions, he certainly had a sinful past. From the age of sixteen, he wrote that “the frenzy gripped me and I surrendered myself entirely to lust”.  As an eighteen-year old student at Carthage sex became an obsession for him. He wrote: “From a perverted act of will desire had grown, and when desire is given satisfaction, habit is forged; and when habit passes unresisted, a compulsive urge sets on”. But thank God, that was not the end of the story. For one day Augustine heard the voice of a child singing a song, ‘Pick it up and read it. Pick it up and read it’. Suddenly realising that this song might be a command from God, he opened a Bible and read Paul’s words, “Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires” (Romans 13.13-14).  Light flooded into Augustine’s soul, and from that moment Augustine the ‘sinner’ became Augustine the ‘saint’.  Augustine, like Paul himself, found his life transformed. Like Paul he discovered that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new” (2 Corinthians 5.17).

The good news of the Gospel is that the past does not need to dictate our future. ‘Sainthood’ is not for a privileged few, it’s something available to us all. There is hope for all.

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