Thanks to the deluge of “gospel-centered” publications and blogs in recent years, the act of “preaching the gospel to oneself” has become a spiritual discipline of central importance. However, like any other form of discipline, our self-preaching is not without its own dangers.
The idea of self-preaching springs forth from the conviction that the gospel is more than a set of propositions that get not-yet-Christians into heaven, but that it is for everyone — not-yet-Christians and Christians alike. The gospel is a framework for all of life that is effectual not only in our “justification” (the event of being “declared” righteous by God), but also in our “sanctification” (the process of being “made” righteous by God).¹
One would be hard pressed to find much disagreement among Christians regarding the role of the gospel in our being “saved.” However, a great fragmentation occurs with respect to the gospels role in our sanctification, with “let-go-and-let-God”(antinomian) on the one side and “God helps those who help themselves” (legalist) on the other. Regardless of which side of the scale we gravitate toward (and we all do), the fact remains that both extremes are ultimately an appeal to our pride through self-reliance by which we exalt ourselves over others in either our radical freedom or in our rigid obedience while masking it in false humility.
Both sides have a “gospel.” Both share similar set of vocabulary and are adept at preaching to themselves. Both sides can take any good religious duty and pervert it by their pride.
The apostle Paul understood this dynamic all too well. In writing to the church in Philippi, Paul recounted how he had spent much of his life “putting confidence in the flesh (3:3) by appealing to an impeccable religious pedigree as the means by which he gained good-standing before God and others (3:4-6). Had you and I lived under the religious culture of Paul’s day, we would have surely thought, “If God were to love and bless anybody, it would have to be THAT guy!”
Immediately following the recitation of his resume’, Paul essentially sets it on fire and throws it in the trash. He continues, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (3:7-8).” Everybody preacher “strums and plucks” — some passages can be quickly passed through (strumming) while others deserve extra attention (plucking). Verses 7 and 8 are great “plucking” verses!
We might preach, “Listen, if Paul no longer puts finds confidence in the works of his flesh as a means of gaining God’s love and favor, neither should we! If arguable the most religious man of his day now counts all things as ‘loss’ or ‘skubulah’ (a greek word that derives its meaning from dog refuse — any preacher worth his salt has at some point worked ‘poo-poo’ into his preaching of this text), then we should follow suit! How can we do this? Because according to verse 9, we are found in Jesus with a righteousness that comes from his obedience to the law and not our own! So get out there and count all things as rubbish compared to knowing Jesus!” Amen!
But then we stop preaching. Not Paul.
Paul keeps going.
In verse 12, after expressing his deep desire in verse 11 to “become like [Jesus]” and to attain resurrection life, he adds the following qualifier in verse 12: “Not that I have yet obtained it.” For a long time, I was puzzled at Paul’s words. Of course he hadn’t attained the resurrection from the dead! He writing this letter from prison! But then one day, after having read through this passage countless times, I realized Paul isn’t just talking about the resurrection life that will one day come as a result of his justification. Paul is referring to the resurrection life that progressively marks his sanctification — his “becoming like Jesus.”
In other words, Paul is saying that even though we long to be like Jesus and to have a new body in which we no longer struggle against our “flesh,” there is this impulse within us that drives us to do the very things we don’t want to do and to not do the very thing we want to do — a spiritual schizophrenia resulting from the “sin that dwells within [us]” (Romans 7:14-17). Even though we have been declared righteous in Christ (justification), we are still facing on this side of the resurrection a grand struggle with a “sin nature” that militantly convinces us to keep putting our “confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3).
We cannot seem to escape our pride. And because, like Paul, we have “not yet attained [resurrection life],” our remaining pride can be found not only in the “bad” things we do, but also all the “good” things we do with false or misplaced motives — including our most outwardly “spiritual” activities including self-preaching. We almost never realize we’re doing it, but in preaching the gospel to ourselves, we can be tempted to bypass trusting in the very God to whom the gospel points and instead trust in ourselves
1. We trust in our own understanding: “Is my knowledge of the gospel theologically sound enough?”
2. We trust in our own eloquence: “Is my articulation of the gospel stirring up in me an appropriate emotional response?”
3. We trust in our own timing: “Is my application of the gospel happening at the most opportune moments of struggle?”
We can unwittingly replace God with ourselves as the the chief architect for our sanctification. We desperately want to control the process. Our self-reliance can lead us to gradually feel as though we have been sold a bill of goods in the gospel as we sludge through prolonged seasons of discouragement, disenchantment and even despair.
“How can this happen when I’m preaching the gospel to myself? Did I say something wrong? Was I not convincing enough? Did I fail to preach to myself at the optimal time?”
We need to understand is that the problem is not with God or His gospel, but with the preacher. In preaching the gospel to ourselves, we can appeal to the very pride we are preaching against and lead ourselves away from the Savior to whom we are trying to turn. “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh (Galatians 3:3)?”
Are we to preach the gospel to ourselves? YES! Are we to grow in our knowledge of God and the gospel? YES! Are we to grow in our ability to effectively communicate the gospel and in our discernment as to when it should be preached and applied? YES and YES! But we should be wary of ultimately trusting in our own ability to know, articulate, and apply the gospel as the means by which God brings about our sanctification.
Interestingly, before Paul exhorts us to not put confidence in the flesh in Philippians 3:3, he reminds us in chapter one that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion (3)” and again in chapter 2 that “it is God who works in you, both to will and work for His good pleasure (13).” The good news of the gospel is that through the redemptive work of His Son’s death and resurrection, and by the illumination of His Spirit in our hearts, God has done, is doing, and will do for us that which we could never do for ourselves.
¹ Because of all the running definitions out there for “gospel,” I do not want to presume that everybody is able to discern what I mean when I say “gospel.” Therefore, I have included an article by D.A. Carson entitled “The Biblical Gospel.” I should qualify, however, that all biblical theology is, by default, reductionistic in nature and thus fails to capture the inexhaustible scope of any proposed biblical theme. Carson has done a masterful job, however, of drawing his reader’s attention to the key biblical terms and concepts that make up the “essence” of the gospel. Enjoy!