A few weeks back, I called attention to the foggy words we often use as Christians to talk about our gospel work and ministry. Today, I want to point out one such phrase. It is real common, nowadays, to talk of “preaching the gospel to yourself.”
You may have heard someone use this, or you may have said it yourself. It most often makes its way into small group studies, I believe. A group will be discussing a particular passage, and this is somehow an application statement that is made. “Well,” someone will chime in, “we just need to make sure we are preaching the gospel to ourselves.” The statement is certainly true, but what in the world does it mean? If we are not careful this falls into the truism category, sounding profound but having no real practical application.
To give you a little history, the phrase appears to come from the writings of Jerry Bridges. I do not think the phrase originates with him, but he popularized the concept. If you have not read his work, I would strongly encourage you to do so. He, obviously, explains this idea at length and provides some of the best contemporary devotional reading out there.
In short, Bridges (and others) is basically making one very important claim about the gospel: it is as much for believers as it is unbelievers.
This idea that believers still need the gospel cuts across a lot of our contemporary understanding. Fact is, we think of the gospel as the news that saves us, and it is. That said, perhaps our problem is a weak understanding of salvation. More than a “get out of hell free” conversion experience, salvation is the changing of a person that happens both in a moment and over time. In other words, the Bible is clear that we have been saved (a moment) and are being saved (over time). So, if the gospel is the news that saves us, then it is the news that saves us in that moment and over time. We all need to hear the gospel, over and over again.
The gospel is not simply a presentation for lost people. It is a message for all people. I need it as much today as I did when I first heard it, and so do you. In reality, we need to think of the gospel as a message for three audiences: unbelievers, believers, and the gospel community. The gospel speaks in all three of these spheres, and we have a responsibility to preach it in all of them. Of course, preach does not mean from a pulpit. Preaching in the Bible is a much broader concept than standing behind a podium, and it is a concept that applies to all believers. Everyone who has been changed by the gospel has the responsibility to preach the gospel.
The Gospel is for Unbelievers
This is the truth most often understood in evangelical churches today. Unbelievers need the gospel. The Bible paints a stark picture of the “old man,” or the person without Christ. Before the gospel grabs us, we are blind, unable to see. In other places the Bible says we are dead in our sin. Dead does not mean mostly dead (excuse the Princess Bride reference); it means all dead. Incapable of living. Unable to do things on our own. Dead people do not save themselves. They are past saving, in fact. That is the whole point. The gospel is the good news that there is hope for those totally incapable, for those past the point of saving. God can bring dead bones to life, and Christ is the first fruits of this resurrection.
That said, I am afraid the unbeliever’s need for the gospel is more understood than acted on in the church. Yes, we need to preach the gospel to ourselves (we will get to that next), but we need to preach it to the lost as well. My hope is not to browbeat anyone with this point. I do not desire to guilt people into sharing the gospel. But ask yourself, when was the last time it crossed your lips in a conversation with an unbeliever?
The Gospel is for Believers
This gets to the crux of preaching the gospel to oneself. Lost people need the life-changing truth of the gospel, and saved people need the life-changing message of the gospel. As I noted above, we are saved and we are being saved. In another sense, you could say you are already saved and not yet as saved as you will be. This is the reality of being justified, progressively sanctified, and ultimately glorified. That is what salvation does to us, it is an all-of-life transformation that starts at conversion and moves toward a total renewal of the person through the resurrection and glorification that comes to us when Christ returns.
Here we are, in the time between those moments, not yet as saved as we will be. We are new creations with warring desires. We still need to truth of the gospel. We still need the hope that it brings. Being transformed by the renewing of our minds is not an overnight process. John Owen told us to kill sin, or it will kill us. That is why we need the gospel. This is news that I need every day, and who better to share it with me than myself. Martyn Lloyd-Jones refers to this as the difference between listening to oneself and talking to oneself. Our heart is still sinful and full of any manner of deceptions. This is the root of our fears, our anxieties, and the seat of our emotions. Passively listening to these deceptions fills our head with the lies of our sinful heart; it colors the way we see the world around us. It makes us believe things to be one way when they are really another. The gospel is the true story of the world, and we must actively speak it to ourselves. Instead of listening to the lies of our hearts, we must talk back the truth of the gospel. That is preaching the gospel to yourself.
Do you passively listen to the fears of your heart? Realize that those fears stem from a lack of belief in the truth of the gospel, in a God that saves us, and in his provision through Christ. In this way preach the gospel to yourself. Speak it out loud to yourself if you must.
The Gospel is for the Community
And as Westerners, we have a tendency to overlook this last sphere. The gospel message is for unbelievers, it is for believers, and it is for the whole of the Christian community. This community is expressed in real life by the thousands and thousands of little, local assemblies scattered throughout the world.
We need to preach the gospel to the lost, we need to preach the gospel to ourselves, and we need to preach the gospel to our church. Now, this last one assumes active membership in a local church. The Christian cannot be fully faithful to their responsibility to preach the gospel if they are not members of a local church, because we all have a responsibility to preach this truth to one another in the context of community. This happens in dozens of ways. It happens as small groups gather around coffee tables. It happens when a fellow church member confides in you about struggles. It happens when we witness brothers and sisters living in a manner that is not worthy of the gospel and we speak truth to them in love. The Christian community needs to hear the gospel, and Christ compels us to preach it to one another.