On Preaching the Gospel to Yourself
We don't listen very well
Though to most people I’m a pretty good listener, there are two people to whom I don’t listen well at all. The first, sadly, is my wife. I’m working on that.
And the second, is me.
I write, as you obviously know, a newsletter and I produce a podcast. I intend by these to encourage pastors, like myself. I believe every word I write and speak.
Except when I don’t.
And so there are times when I’m grumbling about this or that and someone says, “You know, Randy, there’s this newsletter called Greatheart’s Table. You really ought to try reading it.”
I have snarky friends.
But they’re right. I don’t listen well to myself. The fact is, none of us do.
But we are supposed to, and therein lies the problem.
Somewhere in the early 1990s I began to hear the distant drumbeat of a movement called “Sonship.” This, or the form of it that filtered down to my desk, encouraged me to address my lagging spirit and my ever-present anxiety by reminding myself that I am a dearly beloved child of God. That is, I was to preach the gospel to myself. That sounded reasonable. The gospel was certainly the message I needed to hear. I preached grace to others; certainly I could nurture the habit of preaching this same grace to myself.
And so I did. Or, I should say, I tried.
Remember, I don’t listen to myself very well.
In the end, preaching the gospel to myself became one more thing at which I was a spectacular failure. Instead of taking my guilt away, it added to it. The more I tried to remind myself that “there is therefore now no condemnation” the louder I heard “wretched man that I am.”
This was clearly not working and so I largely abandoned the project.
Still, I found that what I longed for on those rare Sundays I was able to attend other churches was to hear the gospel of grace preached. I needed to bask in it. I needed to be healed by it. I needed to hear it from others since I would not hear it from myself.
This, it seems, is the way it has always been. Faith, Kelly Kapic suggests, is a communal sport.
Kapic, an author and professor of theology at Covenant College, published in 2017 a remarkable book on suffering called Embodied Hope.1 In this book Kapic traces the idea of preaching the gospel to ourselves far back beyond Sonship to Lloyd-Jones, and then to Wesley, to Luther, and to Augustine. It’s not bad counsel, he says, but the individualistic nature of such a thing makes it difficult if not toxic. For many reasons we simply don’t listen to ourselves as well as we do to others.
Kapic expanded on this in a recent chapel message at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.2 In speaking of Martin Luther’s struggles with God, Kapic quotes a 1528 letter in which Luther cried out, “I have saved others. Myself I cannot save.” I like to think Luther, too, had snarky friends. “Marty,” I can hear them saying, “when are you going to start believing that stuff you preach?”
Kapic and I, and Luther as well, when we preach and when we write to and for others, we mean and believe every word. But when we try to say the same things to ourselves, in Kapic’s words, “it means squat.” Why? Because we see our sin, we see our hypocrisy, we see our doubts, and we are blind to Christ’s compassion toward us.
We all desperately need to hear grace, and we hear it best from others. It’s always been that way.
Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney’s views of race and slavery were odious. But as a Christian man he too struggled to believe the gospel he preached. In his 78th year, declining health and creeping depression were weighing him down. Hearing of this a long time friend wrote Dabney a letter in which he explained the gospel in clear and simple terms and then reminded his friend why he was doing so.
Now, dear old friend, I have done to you just what I would want you do to me if I were lying in your place. The great theologian, after all, is just like any other one of God’s children, and the simple gospel talked simply to him is just as essential to his comfort as it is to a milk-maid or to a plow-boy.3
I’m no great theologian. I’m just an ordinary pastor. And yet I, as you, need to hear grace from someone I’ll listen to. We need to hear it from other pastors, from books, and from friends.
Even the snarky ones.
Because when we preach it to ourselves, it often means squat.
Kelly Kapic, Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering (United States: IVP Academic, 2017). The entire book is valuable. The portion on preaching the gospel to oneself, which begins at page 138, is set in the broader context of confession of sin to one another.
Again, the whole is worth hearing, but this portion begins at about minute 20:10.
Thomas Cary Johnson, The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney (United States: Banner of Truth, 1977), p. 480.