Decades ago, Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote in his book Spiritual Depression, “Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?” Lloyd-Jones popularized the Puritan art of “preaching the gospel to yourself,” and since then many advocates have followed his example. Yet the practice also has its critics. They argue that “preaching to yourself” is unbalanced introspection or inordinate narcissism. So is it?
I posed that question and many others to Joe Thorn, author of Note to Self and pastor of Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, a western suburb of Chicago. Thorn has done something very “Lloyd-Jonesian” in writing Note to Self by encouraging us to remind ourselves about the truths of the gospel.
Why is it important to preach to ourselves, rather than to just hear the gospel preached in our church services or podcasts?
Let me say at the beginning that many Christians do not hear the gospel preached in their corporate worship gatherings. It’s not that such churches reject the gospel, but that the good news is not heralded weekly as a Christian’s great hope. Churches in every tribe often tend toward moralistic lessons, self-help pep-talks, or religious entertainment in their preaching. So, I fear that is isn’t really being preached as often as it should be.
But even when the gospel is heard, and we receive it by faith, we have to recognize that our daily struggle with sin is essentially a struggle with unbelief. We need to bring ourselves before the truth of God’s Word, and the gospel in particular, daily, hourly, to remind us of who God is, what he has done for us in Jesus, who we are in the Savior, and for what we have been created and redeemed.
The call to preach to ourselves law and gospel is really a call to the discipline of meditation where we saturate our minds and hearts with Scripture, strategically applying the Word of God to our own lives with an aim at growing in faith and godliness.
What would you say to the accusation that “preaching to yourself” is unbalanced introspection or inordinate narcissism?
Martyn Lloyd-Jones is helpful on the subject in his book Spiritual Depression. He explained that we need to talk to ourselves, rather than merely listen to ourselves. It is our questions, fears, and anxieties that rise up from hearts of unbelief and weakness. Instead of listening to ourselves we need to actively speak to ourselves in such a way that we “take ourselves by the hand” and lead ourselves to the truth of God and the gospel. So this “preaching to ourselves” is not some kind of spiritual navel-gazing but lifting our eyes upward to Christ. Yes, we see ourselves, our current condition, our frailty and failures. But then we turn our attention back to our hope in Christ. The aim in preaching to ourselves is knowing and following Jesus.
You say that it isn’t enough that we preach the gospel to ourselves, we must preach the law and the gospel. Why do you include the law?
When reading Scripture we are being confronted with either law or gospel, the commands and standards of God or the promises of God in his Son. What I am encouraging in the book is for Christians to be preaching the Scripture to themselves—both law and gospel. These are two very different things, and we need to understand what they are, and how we relate to them. I unpack this in the introduction of Note to Self, so if you get the book do not skip the intro. And, Sam Storms wrote an amazing foreword that explores the place of Scripture in the life of the believer. His foreword alone is worth the price of the book.
But let me summarize the whole law/gospel thing here in this way.
The law is God’s revealed will for us all. We’re talking about his commands, which are summarized as loving God and neighbor, organized in the Decalogue, and unpacked by the prophets, apostles, and Jesus. So when we read, for example, that God commands us to love, pray, or give—this is law. Now, many are ready to say, with Paul, that we are not saved by works of the law, but what is our relationship to the law? What purpose does it serve? The law essentially does three things:
The law tells us what’s right. God has not left us in the dark about his will and ways. He has graciously revealed himself and his will to us that we might know what is right and good. This is actually grace.
The law tells us what’s wrong. Unfortunately, we do not keep God’s commands. The law is held up against our own lives, and what is reflected back is a life of lawbreaking, rebellion, and selfishness. The law shows us what’s wrong—ourselves. Through the law we see our sin and guilt.
The law tells us what’s needed. The law then shows us that what we need before God is forgiveness, cleansing, and restoration. We need mercy if we are to find life. We need God to rescue us from our sin and his judgment. In this way the law prepares us for the gospel.
So the law then leads us to the gospel where by faith in Christ we find forgiveness for sinners, righteousness for the unrighteous, and victory for the defeated. Once we find our hope and identity in the gospel, we can look again to the law and confess with the psalmists and Paul that it is good. We are not condemned or under the curse of the law, so we can in freedom and gratitude walk in God’s ways imperfectly with great joy, because Christ has walked in God’s ways perfectly on our behalf.
In the end, we preach law and gospel because that’s what we find in the Bible, and you can’t really understand the beauty of the gospel apart from the reality of the law.
How is the growing ability to preach to ourselves not a danger of excluding our community of Christian brothers and sisters from encouraging and exhorting us in the gospel and to repent of sins?
In short, preaching to ourselves better equips us to preach to others. In dealing with our own weaknesses, sins, temptations, and idols through this private kind of preaching, we are better equipped to help others. We can, as Paul said, comfort those with the comfort with which we have been comforted. Preaching to ourselves isn’t selfish in a sinful sense. It is the necessary self-care of our souls. I was on a plane recently (something I never really enjoy), and the advice is always the same. If the oxygen masks drop, put your mask on first before you try to help someone else. You need it, not only for your own well-being, but in order to aid others.
Let’s say there are some who want to be able to preach to themselves, but when discouragement comes their first impulse is not to preach the gospel to themselves, but to despair or become angry. How can Christians grow in this?
This is precisely why we need to be about this work of preaching to ourselves. Because we, like the psalmists, encounter difficulty, affliction, or the perceived absence of God from our lives, and we cannot afford to remain in such a state. Like the psalmists we must challenge our perception, our unbelief, and remind ourselves of the God who is there—our great Savior who is with us, for us, and even in us. We can only pass from despair into joy through the work of God via the Word of God (see Ps. 42). To grow in this we need to become deeply familiar with the gospel and all of its implications.
Original post from TGC Reviews by John Starke