10 or so years ago, it was exceedingly common to hear people in the broader Reformed and Evangelical circles saying things like, “You’ve got to learn to preach the Gospel to yourself!” Usually it came in the context of one friend counseling another during a period of struggle with sin, or during a period of painful trial. Occasionally you would hear the phrase surface in pulpits as well. But then there was pushback from certain theologically conservative corners. I remember hearing a well known biblical counsellor emphatically say that the idea of “preaching the Gospel to yourself” is nowhere to be found in Scripture. Others rightly suggested that it all depends on what you mean by “the Gospel.” If, by the Gospel, you mean merely justification so that it’s ok that you continue in sinful practices because you’ve been justified, then this is terribly wrongheaded. So, are we to “preach the Gospel to ourselves,” or is that idea foreign to the biblical teaching on sanctification and the Christian life? I’ve heard the phrase less and less over the years, but I’ve also appropriated it more and more into my life since then. In order to give due consideration to this subject, we first have to answer the question, “What is the Gospel?” Then we can scan the pages of Scripture to see if we have any descriptive or prescriptive grounds for preaching such a Gospel to ourselves.
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-3, the apostle Paul wrote to a church that he had planted and reminded them of the Gospel that he had preached to them. He summed up “the Gospel” in the following way:
Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.
Here we have a succinct summary of the Gospel–namely, the substitutionary, atoning death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus died for our sins. Jesus was buried. Jesus rose again on the third day. Paul intimates that all of this was according to the Scriptures. The Old Testament had already borne witness to the facts of the Gospel. While we might be tempted to think of the statement “died for our sins” in terms of our justification in Jesus, it would serve us well to see if it includes any other saving blessing.
In his essay, “The Earliest Confession of the Atonement in Paul,” Herman Ridderbos argues quite persuasively that the Apostle Paul has both justification and sanctification in view when he says, “Christ died for our sins.” It is not merely the judicial aspect of Christ’s death to which Paul refers–it is also the transformative. This, argues Ridderbos, is clear from the fact that Paul uses similar terminology in Romans 6 (which is clearly sanctificiationary in nature).” Reflecting on the meaning of Paul’s formula in 1 Cor. 15:3, Ridderbos explained:
The idea of atoning sacrifice is in Paul closely connected to the concept of forensic justification. So, for example, in Rom. 3:25 where it is said that God has put forth Christ as an expiation to show his righteousness (vv. 25, 26), God manifests Himself in the death of Christ as the righteous Judge, who in Christ’s death judges and condemns sin (cf. also Rom. 8:3) and who at the same time justifies and acquits “him who has faith in Jesus.” Therefore it can be said that we are justified “through His blood” (Rom. 5:9). In both concepts Christ appears as the substitute; e.g. when it is said that “one has died for all” in 2 Cor. 5:14, where the “for us” of the atoning sacrifice is closely related to the substitution by the “One” for the “all.” We find the same thought elsewhere, when the justification of the ungodly is founded on their sins having been accounted to Christ and when He thus substitutes for them; e.g. (and again in close correspondence to the terminology of Isaiah 53), in 2 Cor. 5:21: “for our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” In both parts of this statement Paul uses the abstactum pro concreto: God made the sinless One the carrier of sin so that we in Him would be righteousness before God. Substitution and justification are closely related so that it can be said that Christ has delivered us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse (i.e., one cursed by God) for us (Gal. 3:13).
At the same time, Ridderbos contends that Paul has the source of our sanctification in mind too when he says, “Christ died for our sins” when he suggested:
To be sure, the Apostle does not leave it at that: he also explains the redemptive significance of Christ’s death as a liberation of the whole life of the believer. I do not think one ought to say that in this respect Paul transcends the earlier tradition, because there is no reason to believe that the tradition of the death of Christ would have to be understood exclusively in the juridical and cultic categories. Already, the words of 1 Cor. 15:3, oriented as they are to Isaiah 53, have–we may say–a naturally wider implication than one limited to the juridical. However, this does not detract from the fact that we find in Paul–particularly in the letter to the Romans–a far clearer and far more extensive explanation of the all-embracing import of the atonement…After having introduced the the concept of the One and the many [in Rom. 5:12-21] he speaks in chapter 6 of our having been crucified with Christ and our having died with Christ. And so we are no longer dealing with justification but specifically with the church having been redeemed from the power of sin. For the church is included in the death and resurrection of Christ and thus has died to sin (Rom. 6:2) and now is dead to sin and lives for God (v. 11). In that way he lays the foundation for his further exposition in chapters 6, 7 and 8, in which he interprets the redemptive nature of Christ’s death and resurrection not merely in terms of justification and acquittal, but also in those of liberation from the power of sin, of renewal of life and of sanctification.
While Ridderbos concluded that, what we might call, “definitive sanctification” is included in the statement “Christ died for our sins,” we must be careful not to think that our participation in the process of sanctification–namely, progressive sanctification–is included in the words, “Christ died for our sins.” Surely the power of sin being broken, and our union with the One who is Himself our sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30) by virtue of His perfect life and atoning death, effects our progressive sanctification; however, we must guard against putting the outworking of these blessings in our lives into our definition of the Gospel. That would be to make our work part of the Gospel, rather than the fruit of it. Be that as it may, we can safely affirm that both justification and sanctification are our’s in the Gospel.
There are at least three clear places in Scripture that seem to be encouraging us to preach these truths to ourselves. The first is the passage that Ridderbos alluded in in Romans 6. There the apostle Paul explained that if we are united to Jesus we have died with Him, been buried with Him and risen with Him. In light of this truth–and the accompanying truths about our having died to the power of sin since He died to it’s power–Paul charges believers with the following words: “Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:11). Here, Paul is charging believers to preach the aspect of the Gospel that we call definitive sanctification to ourselves. The charge comes on the heals of the question, “Shall we continue in sin that grace might abound?” Here then is a powerful pastoral tool to encourage holiness in the lives of believers. If one is struggling with a particular sin and on the brink of giving into it in the name of grace, Paul charges such a one to preach the Gospel of definitive sanctification to himself or herself.
In his second letter, the apostle Peter does something similar–however, by appealing to the believer’s justification–when he calls his readers to add to their faith virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness and love (2 Peter 1:5-7). He charges them to “work hard” at adding these characteristics one to another, and promises them that by doing this they “will never stumble” and “an entrance will be supplied to them abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” This promise could easily be taken in a legal way–as if Peter is suggesting that it is because of our adding these things to one another in our lives we will be saved. However, in 2 Peter 1:9, Peter explains that these virtues are the fruit of our having been justified through Christ’s death. He explained this when he wrote, “he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins” (2 Pet. 1:9). It is by remembering what Christ has done for us that we go forward in Christ-likeness. This is also what Paul seems to be intimating in Colossians 1:5-6. Here then we have another powerful example of our need to “preach the Gospel to ourselves.”
Finally, when we reach back into the Old Testament, we find another example of this principle. In the Psalter there is a magnificent couplet written by the Sons of Korah. In the midst of the believer’s experiential trials (e.g. the feeling of barrenness, cast-offness and spiritual desertion), the Psalmist finds a sweet resolve by preaching the Gospel–the truth that God is for him in Christ–to himself; and we see, because of the truth of the Gospel, the confidence in him that God will again make His redemptive favor known to him. After asking the question, “Why are you cast down, O my soul? and why are you disquieted within me?” the Psalmist turns to preach the truth of God’s redeeming grace to himself, when he says to himself, “Hope in God; for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God” (Ps. 42:5, 11; 43:5). Note also that the Psalmist is hoping in Gospel restoration. There is an anticipatory aspect to his prayer.
While much more can and should be said about the definition of the Gospel (i.e. that it also includes all other saving blessings like regeneration, adoption and glorification) the above defense of the duplex gratia and the Scriptural defense of preaching the Gospel to ourselves should suffice to start putting the matter to rest. Because we feel the guilt and the remaining corruption of our sin on a daily basis, we need to be reminded that Christ has taken the guilt away in His substitutionary death and has broken the power of sin on the cross. Because we are united to Him, we need to be constantly reminded of these truths. Sadly, it is true that one can easily preach a false Gospel to themselves; but it is impossible to preach the true Gospel to ourselves too often. As we preach this Gospel to ourselves, we will grow in the holiness that Christ has purchased for us in His death. If we forget these truths, Peter tells us that we will “lack” growth in grace and holiness. So, are we to preach the Gospel to ourselves? If we are to live as fruitful and godly Christians our spiritual lives depend on us doing so.