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Preaching the Gospel to Yourself & Others (Part 2)

So what does preaching the gospel to yourself look like? We learned in Part 1 that amazing news that God changes the heart. Yet we also know that change comes through hearing, treasuring, and heeding his word.

To help get started, consider the following diagram (which builds on the one we discussed in Part 1). Based on passages like Jeremiah 17:5-10, Matthew 12:33-37, and Luke 6:43-45, the following diagram is a big-picture sketch of what the Bible reveals about the heart, what behaviors it produces, and how the gospel effects change.[1] Beware! The figure should not be viewed as a system or another five-step program (e.g., “Just take these steps; and Voila! You’re changed!”). No. Transformation revolves around relating to the person of Jesus himself and doing so over time. Insofar as it helps us relate to Jesus’ person and work in the specifics of life it will prove effective.

Two Trees Diagram 2

Know the Circumstances

The sun/cloud in the diagram above represents various circumstances in which we find ourselves from day to day. You slept through the alarm. The doctor says, “It’s cancer.” You finally receive that package, but the contents were broken in shipping. You’re stressed with the kids or finances. Or, you receive an unexpected bonus at Christmas. You marry off your last child. The boss finally offers you the position you’ve always wanted.

Whatever the circumstances, God controls them. He ordains and governs all things according to his wise, sovereign plan (Eph 1:11). Ultimately, he works all things for our good and his glory (Rom 8:28). He brings circumstances into our life not to crush us or coddle us, but to conform us to Christ’s image (Jas 1:2-4). In all circumstances, he calls us to respond with thanksgiving while trusting him (1 Thess 5:18).

Consider the Fruit

However, we never respond to circumstances neutrally. Our responses either glorify God or they don’t. Our actions and reactions would be what Jesus calls fruit (i.e., behaviors) manifested in every circumstance. Bad fruit includes sinful words, deeds, and attitudes.[2] Good fruit includes Christ-like words, deeds, and attitudes.[3]

Pursue the Root

Once we’ve identified the fruit/behavior, we must pursue the root or heart motives producing that fruit/behavior. Scripture is clear that our words, deeds, and attitudes flow out of the heart (Matt 15:18-19; Luke 6:43-45). That means the goal in our care for one another can’t be mere behavior modification apart from a love for Christ. The goal can’t be a kind of new ethic without the power of the cross, another morality disconnected from grace. We’re all too familiar with this sort of counsel:

  • “Just try harder! Pull yourself up! Stop it!” (self-will)
  • “If you’d just do _____, you won’t be like ‘those’ people’!” (self-righteousness)
  • “If you do _____, imagine what others will think!” (self-preservation)
  • “Don’t do _____, or you’ll get in trouble with God!” (self-protection)
  • “You better do _____, or you’ll hate yourself later.” (self-esteem)

Such moralistic behavior change is powerless to deliver us from sin’s death-grip, because it lacks the good news that is God’s power for salvation (Rom 1:16-17). Moralistic behavior change also fails to transform the soul, because it never challenges our most fundamental problem to begin with, our self-centered idolatry (Rom 1:18-32; 1 John 5:21). Additionally, it deceptively exacerbates the problem by supplying self-centered motivations instead of leading the heart to treasure Jesus for his own sake and for all God is for us in him. I say it “deceptively” exacerbates the problem, because sometimes the moralistic counsel actually restrains bad behavior for a time, much like a child who puts up with conforming to his parents’ rules until leaving home. No true, lasting, inward change occurred; the outward behavior was but a façade, and God will call it for what it is on the Last Day (Matt 7:22-23).

We must go deeper. What root is producing the fruit? What motives are causing the behavior? We act and react to circumstances based on the intentions/desires of our hearts.[4] James probingly asks, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (Jas 4:1-2). Inner passions produce outward behavior: desire drives murder; coveting drives quarreling. If true change is going to happen, we must change inwardly.

Humbly, we must come before the Lord and ask him to search our inmost being: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! See if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps 139:23-24). We must sit with Bible open and subject ourselves to its scrutiny: “…the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). Some questions to help in the process are as follows:

  • What lie(s) am I believing about the circumstances? About myself and my identity as God’s image bearer? About my identity as God’s child? About God and his sovereignty, wisdom, and goodness?
  • What idol(s) am I worshiping? Where am I finding my ultimate joy/significance? What entices me (Deut 4:19)? What am I fearing (Ps 96:4)? What am I trusting (Ps 31:6; 115:8)? What do I feel like I need (Matt 6:31-32)? Have I turned good things into only things? “Everything would be perfect if _______” (= your idol).
  • What false gospel am I preaching? Is it a moralistic slogan like those listed above? Is it works righteousness (i.e., “Just do ­­­­­________ and God will accept you”)? Is it a message of “I’m Okay”?
  • What, or who do I trust (Jer 17:5)? Who am I following? Am I following myself? Am I elevating the views of others over God’s word? Am I looking to other saviors? Who am I quick to talk to when I ought to pray instead?

Own the Rebellion & Repent

Wherever sin and unbelief is present, repent. Repentance is certainly more than feeling misery over sin. Some have said repentance is changing your mind, agreeing with God. It’s at least that much. But that’s still not quite enough. Repentance throughout Scripture affects the will and your inner motives. The concept is closer to the Old Testament idea of “turning” to the Lord.[5] It’s an internal “180” toward God and away from the sin causing estrangement from God. J. I. Packer describes repentance as “the settled refusal to set any limit to the claims which [Christ] may make on [our] lives.”[6]

We need help here. Repentance is not merely feeling guilty about your sin. Repentance is not merely saying you’re sorry for what you did. Repentance is not even merely saying No to evil desires and deeds. Repentance is not just getting rid of the sins that bug you the most. Most important to repentance is returning to relationship with the Lord. God doesn’t just call us to a way of life, but to a person to love, Jesus Christ. Repentance is relational. Repentance is incomplete if there’s no turning to the Lord.

Treasure Christ in the Gospel

When we turn to the Lord, it is there, in relationship to/with him that we experience transformation. Describing the believer’s ultimate future, 1 John 3:2 shows that our perception of Jesus’ unveiled glory will produce final glorification: “…we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is.” But 2 Corinthians 3:18 shows that our present sanctification operates the same way: “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” How are we being transformed into Christ’s image? By beholding the glory of the Lord.[7] Beholding occurs when the Spirit enables the “heart” (2 Cor 4:6) or the “mind” (2 Cor 4:4) to perceive the glory of Christ in the gospel.[8]

Therefore, treasure Christ in the gospel. Meditate on all that God is as Trinity. This includes his perfect beauty and holiness, his intra-Trinitarian love, his all-sufficient presence, etc. Also, meditate on all that God has done in the person and work of Christ. This includes all the ways God acts through Christ’s pre-existence plan, Christ’s humble submission, Christ’s perfect life and sufferings, Christ’s substitutionary death, Christ’s victorious resurrection, Christ’s present reign, and Christ’s final return, as well as all that each of these points implies for our identity and life in Christ.

The point isn’t to hold any of these truths merely in the abstract, but to connect each truth with the specific treasures of the heart (see more below). Answer, “Who is God, what does he say and do in Christ, and how ought these truths change the way I think and change what I treasure?” Good fruit only grows from good treasure.

Follow Christ by Faith & in Community

Finally, follow Christ by faith and in community. Trust that God’s self-revelation in Christ is true and good. Take God at his word. Then act on the truth you rehearse to yourself. Real faith in Christ will manifest itself in works, actions, deeds that prove Jesus is worthy to obey (Jas 2:14-26). Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you both to will and to do according to his good pleasure (Phil 2:12).

So act! But don’t act alone. Do so in community. The church is God’s gift to us in perseverance. Help each other walk in the good of the gospel daily. To use a familiar outline, love, know, speak, do.[9] Love. Christian love could be described as a genuine affection for another’s good in God such that we spend ourselves sacrificially to see them obtain that good. Know. True knowledge isn’t just knowing about a person, but understanding that person’s heart, desires, proclivities, needs. Speak. Speak truth into situations that imparts grace to the hearers. Lastly, do. Be willing to help each other toward deeper faith in Christ and obedience to his will over a long period of time. Regular accountability and encouragement will play a key role. Now let's get specific.

CONNECTING GOSPEL TRUTHS TO SPECIFICS

Perhaps a few examples from Scripture will help. But let’s make three clarifications before walking through these examples. First of all, guard yourself from categorically using the following examples as the only “go-to” passages for addressing these heart issues. Sin manifests itself in different and complex ways, and the Spirit might have us use different passages to minister more specifically to a friend. Thus, we should be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading and use all Scripture as it richly speaks to these issues from different angles.

Second, remember that the gospel not only informs what we bring to each other; it also informs how we bring things to each other. The gospel has much to say about our demeanor, attitudes, tone, patience, speech, and so forth (e.g., Eph 4:15; Col 3:19; 4:6; Jas 1:19). It leads us to use wisdom when speaking to each other (Col 3:16), so that our words aren’t slapped on like BAND-AIDs to gaping wounds, or hurled crassly without regard for the other person’s state of being (Rom 12:15). The gospel leads us to use words that fit the occasion and give grace to those who hear (Eph 4:29). The gospel obliterates our own pride and self-righteous attitudes, so that we never come to each other as if we’re not just as vulnerable to the same temptations (1 Cor 10:12-13; Gal 6:1). Further, the gospel compels us to back our counsel with sacrificial deeds of service that show we’re willing to walk closely with the other person as long as it takes to see them happy in Jesus (John 13:34).

Third, preaching the gospel to ourselves is not a mechanical exercise. It’s not a matter of simply speaking certain truths and getting automatic, immediate results. It’s also not a mere rehearsal of moral principles that are better than others. Rather, preaching the gospel is relational. God reveals himself to us through Jesus Christ in the gospel. In the gospel, we come to know God as he is. Then, in that relationship with God we find freedom from sin and superior pleasure in his presence. In our relationship with God, we gain what Thomas Chalmers (https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/Chalmers,%20Thomas%20-%20The%20Exlpulsive%20Power%20of%20a%20New%20Af.pdf) called “the expulsive power of a new affection.” New affection for Christ replaces and drives away the old affection for sin. So much for the clarifications. Now on to our examples.

Example 1: Turning from Sinful Anger

When James commands us, “Be slow to anger,” he quickly explains how our obedience flows from gospel truth: “for the anger of man does not produce God’s justice” (Jas 1:20). Essentially, James is telling us not to confuse anger with hidden idolatry. When we refuse to turn from our sinful anger, what we are basically saying is that we can dish out God’s justice better than he can. Thus, we foolishly attempt to usurp God’s authority. In contrast, James is telling us that we must put off the idolatrous old self, who constantly attempts to be God, and to put on the new self, who is wholly content with God being God and with God exercising his justice with wisdom, most pointedly and decisively seen in the cross of Christ and the Lake of Fire (Rom 3:25-26; Rev 20:15).

Example 2: Husbands Loving Their Wives

When Paul instructs husbands to love their wives, he does so from the riches found in the gospel. He connects the gospel truth of Christ’s sacrificial love for his bride, the church, to the tangible, every-day way a husband should relate to his bride. Indeed, a husbands sacrificial love for his wife flows from the sacrificial love Jesus showed first for his church (Eph 5:25-27). Even when there was nothing lovely in the church to merit Jesus’ favor, Jesus chose to love her, giving his life for her, in order to make her lovely. Such extravagant love toward us husbands not only sets the example for love, it radically transforms our souls to love as Christ loved. The cross is more than example; it is power when applied by the Spirit. Because Jesus cleanses us from all defiling, self-centered preoccupations, husbands are freed to love as Christ loved, to lead with sacrificial service, to pursue her well-being daily, and to seek her holy happiness in Christ.

Example 3: Fighting Sexual Immorality

Paul motivates the believers in Corinth to flee sexual immorality not because of the health risks (self-protection), and not because they might get caught (self-preservation), but because the believer shares a covenant union with Jesus that far surpasses any union this world can offer (1 Cor 6:15-18a). Christ has been faithful to win us as part of his bride since he covenanted with his Father in eternity past, and such faithfulness he manifested in his coming and death (cf. Eph 1:4; 5:22-33). We flee immorality, because we’ve been married to a new husband whose enduring love far surpasses what we can find online, whose lasting beauty far outshines the lust of the eyes, whose comforting presence far outlasts the empty relationships of this world.

Example 4: Using Your Body Rightly

In the same argument of 1 Corinthians 6, Paul also tells us why the believer can use his body to glorify God. Again, he catapults the believer into obedience by connecting massive gospel truths to the specifics of how we use our physical body (1 Cor 6:18b-21). Basically, the price for your deliverance from sin that you could not pay, God paid for you by crushing his own Son on the cross. And in this way, he has bought and brought you out of slavery from your sins, not to rule us as some kind of tyrant, but to fill you with the glory of his presence in the Holy Spirit. That means you are not owned by sin; you are owned by the God of infinite love who has purchased you from slavery and made you his own temple that he fills by the Spirit. Listen to the Spirit's voice when he calls you away from the world and its temptations, and let him use your body for righteousness. That applies not just to fleeing sexual immorality, but to fleeing other things like gluttony, laziness, gossip, etc.

Example 5: Dying to Stinginess with Money

When Paul encourages the Corinthians to support the poor in Jerusalem, he does so not by threat or promises of worldly comfort, but by pointing them to the gospel: “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Again, he connects the specifics of life (i.e., the use of money) to gospel truth (i.e., God’s generosity in Christ).

God was infinitely generous when he sent his own Son to die for our sins. The grace found in Jesus’ sacrificial generosity toward others in need is actually what changes the heart and empowers the believer to give sacrificially. As the generous Christ lives in his people, so does his generosity. With thanksgiving and joy, we then make the sacrificial adjustments to meet the needs of others.

CONCLUSION

The examples are replete in Scripture and many times intertwined with hundreds of other gospel truths simultaneously. The gospel is rich and comprehensive, because Jesus’ work is comprehensive. One day, he will unite all things together in himself (Eph 1:9-10). But until then, hopefully these few examples will stir you to motivate yourself and others with the gospel. Of course, we’ll only be able to pursue this with one another well when we’re around each other, and even more, when we’re inviting others into our lives to help us connect gospel truth(s) where our souls most desperately need it.

________

[1]Adapted from “The Big Picture” model in Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp, How People Change (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2008), 79-195.

[2]In Matthew 15:19, Jesus lists evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. In Galatians 5:19-21, Paul lists sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. These lists are not exhaustive.

[3]Examples include “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:8), “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23), “bearing fruit in every good work” (Col 1:13), “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb 12:11), “the fruit of lips that acknowledge [God’s] name” (Heb 13:15).

[4]This assertion differs from the approach of secular psychology that conflates the occasion for responses with the cause of our responses. Secular psychology begins with the assumption that our biggest problems are the circumstances outside us (e.g., other people, family of origin, your body), and the solution is simply to adjust the circumstances. While some circumstances may need adjusting, Scripture identifies our biggest problem within (i.e., motives of the heart). Thus, the occasion when/where sin occurred is not the same as the cause of sin. The heart is the cause of sin (or obedience) in any given situation.

[5]E.g., Isa 55:7; Jer 3:12, 14, 22; Hos 14:1; Joel 2:12-13; Zech 1:1-6; Mal 3:7.

[6]J. I. Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity, 1961), 72.

[7]The Lord’s “glory” refers to the weighty manifestation of the intrinsic worth and goodness of the invisible God, if not through his theophanic presence alone, then through his acts of judgment and salvation. E.g., Exod 16:7, 10; 33:18-34:7; 40:34-35; Num 14:22; Isa 40:1-5; Ezek 39:21. The apostle John characterizes Jesus’ death on the cross as both an act of God’s judgment and an act of God’s salvation. In the death of Jesus, God’s righteousness and love become manifest as God’s righteousness calls for an outpouring of wrath on sinners (i.e., judgment), and God’s love makes provision in offering Jesus as a Lamb in place of those same sinners (i.e., salvation). This is one way the gospel reveals the glory of God.

[8]Notice the “gospel” in 2 Corinthians 4:4 and the preaching of Christ in 2 Corinthians 4:5.

[9]The outline, "love, know, speak, do" is taken from Paul Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer's Hands (Philipsburg: P&R, 2002).