I have often told people the reason they don’t see the gospel as a message of love is that they love themselves more than they love God. I was wrong.
Evangelista, Semper Reformada
“Preacher [or ‘evangelist’], Always Reforming.” That’s the English translation of the Latin phrase Evangelista, Semper Reformada.
I have now proclaimed the gospel on the streets and have preached the gospel in the open-air, for 16 years. I have communicated the gospel to people and groups of people hundreds, if not thousands of times. You might say when it comes to the gospel “I have it down.” This is not to say I know everything, or that I know everything I need to know. I make the assertion “I have it down” simply to say I am confident I can clearly and succinctly communicate the gospel.
If you watch my videos or listen to my audios and podcasts, when I reach the point in a conversation or open-air message when it’s time to communicate the gospel, you will often hear me say the same thing. And why wouldn’t you? The gospel never changes. Just as Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, so is His gospel. So, while the people with whom I talk change from day to day, the gospel I proclaim to them does not.
And this could be a problem. Let me explain.
“I know the gospel. I use the law. I’m committed to the Five Solas. I’m a presup-kinda-guy. And I’ve got a few analogies memorized. I’m good to go!” Then (if this might be you), over time, you develop a few catchy phrases and lines that might distinguish you from some of the other guys who are out there. And, if you’re lucky, some of those other guys start using your stuff. Cool!
Well, maybe not.
Evangelistically, it is possible to become so well-versed in proclaiming the gospel message, and apologetically, it is possible to become so well-versed in handling common objections, that theologically, the evangelist stops growing. The evangelist can develop such an ingrained “I have it down” mindset that he stops critiquing himself (or worse, stops listening to the critiques of others). The evangelist can grow so comfortable in his own skin and in his own particular way of doing and saying things that he stops studying the Word of God, for the purpose of improving his preaching and gospel communication. When this happens, when the evangelist gets lost in his personal, evangelistic comfort zone, he stops honing his theological skills and he runs the risk of drifting from preacher to parrot.
Even more dangerous is when the evangelist’s phraseology and/or theology is challenged (either because he stumbles upon something in the Word or as a result of listening to the teaching of others) and, instead of changing what he says in order to more accurately communicate biblical truth, he doubles-down because he’s either too proud to admit the wrong or too lazy to do and/or say things differently. He’s developed so much muscle memory because he has used certain words and phrases for so long, and he knows it might take a while to retrain his brain and his mouth, that he won’t put in the work to be a more effective and accurate communicator of truth. He’s no longer reforming.
“Polly wanna cracker?”
Why does this matter?
Well, for one, it recently almost happened to me.
Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming). A good evangelist, just like a biblical church, is always reforming. Evangelista, Semper Reformada.
The Doctrine of Self-Love
If you’ve listened to my gospel communication for any length of time, particularly my open-air preaching, you’ve likely heard me say something like this: “If you hear this message and you do not hear it as a message of love, the likely reason is that you love yourself and you love your sin more than you love God!”
Isn’t this true? Don’t unsaved sinners love themselves more than they love God?
It’s not a trick question. The answer, according to Scripture, is yes.
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:1-4).
Scripture makes it clear, doesn’t it?
The second of the two greatest commandments, which is to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39), affirms that we love ourselves a great deal–so much so that we are commanded to love others at least as much as we love ourselves.
The apostle Paul admonishes Christians to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought (Phil. 2:3-4). Why? Because our propensity is to do for ourselves before anyone else, including God. It’s easier for us to love ourselves than it is to love anyone else.
Not only does the unsaved person love himself, but he is also a hater of God.
“They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Romans 1:29-32).
But is it actually a love of self that is the reason the unbeliever rejects and hates God?
The answer is no.
The Morning My Thinking was Challenged and Changed
Every Tuesday morning the men of my church, along with their sons, meet for Bible study. We presently are working our way, verse-by-verse, through the Book of Proverbs. On June 23rd, our study, which was led by Pastor Tyler, focused on the origin of wisdom (Proverbs 8:22-36). All three of my pastors (Mike, Nick, and Tyler) work together to lead each study and foster discussion. This day was no different.
From My Journal Notes, from That Morning
The study was good. Of course, it was. We had our noses in the pages of Scripture.
Then our attention turned to Proverbs 8:35-36.
“For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord, but he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death.”
I try to take notes every week, but it seemed to me I was taking notes with more intentionality, now. Pastor Tyler said something that set my mental wheels in motion. I couldn’t grease them fast enough to keep them from smoking. My other pastors added their two cents, which only upped the RPMs of the wheels in my head.
Here are my notes from that portion of the study:
Self-love is bad if it is born out of the seeking of self-autonomy. Self-love is good if it is born out of seeking what is actually best for me, which is Jesus Christ.
Those who hate God do not actually love themselves, but rather they love death. Hatred of Jesus Christ is ultimately hatred of self, not because we are little Christ’s, but rather because everything good for us, such as wisdom, is found in Christ.
Any lack of submission to God and what he has said in His Word, any desire to hold on to autonomy, is an act of self-harm.
Thought: Evangelistically speaking, to insist to an unbeliever that their sinfulness is, at its core, an outworking of self-love is to feed the delusion that they love themselves when, in fact, their sin is both a hatred of God and a hatred of self.
I actually sat there, among my brothers, stewing a bit. I wasn’t stewing in the sense that I was angry with anyone or about anything. I was stewing over what I just wrote down and how it would necessarily impact my evangelism. I stewed over the reality that while something I had told people for years was true, it was not precise enough. In one sense, I was actually telling people what they wanted to hear: “You love yourself.”
“And? So?” That’s what I heard in my mind–what I heard lost people thinking to themselves when I’ve told them that they love themselves. “And? So?”
The secular world tells us in myriad ways, every day, to love ourselves. Why? Because it is the exact opposite of loving God and loving our neighbor–the very things we are commanded by our Creator to do. So, telling people that they reject God and the gospel because they love themselves might be tantamount to giving them a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. What I’ve thought all these years has been a lovingly well-placed truth dagger to the heart of unbelievers has probably been little more than one of Cupid’s arrows dipped in self-love syrup.
Again, to be clear, it is not wrong, in fact, it is important to tell unbelievers that an outworking of their inherited sinful nature is self-love, which is born out of a desire to be autonomous from God. But the unbeliever’s hatred for God comes from an entirely different place.
A Closer Look at Proverbs 8:35-36
Here’s Proverbs 8:25-36, again:
“For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord, but he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death.”
This passage speaks of finding in both a positive and negative way. What is found or not found is identified by the personal pronoun “me.” “Me” is a reference to wisdom. While the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (see Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; 15:33; Micah 6:9), wisdom is found only in Jesus Christ.
“For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:1-3).
Therefore, in order for someone to find, understand, and live by the wisdom from above (see James 3:17), a person must know Christ. They must repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15) and receive Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and Savior (Romans 10:9-10).
The apostle Paul affirms this as he continues in Colossians 2:
“I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ. Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:4-7).
Solomon, writing to his sons tells them that if they find wisdom (the treasury of which is found only in Christ) they will find life. The life of which Solomon writes is both spiritual and eternal (see John 1:4; 17:3; 1 John 5:11-12). And again, spiritual and eternal life is found only in and through faith in Jesus Christ (see John 10:10).
The ESV translates the first phrase of the Hebrew in 8:36 as “But he who fails to find…” Interestingly, the ESV sides with the NIV and the NLT, which is unfortunate. The NASB, NKJV, and the KJV all translate the Hebrew text this way: “But he who sins against…”
It would seem that the translators of the ESV opted to translate the text in such a way as to focus on wisdom, which is the primary subject, yet with no allusion to Christ being wisdom’s treasury. This is unfortunate since the Hebrew word chata (khaw-taw’) most literally means: “to miss, go wrong, [or] sin” by neglect, contempt, or rebellion.
Puritan theologian John Gill wrote:
“But he that sinneth against me,… Or misses the mark, as the word (b) signifies; and which is observed by Aben Ezra; see Judges 20:16. Christ is the mark and scope of the counsels of God; of the covenant of grace; of the Scriptures; of the Gospel, the truths and promises of it; of the graces of the Spirit, and of all spiritual duties and services; and to whom we are to look for heaven and eternal happiness, Philippians 3:14; and such miss the mark who look for salvation elsewhere, either by the light of nature; or by the law of Moses; or by any moral performances, or any religious exercises; or by a mere profession of religion, even the best. The word is frequently used for sinning; which is an aberration or straying from, or missing, the mark of the law. Some sin against Christ doctrinally, who say he is not come in the flesh, or that Jesus is not the Christ; who deny his proper deity, his divine and eternal Sonship; and treat his blood, righteousness and salvation, with any degree of contempt: they sin against him practically that slight his Gospel, neglect his ordinances, transgress his laws, and evilly treat his people. Sinning against him is very aggravating; it is against him in whom all grace and mercy is, and from whom it comes to the sons of men; who is the Saviour of men from sin, and in whom alone salvation is.”
The one who fails to find wisdom as an outworking of their sin against God in Christ “injures himself.” In this context, to injure one’s self means to treat violently or wrong. Theologian Matthew Poole goes so far as to see the injury as “self-murder” or “soul-murder.”
Solomon ends Proverbs 8:36 with these words: “All who hate me love death.”
The unbeliever spiritually injures his own soul when he rejects Christ and the unquantifiable storehouse of wisdom He provides. The unbeliever literally commits spiritual suicide. This is not an act of self-love. It is the opposite of self-love.
The unbeliever who lives according to the whims and desires of his idol-factory heart is a hater of God. As such, his negligent, contemptible rebellion against God shows that there is something the unbeliever loves more than self.
At the very least, the unbeliever acts as if he loves death, the very thing that will destroy him.
How This Changes Things
Returning for a moment to where I began this article: I have often told people the reason they don’t see the gospel as a message of love is that they love themselves more than they love God. I was wrong.
What I should tell people, and what I will start telling people is that their lack of wisdom as expressed in their rejection of Jesus Christ and His gospel shows how very little they care for themselves. Unbelievers who by their rejection of the gospel hold Jesus in contempt and thus crucify Him once again in their own hearts, do so to their own harm (see Hebrews 6:6). They are committing spiritual suicide, which shows no love for themselves.
While I will likely work on the wording, so don’t hold me to this, I picture saying something like this in the future:
If you do not hear the gospel I just shared with you as a message of love it is because you would rather commit spiritual suicide than receive the love of God, through faith in Jesus Christ. You may think you love yourself when in reality you only love your sin. You love that which, in the end, will destroy you. You love death. Your love of sin and death shows your hatred for God and your true desire to harm yourself.
You would rather harm yourself by living in wanton rebellion against the God who created you and gave you life than to love God and yes, love yourself, by humbling yourself before Him and receiving the most precious of all gifts–salvation by the grace of God alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. If you actually loved yourself, then you would repent and believe the gospel. You would receive the love of God that comes only through knowing Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.
Stop deceiving yourself. Turn off the road you’re on–the road to spiritual suicide. Turn to Christ and live while God has given you time. Then and only then will you find forgiveness for your sin, grace, mercy, reconciliation, and the love you will find nowhere else.
So? What do you think? Let me know in the comments section, below.