The BCC Author Interview Q & A with Joe Thorn
As part of our BCC vision, we want to help you to get to know gifted Christian authors and their books. This week we’re highlighting Joe Thorn as he talks about his book Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself.
BCC: “Joe, why is it important to preach to ourselves rather than just hearing the gospel preached to us?”
JT: “I’m not sure just how often we actually do hear the gospel preached in our churches. I certainly don’t believe the gospel is being preached in as many churches as many assume. Even churches that will verbally or confessionally affirm the gospel often remain distant from it practically. Many evangelical churches, for example, will frequently preach law and moralism while rarely heralding the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as our true and only ground of our justification, sanctification, and future glorification.
”But even when our churches are preaching the gospel to us in our corporate gatherings, we need to preach to ourselves because we need to be resting on the truth of the gospel at all times since our struggle with sin and unbelief will not be settled on Sunday by noon. We’ll go home after church and be confronted with internal doubts and weaknesses. We’ll suffer the assaults and temptations of the Devil. Our struggle continues day by day, moment by moment, and we must constantly address ourselves with the truth of God’s word if we are to grow in grace. 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.”
BCC: “There is much debate today among those who talk about gospel-centered ministry. In Note to Self, how do you define and describe ‘law’ and ‘gospel’? Where, if anywhere, do they overlap, where are they distinct, where and how do they relate?”
JT: “What I am encouraging in the book is essentially the strategic and aggressive meditation on Scripture, and what we find in Scripture is both law and gospel—the commands and standards of God (law) or the promises of God in his Son (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. Let me summarize the whole law/gospel 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, some are eager to remind us, with Paul, that we are not saved by works of the law. This is true, and something we must constantly keep before ourselves as Christians. But, what is our relationship to the law? What purpose does it serve? I believe the law essentially does three things:
1. 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. (See Ps. 119:1, 23, 44, 47; Rom. 7:12.)
2. The law tells us what’s wrong. The plain but painful truth is, we do not keep God’s commands. The law is held up against our own lives like a mirror, and what is reflected back is a life of law breaking, rebellion, and selfishness. The law shows us what’s wrong—ourselves. Through the law we see our sin and guilt. (See Rom. 3:20; 7:7-12; James. 2:10.)
3. 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. (See Rom. 7:13-18; Gal. 3:19.)
So the law then should lead 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, and a godly rule for our lives. 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.”
BCC: “You say in the book that, ‘often relief comes, not in the form of the removal of the affliction, but in the strengthening of your faith.’ How can a person persevere in this knowledge instead of giving up to hopelessness when an affliction does not go away?”
JT: “When we are walking through temptation, trial, affliction, or adversity we want relief. We need deliverance. But what God often grants us is grace to believe, endure, and persevere, and that is our escape. God’s promise to be with us and make us “more than conquerors” is not the promise of worldly comfort, but of divine comfort and hope that is beyond suffering and death. Now, this will only appeal to one who values Jesus Christ more than this life, and sees affliction as a means of transformation through the power of God as we believe. So, when we suffer we must take the posture of a learner who will look to and listen to God (in his word) when encountering such difficulty. Only then can we see beyond the affliction to our good God and his good purposes. See, for example, Psalm 73.”
BCC: “Some people run to God with big problems, but complain about day-to-day frustrations. You think this ‘small-scale complaining' is more dangerous. Why?”
JT: “The real danger in only going to God with the big stuff and handling the small stuff on our own is that it encourages us to live like atheists. Let’s face it—life is not made up of the big crises, but the small, everyday blessings and frustrations. If we only go to God when things are at their worst it means that the rest of our life is lived apart from Him and the awareness of His presence and purpose in all things. It means that we have distanced ourselves from Him and forgotten that He is intimately aquainted with and involved in every detail of our day and ready to intervene on our behalf at any moment when we pray. This then actually sabotages those times when we do approach God in the midst of big crises. We are less likely to walk through such situations by faith since we have not seen God in the midst of the everyday minutiae. This leaves us unsure of what God will do, or even if He will do anything at all.”
BCC: Thanks, Joe, for helping our readers to ponder biblical principles of speaking the truth to ourselves.”