I’ve been curious for a while about where the phrase “preach the gospel to yourself” came from.
The heart of this idea is thousands of years old. The Old Testament Psalmist, while not explicitly speaking of the full revelation of the gospel in Jesus Christ, preached to himself, saying: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God… my salvation and my God” (Psa. 42:5). Calling myself to look at the one who was his salvation and his God had the power to pull him out of the pit of despair. Similarly the man in Lamentations made a decisive turn in his depression: “but this I call to mind (lit., “this I cause to return to my heart”) and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases” (Lam. 3:21-22).
But these don’t give us the phrase. So, where did it come from? Thankfully, it’s used all over the place these days. My hunch is that the person who put feet on it and therefore caused it to run throughout this generation is Jerry Bridges. Perhaps surprisingly, this theme wasn’t in his first and probably most well known book, The Pursuit of Holiness. It wasn’t until after writing this book that he began to more clearly see and stress the centrality of the gospel in the life of the Christian (See second paragraph here). Following that book, however, he began emphasizing the centrality of the gospel for everyday life and often used the phrase, “preach the gospel to yourself,” to express it.
While I think Bridges has promoted the phrase more than anyone, he got it from someone else. In the preface to The Discipline of Grace, a book wherein one of the chapters is titled, “Preach the Gospel to Yourself,” he says, “I… owe a debt of gratitude to my friend Dr. Jack Miller, from whom I acquired the expression, “Preach the gospel to yourself every day” (8).
Jack Miller was a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary as well as church planter and pastor. He died in 1996, but in his last decades was used by God to bring gospel renewal to many. Through his mentoring, teaching, and writing, he influenced many men who are now being used by God to continue the work of gospel-focused renewal in our day such as Tim Keller, and David Powlison, and Scotty Smith.
At the end of the day, I don’t think it matters much where the phrase came from, or even that we use it. The point is that we’re doing it. Nevertheless, I’m thankful for it’s clarifying power.