On November 18, 2008, I had the great joy of spending some time with one of my heroes in the faith, Jerry Bridges. I recorded an interview with my friend, and our conversation ranged widely. I hope this excerpt of our conversation is as encouraging to you as it is to me.
C.J. Mahaney: Well, I have the privilege to spend a few moments with one of my heroes in the faith. Jerry Bridges, thank you for spending a few moments with me this afternoon to answer a few questions. And before I have the privilege to ask you some questions, I just want to communicate my deep gratefulness to God for you. You, my friend, have made a profound difference in my life through your writing, through your teaching and most of all through your example, the opportunities I have had to get to know you up close and personal have, well, as I said, had a profound effect on my life. So, thank you, my friend, for the way you have served me, the way you have served the pastor’s college where you have been teaching all day, Sovereign Grace ministries and the broader Church.
Jerry Bridges: Well, thank you, C.J. You are very gracious.
CJ: You introduced me to the phrase and practice, “Preach the gospel to yourself each and every day.” Where did that phrase and practice originate in your life?
Jerry: The practice originated before I ever heard the phrase. The practice actually originated back in the early ’60s when I was living in Holland. I was single. I was struggling with some issues and I was also teaching a Bible study an hour drive from where I lived and every Monday night on the way home Satan would begin to work me over with questions: Who are you? What do you think you are doing this big sinner that you are? And just out of sheer desperation I began to preach the gospel to myself. Verses like Isaiah 56:3, “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” That was my lifeline.
I didn’t connect the dots, though, for several years until I realized that what I was practicing myself I should also be teaching. And then somewhere along the line someone introduced me to this phrase, “Preach the gospel to yourself every day,” and when I heard that I thought, “Well, that is what I have been doing.”
And so the person who said that phrase, nobody knows, but I put it in one of my books and popularized it through that. So it is not original with me, but it was probably propagated through me.
CJ: And what a difference it has made in the lives of so, so many. Ok, so for those who might be new to this phrase, describe what it means to preach the gospel to yourself on a daily basis.
Jerry: Well, first of all the gospel is only for sinners and so in order to preach the gospel to myself I first need to take my position as a still practicing sinner, a saved sinner, but nevertheless, still a practicing sinner. Every day I deserve the judgment of God except for the saving work of Christ.
And so I come before God and I usually use the words of the text like in the temple, “God, be merciful to me a sinner,” and I say to God, “You have been merciful to me, but I come with that attitude acknowledging that I live ever day by your mercy.”
And then, having come as a sinner I begin to go over some gospel verses like Isaiah 53:6. On a really bad day Isaiah 1:18, “Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” And you know that some days we just feel so convicted of our sin that it seems like scarlet to us. And God says, “It is white as snow.”
CJ: What are the good day verses?
Jerry: Well… there are no good days.
CJ: Excellent, yes. I am not familiar with the good day. I was just wondering.
Jerry: Some days are just worse than others.
CJ: That’s right. So did you do this this morning? This morning did you preach the gospel to yourself?
Jerry: Yes, I did
CJ: And, if so, was it any different than you just described?
Jerry: Well, I preached the gospel to myself in light of the fact that I was coming here to teach and one of my favorite phrases, which is not a biblical phrase, but it is based on the Bible, is from the old hymn “Christ the Solid Rock.” This says, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” And I just said to the Lord, “Lord, my hope for any blessing on my ministry today at The Pastors College is based on Jesus’ blood and righteousness. His death to pay for my sin, his righteousness imputed to me.”
CJ: So how would you describe the effect of preaching the gospel to yourself upon your soul and in your life?
Jerry: Well, it liberates me. First of all is, I mentioned to you earlier on before our time here that preaching the gospel to myself where the gospel frees me up to be honest about my sin, because I can say, “Lord, I sinned, but Jesus paid for that sin.”
And so that is the effect that it has. And then having done that I can go ahead and not feel guilty all day, not feel under the condemnation of Satan or something like that.
I was in a situation where I was going to speak at a weekend conference and there were some of these respectable sins that we talked about: anxiety and making a pest of myself to some airline personnel. And I felt thoroughly guilty.
CJ: It is hard to imagine you making a pest of yourself to anybody. But please continue.
Jerry: Well, I was, you know, keep bugging them and where am I on the standby list? You know that drill.
And so, you know, I get to my destination and I am just thoroughly defeated. And so I said, “Lord, I need a message from you.” And the Spirit of God just… I don’t know. I didn’t hear any voice or anything, but I said, “Ok, Lord, I am going to read the Bible.” So I started reading Colossians just starting with chapter 1, verse 1. I got to chapter 2, verse 13 and it says, “He forgave us all our sins.” Bingo. That’s all I needed. “Lord, thank you. You have forgiven me for my sins of anxiety just today.”
And that freed me up to go and actually preach on holiness.
CJ: And just know that acknowledging that doesn’t make you necessarily a charismatic. It does make you very humble.
Jerry: It does, absolutely.
CJ: At lunch you were talking about… And by the way, is that a bad day? Because if that is a bad day I need to inform you of my day because my day qualifies much more of a bad day in relation to sin than yours does. But you were saying on the way to lunch today on the way here you were seated at a certain place on the plane and just take up the story what took place, conviction you experienced and the difference preaching the gospel made to your soul.
Jerry: Well, I was assigned an aisle seat on a three seat row. And just as I was starting to take my seat a lady sat down in the middle seat next to me and her husband sat down in the middle seat behind her.
And we sat down and just the still small voice of the Spirit said, “You ought to offer your seat to her husband so that he can sit with you.” I detest the middle seat. I absolutely detest the middle seat.
CJ: Do you know anybody who likes it?
Jerry: And so I just… I dismissed it. I really just, you know, just shoved it aside mentally. And the Spirit of God didn’t… he didn’t come back and really hammer me on that, but just a little while later the thought came, “You sinned, didn’t you? You did not love your neighbor as yourself.”
And I had to just say, “Lord, I did not. I did not love my neighbor as myself.”
And so, again, but I had to just go back and say, “Lord, thank you that Jesus actually died on the cross for that particular sin of my failure to love my neighbor as myself.”
CJ: Yeah and it appears you also got to keep your aisle seat.
Jerry: Yes, well, I’m not sure that I got to.
CJ: Jerry, what… what stands out to me is you are there, sensitive to conviction. I can tell you that in my experience normally I wouldn’t have sensed that gentle conviction. Instead the Holy Spirit would have motivated that husband to directly ask me to please give up my seat.
That, and I just love how whenever we are together you are always identifying ways in which you are convicted, but not just ways you are convicted, ways in which the gospel makes a difference in your life both for the forgiveness of sin as well as the empowerment for service. So thank you for the way you humble yourself. Thank you for the example you provide and really the hope you transfer to simply sinners like myself as a result of both your example and your teaching.
Ok, what are your favorite books, some of your favorite books on the gospel?
Jerry: My all-time favorite book on the gospel is The Apostles’ Doctrine of the Atonement by George Smeaton, the 19th century Scottish theologian. And there are two things that make that book stand out to me. First it is so thorough. He deals with every passage from Acts through Revelation that speaks to the atonement at all. But the thing that is really exciting to me about that book is his constant emphasis on Jesus as our legal representative. I call it the representative union.
He will make statements such as—and this is the paraphrase—but he will make statements like, “When Jesus lived a perfect life he lived a perfect life. When Jesus died on the cross he died on the cross.” And, C.J., that union with Christ, that representative union is so little understood by people today.
They know, ok, Christ died for my sins. But they don’t see that union that makes that death effective for them.
CJ: Any others that you recommend?
Jerry: Ok, well John Stott’s book, The Cross of Christ is very good. And then Leon Morris has some technical books on the atonement. Those are probably the ones.
And at the risk of being self-serving I will say it is not my favorite book, but a book I have written called The Gospel for Real Life… I say, “This is intended to be Gospel 101.”
This summer I had a very warm, blessed experience. Some missionaries from mainland China were in Colorado Springs and their daughter who had just graduated from high school said to me, “I never really understood any gospel until I read that book.”
CJ: Oh, my. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Jerry: It doesn’t. That’s right. That is what it is all about.
CJ: Well, let me add my own recommendation. The Discipline of Grace is, I think, a must read and I recommend and have recommended for years that individuals read, in particular the first three chapters, although I commend the entire book, but the first three chapters every day for the rest of your life.
If you do that you will, in effect be preaching the gospel to yourself. And you will experience the transforming effect of the gospel upon your soul.
Ok, another question about reading. Apart from Scripture is there a particular book or set of books that you re read with any regularity?
Jerry: Yes. Well, I wouldn’t say with regularity, but I do reread some of the old masters. I am reading John Owen’s original work on the Holy Spirit. I brought it with me to read on the trip.
CJ: Why are you rereading that book?
Jerry: Because I am really focusing right now on the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. And I think that this subject is one that needs to be reinforced and preached and taught more regularly today. I think that most Christians just depend on their willpower, grit it out kind of a thing, rather than depending on the Holy Spirit.
CJ: We would but cheer you on as you teach and teach even more on the person and work of the Holy Spirit.
Jerry: What I was going to say about that book is when I opened it the other day I saw that it was dated 1960. That is, I first read that book in 1960.
Jerry: And here I am reading it again 48 years later. So… but I have read… I have read him in different editions of that in between.
CJ: Oh, Jerry, thank you for your example of humility that is evident in rereading a book you read in 1960. You are still reading to this day, learning from the book, applying the content of the book to your life. You just present a wonderfully compelling example of being teachable and there is this insatiable appetite to learn and grow that is a part of your life that I just find provoking and compelling. So I praise God for that distinct evidence of grace in your life.
Ok, what is your next book? What is your next book, because we are all eagerly awaiting your next book.
Jerry: Well, there is a book that is actually in the works at Crossway now that will be released in March called The Bookends of the Christian Life. And the title and the theme of the book is based on life being a bookshelf. Yes, a bookshelf with all of our activities, both temporal and spiritual as the books. And like any book shelf you need book ends. And the two book ends are the righteousness of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Looking outside of ourselves to Christ for our standing with him and looking outside of ourselves to the Holy Spirit for the ability to live the life.
Without these two book ends things just fall all over the place.
CJ: And when will that be published?
Jerry: March 9th, I believe, is the date.
CJ: Wonderful. I am halfway through the manuscript because you have given me the honor of endorsing the book and it is outstanding.
Ok, so are you presently writing?
Jerry: No, but I have plans.
CJ: Ok. Let’s hear about the plans.
Jerry: Last year I did a short study on the beatitudes. And as I was working on that it occurred to me that everyone of those beatitudes, that is the character that is blessed, like the poor in spirit and the morning and the merciful and so forth, every one of those character traits is an expression of humility in action.
And this really excited me because I can take the objective truth of the Word of God, hold it out here to people and say, “This is what humility looks like. Now let’s all pursue it together.” I don’t have to get myself involved in it other than bad illustrations of not being humble like you do.
CJ: No. You need to come to me for those. Yours aren’t bad enough. Please continue.
Jerry: I am really excited about that because… And I appreciate your book on humility, but there is scads needs to be written more on this. It is the second most frequently character trait in the New Testament and yet almost nothing is written or taught on it.
CJ: And, Jerry, I would say it is more probably better for you to teach and write on it than it is for myself.
CJ: Jerry, thank you. This has been a highlight, an unexpected highlight in this interview and I have no doubt this is going to serve all those listening in surprising and unexpected ways. But let me conclude by saying, my friend, I am indebted to you. Thank you for your friendship. Thank you for your writing. Thank you for your teaching. Most of all, Jerry, I hope you feel God’s pleasure as you serve him, serve the Church and make a difference for the glory of God.