The pastor plays a crucial role in helping believers develop a biblical and therefore positive image of themselves. Warped, distorted preaching and teaching can contribute much toward a negative self-image. Members of churches that overemphasize sin and underemphasize grace are likely to grow up with very negative self-images. Probably most of us know or have heard of people who acquired such negative views of themselves in the “Bible-believing” churches in which they were raised that they later felt they could attain a positive self-image only by discarding their Christian faith.

All of us who preach should be asking ourselves: Is my preaching contributing to a negative self-image in my hearers? Am I emphasizing man’s sinfulness and guilt so much that the message of grace and forgiveness fails to come through?

There are at least three things a pastor can do to help Christians develop the positive image of themselves that reflects the teachings of the Bible.

1. The pastor must exemplify the proper biblical attitude toward himself. He must see himself as a new creature in Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, one with Christ, accepted by the Father as His child, assured that his sins have been forgiven and that he has eternal life already, here and now. (For a brief biblical exposition, see “Genuinely New, But … page 29.) The pastor, in other words, should radiate Christian joy.

If the pastor sees himself as a new person in Christ and is therefore a happy Christian, not only what he says but the way he says it will suggest to his hearers what it means to have a positive self-image. Indirect suggestion is more powerful than direct suggestion; we all communicate more effectively by what we are than by what we say. Long after we have forgotten much that a preacher or teacher has said to us, the influence of his personality remains.

2. The pastor should give his people a balanced presentation of the total message of the Bible. He must preach not only about sin but also about redemption, not only about guilt but also about the removal of guilt. What stands out in the New Testament, like a rainbow coming out of the clouds, is the triumphant message of redemption and renewal: the believer is now a new creature in Christ! And this is where the preacher’s emphasis should fall.

The preacher should unfold for his people the tremendous resources of the Christian faith for a positive self-image. Let him preach often about the exhilaration of forgiveness, about the joy of knowing that our sins are totally pardoned, buried in the sea of God’s forgetfulness. Let him preach about the believer as a new person, one who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and is being progressively transformed into the image of Christ.

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He could, perhaps, preach a series of sermons on Romans 6, developing the rich implications for the Christian life of our oneness with Christ in his death and resurrection. Or he could go through Galatians 5, showing how this chapter describes the Christian’s struggle against sin not from the perspective of defeat but from that of victory. Or he could set forth the message of the first Epistle of John: the born-again person can still fall into sin (2:1), but he can no longer live in sin (3:9; see Phillips and NIV). Other possible texts setting forth the Christian self-image are Romans 6:11; First Corinthians 1:30; Second Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:20, and Colossians 3:9, 10.

A preacher might well preach a sermon sometime on the importance of loving ourselves. We tend to shy away from the concept of self-love, since we are taught in Scripture to love others and since self-love, as Augustine said, seems to be the root of all sin. There are, to be sure, forms of self-love that are sinful and destructive—witness Jesus’ words about the man who seeks to save his life only to lose it (Luke 9:24). Yet the Bible teaches us to love others as ourselves (Matt. 19:19), which certainly implies that there is a sense in which we ought to love ourselves. If I am to love others as myself, and if I hate myself, then I can only hate others. I am to love myself as one whom God has created in his image, and as one who is the object of God’s redeeming and transforming grace in Christ. A sermon on Matthew 19:19 could bring out the difference between the wrong kind of self-love and the kind that is an essential aspect of the Christian life.

3. The pastor should help his people apply to their own lives what the Bible teaches about the Christian self-image. This must be done not only in his preaching and teaching but also in his pastoral calling and in his counseling.

Preaching must be more than an impersonal statement of objective truth. The message must be brought home to the hearers so that each one feels gripped by it. Every preacher should be a kind of Nathan to his hearers; his sermons must always include a “Thou art the man!” The preacher should make it crystal clear that certain ways of looking at ourselves are denials of the faith—just as serious as, say, denials of the deity of Christ. He must constantly remind his hearers that the response of faith and obedience that the Gospel demands includes seeing ourselves as new creatures in Christ.

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How about our teaching? A young man said to his pastor, at the end of a class in Christian doctrine, “I have no questions. I understand perfectly well what you were saying. And it doesn’t mean a thing!” Could this perhaps be the reaction of many who hear us teach? Is it possible that we offer the truth so lamely and tamely that it fails to grip anyone? Let our teaching of the Word and of Christian doctrine be vital and alive, practical and clear, addressed not just to the intellect but to the total person.

In our pastoral calling and counseling we should help our people to grasp personally what the Bible teaches about the Christian self-image. We should try to remove whatever may be hindering a parishioner from accepting these teachings. We should reassure him that he is someone whom God loves. The parishioner, in fact, ought to see in the warm way in which his pastor accepts him a reflection of the love of God.—ANTHONY A. HOEKEMA, professor of systematic theology, Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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