There are two kinds of preachers; those who predominantly use the second person pronoun in their preaching and those who usually use the first person plural pronoun. There are those who say, “You need to trust God in the difficulties of life,” and there are others who say, “We need to trust God in the difficulties of life.” Okay, I admit, there are some who say, “You and I need to trust God in the difficulties of life.” (Actually, there are too many who say, “You and me need to trust God in the difficulties of life”!)
So which is it? When speaking personally, should we use 2nd person pronouns or 1st person pronouns? Is it “you” or “we”?
I Get the You
I understand why some argue that preaching should be predominantly in the second person pronoun. They emphasise that preaching comes from another world. It is the voice of heaven penetrating earth. The minister is not sharing; he is declaring. He is an ambassador, a herald, speaking on behalf of Christ. In fact, when the minister preaches the Word of God, Christ himself preaches.
That being the case, in a sense, the Christian minister is not part of the congregation as a minister though he is part of the congregation as a Christian. The minister wears two sets of clothes; he is a minister who is speaking on behalf of Christ and he is a Christian who is being addressed by Christ through his own preaching. I think the minister of my youth believed this. At least that would explain why he would occasionally interject his sermons with, “And remember, Minister, you are also preaching to yourself.”
This means that when he is calling the congregation to holy living, echoing the Apostle Paul, he declares “You must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from your lips” (Colossians 3:7-8a). Mind you, while he does that, he must remember that he is one of the “you” God is addressing.
Second person pronoun preaching has a lot going for it. It follows the predominant pattern of New Testament epistles and it highlights the authoritative nature of Christian preaching.
I Get the We
I don’t think we should use second person pronouns exclusively. Or should I say, “You shouldn’t use second person pronouns exclusively”?
The main reason I say this is because the New Testament epistles don’t. In Ephesians 2:3 Paul says we were by nature children of wrath. In Titus 2:12 he mentions that the grace of God trains us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age. And the writer to the Hebrews, in his brief exhortation, swings between the second and third person pronouns, sometimes in successive verses (Hebrews 3:12-14).
First person plural usage helps the congregation to remember that the minister is himself subject to weakness (Hebrews 5:2). And because of that, though the minister comes with the authority of the Word of God, as an ambassador of Christ, he himself is under that authority. The Word read and preached addresses and challenges him too. He is not a guru who has mastered Christian living and has risen above the struggles and temptations of his followers; he is a fellow sinner privileged to strengthen his brothers and sisters through the ministry of God’s Word. The congregation doesn’t sit at the feet of the minister; the minister and congregation sit at the feet of Christ the Prophet who ministers to them by his Word and Spirit.
Personally Speaking, Use Both
I wouldn’t want to quantify the amount one should use the first or second personal pronouns. It seems to me that the preacher will find the balance as he is conscious of two things: he himself is a sinner desperately needing the grace of God in Christ and to be strengthened through the Word preached, and, that he speaks as the mouth of God, as one of his ambassadors.
I just finished Herman Selderhuis’ book, John Calvin: a pilgrim’s life, and was struck by how this dual emphasis shaped Calvin the preacher. Selderhuis writes: “Calvin thought that when he spoke as a preacher, it was God himself who spoke”. He supports his assertion with Calvin’s comment, “For of myself I have nothing to say, but I speak as if the mouth of the Teacher.” On the other hand, Selderhuis gleans that Calvin had enough self-knowledge to realize that he himself had to be subject to the Word as well from these words from Calvin: “When I climb into the pulpit, it is not simply to instruct others. I do not exclude myself, since I myself must remain a student as well, and the words that come from my mouth are to serve me as much as others. If not, woe to me!”
In boldly declaring God’s Word may we who are ministers be acutely aware of the need for that Word ourselves.