Using “You” in Teaching and Preaching

Students, pastors, and teachers are reluctant to use the second person. As a result, the first person use of we dominates. There is also frequent use of the third person he and they. But this is not the biblical pattern. “It is not arrogant for God’s appointed servant to proclaim God’s word directly, even pointedly, to those to whom he addresses it” (Jay Adams, Truth Applied, 25).

Listen to Moses as he reiterates the covenant in Moab. Moses pointedly lays out the negative, “Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear” (Deuteronomy 29:4, italics added). He similarly sets forth the promise of God, “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6, italics added). Listen to Joshua challenge Israel. “If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15, italics added).

Consider the early preaching of Peter. The emphasis is mine. “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross” (Acts 2:23, italics added). “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36, italics added). “[You (implied)] Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38, italics added). “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His servant Jesus, the one whom you delivered and [you] disowned in the presence of Pilate … But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:13–14, italics added). “Let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified … ” (Acts 4:10, italics added).

Then there is Stephen. “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did” (Acts 7:51–53, italics added). And there is Paul. “You who are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord?” (Acts 13:10, italics aded). We could multiply these by many biblical illustrations. For example, in the New American Standard Bible, you or your appear one hundred and ninety-eight times in the one hundred and nine verses of the Sermon on the Mount.

But there is a biblical argument for the use of we coming from Hebrews. This epistle is very likely a typical sermon delivered in the synagogue of the day. It is a “word of exhortation” (Hebrews 13:22) like the “word of exhortation” Paul delivers in the Synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:15).

The preacher to the Hebrews was not one of those preachers who points his finger at his people and refers to them exclusively as “you.” Instead, he identified with his congregation by employing the pronoun “we.” The author uses “we” fifty-three times in this epistle. He includes himself in both the applications and encouragements of his sermon … The preacher treated his congregation as “we” not “you” (Anthony T. Selvaggio, “Preaching Advice from the ‘Sermon’ to the Hebrews,” Themilios Journal 32–2 (2009): 33.

However, Hebrews uses both we and you. The second-person plural pronoun you appears forty-eight times. This count comes from the NASB Update. If you reduce the count where the version uses you in translating participles and increase the count where you is implied in Greek imperatives, total usage is fifty. The possessive your appears twenty-seven times. The total is seventy-five times. Hebrews also uses let us twelve times and us alone twenty times. Including the fifty-three uses of we, the total for the first-person plural is then eighty-five. The use of we and you are comparable.

Here are four examples of the use of the second-person plural in exhortations. The emphasis is again mine. “[You] Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). “But [you] encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). “But [you] remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings” (Hebrews 10:32). “[You] Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you” (Hebrews 13:7).

And so, to follow the example of Scripture, you should use you in your preaching and teaching. Use we, but not exclusively. Use you a large percentage of the time. J. C. Ryle maintains this point.

[I]f you wish to preach simply, use a direct style. What do I mean by this? I mean the practice and custom of saying “I” and “you.” When a man takes up this style of preaching, he is often told that he is conceited and egotistical. The result is that many preachers are never direct—and always think it very humble and modest and becoming to say “we.” But I remember good Bishop Villiers saying that “we” was a word kings and corporations should use, and they alone—but that parish clergymen should always talk of “I” and “you.” I endorse that saying with all my heart” [John Charles Ryle, Simplicity in Preaching (London: William Hunt, 1882), 29–30].

Therefore, “I urge you, brethren, bear with this word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly” (Hebrews 13:22, italics added).

Denny Prutow
Revised from So Pastor, What’s Your Point? 

2020-01-23T16:18:18-04:00 January 27th, 2020|