Envying the Psalmists’ Love for God

Marc Chagall The Psalm of David, ca. 1956 Drawing for the

Do these words about the psalmists make you feel a little uncomfortable? “They were people who knew far less about God than we do, yet loved him a great deal more” (Alec Motyer). If so, a healthy spiritual envy should drive us to this question: what can we learn from the psalmists about loving God?


“Whom have I in heaven but you? / And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” Psalm 73:25

Asaph isn’t saying that he finds everything on earth undesirable. The psalms often declare the goodness of earthly things such as “wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart” (Psalm 104:15). No, what Asaph means is that there is nothing in the world that competes with God in his affections, nothing that runs a close second to God. God has won his heart, and he has no rivals.

But it wasn’t always that way. At the start of Psalm 73 Asaph admits that his feet “almost slipped” when he “saw the prosperity of the wicked.” The turning point in the psalm is verse 17: “I entered the sanctuary of God.” Something about the sanctuary – God’s temple in Jerusalem – restores God to his rightful place in Asaph’s heart.

In the temple he would have seen the blood of animal sacrifices, reminding him that God lovingly offers forgiveness. The temple was also the venue for festivals celebrating God’s loving acts: Passover, commemorating God’s liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt; the Feast of Weeks, marking God’s kind provision of abundant crops; and the Feast of Tabernacles, reminding the Israelites that God led them from their trailer park in the desert into the promised land with its “houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant” (Deuteronomy 6:11). So the temple reminded Asaph of God’s love for his people, a love that the wicked reject to their own destruction (vs 17, 19 & 27). God’s love for Asaph stirred up Asaph’s love for God.

We can learn from this. Let’s spend time reflecting on the love of God shown at the cross and seen in his sustaining care as we journey towards a better Promised Land. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Meditating on God’s love for us can be the turning point that restores his place in our affections. Let’s be honest, meditation – consciously thinking about something for an extended period of time – takes a bit of effort, which might be why we do it so little! As Thomas Watson says, “The reason we come away so cold from reading the Word is because we do not warm ourselves at the fire of meditation.” Anyone who truly envies Asaph’s love for God will be driven to that fire.


“O God, you are my God … your love is better than life.” Psalm 63:1,3

In his book More than Conquerors, Simon Guillebaud tells a story from Burundi that chimes with David’s experience in Psalm 63: “A fellow missionary out here saw an old man in grubby clothes at one of the many displacement camps. She wondered what his story was, and so approached him to find out … He had seen his wife and children hacked to death and his house burnt down. He had walked many days to get to the camp, and had lost just about everything he ever owned, except the rags on his back. Yet at the end of his story of horrific personal loss, he was able to declare, ‘I never realized Jesus was all I needed until Jesus was all I had.’” In Psalm 63, David is in a similar position of utter deprivation. It’s one of the times when his enemies are seeking his life (verse 9), and he’s fled to “a dry and weary land where there is no water” (verse 1). And yet, like that refugee in Burundi, he’s able to find satisfaction in God: “Because your love is better than life, / my lips will glorify you.” What’s his secret?

To begin with, he seeks God “earnestly” (verse 1). He’s not messing about! And if we have real spiritual envy of David and the other psalmists, we’ll also demonstrate great earnestness in seeking God. We can’t expect our love for him to match the psalmists’ love if we seek trifling things in this world more earnestly than we seek God.

The second point to note is that, like Asaph, David focuses on God more than focusing on his feelings about God. He’s aware of his feelings about God (vs 1 & 8) but his eyes are turned upward much more than inward: “I have seen you in the sanctuary / and beheld your power and your glory” (verse 2); “On my bed I remember you; / I think of you through the watches of the night” (verse 6). What C. S. Lewis says about joy applies equally to love: “Its very existence presupposes that you desire not it but something other and outer.” That’s why we can’t increase our love for God by straining to produce loving feelings for him in our hearts. You could put it like this: more love for God comes from having more of God.

The final thing David does that helps him love God greatly is sing his praises (vs 5 & 7). David is the Poet King. Psalm 63 is a song. Singing is meditation with a melody. It’s a way of focusing on God so that we love him more. Pick a song of praise and sing it!

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“O Israel, I will not forget you”

IMG_0175It is very striking to read in the Book of Isaiah of God’s love for the people of Israel. From chapter 40 onwards, the prophet Isaiah looks far ahead to the time when he knows the Israelites will be exiled to Babylon. He addresses those future exiled Israelites. His aim is to persuade them to keep trusting in their God despite the catastrophic events they have experienced. The three main points he makes are that God is powerful to save them (40:25-31), he has plans to save them (44:23-28; 53:1-12), and he is passionate about saving them (44:21; 49:15-16). This last point is expressed in the most emotional language possible:

O Israel, I will not forget you. … Can a mother forget the baby at her breast, or have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.

In that quotation God is speaking to rebellious Jewish exiles. It’s impossible to read it without asking whether God still feels the same about unsaved Jewish people today. We need to be careful before jumping to that conclusion. For a start, we’re not in the same period of salvation history. Added to that, the Bible does not always use the term “Israel” in the same way. But having taken those caveats into account, I see no reason why the quotation above shouldn’t apply to unsaved Jewish people now. As the Apostle Paul says, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! … They are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Romans 11:1; 28-29).”

This means that as God sees Jewish people eating challah bread on a Friday evening, and filling synagogues the following day, his heart cries out, “I will not forget you! I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”

Someone might think that it’s unfair for God to have a particularly passionate concern for one race of people. But it’s rather like a Christian mother who desperately longs for her unbelieving son at college to hear the gospel. She would still be eager for all the other non-Christian students to hear the gospel, but without the same level of relational passion.

God’s special longing for the Jews to be reached with the gospel can be seen in Paul’s statement that the gospel is “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). I once heard a preacher interpret that verse as nothing more than a historical observation. He said that Paul was simply noting that the gospel came to the Jews first historically via Jesus. But that interpretation can’t be right. In Acts 13:46 we see Paul putting Romans 1:16 into practice as a missionary principle with ongoing application. He tells a group of hostile Jews, “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it … we now turn to the Gentiles.”

Most of the people reading this post will be Gentile believers. Praise God for extending his grace to all nations! How should you respond to God’s passionate love for the Jewish people? I have three suggestions. Share it. Christians should desire to be like God in every way. We should ask God to give us his heart towards Jewish people. Support the work. Hudson Taylor found the time, despite his focus on evangelizing China, to send an annual check to the Mildmay Mission to the Jews. He sent a note with the check saying, “To the Jew first.” I can warmly recommend Jews for Jesus, Chosen People Ministries, and Christian Witness to Israel, among other organizations. They are faithfully seeking to reach Jewish people with the gospel. Why not google them today? You could call one of them up and find out how you might support it. Step out boldly in faith and make contact with Jewish people. There may be some living in your area. You could find out by checking on the web to see where the nearest synagogue is. Perhaps you could arrange a debate about Jesus the Jew between your pastor and a local rabbi. There are great riches to be found in this endeavor—see Romans 11:12, 15, and 24.

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What Will You Say to Ezekiel?

Collantes,_Francisco_-_The_Vision_of_Ezekiel_-_1630 (3)

It’s surely not over-imaginative to say that in the course of eternity we’ll have plenty of conversations with the prophet Ezekiel. Of course there won’t be such a thing as embarrassment in God’s perfect place, but you’ve got to wonder what the reaction will be when Ezekiel asks people, “So what did you make of my book?” Perhaps the conversation will go like this:

“So you’re really Ezekiel, the prophet, the one who wrote that book in the Old Testament?”

“Yes, by the grace of God, that’s me.”

“Wow. Cool.”

“Did you enjoy my book? What was your favorite part?”

“Oh. Good question.”

“I’d be very interested to know.”

“Well, it’s hard to say.”

“You must have had a favorite bit though.”

“Well … it was all the word of God wasn’t it, so the whole of your book was equally great!”


“If you’re pushing me though, I’d say the part about the dead bones coming back to life. Chapter thirty-something wasn’t it. That was terrific.”

“I’m so glad you liked it. It was one of my favorite parts too. It was such a privilege to see that astonishing vision and then with God’s help record it as Scripture. But what did you think of the passage earlier on about the glory departing from the temple?”

“To be honest, I’m not sure I ever read that chapter.”

“Oh. [Long pause.] It was rather significant. How about the parable of the two eagles and the vine?”

“I don’t think I read that either.”

“The lament for Israel’s princes?”

“I guess it never came up in my Bible reading notes.”

“What did you make of the prophecy about the sword of the king of Babylon?”


“Oh. How about – “

“Sorry Ezekiel, I should probably be on my way but it’s been great to meet you, and I look forward to the next time our paths cross.”

If that thought experiment made you feel a little uncomfortable, take heart. There is still time to dig deeply into every corner of Scripture and get ready for those upcoming conversations with Ezekiel, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and others. Try giving each Bible book the kind of attention you would hope it would receive, if you yourself had written it by the inspiration of God.

[This post is an excerpt from The Book of the Covenant]

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God Is Working His Purpose Out


“All the days ordained for me (details included) were written in his book before one of them came to be. I believe that a fruit tree, a flood, barren women making babies, food from the sky, a sidewalk through a sea, jealous brothers, soaking-wet firewood, rotten kings, a worn slingshot, a prostitute, a divided kingdom, a loud trumpet, a presence-less temple, an already engaged teenage girl, four obedient fishermen, a young boy’s lunch, not enough wine, a deceased friend, a betrayal, and a [cock’s] crow are evidence that God’s divine, sovereign will is never thwarted.”

Well said, Jill Barlow.

Read her whole article here: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/what-if-singleness-is-my-fairy-tale

Image credit: http://goo.gl/oubs0j

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The Three Ws of Assurance


There are three main grounds of assurance of salvation, each beginning with W.

The Word of the Father

The Work of Christ

The Witness of the Spirit

The first two Ws are quite straightforward:

The Word of the Father promises salvation to those who believe in the Son. We can rest on those biblical promises because God does not lie. His word is dependable. John 3:16 is one example of a promise that ought to give believers great assurance of salvation.

The Work of Christ on the cross provides salvation. Isaiah 53:5-6 is one among many passages about the cross teaching believers that “the punishment that brought us peace was upon him.” There is nothing left to pay. It is rather insulting to the cross when downhearted believers wonder whether they are too guilty to be saved.

The third W needs more explanation:

The Witness of the Spirit is our experience of the reality of the indwelling Spirit, who preserves salvation. The logic flows like this: If you experience the Spirit’s power in your life, helping you to resist sin and live for God, you can be confident that you have the Spirit (Romans 8:6-9). Knowing that you have the Spirit reassures you that you will be saved because he is given to preserve our faith until the end: “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession — to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14).

Another way to think about the witness of the Spirit is to examine your opinion of Jesus. If you see in Jesus the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:4-6), and if the sight of that glory has stirred up some measure of Christlikeness in your life (2 Corinthians 3:18), then the Spirit testifies that you have eternal life, because it’s only by the Spirit that people truly believe in Jesus as God’s Son (see 1 John 5:6-11). That is what J.I. Packer has in mind when he says that the internal witness of the Spirit is:

a work of enlightenment whereby, through the medium of verbal testimony … blind eyes … are opened, and divine realities come to be recognized and embraced for what they are. This recognition … is as immediate and unanalysable as the perceiving of a colour, or a taste, by physical sense – an event about which no more can be said than that when appropriate stimuli were present it happened, and when it happened we knew it had happened.

(Emphasis added. From “Calvin the Theologian” via http://www.desiringgod.org/biographies/the-divine-majesty-of-the-word)

Meditating on the three Ws is a lifetime’s task but the more we engage in that task the more assurance of salvation we will enjoy.

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Improving Our Bible Studies


What is a Bible study?

The term “Bible study” could refer to lots of different activities. But it’s commonly used to describe a fairly small group of people (a dozen or fewer) getting together to study a particular passage of the Bible, under the oversight of a study leader using a question-and-answer method. That’s what “Bible study” means throughout this post.

Why do a Bible study instead of listening to someone give a talk?

It’s easy to defend preaching as a method of Bible instruction, because it’s so often exemplified in the Bible itself. It’s harder, however, to find biblical examples of Bible studies. But some of Jesus’ question-and-answer sessions in the temple precincts look rather like Bible studies. And of course we don’t need to see something being modeled in the Bible for it to be a legitimate thing for believers to do (think of all the perfectly acceptable jobs that aren’t actually exemplified in the Scriptures). While Sunday sermons should be a church’s primary means of delivering Bible teaching, a Bible study is a good additional method. Its special value is that it gives people the experience of discovering truths from the Bible themselves, rather than being told those truths by someone else. You could say that a sermon gives everyone a pot of honey to eat from, while a Bible study encourages people to go to the beehive and gather honey for themselves. Or to use another picture, a sermon shines a flashlight into people’s minds, while in a Bible study the aim is for a lightbulb to turn on in those minds by itself.

I’ve been invited to lead a Bible study. How should I prepare?

As said above, Bible study leaders use a question-and-answer method. For this to be done well, the study leader needs first, a deep understanding of the passage (see steps 1 – 4 below); and, second, carefully-composed questions that are “simple yet succulent”: simple enough to be understood right away, and yet succulent enough to attract an answer, because no one enjoys answering overly-basic questions (see step 5).

[Step 1: Pray] The first thing to do is to pray for God’s help, because without it people’s minds will remain closed to the Bible’s meaning: “Then he opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45).

[Step 2: Look Closely] Next we’ll need to spend a significant amount of time looking closely at the passage, thinking it over and consulting resources such as the ESV Study Bible and a commentary (try this site for recommended commentaries on Bible books). Paul says to Timothy: “Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this” (2 Timothy 2:7). We can’t expect the latter unless we do the former. Begin by seeking the original meaning, i.e. the intended meaning for the original readers/hearers. Later we’ll get on to applying the passage to our own time and place, but to do that faithfully we first need a clear understanding of the originally intended meaning—we need to “go back to Corinth.” Five key words to aid this process are Context, Repetition, Aim, Mood, and Structure (combine the first letters and you have the memory-aid CRAMS, which is fitting because God crams Bible passages full of meaning). Ask yourself: what is the context, the surrounding material for this passage? For example, Isaiah 53:3 refers back to 49:6-7, which refers back to 9:1-2. Those connections are meaningful. Ultimately, the context of any single passage is the whole of the rest of the Bible. Hebrews 11:17-19, for example, helps us understand Genesis 22:10. So Bible study leaders should strive to grow in their understanding of all the Scriptures. The better we understand the Bible as a whole, the better we’ll understand individual passages within it. Ask yourself: is there any repetition in the passage? People generally repeat themselves when they’re trying to emphasize something important (“Just don’t forget what I said about feeding the cat”). Ephesians 2:1-10 and Matthew 5:17-18 are examples of passages with significant repetition. Ask yourself: does the author of the passage state anywhere what the aim is, i.e. the purpose of the passage or the purpose of the book in which the passage is found? If so, that will be very relevant! John 20:30-31 is a famous example, which helps us understand the whole of John’s gospel. Another example is Jude 3. Psalm 73:1 sets out the teaching point that the rest of the psalm explores. Ask yourself: what is the mood of this passage? If a passage has a cheerful mood you should expect a joyful, encouraging meaning. A passage with a sad, melancholy mood will probably have a meaning that challenges our sinfulness or tells us something about the fallenness of our world. An example of the latter is Luke 17:11-19, which describes a miraculous healing and yet closes on a melancholy note—which would need to be acknowledged in the study. In contrast, Matthew 13:44-45 is a joyful passage, and so it wouldn’t be right to focus on the negative side of “selling all you have.” Ask yourself: does the structure of the passage help to reveal its meaning? Just as we split up knives, forks and spoons in a kitchen drawer to avoid confusion, so authors split up the different points they’re trying to make. In Psalm 19, for example, the author makes one point in the first six verses, another point in verses 7-11, and a third point in verses 12-14. Noticing the structure helps us to follow the author’s logic.

[Step 3: Bridge the Gap] Once we’ve understood—with God’s help—the original meaning, we’re in a position to work out the meaning for today—but watch out! There’s a gap between the first readers and ourselves today, which needs to be bridged with great care. To bridge the gap properly involves a good grasp of the successive periods of salvation history, and the differences between them. God’s requirements for his people change from one period to the next: under the new covenant, for example, we’re permitted to eat bacon, whereas doing so in earlier periods of salvation history would have disqualified someone from membership of God’s people. Even when reading the New Testament we need to note some cultural differences that might alter the implications for our own day. For instance, should Paul’s command to “greet one another with a holy kiss” be applied literally in hand-shaking or head-bowing cultures? Probably not.

[Step 4: Apply in a Gospel-Friendly Way] A Bible study must consider the potential impact of the passage on our lives. God wants our lives to be transformed (Romans 12:2). But there is a potential danger here. People can often slide into a “works righteousness” approach to their relationship with God, i.e. we get it into our heads that doing good works is the way to gain acceptance with God. We must never forget that we’re saved by grace, through the righteousness God gives us when we trust in the atoning blood shed by Jesus on the cross. So we must apply the Bible to our lives in a gospel-friendly way that doesn’t undermine the good news of God’s free gift of righteousness. As we learn to obey everything Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:20), we do so to bring him glory, not to earn salvation merit points. A final thing to keep in mind is that sometimes a passage will transform us not by giving us a command to obey but by revealing a truth about God that fills us with fresh praise and adoration.

[Step 5: Compose “Simple yet Succulent” Questions] There are two types of question: observation questions and significance questions. Observation questions have answers that are gettable-from-the-text. They could be described as “eyes down” questions. For example, an observation question in a study on Mark 9:1-14 (the transfiguration) would be: “What three extraordinary things happen in this passage?” That kind of question forces people’s eyes down towards the page. Significance questions, on the other hand, deal with issues raised by the text, and could be termed “eyes up” questions. One useful exercise, when preparing Bible study questions, is to put (O) or (S) after each question. A good rule of thumb is that there should be more (O) questions than (S) questions overall, because there’s always a lot of information to take in from the passage. Remember that the objective is for people to gather honey from the hive themselves, rather than receiving a pot of honey from the study leader. That process depends on (O) questions. We want people to experience the joy of gaining understanding through their own God-facilitated reflection on the text. So, to use a different image, our questions should be like sheepdogs herding sheep into a pen. Sheepdogs prevent sheep from wandering off-track. Yet they don’t pick the sheep up and throw them into the pen, they try to get the sheep to do the work of getting into the pen by themselves. In a similar way our questions should guide people towards the main points of the text, and yet the question shouldn’t make the answer so obvious that people don’t need to think for themselves. For further advice on composing succulent questions, i.e. questions that are juicy enough to make everyone want to answer them, see the next section. 

Whenever I ask a question, tumbleweed drifts across the room. What’s gone wrong?

This may be because your questions aren’t simple enough, or they’re simple but not succulent. Put yourself in the shoes of the people in your study. Imagine what it feels like to be asked the questions you’re asking. A long and complicated question such as, “In verse 3 how does Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees contrast with what we saw earlier when Jesus was on the other side of the Sea of Galilee after he healed the man with leprosy?” will leave people bamboozled and unable to answer. And yet a too-easy question such as, “What does Jesus say in verse 3?” will also lead to nothing but the sound of crickets in the background. No one has an appetite for answering a grade school question like that. One way to ask an observation question which has some succulence is to say, “How would you put what Jesus says in verse 3 in your own words?” That will bring about the desired observation while making the question more attractive to answer. People often respond well to an invitation to be creative, such as, “If you were present at this scene with a smartphone, what three Instagram pictures would you take to capture what happens?” Or (to aid observation of the mood of a passage), “What kind of background music would you choose for the events in verses 1-5?” Sometimes attaching a significance question to an observation question can make it more succulent: “What’s the most important thing that happens in this passage, and why?” The Bible contains many surprises, and a question such as, “What’s the surprise in verses 13-14?” will often work well. It’s also worth keeping in mind that sometimes things will move along better if you give information to the group yourself. We shouldn’t feel that everything needs to be communicated via questions and answers. One final way to get rid of tumbleweed moments is to prepare “supplementaries” in advance, that is, an alternative question in case the initial question doesn’t get a response. If you have supplementary questions up your sleeve the awkward silences won’t last for long.

Is it OK to tell someone they’re mistaken?

A post on the Gospel Coalition website answers that question wisely:

I remember sitting in one Bible study where the leader compassionately announced, “Not only are there no stupid questions here, there are no wrong answers.” Her goal, of course, was to put women at ease and promote uninhibited discussion. She rightly wanted the women who didn’t know much about the Scriptures to feel comfortable expressing their opinions. However, in the process she jettisoned the objective truth of the Bible. In fact, there are right and wrong interpretations. Group Bible study is a place where we search together for the right interpretations—the truth of the passage. (Keri Folmar)

If everything that everyone says in your Bible study group is greeted with a thoughtful nod and polite approval, your study times are dangerous. In that kind of group false teachers such as those described in 2 Peter 3:16 could introduce their errors and lead people astray. All Bible interpretations are not equally valid and acceptable, and it’s the task of the study leader to make that clear to the group. Sometimes a friendly yet firm correction—together with a clear explanation—is necessary.

We get sidetracked a lot, and we rarely have time for application. Any suggestions?

The Bible is meant to be transformative. In our studies we must reach the point of discussing what impact a Bible passage should have on our lives, while keeping everything to a reasonable time. We simply don’t have the luxury of going off down every intriguing byway and so we’ll need to steer people politely back to the main pathway of the study.

I’m a study leader who’s always busy. I don’t have time for much preparation. Can I show up on the day and trust God to make good things happen?

It’s fair to say that small group Bible studies are often badly led, even when the leader is thoroughly sound theologically and gifted as a Bible teacher. This is probably because it’s easy to avoid a shockingly bad experience, since everyone usually comes to a Bible study with a positive attitude, and they’ll chip in with helpful contributions. We feel confident that we won’t have an embarrassing failure, and so we don’t safeguard the time necessary for proper preparation. But with Bible studies, as with so much else in life, if we fail to prepare we prepare to fail. A study might not feel like a disaster and yet nonetheless fall far short of the burning-heart-producing, eye-opening, joy-kindling experience that it could otherwise have been. Bible studies like that will generally only happen when the leader is “prayed up and prepped up.” Jesus says, “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word” (Matthew 12:36), and so how much more will we give account for those potentially life-changing times when we led a group of his beloved people in a Bible study? A good target to aim for is at least two clear hours of prayerful preparation for each study. Why not spend one hour reflecting on the passage, consulting a commentary and scribbling down some rough questions. Come back later (maybe on a different day) and spend a second hour polishing those questions. Time spent prayerfully studying God’s word and preparing questions is time very well spent. 

Image credit: http://www.bethleheminbaltimore.com

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Who Am I?


“There is, therefore, a great need for discernment in our self-understanding. Who am I? What is my ‘self’? The answer is that I am a Jekyll and Hyde … having both dignity, because I was created and have been re-created in the image of God, and depravity, because I still have a fallen and rebellious nature. I am both noble and ignoble, beautiful and ugly, good and bad, upright and twisted, image and child of God, and yet sometimes yielding obsequious homage to the devil from whose clutches Christ has rescued me. My true self is what I am by creation, which Christ came to redeem, and by calling. My false self is what I am by the Fall, which Christ came to destroy.

“Only when we have discerned which is which within us, shall we know what attitude to adopt towards each. We must be true to our true self and false to our false self. We must be fearless in affirming all that we are by creation, redemption and calling, and ruthless in disowning all that we are by the Fall …

“Standing before the cross we see simultaneously our worth and our unworthiness, since we perceive both the greatness of his love in dying, and the greatness of our sin in causing him to die.”

John Stott, The Cross Of Christ (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1989), p. 285.

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