Friday, July 21, 2017

July 21

2 Chronicles 4:1-6:11; Romans 7:1-13; Psalm 17:1-15; Proverbs 19:22-23

Today in our Old Testament reading, we see the fulfillment of many promises – one, that David’s son would build God’s house; two, that it would be in the chosen city of Jerusalem; and three, that the ark of the covenant would be in the temple. We’ve read of this dedication before, in 1 Kings 9, but as recounting history was so important to the Jews, to keep them aligned with God’s covenant, it makes sense that they would record this historic event in multiple places. And I love the song that is raised to God: “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (2 Ch. 5:13); simple, yet so true.

And then we read our New Testament reading, which is anything but simple. There have been countless theologians writing countless articles and books and journals on Paul’s theology of the Law (or if he even had one, according to some). I can’t, in a blog post like this, begin to bring a consensus to this very complex issue. And maybe you’ve been confused in the past before, too, about what exactly Paul means when he talks about the law, or being under the law, or dying to the law, all of which are mentioned in our passage today. But let’s not let the complexity of some of these upcoming passages keep us from continuing to engage in God’s word and what he has for us.

Look at these beautiful words from our Romans reading: “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6). For the Jew, being released from the law would have meant giving up the Jewish markers (like circumcision, food laws, etc.) and welcoming the Gentiles into the fold. It would have meant realizing it’s Jesus alone who saves and that racial heritage doesn’t matter. For us, being released from the law probably looks different – it means freedom from our past habits and our way of life before being a Christian. It means letting go of the things that defined us before we surrendered ourselves to Jesus. We have died to that former way of life, to the old things that tied us down. We have new life in the Spirit – praise God!

All of that ties in so beautifully with our Proverbs: “The fear of the LORD leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm” (Pr. 19:23). LIFE. That’s what this Christian journey is about – not slavery, not a set of rules, not drudgery or boredom but LIFE. Jesus came to give us abundant life now, not just in eternity. Let’s live that way!!


- Esther McCurry


How did God speak to you in Scripture today? Click here to share your reflections on God's word or read past posts. We'd love to hear from you.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

July 20

2 Chronicles 1:1-3:17; Romans 6:1-23; Psalm 16:1-11; Proverbs 19:20-21

Our church recently went through a book study on freedom.  In small groups, we took some time to examine our hearts about brokenness and hiddenness and self-deception.  In light of those conversations, how wonderful to read Paul's profound words today.

Three times, Paul reminds us that we are free from sin (Rom. 6:7, 18, 22).  Doesn't he know our humanity so well?  We need to hear this over and over again.  Sin is not our master, though it may feel that way at times.  We are slaves instead to God our Father - what a good and kind master he is!  We are free, ladies and gentlemen.  Free to be totally devoted to God.  Hallelujah!

God's goodness was apparent to me in our Old Testament reading, too.  Solomon is prompted to ask for a good blessing from the Lord.  (As an aside, I often feel that I, too, need "wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this [group of] people" [2 Chr. 1:10] known as my children!)  And God gives this good gift to Solomon and to the nation, and then some besides.  Even the surrounding nations recognize God's good hand upon the Israelites; "because the Lord loves his people, he has made you their king" (2:11), Hiram remarks.

The psalmist knows about God's goodness, too.  "Apart from you I have no good thing" (Ps. 16:2), he writes.

It's quiet in my house right now.  (This is a small miracle.)  We're all well physically.  (This, too, is a small miracle.)  Tragedy hasn't touched us; we're secure financially.  We read and laugh and drive in safety and look forward to vacations.  Our lives are good, and this goodness has come from the hands of our good God.  I know that not-good things are ahead of us (they always are), but this same good God of today will be there with us in those not-good tomorrows.

"Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.  His love endures forever" (Ps. 107:1).  Amen!


- Sarah Marsh


How did God speak to you in Scripture today? Click here to share your reflections on God's word or read past posts. We'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

July 19

1 Chronicles 28:1-29:30; Romans 5:6-21; Psalm 15:1-5; Proverbs 19:18-19

I love just about everything in today's OT reading.  1 Chronicles comes to a close, and we're left with so much enthusiasm and promise and hope.  

Here are my highlights:

- David called everyone, all the leaders, to come to Jerusalem - and they all come (1 Ch. 28:1).
- David exhorted the congregation 'before God and these witnesses' (see vs. 8) to continue in faithful obedience.
- David's charge to Solomon (vs. 9): Could there be a better prayer for a son?
- I love how much work and effort David put into preparing for the temple.  He did as much as was possible - plans, logistics, amounts (vs. 11-18) - and then funded it himself (29:2-5).  He may have been prevented from the physical construction, but he did every bit of groundwork that could be done, and he clearly did it with joy and extravagance.
- Then he issued a call to action for the rest of the community as well! "Who is willing to consecrate himself today to the Lord?" (29:5).  What a charismatic leader David was.
- And they responded.  1 Chronicles 29:6-8 shows the willing and generous response of the leaders.  I love to give to God's work, and this kind of reaction just thrills me.
- David was overwhelmed with joy and burst into praise (vs. 10-13).  He could find no other way to express his satisfaction and delight than to extol God with all "the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor" (vs. 11) he deserved.  He knew his own unworthiness before the Lord (vs. 14-15) and he knew that the abundance for the temple "comes from [God's] hand, and all of it belongs to [him]" (vs. 16).  David attributed everything to its proper place; that is, everything goes to God: honor, praise, physical wealth, credit.
- Lastly, what a final word to leave with David. "He died at a good old age, having enjoyed long life, wealth and honor" (vs. 28).  A goal I would be well-satisfied to achieve myself!

There's so much in the tales of the kings of Israel that can discourage or frustrate.  How lovely to have a section of reading that shows the people of God and their leaders responding rightly to their true King.  They knew God was good, and we're reminded of the same when we encounter this narrative.


- Sarah Marsh


How did God speak to you in Scripture today? Click here to share your reflections on God's word or read past posts. We'd love to hear from you.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

July 18

1 Chronicles 26:12-27:34; Romans 4:13-5:5; Psalm 14:1-7; Proverbs 19:17

Psalm 14:3 reiterates what we just read in Romans 3 a few days ago - “They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Doesn’t this Scripture ring so true in our seemingly godless world today? Just yesterday, I was lying on my bed caught in a moment of overwhelming sadness in light of the hard and painful things going on in our world. All around our cities, countries, and planet there are racial tensions rising, terrorism expanding, sickness, premature death, ungodliness, and violence breaking out. Is there really any hope for this world, for our own lives? Where is our hope when things seem so bleak?

Romans 4:18- 25 is such an encouragement and apt word in light of all this. I love the phrase about Abraham that says, “in hope he believed against all hope” (Rom. 4:18). I just love that logically hope should have been impossible for Abraham to have, yet he did in fact have it. And he had it in abundance. “He did not weaken in faith…no distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (vs. 20-21, emphasis mine). When Abraham looked at the hard facts of his body, Sarah’s body, and life around him, he should have had no reason to hope. Medically, physically, scientifically, logically, he should not have hoped for a son. Yet he did not weaken in his hope, in his faith. He was “fully convinced” (I just love that phrase too!) that God was going to make good on those humanly impossible promises.  Oh, how I wish I had faith and hope like Abraham. So often when I look at the nature of life around me and at my circumstances, so much seems impossible. I waver; I doubt.

So how does Abraham come by this kind of faith and hope? We have already read his story in Genesis, and we also see in Romans that faith is a gift from God through belief. But we can also grow into this kind of faith and hope when we read a little further into Romans 5:1-5. We see that one of the great producers of hope is….suffering. What? Did we read that right? Wouldn’t suffering cause us to lose hope? No. Rather, “we rejoice in our suffering, knowing that sufferings produce endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Rom. 5:3-4).

Now comes our challenge. Will we be people who hope against all hope? Are we fully convinced that God will do what he says he will do? Will we rejoice in our sufferings, allowing them to produce hope in us?

Lord Jesus, help us not to look at the circumstances of our lives or the events of the world around us, and lose our hope and faith in you. May we be like Abraham, fully convinced, expecting, waiting, and anticipating the fulfillment of your good promises.


- Mary Matthias


How did God speak to you in Scripture today? Click here to share your reflections on God's word or read past posts. We'd love to hear from you.

Monday, July 17, 2017

July 17

1 Chronicles 24:1-26:11; Romans 4:1-12; Psalm 13:1-6; Proverbs 19:15-16

Did anyone else notice there seemed to be a lot of references to work in our passages today? I know it could be easy to glaze over the riveting account of the divisions of the sons of Aaron in 1 Chronicles, but I think there is actually some good stuff in there.  Here’s what I observed about work in today’s readings:

-Sometimes you don’t get to pick your ideal job, but rather you have to do the “family business.” Being born a Levite in Israel meant you were going to be a priest, or in some type of service to the temple. And you didn’t even get to pick what type of service you wanted to do. “They divided them impartially by drawing lots, for there were officials of the sanctuary and officials of God among the descendants” (1 Chr. 24:5).  Some were appointed for ministering in the temple (1 Chr. 24:19), others were set apart for prophecy and music (1 Chr. 25:1), and others to the division of gate keepers (1 Chr. 26:1).

-No matter what job they ended up with according to the lots that were drawn, those Levite men strove to do the job well. We see them thriving in their training for music and the Lord blessing them, and we see the gate keepers as “capable men with the strength to do the work” (1 Chr. 26:8).

-The perspective on work shifts a little in the New Testament as Paul reminds the Romans that their work for the Lord is not what is credited to them as righteousness, but rather their trust (Rom. 4: 4-8). We could never work well enough to deserve salvation. Salvation only comes through belief and faith in the blood of Jesus Christ.

-“Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the shiftless man goes hungry” (Prov. 19: 15). Translation: You don’t work, you don’t eat.

As I reflect on these passages, as well as other scriptures that talk about work, I come away with a few encouragements and reminders (here come some more bullet points!):

-We may not love, or even chose, our job, but the Lord is the one who has appointed us to it and we should work at it with all our hearts. The Lord can cause flourishing when we honor him with faithful and honest work. I think of my dear husband who has faithfully worked at a job he does not love and does not use his gifting, for the last 6 years. But his commitment to go to work, and actually do his job well, has caused the support and flourishing of our family. I am grateful to be married to this kind of man.

-I am free from the burden of trying to prove my worthiness to the Lord. It is good to work hard. It is good to do things and perform acts in the name of the Lord. But this is not what saves us. And I cannot use my “works” as a bargaining tool with the Lord. As I wrote in an earlier post, he doesn’t need my legs or my strength, but rather delights in my hope in his unfailing love (see June 29).

-And finally, work is good. We were created to work. Even before the fall in Genesis, we see God command Adam and Eve to work and cultivate the garden. We were created to work. Let us find joy in our work. Let us praise God that he has called us into this service of work, whatever that may be for you and for me, and strive to do it with joy and excellence.


- Mary Matthias


How did God speak to you in Scripture today? Click here to share your reflections on God's word or read past posts. We'd love to hear from you.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

July 16

1 Chronicles 22:1-23:32; Romans 3:9-31; Psalm 12:1-8; Proverbs 19:13-14

Prudence. I see it in my daughters.

Prudence is defined as “provident care in management; economy or frugality” according to The American College Dictionary. Each of my daughters is a “prudent wife” who is “from the Lord” (Proverbs 19:14). Sarah, Mary and Esther are increasing their families’ wealth and they have plenty to share with others due to their own prudence.

Sarah is an economical woman. She loves to save money. And with 5 kids ages 14 to 4 she needs to. Thrift stores are her best friends. She can spot a quality garment an aisle away. She buys groceries in bulk and cooks in quantity and stores in the freezer. Sarah and Eric have quite possibly never bought a new piece of furniture. Eric can sand and paint and Sarah can sew a beautiful quilt, and behold, a gorgeous bunk-bed set for Hannah and Naomi. Sarah has never seen a piece of high-quality paper—writing or wrapping--that she can’t use and re-use. She uses, and saves, beautiful wrapping paper because she loves to give gifts. Being prudent doesn’t mean being cheap! It means being generous.

At Mary’s house, you need to enter the guestroom cautiously because you never know who might be staying there. It might be a friend’s mother who lives in another state and “ran out of money in California” or it might be the family of a friend from work who has come from Germany for the birth of a child. It might be a friend who needs a place to live for 6 months “until the wedding.” Mary and Mike practice hospitality as no one else I know does. They live frugally, joyfully and generously. If you need a bed, I know a place you can stay! Mary and Mike vacuum regularly and pick up the toys every day so the house is ready to receive guests. Yes, and with four children ages 8 and under.

If you eat at Esther’s house, you may find that another meal just like the one you are eating was taken earlier to a mom who just had a baby or to a disabled wife and her husband. In this house, meals are made to be shared, and acquaintances become friends over meals at Esther and Ian’s house. Esther has regular days to clean and shop so that she can provide for others, even though she has 3 young children: Ruthie 5, Jonah 4, and Isaiah 20 months. She and Ian plan a budget and they stick to it. They make a plan for the summer months when he doesn’t receive his teacher’s salary and they still need to eat and pay the mortgage. She works hard at a couple part-time jobs (that pay well) so she can contribute to their household income.

Do you see why I am so proud of my prudent daughters? “Houses and wealth are inherited from parents (we hope that will be true for them), but a prudent wife is from the Lord” (Proverbs 19:14). I know Eric Marsh, Michael Matthias, and Ian McCurry agree with that.

May each of us choose today to be a prudent woman. May we place our family’s interest ahead of our own. May we not splurge on personal expenses we cannot afford. And may we be generous to others at all times.


- Nell Sunukjian


How did God speak to you in Scripture today? Click here to share your reflections on God's word or read past posts. We'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

July 15

1 Chronicles 19:1-21:30; Romans 2:25-3:8; Psalm 11:1-7; Proverbs 19:10-12

Our story in 1 Chronicles is familiar.  We read it six weeks ago in 2 Samuel 24, but the post that day touched on other readings.  I'm glad, because it gives me a chance to think about it today.

It raises a ton of questions for me:
1. Joab, who seems to play fast and loose with God's laws (he's bloodthirsty, power-hungry, and conniving, in my humble opinion), here understands the seriousness of what David is ordering and pushes back against David's ruling.  How can a man with such a dim view on the value of human life honor God in such a way (1 Chr. 21:2-3)?
2. If they're counting fighting men, I can understand why Levi would be left out of the census, but why is Benjamin absent (vs. 6)?
3. Does David repent because he's been directly rebuked by Gad, or does he come to repentance on his own, or is he convicted by seeing the consequences of his actions (vs. 7-8)?  In connection with option #3, it seems like the consequences haven't yet started (see vs. 10).
4. Do the options God gives David in verse 12 force him to look squarely at what he's done?  Why give the options in the first place?

It raises questions, but I'm also led to some thoughts:
1. Notice how completely, fully, and immediately David accepts the responsibility of his actions ("I have sinned greatly...I have done a very foolish thing..." [1 Chr. 21:8]), and how deeply pained he is by the outcomes ("I am in deep distress" [vs. 13] and "What have they done?...Let your hand fall upon me and my family" [vs. 17]).  Can you imagine the guilt?  David owns it.  He doesn't quibble or argue or point out extenuating circumstances (unlike his predecessor, Saul [see 1 Sam. 13 and 15]) - he turns immediately to penance.  Note David's accoutrements of grief: he's in sackcloth (1 Chr. 21:17).  He knows he has caused this destruction and he is mourning the situation.  And, per his usual response, he turns toward God (vs. 17).  Instead of hiding in shame or pretending ignorance, David pleads for mercy - not for himself, but for his people.
2. Notice, too, how David reacts when given God's command.  He promptly goes to the threshing floor "in obedience to the word that Gad had spoken in the name of the Lord" (vs. 19).  I love that!  God speaks, David hears and obeys.  So clear, so simple.  David moves forward in hope of God's love and faithfulness.  He has a way to re-establish his relationship with the Lord (that is, building an altar), and he's acting on it.  He hears and obeys.  How I want that to characterize me!
3. Even in the midst of this costly, costly error in judgment, David has an inherent integrity: "I will not...sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing" (vs. 24).  Because this debacle rests on David's shoulders, he recognizes his responsibility to make it right and doesn't allow himself to hide behind another's generosity.  While Arauanah is willing to absorb the whole cost himself (which I can understand, being that the angel of the Lord is standing with drawn sword nearby - I'd do what I could to expedite the end of the situation, too!), David is adamant.  
4. Think about the other times that fire falls from heaven.  In Leviticus, when the priesthood is established, God ratifies the moment with fire from heaven (Lev. 9).  Demonstrating that he alone is God, fire falls from heaven to consume Elijah's water-soaked offering (1 Ki. 18).  Gideon asks for a sign, and fire is his answer (Jdg. 6).  Aaron's sons are destroyed for their arrogance by fire from the Lord (Lev. 10).  In these significant moments, whether to set himself apart or to confirm his identity or to affirm his covenant (as we see today, in 1 Chr. 21:26), God responds with fire.

And while it leads to some thoughts, I'm mostly pushed to marvel at the God who is so mighty and powerful, yet so readily accessible.  Truly, his mercy (vs. 15) triumphed over his judgment (vs. 12, 14; see James 2:13 for the biblical concept).  Praise God that the same is true for me!


- Sarah Marsh


How did God speak to you in Scripture today? Click here to share your reflections on God's word or read past posts. We'd love to hear from you.

Friday, July 14, 2017

July 14

1 Chronicles 16:37-18:17; Romans 2:1-24; Psalm 10:16-18; Proverbs 19:8-9

Me, again. (For those of you, and I know you’re out there, who try to guess the author before you scroll to the bottom, I’m just going to let you know, it’s Esther. This is my third post in a row, so you’re getting a lot of my thoughts recently!)

Speaking of repeat thoughts, how are you holding up now that we’re reading so many of the accounts we already read in 2 Samuel? It wasn’t that long ago (May 25th, to be exact) that we read the first account of David’s desire to build God a temple. As fate would have it, I posted on that day as well. So if you want a recap of my thoughts on David’s beautiful heart to build something glorious for God and God’s subsequent promises to him, see that post here.

In our Romans reading, we’re starting to move right into the thickness of Paul’s theology. Following the harsh words from yesterday, we find even more today about the judgment we will find ourselves in when we cast guilt onto others for things we do ourselves. That is God’s place. But then this beautiful nugget of a verse: “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Rom. 2:5). Paul tells the believers in Rome not to take advantage of God’s rich kindness and forbearance but rather to let that kindness serve its intended purpose – leading us toward repentance. I love that. It brings to mind the old Leslie Phillips worship song from my childhood, which she took directly from this passage. Such a profound truth.

After those verses, Paul moves into another section that could create discomfort. It’s a “sheep and goats” separating, if you will. Those who obey truth and seek God’s glory will have eternal life; those who are self-seeking will find wrath and fury (Rom. 2:6-8). Hypocrisy was apparently running rampant in that church and Paul wants it nipped in the bud. Hmmm, Christians who say one thing and do the other…that sounds a little too familiar. Like those early believers, we need to make sure we’re on the right path, following after Jesus, both publicly and privately, so we can stand before God and receive “glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good” (vs. 10).

Help us, Lord, to seek the things you seek, to love well and to walk rightly. We need you!


- Esther McCurry (but you already knew that)

How did God speak to you in Scripture today? Click here to share your reflections on God's word or read past posts. We'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

July 13

1 Chronicles 15:1-16:36; Romans 1:18-32; Psalm 10:1-15; Proverbs 19:6-7

When you were reading today were you struck by all the hoop-la that went into moving the ark of the covenant into the place David had prepared for it? Usually, I’m ashamed to admit, I sort of skim these sections that list a bunch of names and a bunch of tasks. But today, I was really moved by the sheer celebration surrounding this significant symbol.

First, David prepares a special place; then he chooses special people to carry the ark (only the Levites). After that, he gathers the whole community together to rejoice in its arrival. David gathers the chiefs, he himself wears special robes, he appoints singers and musicians and a musical director; and as the ark approaches Jerusalem, a great shout choruses through the people. This sounds like my kind of party! I wish I could have been there to see this momentous occasion. Because we’re a little disconnected from Jewish history, the significance of the ark might be lost on us. But do you remember from previous readings what is inside it? The two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments (and in some accounts, a pot of manna to remember the Exodus and Aaron’s rod). And it was made by Moses himself on Mount Sinai. This ark is no insignificant icon!

But there’s a Debbie Downer in today’s story. David’s wife, Michal, sees David rejoicing with his people and she “despises him in her heart” (1 Ch. 15:29), clearly thinking his actions undignified for a king. But David, whether he knows about her scorn or not, doesn’t let anything dampen his celebration – when the ark is in place, he offers burnt offerings and peace offerings, and blesses the people with words and food. And then he instructs Asaph and his brothers to sing a beautiful hymn of thanksgiving. What rejoicing and gratefulness we see in the verses that follow. “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” (16:34).

And because I don’t feel right about skipping over such a blunt passage in Romans, let me say a few things about our New Testament reading. First, when we’re looking at a difficult passage like this, we have to remember how Paul frames it – “For his [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). He’s going to list some behaviors and consequences that are very severe in the verses following, but his framework is clear: these people who are making such terrible decisions should have known better. God has revealed himself in creation; his power and divine nature are there for everyone to see, so claiming that they don’t know any better isn’t going to get these folks off the hook. They can look around and see from creation that there is a God – and knowing this should move them toward the light, but they “become futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (vs. 21). They choose idols over the immortal God (vs. 23); they use their bodies for lustful and unnatural sexual relationships (vs. 24-27); and they reap the consequences of those sins in their own person (the nature of the “penalty” is not clear but it seems like something that affects them physically). They are full of all kinds of malice and wickedness and they not only engage in these kinds of activities themselves, but also give approval to others who do them as well (vs. 32).

These verses cut very close to home, particularly in the city in which we live. Long Beach has a very high LGBTQ population and it continues to grow, even among believers. And there is lots of pressure in churches from those who follow those lifestyles to have approval, from those in the same lifestyle and those from without. I fear this is becoming the defining issue of my generation and I’m afraid for the church. As much as I want to have compassion and be loving (which I certainly believe we are called to do), I cannot read passages like this and give my approval for those choices. This, then, leaves me in an uncomfortable position when I’m trying to love a co-worker or a neighbor or a fellow church member and I’m left to work through passages like this and passages that tell me to love others. The truth is, it’s both. We live in a complicated world; it’s the “now but not yet” tension of living between the cross and the second coming. We must navigate the truth of God’s words, all of his words, as best we can in a world that does not make it easy. We must love AND we must hold fast to the truth.

I’m praying for you, fellow OYB readers, as we wade through these waters together, in different parts of the country or even the world. This is our call as believers in Christ – to read God’s word, to take it seriously, and to allow all parts of it to inform who we are as followers of Christ. May God be with us all as we continue on this journey.


- Esther McCurry

How did God speak to you in Scripture today? Click here to share your reflections on God's word or read past posts. We'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Paul and the New Perspective Summary

Summary of Paul and the New Perspective

What Is the New Perspective on Paul?
The New Perspective on Paul is a general term referring to multiple strains of thought that have been building in England and North America for about 30 years but have caught the attention of most PCA leaders within the last five years. In broadest terms the New Perspective emphasizes the corporate nature of our salvation in distinction from the typical way many North Americans think about their salvation primarily as "a personal relationship with Jesus." The best forms of the New Perspective do not deny the personal aspects of our salvation but contend that a focus on individual blessings is more a product of Western culture than a reflection of the Apostle Paul's design for the New Testament church. What we need to remember is that the Bible never divorces our corporate identity from our personal faith -- we who believe are members of the body of Christ. Still, without personal faith and repentance we cannot truly unite with Christ no matter how much we participate in the Church's corporate heritage or practices.

What Are the Key Names and Groups Associated with this New Perspective?
In scholarly circles the New Perspective was originally most associated with such names as Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, and James Dunn. These are not traditional Evangelicals, though they may identify themselves with some Evangelical concerns. The New Perspective has made its most important inroads into Evangelical thought through the writings of N. T. Wright. Wright is a brilliant and engaging Anglican who has written masterfully about subjects such as the resurrection and the historicity of the Gospels. But Wright has additional concerns that are stirring the Evangelical community. He argues that the early Reformers (especially Martin Luther), though they may have advanced correct theology, wrongly read Paul in the light of their conflict with Roman Catholicism rather than in the context of the Apostle's own setting and concerns. Wright says that Paul's central concern was not how we obtain personal salvation by faith versus good moral works. Rather, Wright thinks Paul was mostly concerned about how New Testament Christians identified themselves with the corporate, covenant community that was no longer exclusively Jewish. Wright says Paul is not so much arguing against gaining salvation by moral merit, but against the claim that in order to be a Christian one had to adopt the practices of Jewish exclusivity and identity in addition to faith in Christ.

Often mentioned in the same breath as the New Perspective are some persons identified with what they prefer to call the Federal Vision or Auburn Avenue Theology. Persons with PCA ties who are identified with these views include Doug Wilson, James Jordan, Steve Wilkins [who pastors the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Louisiana] and Rich Lusk. Although not all of these men are presently in the PCA, they are intelligent and prolific writers whose works are read by persons who are zealous about Reformed theology (and who often think the PCA is not Reformed enough). While appreciating aspects of the New Perspective on Paul, these PCA-related writers strongly insist that their main concerns differ from the New Perspective.

The Federal Vision and Auburn Avenue advocates (who think of themselves as returning to a more consistently Reformed theology) do not want to link their views to the New Perspective because of its apparent questioning of basic Reformed theology. Conversely, New Perspective leaders may little regard Federal Vision or Auburn Avenue Theology because of its tendency to narrow its concerns to Church sacrament issues or related Church doctrine. New Perspective leaders tend to think of themselves as being about the "Big Story" of the role of the covenant in redeeming creation. They tend to view Federal Vision and Auburn Avenue as being caught up in a "little story" of renegotiating Presbyterianism. Despite these differences and objections, however, the two groups (New Perspective and Federal Vision/Auburn Avenue) continue in common perception to be of the same cloth. Reasons for this include the observation in PCA presbyteries that Federal Vision and Auburn Avenue Theology proponents are often those most conversant with and defensive of New Perspective ideas. The Federal Vision advocates have mined New Perspective writings for ideas supportive of their interests, and consequently the two groups have simultaneously emerged in PCA consciousness. These realities will probably continue to cause the two groups to be considered together -- despite the legitimate objections of their respective leaders. What may be less apparent to both groups' leaders, however, is the common cultural soil from which they emerge even as they point to their different root systems.

From Where Did this New Perspective Come?
Biblical scholars tend only to look within their ranks over the last 30 years for the origins of the New Perspective and related movements, but the origins are much older. The philosophical currents behind the New Perspective on Paul began to flow early in the 20th century. At that time, the modern confidence in scientific objectivity was quickly eroding. New communication theories, the discovery of the subconscious, and rapid shifts in scientific theory were destroying claims that we could replace the "myths of religion" with "objective" scientific explanations of our world. We discovered that science was subject to its own subjectivity -- we see only what we are prepared to see and discover only what our present technology allows. As a consequence, Western philosophy plunged into a radical relativism that concluded that the only truth we can know is what we individually perceive.
The secular answer to this relativism that isolates everyone in his or her own personal truth was the claim that we could understand each other if we shared similar experiences. But, of course, the more we compared our lives, the more we discovered that our experiences -- even if we are in the same communities, churches, or families -- are radically different. The need for a common framework to understand others' experiences led to the conclusion that the way for us to have common understanding of our world is through shared stories. These stories are the shared experiences that allow us to understand our world with a common perspective. Thus, it was claimed that each culture frames its own meta-narratives that form the basis for interpreting individual experiences and that allow us to live in community.

As these ideas worked their way into religious studies, much damage was done to orthodox faith. Modernist theologians in the early 20th century claimed that Scripture was myth that could be replaced by scientific understanding. But, when science lost its claim of objectivity, purveyors of "Neo-orthodoxy" claimed that the Bible could be understood existentially (i.e., individually) by the unique work of the Spirit in each person apart from the historical truth claims of the Bible.
When this individualistic view of faith was eventually seen only to be feeding the interests and appetites of self, contemporary theologians turned to teaching that faith must be formed in community. According to this line of thought, by its shared narratives each community forms the faith that creates its religion that, in turn, informs its worldview. Of course, this would mean that the Bible is not divine truth provided by heaven, but is simply a cultural product that provides narratives by which individuals can operate in community. In other words, Christianity supposedly is no different from every society that creates its own "truth" with its own stories -- there is no transcendent truth, all religions are human projections.

Evangelical theologians have not followed all of these philosophical trends but have been influenced by them. In particular, Evangelicals have understood that faith, even Biblical faith, cannot and should not be understood only individualistically. We understand God's inspired and transcendent truth both because of His Spirit in us and because we are part of the body of Christ. The stories of the Bible are descriptions of experiences that enable Christians across all ages to understand the unchanging propositions of Scripture. And, God placed us in the church community not merely to satisfy our needs, but because the community -- as each member does his or her part -- helps us understand and apply the truth of Scripture. Neither faith nor true religion is formed by the community, but our expression of faith and understanding of religion are not possible apart from the Biblical community that includes the saints who have gone before us, as well as the saints that are around us.

What does all of this have to do with the New Perspective on Paul? The New Perspective follows the trajectory of the community emphases that have so dominated the trends of contemporary philosophy. The New Perspective does not accept all the "faith-is-formed-in-community" philosophies, but alarm over the dissolution of church communities (and/or the impotence of the modern church) due to the assaults of secular culture has sensitized New Perspective folk to the corporate components of faith. New Perspective advocates look around and see those who call themselves Evangelical (and Reformed) little distinguished from secular culture on matters as diverse as promiscuity, abortion, divorce, stewardship, business ethics, care for the poor, racism, etc. At the same time, New Perspective folk look in Scripture and see Paul calling us to live as a covenant community that is distinct from the culture, united to Christ, united to each other, and transforming the world. Reacting to what they perceive as individualistic, autonomous, and "Baptistic/Revivalistic" (i.e., overly focused on producing personal professions of faith) influences on the Church, New Perspective advocates believe they are calling the Church back to being the faith community that the Bible requires both by its doctrinal teaching and by the narratives that reveal its larger redemptive story. Federal Vision and Auburn Avenue proponents -- on a different but parallel path -- also view themselves as calling the Reformed church back to a more consistent expression of its doctrine that will also create a community more faithful to its covenantal distinctions.

What Are Some Things the New Perspective Teaches?
Recognize again that there are many strains of the New Perspective. It is impossible to say what is taught uniformly by all those who are identified with this movement. Nevertheless, here are some of the major thoughts that are getting attention:

When Paul describes the Jews' misuse of the law, he is not attacking the Jews for believing in a legalistic works righteousness such as was advocated by late Medieval Roman Catholicism. The Roman Catholicism to which Luther reacted taught that persons gained merit by moral virtue and religious observance made possible by grace infused through the sacraments of the Church. The New Perspective folk (particularly those associated with N.T. Wright) claim that the Jews at the time of Jesus did not believe in this kind of legalism, but rather advocated the necessity of identifying with the covenant community by staying within its boundary markers that were defined by Jewish standards (e.g., circumcision, Sabbath observance, cleanliness laws). One was not gaining merit by these standards but rather was defining one's community identification and status.

Paul, according to Wright's view, was not arguing against the necessity of community identification, but rather was arguing that the standards for this identification had changed for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God. The new boundary markers for Jews and Gentiles in the covenant community are faith in Jesus Christ (marked by baptism in the New Testament church), separation from the secular society, and participation in the Lord's Supper. [Note: As we will observe, the New Perspective seems to create unnecessary dichotomies. Unquestionably, Paul at times challenges Jewish legalism based on ceremonial customs, but at other times he also challenges the assumption that one can be righteous before God on the basis of moral behavior. Yet, in either case, it is still true that one cannot be justified by keeping the law (of ceremony or of virtue) and, thus, Luther's understanding of Paul's principle that salvation is by grace through faith remains valid.]

When Paul uses the term "faith" as the basis of our salvation, he is not using the term merely to refer to our trusting acknowledgment of the work of Christ in our behalf, but rather as a commitment to coming under the rule of Christ in the ordering of one's life. Thus, faith is really "faithfulness" (a semantic possibility in Greek) to one's identification with the community that honors Christ. The Gospel is not so much about gaining one's personal salvation as it is about bowing to the declaration that Christ's kingdom has come and identifying with the community that recognizes that "Jesus is Lord." New Perspective advocates (particularly those desiring Evangelical regard) strenuously insist that they believe that those who submit to Christ's lordship are those called into a saving relationship with God by His grace alone. Still, the movement's strong insistence on faith as community identification has caused much confusion (and misstatement) even within New Perspective ranks and, consequently, much suspicion from those zealous to protect the Reformation distinction of salvation by faith alone.

Suspicions have been further revised by the New Perspective's questioning of historic ways in which the Reformers describe our justification. The Reformers described the grace of our salvation as involving Christ's righteousness being imputed (attributed) to us, and our sin being imputed to Him. Wright says this is an extra-Biblical notion. He says that God as a righteous judge pardons our sin, but that the removal of our sin (rather than the imputation of Christ's righteousness) is the Biblical basis of our justification before God. To most Reformed ears, this is a needless narrowing of the historic doctrine of justification that involves the pardoning of sin and the provision of Christ's righteousness. This narrowing undermines both the fullness of Christ's provision and the assurance of His resources for our spiritual destitution. New Perspective advocates want to heighten the Pauline emphasis on union with Christ, but since this union necessarily connotes that we are one with the Holy One, there should be no debate that His righteousness is ours by His grace.

The New Testament sacraments are about more than remembering what Christ did in our behalf. [Note: some are anxious to protest that the sacramental issues being discussed in the PCA are not derivative of the New Perspective, but because the sacraments are identity markers of our covenant community the New Perspective inevitably becomes part of the present discussion.] By the sacraments believers identify with the covenant community that God has elected for salvation and glory. Thus, the sacraments not only establish one's identification with the community, they are also the means by which God conveys aspects of His grace to individuals. The sacraments establish the boundaries of the saved community and, as a consequence, identify those within the boundaries as possessors of God's pledge of salvation. The sacraments are not magical, and few of the New Perspective advocates (or related groups) are willing to say that the sacraments actually cause the grace they signify apart from faith. Still, these groups perceive grace as so integrally related to identification with the covenant community that its boundary signs (sacraments) are being treated with an importance unparalleled in recent generations of Reformed believers.

In part, this heightened focus on sacraments as a means of including us in a worship community results from this generation's own longing for church and family solidarity in an increasingly broken society. Sadly, however, expressions of this heightened importance have been made with such zeal or relational clumsiness (perhaps because of our church's own relational struggles) that advocates have been perceived by unprepared ears as advocating a virtually Roman Catholic view of the sacraments. In the PCA, where polarities and distrust are yet a product of our painful withdrawal from mainline Presbyterianism, the consequence of this insensitivity (and occasional error) has been heightened suspicion rather than solidarity.

The baptism of children has become a particular point of tension because the sacramental emphasis discussed above also means greater significance is being attributed to this rite than has been the case in typical expressions of American Presbyterianism. By their baptism children are identified with the Christian community. They, too, come within the boundary markers of the covenant community by the administration of the sacrament. Thus, some who are advocates of the New Perspective -- particularly from the Federal Vision and Auburn Avenue groups -- say that baptism "makes a child a Christian." By this the kind of wording New Perspective advocates do not typically (there are exceptions) mean that the child is automatically made regenerate by the baptism, but rather that the baptism gives the child identification with the covenant community. What this means precisely is hotly debated and variously expressed. For instance, some have argued that baptism is so conclusive a sacrament that it is improper for a person who was baptized as a child to speak of a later conversion by saying something like, "I became a Christian in college." The argument is made that the person became a Christian (i.e., was identified with the covenant community) in his infant baptism, and simply confirmed his Christian status as a young adult.

So much confusion is being created by this terminology that New Perspective advocates are finding themselves pressed very hard to define the spiritual status of the baptized child, the benefits that are actually conferred by the baptism, the relation of the baptism to the parents' profession of faith, the nature of the child's (and/or the parents') profession, and even the nature of regeneration. This has led some ministers to make statements before presbyteries that sound almost indistinguishable from the Roman Catholic view of baptismal regeneration.

What Are Some Good Emphases of the New Perspective?
There is no question that many of those who advocate the New Perspective are seeking to bring Biblical correction to what they believe are misunderstandings in present expressions of Evangelical and Reformed belief. Their goal is to steer the Church toward greater fidelity in Biblical doctrine and practice. Some of the concerns of the New Perspective are valid, and we are aided by considering the seriousness of these concerns:

We are not saved alone. The New Perspective rightly critiques much of the North American expression of Christianity that makes faith merely a personal fire insurance policy that requires no obligation to others, little concern for the world, and little obedience to God beyond what satisfies our own pleasures. The New Perspective reminds us that we are saved as part of a community with concomitant loves, obligations, and identifications.

Saving faith is not alone. The New Perspective reminds us that we are part of a great story in which God is calling a covenant community to Himself in order to glorify Himself and transform this world for His glory. Our calling inherently and necessarily includes works of obedience. We have no assurance of the validity of our faith where there is no fruit to our faith.

The sacraments are not signs alone. The New Perspective (especially as articulated in Federal Vision and Auburn Avenue Theology) elevates our concern for the sacraments and reminds us that they are not merely sentimental ceremonies (or simply memorials) but means by which God is communicating aspects of His grace and obligating Himself to bless His people.

The Bible is not propositions alone. The New Perspective values the Bible's use of narrative as a means of unifying and teaching the covenant community. Despite the desires we sometimes have, the Bible is not simply a systematic theology textbook. Attempts to force all the Bible into easy doctrinal categories have sometimes created an unhealthy rationalism that does not adequately express the human experiences, divine interventions, and salvation story by which God communicates His covenant love throughout redemptive history. The New Perspective's emphasis on the drama of redemption in Scripture can help theologians and pastors better describe what the Bible teaches on its own terms, especially in ministry to a postmodern generation that (for philosophical reasons expressed above) is powerfully moved by narrative.

What Are Troubling Aspects of the New Perspective?
Concerns about the New Perspective need to be divided into at least two categories: theological and pastoral. The first category will probably require sorting out over several years. My sense is that we are on a journey similar to our experiences with the Charismatic and Theonomy movements decades ago. The Charismatic movement was concerned that the Church was not rightly applying the New Testament gifts of the Spirit; the Theonomy movement was concerned that the Church was not rightly applying the Old Testament law; the New Perspective is concerned that the Church has not rightly applied the corporate nature of the covenant. All of these movements have had some legitimate concerns, but all err in subtly moving the emphasis of the Gospel from a Christ-centered provision of grace to proper expressions of human performance. [Note: My friends who are advocates of New Perspective and Federal Vision, have strongly objected to this last statement. They believe their approach strongly supports a Christ-centered perspective for God's Church family. So, I hope that I am wrong and will need to be forgiven. Still, I feel the responsibility to express my honest concern, resulting from the way these issues have been advocated in the contexts the seminary must serve. The zeal to prove others wrong, and even ridiculous, for not seeing these new perspectives has created significant pain. Almost always the pain is the result of persons being belittled for "not getting it." Thus, the fruit has not been a new focus on the beauty of God's grace, but the reoccurrence of old divisions driven by supposed superior knowledge or practice.]

The advocates of the Charismatic and Theonomic movements were also intelligent, zealous in conviction, concerned that the rest of the Church was not Biblical enough, claimed that their positions were historic, and rarely stated a position that was clearly unorthodox. But, over the course of time (and through the sad experiences of numerous churches), those movements were shown by their fruit to be divisive, and they largely faded from view. My prayer is that we will be able more quickly to reach consensus about what are legitimate concerns of, and about, this New Perspective for the peace, purity, and progress of the Church.

What are some legitimate concerns about the New Perspective on Paul?
An unnecessary and dangerous ambiguity regarding the nature of justification. 
"Justification is an act of God's free grace wherein He pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in His sight only for the righteousness of Christ imputed [i.e., attributed] to us and received by faith alone" (cf. WSC #32). The New Perspective claims that Paul's chief concern was to make sure that the Jews shifted the boundary markers of their covenant identification from the ethnic practices of Israel to the identity practices of the New Testament Church. This perspective inappropriately de-emphasizes Paul's concern that Jews (and others) were seeking to establish their righteousness before God based on their personal moral sufficiency. By moving Paul's major concern to community identification, the New Perspective de-emphasizes the role of grace for personal justification and the sufficiency of Christ's work as the sole basis (or ground) of righteous standing before God. In particular, Wright's argument that justification is not so much about how someone is personally saved, but rather who should be recognized as a member of the covenant community can move the focus of our theology from properly emphasizing the personal faith and repentance from which all true, Christian assurance and faithfulness flows. Of course, we must grant that there is every necessity of recognizing Christ as Lord, and living out the imperatives of our faith commitments in order to have the assurance of our salvation and express love for our Savior. Still, this necessity is an insufficient reason to question the historic understanding of justification.

In justification our sins are imputed to Christ and His righteousness is imputed to us (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 2:20). Wright has questioned whether it is Biblical to say that Christ's righteousness is imputed to us since that is a judicial (forensic) declaration that he does not explicitly see in the Biblical text. Yet, even if Wright wants to hold the terminology of imputation in question, the reality of our union with Christ by virtue of His grace alone (which Wright does not question) should be reason enough to emphasize with the Reformers that Christ's work -- not ours -- is the ultimate basis of our present and eternal standing before God.

In an oft-quoted statement Wright says that at the final judgment we will be judged on the basis of performance not possession (of Israel's status). Were this shocking statement all that Wright said, then he would be easy to dismiss as obviously unorthodox. However, elsewhere he indicates that this performance means being "a doer of the law," and then he says that for Paul being such a "doer" means putting one's faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. In this way Wright avoids outright denials of Reformation theology, but introduces unanswered questions (particularly since he seems willing to define faith as faithfulness) that are inappropriate for one as theologically skilled and influential as he. This new confusion about the interplay of faith and works in justification may cause you to hear New Perspective advocates compared to Norman Shepherd, a professor dismissed from Westminster Seminary more than twenty years ago for teachings that caused similar confusion. Shepherd's work is now being re-quoted by some New Perspective advocates (especially some who relate to the Federal Vision and Auburn Avenue groups).

It is very important to say that I know of no PCA minister who has denied the imputation of Christ's righteousness. Most of the concern that is being expressed in PCA circles is over some pastors' loyalty to Wright because he is so often accused of being fuzzy on the subject of justification. There is also a secondary controversy as to whether both Christ's active righteousness (i.e., His obedience to the law) and passive righteousness (i.e., His suffering our punishment) are imputed to us, but this is an older issue that even divided the Westminster divines and is unlikely to be finally resolved in our generation. I believe that both Christ's active and passive righteousness are imputed to us, but even where brothers differ over this there should be no question that in our union with Christ His holiness becomes ours by grace alone and through faith alone. Whatever, or whoever, does not make clear that we are justified before God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone ... is wrong.

An unnecessary and dangerous lack of clarity regarding what the sacraments accomplish. 
As a consequence of concerns raised primarily by the Federal Vision and Auburn Avenue groups, a controversy is boiling in the PCA around the subject of baptism (but it seems likely to move with equal emphasis to the Lord's Supper in the near future). Here's the question: To what degree do the sacraments actually convey the grace they signify? The issue has become most apparent in discussions about infant baptism. As I indicated earlier, the claim that the New Testament sacraments function as boundary markers for the covenant community is taken by some New Perspective advocates to mean that baptism makes a covenant child a Christian. There is a sense in which this is true. Baptism does mark the child as covenantally connected to the Christian community. Our PCA standards even refer to baptized children as infant members (or non-communing members) of the church. Additionally, the Westminster Assembly's Directory for Publick [sic] Worship also lists among the grounds for infant baptism, "That children, by baptism, are solemnly received into the bosom of the visible church, distinguished from the world, and ... they are Christians, and federally holy before baptism, and therefore are they baptized." We have never meant by these important distinctions, however, that baptism regenerates a child. [Warning to readers: Since this is now the hottest aspect of the Federal Vision controversy in PCA circles, I am devoting several paragraphs to this subject. Please move on to the next section if this does not scratch where you are itching.]

The infant's holy status is recognized in baptism, but that status results from God graciously providing the child's relation to the covenant community through believing parents. God can certainly regenerate whomever and whenever He wishes, but in terms of what the church can assess, the parents' faith is the basis of a child being recognized as "holy before baptism" (cf. 1 Cor. 7:14). The water ceremony does not cause the child to have saving faith, and the sacrament does not guarantee that he will truly believe in Christ as his Savior. Thus, in North American culture, we have not usually talked without qualification about baptism making the child a Christian lest we wrongly communicate to our people that the rite is accomplishing what the Spirit does by faith alone (i.e., we have been careful to distinguish our practice from the Lutheran and Roman Catholic views of baptismal regeneration).

We must confess that most ministers in the PCA have framed their baptismal explanations to distinguish our practice from Catholic or Lutheran practice for listeners coming from a largely Baptistic culture. In contrast, the early Reformers framed their explanations to make sense in a largely Roman Catholic culture. For this reason, some statements of the Reformers do sound more "Catholic" than we are accustomed to hearing. All parties would do well to recognize the realities and reasons for these differences of expression, while recognizing that unnecessary controversy will ensue if we do not make it clear for our church and culture that neither the Scriptures nor our Standards teach that the rite of baptism actually and of itself regenerates the spirit of a believer or child.

Now, again, I know of no PCA minister who advocates an explicitly Lutheran or Roman Catholic view of baptismal regeneration, but some associated with the Federal Vision are so anxious to communicate that in baptism God actually transfers His covenantal grace to a child that they are pressing the terminological limits of our traditional baptismal vows. Certainly there is much misunderstanding and mere sentiment involved in many of our churches regarding infant baptism. However, when infant children are declared "Christians" at their baptisms without explanation that their blessing is grounded on their parents' profession of faith and not based on any guarantee of what is (or will be) the eternal status of the children, then further misunderstanding is created in a culture not steeped in Presbyterian distinctives.

Recognition of historic differences among Presbyterians can also help us deal more charitably with one another. The Northern Presbyterian tradition tends to emphasize the solidarity of the family in God's redemptive plan -- treating covenant children as members of the body of Christ (having been made disciples in their baptisms). The Southern tradition prior to the 20th century tended to emphasize the need to save our children from an unregenerate state (even referring to the children of believers as "little vipers"). These are significant differences in emphasis, but we have united in the PCA with everyone refusing to presume a guarantee of the regeneration of the children of believers, or to teach that baptism causes regeneration. Recognition of this unity can help us talk respectfully to and about one another in our present discussions.

So much of our confusion regarding baptism results from our inability to relate to the earliest Christians. They were the converts to a new religion in a culture of paganism or Judaism. For the first Christians, baptism (particularly an adult baptism) was a true crossing of boundaries -- an undeniable declaration of a new life and an abdication of a former one, often at the cost of one's family, status, and security. To be baptized was not participation in a sentimental ritual that everyone in the culture had undergone, but rather was identification with Christ in an entirely new community and way of life. Thus, when a person was baptized it was important to recognize that the Lord was present in the sacrament and lovingly embracing the individual through the corporate prayers of those gathered, through identification with the previous saints of the covenant community, through the convert's own expression of faith, and through God's own pledge of faithfulness to all whose faith was genuinely being expressed in the baptism. Thus, baptism not only signifies the grace of salvation; the sacrament itself blesses the believer with the grace of God's signified and actual embrace. The Westminster divines said, "... by right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in His appointed time" (WCF XXVIII.6, emphasis mine).

Since the sacrament is both a recognition and a means of the grace being signified (as the person publicly passes from one realm to another in the embrace of God provided by the sacrament), Calvin spoke of the believer being lifted to mystical union with Christ in the sacraments. Yet, the vital distinction of Presbyterians who acknowledge that a sacrament recognizes and even ceremonially confers God's blessing is that the sacrament symbolizes and conveys the grace that already "belongeth unto" the believer by faith." The sacrament does not create the grace, cause salvation, or guarantee faith. Baptism (and the Lord's Supper) reinforce, further bless, and publicly declare the covenantal relationship of the individual (or parent), but faith -- not any element of the sacrament -- is the God-given instrument of the individual's ultimate blessing and status with God. This is why before the statement about baptism conferring grace, the Westminster divines state, "... grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it [baptism], as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated" (WCF XXVIII.5).

Much misunderstanding of the efficacy of baptism could be corrected with pastorally prudent explanations (i.e., baptism provides real blessing and identification with the covenant community yet does not regenerate), but because the Federal Vision advocates often see themselves as needing to correct the Church, there is frequent use of arresting and incautious phrasing that seems designed to create reaction or, at least, movement in the denomination. An early (now retracted) Auburn Avenue statement even indicated that at his baptism a child receives all the benefits of union with Christ except for the gift of perseverance and final salvation. Such a statement could only have been made if one had redefined a traditional understanding of union with Christ, all its benefits (e.g., calling, regeneration, adoption, justification, and sanctification), and perseverance.

Redefinition of a number of these historic doctrines is being attempted by some New Perspective advocates (including those related to Federal Vision and Auburn Avenue). The redefinition is sometimes an attempt to conform historical doctrinal distinctions to Biblical wording that we have trouble reconciling with the traditional wording of Reformed theology. For instance, Auburn Avenue folk make the helpful (but not new) observation that the Bible does not always use the word "elect" to refer only to individuals whom God has chosen for eternal salvation. Sometimes Israel is called an "elect" nation even though not all of ethnic Israel is true spiritual Israel (Rom. 9:6). However, to move beyond this observation and say -- as some New Perspective folk have -- that not all the elect will persevere in faith (or that some of them can lose their salvation) creates a doctrinal crisis. Such a crisis would be easily and pastorally avoided by indicating that the word "elect" can be used in a technical way to refer to redeemed individuals (who always persevere because God will not lose one of His own) and in a general way to refer to an ethnic nation through which God is revealing His redemptive plan. The Bible has the right to use words in a technical (doctrinal) sense and in a general (common) sense, and we should be able to distinguish these without requiring a Confessional overhaul.

An unnecessary and dangerous eagerness to critique historic understanding rather than enrich it. So much of what the New Perspective advocates want to say would enrich our understanding if there were not such a willingness to discredit or dismiss previous teaching of Reformed doctrine. For example, there are wonderful benefits to reminding every Christian that he or she has corporate as well as individual responsibilities. But it is destructive to teach, or imply, that our salvation is more corporate than personal. Pastoral approaches that would say "not only, but also" rather than "not this (what our Confession teaches) but that (what we have now discovered)" are much better suited to build up the Church. We do not have to create questions about the nature of justification to remind those who are justified that true faith has real fruit. We do not have to make our sacraments sound nearly indistinguishable from those of Roman Catholics or Lutherans to teach the church of the real benefits of church ordinances. We should not have to redefine "regeneration" in order to expand our understanding of the sacraments.

I expect that the preceding paragraph would frustrate advocates of the New Perspective who believe that the Church has not properly understood what Paul (or our Confession) really teaches. They may feel that without the stimulus of arresting language the Church will not listen. However, such an approach mistakes the needs of the Church and the requirements of Gospel progress. Now that the New Perspective is being closely scrutinized, its advocates in the PCA are toning down statements (once made with frequent sarcasm and stridency) about the supposed errors of Church Fathers, the blindness of ministry peers, and the revolutionary nature of this new theology. New Perspective advocates are now more likely to claim that they are saying nothing that is not already in our standards and within the pale of historic Reformed teaching. This is a much more helpful approach and ought to make it possible to speak much more pastorally and gently about the perspectives that are being advanced.

Both those who appreciate and those who question the contributions of the New Perspective should recognize the legitimacy of concern that over-emphasizing the corporate aspects of salvation can make the necessity and blessings of personal salvation seem insignificant or secondary. We must all acknowledge that salvation includes corporate dimensions, and the Church may effectively present or betray the Gospel based on her attention or neglect of these corporate responsibilities. However, personal trust in God's grace must precede proper love for God, His people, and His creation. Church history in Europe and North America should remind us that when churches change the focus of their ministry and mission from living and sharing the personal dimensions of the Gospel to reforming external society or refining our own corporate identity, then dead orthodoxy (or worse) soon follows. Paul reminds us to be active in the sharing of our faith so that we can understand every good thing possessed in Christ (Phil. 1:6). Without an understanding that discipleship begins and progresses with personal commitment to Jesus Christ in response to His unconditional grace for individual sin, there will be no Gospel for another generation.

Who Finds the New Perspective Appealing?
The polar ends of the PCA political spectrum have found the New Perspective appealing for differing reasons. Those who tend to desire the Church to engage more in social action for the renewal of society find the New Perspective's emphasis on the corporate nature of faith appealing because it keeps Christians from making their faith "all about me." The individualistic, North American tendency to make "a personal relationship with Jesus" the ultimate purpose of faith looks both shallow and selfish in the light of the New Perspective's insights about the corporate responsibility of each person in the covenant community, and the covenant community's responsibility for world renewal. Those who understand the New Testament to be teaching Christians to take responsibility for transforming society according to the principles of Jesus also love the New Perspective's emphasis on the "Big Story" of Christ's Lordship over all the world -- and our participation in the culmination of that story.

The emphasis on community, accompanied by additional concerns for observance of "boundary markers" and "faithfulness," is also appealing to those we stereotypically place at the other end of our political spectrum: societal separatists and/or doctrinal precisionists. These are persons in our church who tend to want the covenant community to have clearer distinctions from secular society and more accountability for right behavior. It should not be surprising that some of the same groups and personalities that once were drawn to Theonomy and Reconstruction over frustrations with the modern church's worldly compromises have now gravitated toward the Federal Vision and Auburn Avenue versions of the New Perspective. Its emphasis on superior doctrine, corrected sacraments, faith-validating performance, and well-defined covenant communities provides much appeal for those seeking more refined expressions of faith. But, we should also not be surprised that those in the PCA who have historically been most concerned about deviation from our Standards (especially as defined by Southern antebellum theologians), have expressed the most strident concerns about this new perspective though they were once closely aligned with some of its advocates in attitude and doctrinal interest.

How Should Covenant Seminary Respond to the New Perspective?
The responsibility of Covenant Seminary in all such controversies is not to embrace a view simply because it is historic or to reject a view simply because it is new. Our unchanging task is to ask, "What does the Bible say?" Then we must speak with clarity, charity, and courage.
Clarity requires that we declare as best we can what God has said in His Word. We must honor our forefathers' understanding of the Word, and we must consider having our views enriched if we have not understood all that the Lord has said in His Word. Charity demands that we not judge others' arguments prematurely or seek to defeat them by unfair caricature. Courage demands that we love the Bride of Christ enough to defend her from doctrinal harm. Last year our faculty presented the distinctions and problems of the New Perspective on Paul in a seminar from which audio recordings are available on the seminary web site. Also on the web site is a statement regarding the New Perspective presented at the PCA General Assembly two years ago. Covenant Seminary professors have also spent countless hours working with a study committee of Missouri Presbytery to declare what ministers must believe regarding justification, the sacraments, and a number of other key issues. The presbytery plans for this study to be available for the Church at large next fall. Please pray that the Lord would grant clarity, charity, and courage to these men so that their work will benefit the whole Church and glorify the Gospel of our Lord.

Please pray also that this controversy does not distract us from the Gospel of grace. In my opinion, we are not likely soon to get to the bottom of the controversy with definitive statements that will easily identify all errors. PCA leaders on all sides of the issue are extremely articulate, Biblically intentioned, and highly unlikely to state anything that (without being caricatured) can readily be identified as outside Biblical orthodoxy. The consequence is that pastors, professors, and students can become preoccupied with debate -- making faith an expression of cerebral competition and intellectual arrogance rather than heart engagement and spiritual dependence. If our ministries only become battlegrounds for sacramental correctness rather than instruments for promoting the Gospel of grace, then we and the Church will have lost much. We all must pray earnestly for the work of the Spirit in our hearts to help us determine whether our efforts are turning the Church toward ever-greater introspection and isolation, or whether we are preparing the Church for Gospel-true priorities and progress. Each must examine his own heart to ask if what he is doing and teaching is creating greater love for Jesus that liberates the soul to serve Him, or is binding God's people to standards of ecclesiastical correctness rooted in our own doctrinal insecurities and preferences.

We need the Lord's wisdom to know what needs to be defended, what needs to be denounced, and what needs to be ignored because it only appeals to our appetite for argument. We must not allow a controversy largely outside our denomination to become the cause that defines us. The goal of Covenant Seminary is to prepare leaders for the local church who understand and model the Gospel of grace. Ask the Father to give us such great love of His Gospel and such clear judgment from His Spirit that He will enable us to keep the main thing the main thing. For those in whom the Spirit dwells, the message of Christ's grace for sinners such as we will provide the most powerful motivation possible for loving God, His law, His people, and His world.


July 12

1 Chronicles 12:19-14:17; Romans 1:1-17; Psalm 9:13-20; Proverbs 19:4-5

Today we begin Romans. When I was in seminary, I took an entire course just on Romans. Can you believe that? A whole 16 weeks, dedicated to just one book. And you know what I discovered? It could have been a yearlong course! Romans is so rich and full and complex. I’m excited for us all as we begin our journey into Romans.

Since there is so much depth in this book, I thought a few words of background might help us gain some good footing as we begin to wade in the waters of this book. Romans was written by Paul, as you probably know, and most historians place its writing around the end of Paul’s 3rd missionary journey, probably around AD 57. As we see in Romans 1:10-11, Paul has never been to Rome and has been longing to come (so clearly, this book was written before Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, the details of which we just finished reading in Acts). Paul has been longing to come to the church in Rome, to impart to them “some spiritual gift to strengthen [them]” (Rom. 1:12). There are lots of theories about how the church in Rome got started but the best one is probably that Roman Jews were converted on the day of Pentecost and brought this new faith back to their synagogues in Rome (see Acts 2:10). So this church has been growing steadily, but without the guidance of one of the apostles, and therefore Paul seeks to come to them to teach and encourage them; since he’s been tied up in other areas of ministry and hasn’t yet been able to get to Rome, he decides to write them a lengthy letter.

Just as there are many theories about the how the church in Rome got started, there are also many theories about the main purpose of Romans. I could write pages and pages about this (and, in fact, did so in my seminary class), but I’ll try to boil it down to just a few major points. I believe, at its root, the book of Romans is actually a book about race. Does that surprise you? It did me, when I was first coming to this conclusion. But if you’re willing to read with an open mind, I think you’ll find there is lots of support for this idea. As we read our way through, particularly in chapters 9-11 and 14-15, we’ll see that Paul spends lots of time in addressing issues of race. The Jewish Christians in Rome were using the Law as a leveraging point over the Gentile Christians; the Gentile Christians were arrogant in their belief that God had passed over the Jews in favor of the Gentiles. Paul writes to the Romans to teach them how to think about the law and faith – that our faith in Jesus saves us, but not just for our own personal gain, but for the benefit of all of humanity, as we spread God’s kingdom here on earth. As one commentator puts it, “Paul wrote to correct the Gentiles’ indifference, even arrogance, toward the Jewish minority at the same time that he tries to show the Jews that they must not insist on the law as normative factor in the church” (Moo, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans, 19).

Given then, that this is predominantly a book about race and is motivated by Paul’s desire to see the Christians in Rome, whether Jew or Gentile, be unified, what relevance does it have for us today? A great deal, I’d say. In the past years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the conflict between races, not just in America but all over the world. Violence has increased as we cannot seem to sort out our differences. Other differences, not just race relations, have also driven wedges between believers, and Paul’s call to the Romans more than 2,000 years ago is still just as poignant to us today: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, welcome one another as Christ has welcome you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:5-7).

So as we’re reading through Romans in the next couple of weeks, I challenge you to be on the lookout to see new ways of reading Paul. And let us know what you think by posting comments below!

PS – For those interested in a more in-depth look at some of the theories about Romans, we are sending a second post out today, which will contain a paper that summarizes a theory called “The New Perspective,” which has been gaining in popularity in the last 40 years. This paper dissects the pros and cons of the theory. I found this when I was looking back through my old notes. In a nutshell, the New Perspective advocates a different idea on Paul’s hopes for the church in Rome. Traditionally, theologians (such as Martin Luther), have taught that Paul’s big push is to teach the Jews in Rome that justification (salvation) is through faith, rather than works. But according to the New Perspective, Paul was actually just questioning the observances of circumcision, food laws and Sabbath rules. According to the New Perspective, the thought is that Paul realized that the Jews were using these markers as a way to distinguish themselves from the Gentiles and claim salvation because they were God’s chosen people. They didn’t necessarily think the Law saved them, but rather being Jewish, and Paul wants to correct that belief, teaching that regardless of whether someone is Jew or Gentile, the thing that saves us is Jesus. Again, if you want more info on the New Perspective, check out the next post. One more quick note – the author of the paper writes from the PCA denomination, which stands for Presbyterian Church in America. That’s why you’ll see several references to that group.


- Esther McCurry


How did God speak to you in Scripture today? Click here to share your reflections on God's word or read past posts. We'd love to hear from you.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

July 11

1 Chronicles 11:1-12:18; Acts 28:1-31; Psalm 9:1-12; Proverbs 19:1-3

So much valor in our Old Testament reading:
            - Benaiah, who chose to go down into a pit after a lion (1 Ch. 11:22)
            - The kinsmen of Saul (who we would expect to support Saul, but instead choose David as king), who "were armed with bows and were able to shoot arrows or to sling stones right-handed or left-handed" (12:2)
            - The Gadites, with their "faces of lions,...swift as gazelles in the mountains" (vs. 8).  There's beauty in that imagery, but a terrible, powerful, dangerous beauty.  What fierce men!

In our New Testament reading, too:
            - Just recovering from a shipwreck, Paul yet gathers the necessary firewood (Acts 28:3).  Emotionally and physically spent, enduring rain and cold (see vs. 2), Paul girds up his loins and does what needs to be done.
            - And he gets back onto a boat!  Three days of violent battering by the sea (27:18-20), days without food or water (vs. 21), another ten days of being adrift (vs. 27), and then a terrifying shipwreck (vs. 41) under threat of imminent execution (vs. 42) - that would be enough to make anyone hesitate to return to sea.  But Paul does not waver (28:11).
            - The end of Acts shows the on-going perseverance and determination of this man: "For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.  Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ" (vs. 30-31, emphasis mine).  Though in chains and under house arrest for years - though he is, ultimately, martyred for the sake of Christ - Paul is bold and unhindered.

Both our Old Testament and New Testament men are able to act with tremendous courage because of the steadfastness of their God.  The psalmist describes this warrior-King, who upholds the case of the righteous, who judges fairly, who governs rightly, who is a refuge and a stronghold (Ps. 9:4-5, 8-9).  These men can move forward in strength and confidence because they have experienced the truth that "those who know your name will trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you" (vs. 10).  God is both merciful and just.  "He who avenges blood remembers; he does not ignore the cry of the afflicted" (vs. 12).

Today, you may need the warrior-encouragement of our God; today, you may need the more tender response of God as he hears the cry of your affliction.  May the Lord meet you in your need, so that you can be glad and rejoice in him, singing praise to his name (Ps. 9:2).


- Sarah Marsh


How did God speak to you in Scripture today? Click here to share your reflections on God's word or read past posts. We'd love to hear from you.