The critiques, arguments and authors of the New Paul Perspective largely receive a bad reputation in Reformed/Evangelical circles. In my experience, those who are unfamiliar with the arguments of the New Paul Perspective (NPP) instinctively dismiss it wholesale because of rumors or assumptions they have heard from others. On the other hand, those who understand the NPP arguments and authors to a greater extent might interact with the arguments, but only to point out the weaknesses of them. While I agree with my Reformed Evangelical commitments and tradition, I believe that both of these interacts with the NPP fail to do justice to the arguments being made. Despite the weaknesses of the NPP, when we better understand the critiques and arguments of its proponents we are actually able to embrace the benefits it has to offer the Reformed faith. Specifically, we will find that the NPP allows us to more faithfully understand the context in which we read God’s Word, our understanding of Covenant Theology is strengthened, and the scope of God’s salvation is expanded. For the scope of this essay, I will briefly summarize the writings of Krister Stendahl, James Dunn and N.T. Wright, and then turn to my own reflections.
In his essay The Apostle Paul and the Instrospective Conscience of the West, Krister Stendahl popularizes the notion that the Apostle Paul may not have been as concerned with an introspective burden of conscience as Western Audiences assume. He argues that “the Pauline awareness of sin has been interpreted in the life of Luther’s struggle with conscience.” Western Christians then – in particular, those in the Protestant tradition – have read into Paul a burden from sin and guilt that the Apostle did not originally have. On the contrary, Stendahl argues that Paul actually had a very guilt-free conscience in regard to his participation in covenant law as a Jew. Paul was originally concerned with how Gentiles could be included in the messianic community, but he is now read as principally being concerned with man’s assurance of individual salvation. What was in focus for Paul’s theology then was not a burden of introspective conscience, but an insufficiency in the law now that the Holy Spirit has come. The problem of the law – which was originally meant to be a “digression” in Stendhal’s view – is now read as the main filter for understanding Pauline thought.
Scholar James D.G. Dunn picks up Stendahl’s line of argumentation and even takes it one step further. Dunn contends that “Protestant exegesis has for too long allowed a typically Lutheran emphasis on justification by faith to impose a hermeneutical grid on the text of Romans.” The problem, in Dunn’s view, is not necessarily the emphasis of justification by faith but what this emphasis is set in contrast to. The Western Reformed emphasis of reading Christianity as a religion of “salvation by grace” in contrast to a Judaism as a religion of “salvation by works” is entirely false, according to Dunn. Instead, he argues “Judaism’s whole religious self-understanding was based on the premise of grace – that God had freely chosen Israel and made his covenant with Israel to be their God and they his people.” Therefore, Reformed Evangelicals not only read Paul poorly and in the inappropriate context, but they miss the emphasis of his writing. Agreeing with Stendahl, Dunn believes that Paul was not talking about an individual’s salvation but instead was focused primarily on entrance into and maintenance of status within the covenant community.
N.T. Wright is the most prevalent popularizer of the NPP today, and his work is largely built on and is congruent with the work of both Stendahl and Dunn. Much of Wright’s work is principally focused on the ideas of righteousness and justification in Paul. Wright distinctly retells the history of Israel from a very covenantal focused framework. Israel, as a nation, was given the task of undoing the effects of Adam’s sin. Since they were unable to do so, Christ as the true Israel not only took on the curse but fulfilled the role the nation of Israel was always supposed to perform. In this framework, the terms “justification” and “righteousness” take on a very covenantal flavor. They are no longer associated with one’s moral standing before God, but instead are primarily associated with one’s standing within the covenant community. To be justified then is to have membership in the people of God.
Many Reformed Evangelicals have responded to the claims of Stendahl and Dunn, such as Cornelius P. Venema, John Piper and R.C. Sproul. More recently, Stephen Westerholm has done a sufficient and thorough job of responding to the claims of Stendahl, Dunn and Wright in his book Justification Reconsidered. Westerholm rightly argues that even if the Jewish religion had some concept of grace, it clearly wasn’t to the same extent that Paul believed was now present in Christianity. Further, humanity’s predicament – original sin and the fall – must actually be worse than the Jewish people originally thought. As Westerholm concludes, “Human beings, must not, after all, be capable of the modicum obedience required by the covenant…Along such lines, we may well imagine Paul’s thinking developed.”
The work of these Reformed and Evangelical leaders such as Westerholm is to be much appreciated. However, what I find missing in much of their writing is what we can learn and benefit from the arguments and critiques made by the NPP. The reality is, there are multiple benefits and ways the NPP can enhance our Reformed Theology. The first benefit I find from the NPP is the way in which it enhances our understanding of Paul’s context. Most Evangelical and Reformed circles deliver the gospel by declaring Paul’s message as a religion of grace contrasted to a religion of works. However, Stendahl and Dunn convincingly argue that the Jewish religion did have an understanding of grace behind God’s free choice of Israel to be his covenant people. While it may not be the same level and degree of grace that Christianity proclaims is actually necessary to receive from God in Jesus Christ, nevertheless we should no longer continue to caricaturize the Jewish religion in a false light. Faithful Bible teachers and preachers – as well as every day Christians – should desire to be honest and fair about how we understand and label people, even if it is people in antiquity.
Secondly, the fact that the Jewish religion understood God’s election of the nation of Israel to be motivated by his grace actually supports and strengthens a Reformed Covenant Theology and Soteriology. The fact of the matter is that God’s election has always been motivated by his grace. Whether it was because he loved Israel simply because he loved them (Deuteronomy 7:7) or because God predestines sinners to salvation (Acts 13:48), God has always operated and has been motivated out of his grace toward his people. This was true in the Old Covenant, and it is true in the New Covenant as well. By pointing out God’s grace toward Israel under the Old Covenant, Stendahl and Dunn can actually be cited to support many foundational Reformed convictions.
Third and finally, the view that Paul is merely concerned with entrance into the messianic community rather than the salvation of individual sinners is certainly an extreme reaction to the individualistic readings of Western Protestant culture. Nevertheless, this overreaction is a reminder to us that when we preach the gospel, we should remind people that they are being saved as individuals into a corporate body – the church. All who confess the name of Christ will be saved individually (Romans 10:9). At the same time, God loves and redeems the church as the Bride of Christ (2 Cor 11:2). We are saved individually and we are saved corporately. God the Father knows his children by name (John 10:14-15, Revelation 20:15) and he knows and loves all of his people by name (Isaiah 43:1). We should not be afraid to correct our own blind spots in our theologies and gospel proclamation. The NPP emphasis on entrance into and status within the covenant community is a good reminder and corrective for how Reformed Evangelicals understand their soteriology.
In our fight for orthodoxy and commitment to the grace of God we have received in Jesus Christ, we should not be afraid to listen to critiques and other views from outside our theological camp. While I have many disagreements with the consensus of the NPP, many of their arguments have shown me a view and angle on Scripture that I would not have otherwise considered. By wrestling with, digesting, and sorting through their arguments I believe my commitments to and understanding of Reformed Theology are stronger, not weaker. When we reject arguments from those outside of our theological camp entirely, we show ourselves to be closeminded and unwilling to acknowledge our own blind spots and weaknesses. In dialoging with the NPP further, Reformed Evangelicals could not only show themselves to be better at listening, but our faith and understanding of God’s grace would be strengthened.
 The scope of this application paper necessarily assumes that the audience has some familiarity with the arguments of the New Paul Perspective as well as the responses from Reformed Evangelicals.
 Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” The Harvard Theological Review 56, no. 3 (July, 1963): 200.
 Ibid., 206.
 Ibid., 213.
 James D.G. Dunn in Karl P. Donfried, ed., The Romans Debate, rev. and expanded ed. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, ©1991), 300.
 Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 51-58.
 Ibid., 33.
This is a lengthy article. It is best read as a pdf, which you may find here.
There is a great scene at the end of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King that really captures what true friendship looks like. Sam and Frodo are nearing the end of their journey to destroy the One Ring. Frodo – even more so than Sam – is completely exhausted not only physically but also from the internal burden of carrying the Ring all this way. As they’re both collapsed on the side of Mount Doom, Sam asks Frodo, “Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo?…Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”
Tragically, Frodo replies, “No, Sam. I can’t recall the taste of food…nor the sound of water…nor the touch of grass. I’m naked in the dark, with nothing, no veil between me and the wheel of fire! I can see him with my waking eyes!”
Sam, responding perhaps as the greatest friend in cinema history says, “Then let us be rid of it, once and for all! Come on, Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it [the Ring] for you, but I can carry you!” He proceeds to pick up his dear friend, and although he can’t carry his friend’s deepest burdens, he can help get him to the place he needs to go. Recognizing his friend’s exhaustion, Sam helps him by meeting Frodo’s immediate physical need.
What do you say to your friend who comes to you and tells you they’re struggling with depression and/or anxiety (depression-anxiety)? Unfortunately, we in the Church today tend not to respond very well to our hurting brothers and sisters. Most of our advice amounts to nothing more than, “Take a dose of Romans 8:28 with this glass of John 3:16 and call me in the morning.” We brush our friends off with passive comments like, “It sounds like you just need to believe this truth, know that I’ll be praying for you.” By quickly passing off our friend’s deepest pains, we essentially provide them with an over-spiritualized version of “God helps those who help themselves.” This type of care is not only unhelpful, but it is not Christian and it is potentially destructive.
Think of it this way: what if Sam had looked in Frodo’s face and said, “It sounds to me like you just need to believe Gandalf wants you to make it to the top of the volcano. Remember that you’re loved and everyone is counting on you! I’ll pray for you when I’m back at home eating those strawberries.” Sam would have been an incredibly bad friend! He would have been passing over Frodo’s immediate needs without providing him any real help at all.
How can we as Christians, who have been called to care for and love one another, better respond to our friends who are struggling with depression-anxiety? We can do so by better understanding how the Bible presents the person as both a material (physical) and immaterial (spiritual) being. In other words, by understanding the person holistically, we will know how to respond and care for our hurting friends in a loving and Christian way.
A Biblical Foundation
There tends to be two extremes our society (and by extension, the church) takes in regards to our anthropology (our understanding of the person) today. On the one hand, secularists tend to view the person as a primarily physical being. When you follow this extreme, every issue within a person has a physical cause. Depression-anxiety becomes a disease that is a result of something gone wrong in the brain, but if you can fix the brain, you can fix the issue. Meeting one’s physical desires and comforts – such as the desire for sex – becomes a physical need that must be met, regardless of the relational, emotional, or spiritual consequences.
The other extreme is to view the person as a primarily spiritual being. This is happening today both inside and outside the Christian Church, now that spirituality is back in vogue today. With this extreme, the solution to one’s problem must be found in some sort of belief system, usually directed within the self. The gospel according to Oprah presents a world where believing in yourself and your own internal strength is the answer to your problems. In Christian circles, this over-spiritualization results in chasing spiritual “experiences” and “encounters” with God that give us a spiritual high. When the spiritual high runs out, we are told there is something wrong with us and that the answer is found in creating and experiencing another encounter like ones we have had previously. Like any addiction, the more we go down this path, the more we find that we need increasingly robust experiences in order to create the same feeling we had before.
In the middle of these two extremes is a biblical anthropology. The Bible presents a unique answer to the human dilemma by telling us that we are both material and immaterial, physical and spiritual. We are a mysterious blend of the two, what some might call an “embodied soul.” Counselors call this the “dichotomist” view of the person. C.S. Lewis describes us as “composite beings – a natural organism tenanted by, or in a state of symbiosis with, a supernatural spirit.” There are numerous passages that explain this view to us in Scripture, but I’ll just mention a handful of them:
- We are spiritual beings clothed in an earthly tent (2 Corinthians 5:1).
- God made man out of two substances, dust and spirit (Genesis 2:7).
- As Christians, when we die our bodies return to the ground but our spirits return to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
- Christ summarizes the person as both body and soul (Matthew 10:28).
- Paul, in his defense of the resurrection, cannot comprehend of a person without a corporeal nature (1 Corinthians 15:35-49).
If this is true, how do we differentiate between what is spiritual and what is physical? The Bible uses numerous words to describe the spiritual side of the person: spirit (pneuma), heart (kardia), mind (dianoia, phrenes, nous), soul (Greek: psuche, Hebrew: nephesh), conscience (suneidesis), inner self or inner man. These various terms have slightly different emphases, but ultimately can be summarized by the term “heart.” Herman Ridderbos describes the human heart as, “the concept that preeminently denotes the human ego in its thinking, affections, aspirations, decisions, both in man’s relationship to God and to the world surrounding him.” In other words, the heart is our “motivational center” that is at the root of all of our moral responsibility and behavior before the face of God.
But what about the material side of the person? With our description of the spiritual side of the person out of the way, we can conclude that the material consists of…everything else. The best way to comprehend this might be to look at a list of differences in symptoms between physical or spiritual issues.
Feelings of depression
Feelings of panic
Remembering and forgetting
Ability to read
Ability to calculate
Problems with attention and concentration
|Sin: sexual immorality, lust, evil desires, malice, greed, anger, rage, murder, strife, arrogance, boasting, disobedience to parents, unbelief, jealousy, gossip, drunkenness, lying, idolatry, pride.Righteousness (fruits of the Spirit): patience, love, joy, peace, gentleness, kindness, faithfulness, forgiveness, wholesome speech.|
What are we to make of this? When we properly understand Biblical anthropology, we are better equipped to understand how depression-anxiety is impacting our brothers and sisters, and how we can best care for them. What we have seen is that the person is a mysterious blend of both body and soul. This means that we should have the expectation that what is happening in one part of the person is going to be reflected in the other. The Bible predicts that an issue rooted in our hearts will manifest itself with physical symptoms (including changes in our brain). Similarly, an issue with a physical origination might have an impact on what comes out of our heart.
The Dichotomist View of Depression-Anxiety
Let’s start to direct this foundation toward the issue of depression-anxiety more specifically. What should you do when your friend or loved one comes to you to communicate their pain and struggles with depression-anxiety? The first task we have is to recognize what is happening as some form of depression-anxiety. While we all have some general idea of what depression-anxiety is, don’t assume that you understand what the experience is like for your friend. Ask good questions and listen more than you talk. Try to understand the experience your friend is going through. Allow their experience to drive you to compassion (Matthew 9:36, 14:14).
The next thing we must do is distinguish between physical and spiritual symptoms. This is important for two reasons: 1) because we do not want to hold people morally responsible for a physical symptom, and 2) we do not want to excuse spiritual problems or lose hope for spiritual growth when there has been a psychiatric or physical diagnosis. Here are some examples of what it might look like to distinguish between physical and spiritual symptoms for someone who is going through depression-anxiety.
|Insomnia or hypersomnia
Significant weight changes
Feeling of being restless or slowed down
Fatigue, loss of energy
Sense of alienation
Feeling sad, blue or depressed
Tight chest or heart palpitations
It may be difficult to begin to separate physical from spiritual symptoms. This is where most Christians begin to struggle in caring for their loved ones. What do we say? What questions should we ask? It is at this point our foundation of a biblical anthropology becomes exceedingly practical. With our understanding of the material and immaterial person, we can begin to care for and meet people’s physical symptoms while intentionally observing, listening to, and understanding the underlying heart and spiritual issues/symptoms. I believe this approach works best for a number of reasons.
- Focusing on the physical symptoms first builds trust with your friend. It is likely that you are not the first person your depressed or anxious friend has spoken to. In all likelihood, they have already spoken to multiple people who have brushed off their struggles with depression-anxiety as a small problem that needs a quick fix. By affirming the person’s struggles and then committing to helping meet their practical, physical needs, you will establish a deep relationship of trust with your friend. Depression-anxiety naturally creates a filter of skepticism in the individual; your commitment to their physical needs can go a long way in beginning to overcome this skepticism. As author John Lockley once said,
The presence, the availability, just the existence of a friend like this provides a tremendous degree of comfort to the depressed person, as it demonstrates in physical terms how much he is cared for, accepted, loved, as he is, warts and all. It is not difficult for the depressed person to go on to realize that if individual Christians can love him that much, how much more will God do the same.
- Caring for physical symptoms often draws out the deeper heart issues. If you offer care to someone and they reject it, you’re seeing their pride at work. If you tell someone they need more sleep but they respond that they can’t because of work commitments, you might have exposed an idol of control. If depression-anxiety always sets in during the evening, there might be a pattern of fear of man or circumstances that arises throughout the day. This is a pattern we see in Christ’s earthly ministry, where his physical miracles are often the catalyst to address a deeper spiritual need (John 6:1-59, Luke 13:10-17).
- If an individual has been struggling with depression-anxiety long enough, their physical, emotional and mental exhaustion will probably prevent fruitful counseling. If your friend hasn’t slept for weeks and is plagued by constant panic attacks, then they’re probably not in a good place to begin thinking hard about what is causing the panic attacks. One of the best things you can do is help provide the rest and nourishment they need to search their heart and mind for what is really going on.
- Caring for physical symptoms is a vehicle for evangelism. Our service to one another does not occur in a vacuum. There is a broken, hurting world looking at us to see if our actions line up with our words. Jesus himself said the world will know we are Christians if our love for one another mirrors the love he has for us (John 13:34-35). In this way, committing to and caring for physical needs will be peculiar to our broken and sinful world.
In addition, developing wisdom and sensitivity in meeting and caring for physical symptoms and needs equips you to care for not only Christians, but non-Christians as well. As we ask good questions, apply wisdom, and care for the physical symptoms of our depressed or anxious non-Christian friends, they will naturally want to know how we have the wisdom, insight, and care that we do. This is the perfect opportunity to point our hurting friends to our Savior, Shepherd, and true Caretaker who meets our deepest need: forgiveness and reconciliation with God.
Application: Practical Questions for Everyday Ministry and Friendship
So what should you say when your friend comes to you with their struggles of depression-anxiety? What questions should you ask? This is a wisdom issue for all of us. However, there are some questions we can have in the back of our heads at all times that can become good launching points for conversation, as well as finding and addressing physical symptoms and needs. My hope is that these questions, although not exhaustive, will serve you well as you seek to minister to your friends and loved ones both in and and outside of the church.
0. Affirm their decision to open up about their struggle with depression-anxiety. This isn’t a question (hence the number 0!), but it should always be the first thing we do. We have already said that depression-anxiety creates a skeptical filter toward individuals and the world. By affirming your friend’s decision to share what is going on in their life, you are removing the stigma our society carries and disarming their fear and skepticism.
1. How does depression/anxiety make you feel? What words would you use to describe your experience? This goes back to the idea of trying to empathize with your friend or loved one. Depression-anxiety tends to force the individual into one of two extremes: either a heightened sense of physical or spiritual pain, or a numbness to any kind of pain
2. Is there any way you have identified I might be able to help you? Your friend might already know they are struggling to get enough rest, eat well, or maintain a regular pattern. If that is the case, allow them to share that need with you before you ask any more specific questions.
3. Have you had a physical recently? Even if your friend had a physical at some point during the same year, if they have not received a physical during their depression-anxiety then they probably should. The reason for this is two-fold. One, because they can alert their physician to their struggles in case they need to come back and have a conversation about medication in the future. Secondly, because there are numerous diseases an individual can have that might manifest itself with depressive symptoms. These include:
|Medical Problems with Known Depressing Effects|
Viral or bacterial Infections
Certain types of headaches
Side effects of medication
4. How are you resting? Depression-anxiety often causes a person to get either more or less sleep than normal. We should know how it is impacting our friend or loved one specifically. Related questions might be, “How much caffeine are you consuming?” or “How much media are you consuming on an average day?”
5. Are you exercising? Physical exercise often helps our body get rid of unhelpful chemicals and instead produces helpful chemicals in our body. Encourage your friend to begin a modest exercise routine – perhaps even offer to go on a walk with them once or twice a week outside.
6. How are you eating? Similar to our sleep patterns, depression-anxiety almost always has an impact on our eating habits in one of two extremes: either we eat way too much, or we eat way too little. Help your friend identify their pattern, and offer assistance in providing healthy, routine meals.
7. How has this impacted your routine? While your friend may have once been the cleanest and hardworking person you know, depression-anxiety might be completely decimating their daily routines and habits. Good hygiene might seem like an impossible task, and showing up to work on time or being productive at all might be equally so. Try to identify small steps your friend can take to return to a normal routine. Help them create a schedule for the next week or two to accomplish some of their errands and chores, and hold them accountable to it.
8. Is there a particular time of the day or season of the year during which this has a greater impact on you? Seasonal depression-anxiety is not uncommon. If you can identify a time of the day or season of the year where depression-anxiety becomes particularly severe, then you can help your friend or loved one develop a “battle plan” to get the jump on depression-anxiety before it gets out of hand.
9. What are your priorities? An individual’s depression-anxiety might be the result of burnout from out-of-order priorities. These priorities might include family, work, church, neighbors or travel. Help your friend reprioritize their life and attend to what is necessary now while putting secondary commitments on hold. Once the individual has returned to a sense of normalcy they may be able to pick up some of the activities or commitments again
10. Have you thought about hurting yourself? Don’t avoid the hard question just because it is difficult. If your friend has thought of specific ways to hurt themselves, this is an indication that it is time to pursue immediate counsel and suicide watch.
11. Are you taking a Sabbath and participating in the Lord’s Day? The Sabbath was created as a means of rest for us (Mark 2:27). What a novel idea that the Lord knew we needed regular rest! Encourage your friend to obey the biblical mandate for rest and participation in worship with the saints on the Lord’s Day.
12. May I read a Psalm with you? Many Christians struggling with depression-anxiety are under the impression that the Bible does not allow for a Christian to struggle in the way that they are. However, the Bible is absolutely full of examples of God’s people crying out in pain, despair and lament in ways that mirror what we call depression-anxiety today. Great examples of this are the Psalms of Lament. Within these Psalms are beautiful demonstrations and prayers for God’s people to cry out in pain while simultaneously striving to put their trust and hope in the Lord. Reading through a Psalm of Lament with your friend may provide hopeful reassurance that God knows, hears, and is not ashamed of the things they are going through. It may also show your non-Christian friend that God’s Word has something to say to them in the midst of their brokenness or despair. The Psalm can be a perfect springboard into how your friend relates to the pain of the psalmist. Great examples of Psalms of lament include Psalm 22, 51 or 73.
The careful reader will take note of my indebtedness to the work of Edward T. Welch for much of my views in this article. In particular, his book Blame it on the Brain?, as well as the articles “Medical Treatments for Depressive Symptoms” and “Who Are We? Needs, Longings and the Image of God in Man” have been instrumental to me. My hope is that I am entirely faithful to the work that has come before me and the shoulders on which I stand.
 C.S. Lewis, Miracles, 126.
 Edward T. Welch, Blame it on the Brain?, 35.
 Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 119.
 Edward T. Welch, Blame it on the Brain?, 45
 Ibid., 120.
 John Lockley, A Practical Workbook for the Depressed Christian, 338.
 Edward Welch, “Medical Treatments for Depressive Symptoms,” ed. David A. Powlison, The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Number 3, Spring 2000 18 (2000): 46.
Doubt and fear are two responses to situations in life that are common to all of us. One could say that they’re woven into our spiritual DNA as fallen creatures this side of the curse. Maybe you fear and doubt that the Lord will provide for your family, so you overwork yourself to the point of exhaustion. Maybe you doubt the Lord’s goodness to you in the gift of your spouse, so you are constantly seeking to control your marriage. Perhaps struggles with infertility for years have become such a burden that you doubt if God even hears your cries at night. Or possibly you’re experiencing something that we’ve all experienced at some point in our Christian walk – doubt that we have even truly been saved by God.
Can you relate to experiences like these? If you can, then you know that fear and doubt has the capacity to absolutely paralyze us. Rather than living a life confidently in the graces of God, we respond with a life of both apathy and control. Our doubts and fears lead us toward bitterness and resentment, both toward God and other Christians. When life seems to be going so well for everyone else, what can we do when God feels distant and we doubt his promises to us?
Abraham knew what it was like to experience doubt and despair. Both he and his wife Sarah were quite old in age, and had yet to produce any offspring. The author of Hebrews describes Abraham as someone who was as “good as dead (Hebrews 11:12),” both because of his old age but also because infertility was equivalent with death in ancient near eastern culture and society.
But then in Genesis 15 the Lord came and spoke to Abraham, and everything changed – or so we would think. Here is Abraham before the face of the Lord of the universe, and he still doubts the promises of God; not once, not twice – but three times! The first example of this is when God promises Abraham a “great reward.” How does Abraham respond? He casts blame on the Lord that he continues childless and that one of his servants will become his heir (Gen. 15:2). Rather than believing the promise of God, he blames him for his current circumstances. I’m sure you can relate.
But this isn’t the end of Abraham’s struggles with fear and doubt. Once again the Lord makes a promise, this time promising Abraham land for his offspring, but he doubts once again. “How can I know that I will possess it?” he asks (15:8). Are you sensing a pattern here? This time, Abraham asks for proof and evidence to back up the Lord’s promises. And God does just that.
In one of the most remarkable and extraordinary demonstrations of God’s love in all of Scripture, despite Abraham’s doubt God enters into covenant with him (15:12-21). In other words, God makes an unbreakable, intimate, loving promise bound in blood that he will remain true to his word with Abraham.
After this whole ordeal, Abraham’s struggles with fear and doubt are over – right? Wrong. As a perfect example of how we all react to our fears and doubts, Abraham and Sarah try to control their situation rather than trusting the covenant promises of God. They take the promise of offspring into their own hands, and Abraham has a child by Sarah’s servant Haggar (Genesis 16). What began as a seed of doubt fully blossomed into a full-grown tree of disobedience.
At this point, how would you respond to someone like Abraham? If I made a promise to someone twice, with a huge demonstration of my love and loyalty to them, and they still blew me off – I’d be pretty frustrated! But frustration has no place in the covenant love of God. Rather than pouring out justifiable anger on Abraham the Lord renews his covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17), promising that he will be the God of Abraham and his children forever (17:8).
So what does this have to do with us? Well, consider this: Genesis 15-17 are foundational narratives for the rest of redemption history. Abraham is the great patriarch of not only the people of Israel, but of the gentiles also (Romans 4:11-12). He is the great example of faith and works that both Paul (Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6) and James (James 2:21) refer to. How comforting it is for us to see then that this great example of faith was just as fallen as we are! Even though he was in the presence of God, experiencing the Lord’s covenant love, he was still stricken with doubt and fear that God’s word would be true for him.
What can we take away from all of this? Doubt and fear are things we will all struggle with in the Christian walk. Yet, when we are overcome with doubt and despair, we remember that God has made covenant with us in Christ (Hebrews 9:15). As the Psalmist constantly tells us, God’s covenant love – also known as his steadfast love – endures forever (Psalm 100, 107, 107, 118, etc.). The puritan William Gurnall described God’s covenant love in this way:
God’s covenant engages His almighty power. He puts His own hand and seal to His promise, and like the mountains surrounding Jerusalem it stands, never to be removed. As His name is, so is His nature – a God who keeps covenant forever. He does not parcel Himself out, a few crumbs to one, a crust to another – as one feeds the sparrows. He allows you to claim as yours whatever He has. He makes His covenant with every believer. Were some left to fight it out by the strength of their own abilities, then the strong would be more likely to stand and the weak to fall in battle. But, castled in the covenant, all are safe together – because all rest in the power of His might.
So when we are overcome with doubt and fear, we take heart in the fact that the strength of our faith never comes from within ourselves, but it comes from the object of our faith: the one who has given us his Son as the utmost expression of this covenant love. I think this is why Christ was able to say that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains (Matthew 17:20), because the power of our faith always comes from him. Even the smallest faith is saturated with the covenant love of the Almighty.
Friend, where are you doubting God’s covenant love in your life? How could trust in his promises allow you to relinquish control and give you confidence to live under His loving Lordship? Why not allow today to be the day where your fears and doubts fade, and are instead replaced by confidence in God’s steadfast love?
For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations. – Psalm 100:5
Although I wasn’t able to watch last night’s Democratic Debate live, I was able to catch up on all the clips, highlights and most tweetable moments from the debate. As I was deciphering all of the #damnEmails tweets and poor-taste comments about someone’s Labrador for real information, I couldn’t help but feel a certain conflict in me. For while there were some things I disagreed with that the political candidates were saying, there were also many issues that I did agree with. This reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from New York pastor Tim Keller:
The new, fast-spreading multi-ethnic orthodox Christianity in the cities is much more concerned about the poor and social justice than Republicans have been, and at the same time much more concerned about upholding classic Christian moral and sexual ethics than Democrats have been.
It seems to me that there is a revolution happening in young Christian circles, of which I consider myself a part. For many generations, there has been a culture in our churches where you were pitched one of two choices: either you’re a Christian fundamentalist who always voted on the Right; or you were a progressive Christian who always voted on the Left. During the last election, many of my conservative Christian friends told me I wasn’t really a Christian if I voted for a Democrat; my more liberal Christian friends said I couldn’t truly obey the commands of Jesus if I voted Republican. In the end, it’s the same accusation coming from two opposite ends of the spectrum. This has given way to the impression in our society that we are mindless, one-issue voters. I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a better way.
When I talk with Christian millenials, there is a general attitude of being fed up with today’s political system. Keller hits the nail on the head when he describes the conflict in many of today’s young Christians. For too long individual churches and whole denominations have sponsored political functions and endorsed candidates by bringing them to speak at church gatherings. We’ve witnessed the results of what has often been blind, mindless, and careless adherence to political systems and ideologies. We struggle to be squeezed into any one political mold or model. Conservative and liberal are quickly becoming adjectives that are far too simplistic. Whereas political figures used to be able to rally entire populations around their agenda, millennial Christians are quickly realizing that the loudest voices in public discourse rarely speak for us.
I want to avoid the accusation of chronological snobbery, but isn’t this the way it should be? Can kingdom-minded people be squeezed into the political categories of men? Rather than being the most one-sided voices in political discourse, shouldn’t we be the most thoughtful? If we take the charge to steward the full council and wisdom of God seriously, then it is our responsibility to bring order, thoughtfulness, reason, and genuine empathy to the political table.
This means that it is going to be impossible for Christians to be blind, strict adherents to any one political system or party. We should not be a people who make character attacks, cheap shots on social media, or treat issues lightly. We should be a people who seriously think through each and every issue before coming to an informed decision. We should wrestle the convictions of our twisted and sinful hearts with the truths of all of Scripture – not just the easy verses. We should genuinely desire to listen to those we disagree with and understand them, seeking to interact with the best of their arguments – not the weakest. Christian leaders should flee from any action that will teach their people to be one-issue voters. Perhaps most importantly, we should understand that each decision impacts and changes the lives of real people – not just numbers in a news column.
Perhaps I’m too idealistic, but I long to see a thoughtful and educated culture amongst our churches. I long for a day when we realize that casting our vote for any one candidate means we will be giving up good qualities and positions from other candidates. I desire a time where I don’t sign on to social media and see Christians posting cheap shot memes, jokes, articles and comments about political officers rather than taking up the command to earnestly pray for them.
One of my favorite authors and commentators on this subject is Professor Carl Trueman from Westminster Theological Seminary. In his book Republocrat, he closes with the following argument which summarizes my thoughts on this issue far better than I could. He writes:
Christians are to be good citizens, to take their civic responsibilities seriously, and to respect the civil magistrates appointed over us. We also need to acknowledge that the world is a lot more complicated than the pundits of Fox News (or MSNBC) tell us…. Christian politics, so often associated now with loudmouthed aggression, needs rather to be an example of thoughtful, informed engagement with the issues and appropriate involvement with the democratic process. And that requires a culture change. We need to read and watch more widely, be as critical of our own favored pundits and narratives as we are of those cherished by our opponents, and seek to be good stewards of the world and of the opportunities therein that God has given us.
It is my belief that the identification of Christianity, in its practical essence, with very conservative politics will, if left unchallenged and unchecked, drive away a generation of people who are concerned for the poor, for the environment, for foreign-policy issues…. We need to… [realize] the limits of politics and the legitimacy of Christians, disagreeing on a host of actual policies, and [earn] a reputation for thoughtful, informed, and measured political involvement. A good reputation with outsiders is, after all, a basic New Testament requirement of church leadership, and that general principle should surely shape the attitude of all Christians in whatever sphere they find themselves. Indeed, I look forward to the day when intelligence and civility, not tiresome cliches, character assassinations, and Manichean noise, are the hallmarks of Christians as they engage the political process. (pg. 108-110)
As we head into the next political cycle, this is the culture change and climate I’ll be praying for. Will you join me?