Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul: Covenant Nomism Versus Reformed Covenantal Theology – A Review

Cara, Robert J. Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul: Covenantal Nomism Versus Reformed Covenantal Theology. REDS. Ross-shire: Mentor, 2017.

This polemical book is the most recent volume from Christian Focus’ Mentor imprint (target audience is “Bible College and seminary students, pastors, and other serious readers”), and it is the second work in their Reformed Exegetical and Doctrinal Studies series (R.E.D.S.). The series editor are J.V. Fesko & Matthew Barrett. Note: J.V. Fesko’s Death in Adam, Life in Christ: The Doctrine of Imputation, published in 2016, was the first volume in the R.E.D.S. series.

From the “Preface” of Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul (17).

In a real sense, I have been thinking about E.P. Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul since January 1990. Through the years I have lectured many times, wrote book reviews, etc. on this topic. I am pleased now to have my mature thoughts about a portion of that topic–works righteousness in Second Temple Judaism–come together in this book.

From Chapter 5: “Summary” (197).

I remember the first time I saw Sanders’ book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. I was a Ph.D. student in January 1990. The book was being carried by another Ph.D. student. I had heard of the book, but I knew little about it. At that point, the student had only gotten through a few chapters of Sanders’ book and was giving me his understanding of Sanders. While the other student was in the midst of explaining to me Sanders’ covenantal-nomism thesis, it dawned on both of us that if what Sanders says is true, then major aspects of the traditional Protestant view of justification might be wrong. This made a significant impact on me–as can be seen by my remembrance of this conversation. Of course, Sanders and others had already made that connection, I was just not up-to-speed on it. My concern then and now has not changed. In a real sense, this book is the culmination of that initial conversation.

From the “Appendix” (207).

While in my Ph.D. program I had several courses related to Second Temple Judaism. Although I had gone to an excellent seminary for my M.Div. degree, I was unprepared for my first course. My Hebrew and Aramaic language skills were fine, but my general knowledge was, shall we say, lacking. Who was Tobit again? Was Tobit a ‘he’ or a ‘she’? There are how many Maccabees books! How many extant theological documents do we have from the Pharisees?–Oh, none. This first-course shock sent me on a long joyous journey that continues today of reading Second Temple Jewish and Rabbinic Literature.

Cracking the Foundation of the NPP, apparently, is the author’s mature thoughts after a 27 year long journey of reading Second Temple Jewish and Rabbinic Literature. And the chief aim of this book is to refute E.P. Sanders’ thesis that the general soteriology of Second Temple Judaism was not works righteousness, but rather a religion of grace. Sanders’ calls this soteriology of grace from Second Temple Judaism ‘covenantal nomism.’

Sanders’ thesis has become the historical backdrop and foundation for the contemporary movement in NT scholarship called ‘New Perspective on Paul’ (NPP). The NPP is not monolithic, but what all NPP scholarship has in common is varying levels of dependence upon Sanders’ scholarship. Thus, NPP re-interprets the writings of St. Paul, particularly the doctrine of justification, over and against the traditional Protestant interpretation.

Robert J. Cara believes that if Sanders’ thesis is demonstrated to be false that the NPP will crumble. If the NPP does not have a foundation with structural integrity, then the NPP superstructure must collapse.

Here is Robert J. Clara’s stated formal thesis (28).

[T]his book will focus on presenting and critiquing the foundational arguments related to Second Temple Judaism and Sanders’ covenantal nomism. . . . the central burden of this book is to show that works righteousness views did exist in the first-century A.D. To be clear: My view is not that every document or Jewish group was works righteousness oriented. I am simply trying to prove that some were. Once given this, then there is no need to deny that Paul’s opponents had these views since this seems to be a straightforward way to take Paul’s statements. In sum, if works righteousness views did exist in the first century A.D., then the core belief of NPP crumbles and the logic for re-interpretation of Paul disappears.

The Second Temple existed from 520 B.C. to its destruction in 70 A.D. The term ‘Second Temple Judaism’ typically refers to the various forms of Jewish piety and practices from that era, including the varied and corresponding Jewish literature. Sanders believes that covenant nomism was a characteristic of the various forms of Judaism from that era. Robert J. Cara does not believe that Sanders’ thesis holds up to the evidence in the Second Temple Judaism Literature. Therefore, Cara carries out a historical and literary analysis of the primary sources (Chapter 3), in order to demonstrate that works righteousness in various forms is evident in the literature of Second Temple Judaism.

Cara states that “this is a polemical book” but his goal is to “[argue] in a truth-in-love manner (Eph. 4:15)” (17). I believe he has succeeded in doing so. This book is not a Sanders’ thesis/NPP rebuttal via Reformed slogans. Robert J. Cara has written a book in an accessible manner with the utmost clarity: Clara outlines the book and provides a quick overview and history of Sanders’ and NPP scholarship (Chapter 1); Cara defines his terms, e.g., works righteousness, and explains the framework of Reformed Covenant Theology (Chapter 2); Cara spends about a quarter of the book doing literary analysis of Jewish literature in order to demonstrate works righteousness soteriology therein (Chapter 3); Cara then spends the next quarter of the book doing quite a bit of exegetical heavy lifting in Ephesians 2:8-10, Titus 3:4-7, and 2 Timothy 1:8-10 (Chapter 4); and, lastly, Cara summarizes Chapters 1-4, concluding with his additional thoughts (Chapter 5).

Yes, I see the denial of any works righteousness in Second Temple Judaism as historically wrong, and worse, the implications of this skew or deny important issues for the modern Church.

Cara mentions four issues, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what they are.

Almost a third of the book is comprised of an Appendix–“Overview of Judaism’s Literary Sources.” If your general knowledge of Second Temple Judaism is lacking, then the price of the book is well worth this Appendix alone.

As mentioned in Chapter 1, this appendix is designed to aid those not well aquainted [sic] with non-canonical ancient Jewish literature and current scholarship’s general views of it. One reason to improve our grasp of first-century A.D. Judaism is to better understand and interact with the NPP arguments. The NPP authors are making honest arguments. A truth-in-love (Eph. 4:15) response requires that at least some of the rebuttals to the NPP address the Judaistic-background portion of their arguments. This is especially useful because the NPP perceives that the Judaistic-background portion of their argument is very important (207-208).

Whether the reader is pro-NPP, anti-NPP, or indifferent-to-NPP, this is an important book to be reckoned with because the NPP is no longer a minority or idiosyncratic view, in fact, it is actually the opposite–there is widespread acceptance and support for the NPP. Therefore, Cara wants evangelicals to be aware of both NPP arguments and the relationship between E.P. Sanders’ scholarship and NPP NT scholarship.

Currently, at the evangelical pastor/church level, pastors, no matter their stand on NPP, will be reading commentaries that interact with NPP; hence, they need to understand the general arguments. Also, pastors still need to be able to interact with other pastors and parishoners [sic] who ask questions about NPP. . . . A major reason I wrote this book is to clarify NPP issues for evangelicals especially as they relate to Sanders’ covenantal nomism. Of course, I hope that all readers conclude that Sanders and the resulting NPP view of justification is misguided (34).



Jesus: Lord

Who is Jesus?

Jesus is the Lord.


Jesus is God the Son Incarnate, and he has been appointed by God to be both the promised Christ (Messiah) and Lord.

In Luke 1:26-38, one of the most well known passages of Scripture, we learn that the angel Gabriel was sent to Mary and revealed to her that she was highly favored, that the Lord was with her, and that she was blessed. Gabriel also revealed that Mary would have a child, that he shall be great, called the Son of the Highest, and that the throne of David would be given to him, and that he would reign forever and his kingdom would be everlasting. Mary believed the angel, but asked for clarity: “How?” Biological levelheadedness, that.  So, the angel explained: the Spirit would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her, and then she would conceive a child in her womb. The angel also told her that the child would be called the Son of God.

Before the angel left Mary he revealed to her that her cousin Elisabeth was also pregnant. Mary wouldn’t have known this because we are told earlier that Elisabeth conceived a child in her old age, and in awe of the grace of God she went into solitude. So, after the angel leaves, Mary went to visit Elisabeth, and, upon arriving, she greeted Elisabeth. When Elisabeth heard the greeting, the babe leaped in her womb, she was filled with the Spirit, and she began to prophesy (Luke 1:39-45).

Elisabeth was the first to reveal that Mary was already pregnant. In fact, Elisabeth called Mary’s child “my Lord.” Note: The same Spirit who filled David to prophesy in Psalm 110, and called the promised Christ and son of David “my Lord”, that Spirit centuries later filled Elisabeth to prophesy and call Mary’s child–the seed of David–“my Lord” (see Matthew 22:41-46). Elisabeth’s exclamation of blessing is the first messianic revelation regarding God the Son after his incarnation/conception. Mary is pregnant with the child, and the angel told her to call him “Jesus” — which means God is Salvation. When Mary went to visit Elisabeth the babe in her cousin’s womb leaped for joy and Elisabeth was filled with the Spirit and testified that the Messiah and Lord was present.


God has divinely appointed Mary’s son–the Christ-child that shall be great, and called the Son of the Highest and the Son of God–to be both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). As Lord of his people, Jesus delivers, saves, protects, preserves, governs, defends, and leads them by His Word and Spirit.

After the Resurrection, the God-man Jesus Christ ascended to Heaven (the place where God the Son had always been). The God-man, Jesus Christ our Lord, now sits at the right hand of God the Father: this position denotes the judicial power given to Jesus upon the completion of his mission to live, suffer, be slain, and raised the third day (Luke 9:22). God the Son had a mission in coming to earth and taking on human flesh as an instrument to save his people from their sins. When he fulfilled the mission, he accomplished salvation and redemption for the children of God.

Jesus has been appointed by God to be both Christ and Lord. As the Messianic prophecy foretold, “The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool” (Psalm 110:1). Also, Psalm 2 describes the present administration and judicial power of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision. Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure. Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.

God has ordained that all power be given to Jesus, for he is Lord. Because Jesus is Lord, we ought to willingly submit to him, and praise him.

Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name. That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And taht every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).

Deeply Personal

Jesus Christ our Lord is God the Son Incarnate. He was made of the seed of David according to the flesh, by the Spirit coming upon and God’s power overshadowing the virgin Mary. God declared through his resurrection from the dead that he is the Son of God (Romans 1:1-4).

In the Old Testament, this was the confession of God’s people: “The LORD our God is one LORD. And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), i.e., YHWH is Lord. In the New Testament, the true God and one LORD further self-reveals himself through the salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ. Through Jesus we learn that God is Triune — Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Therefore, we confess that Jesus Christ, who is God the Son Incarnate, is Lord! “The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23b).

The Triune God has revealed himself and his justice and mercy in our salvation accomplished through Jesus Christ. God not only has revealed that God is our salvation–that Jesus has delivered us from sins and is the author of our salvation–but God has also revealed through Jesus Christ that the One True God is deeply personal and fellowships with his people. God is personal and fellowships with us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Jesus: Messiah

Therefore we confess that, in order to fulfill the covenant promises of the ancient fathers and predicted by the mouth of the prophets (Is 7:14; Luke 1:31,35,55,70) the true, unique and eternal Son of God the Father (Rom 1:3; John 17:5; 16:28; Phil 2:6,7) took, at the time appointed by the Father, the form of a servant. Being conceived in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and without any operation of man (Matt 1:20; Luke 1:28,35), He took human nature with all its infirmities, sins excepted (Heb 4:15; 5:2). (Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith, 10).

Who is Jesus?

Jesus is the Messiah.


Christians believe in Jesus Christ. What does Christ mean? Is that Jesus’ last name? No. It is a title meaning Messiah. God had promised to send a Messiah to Israel, the “anointed one” who would deliver and save Israel. As Peter, a Jew, told Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and power” (Acts 10:38).

Conceived By & Anointed With the Holy Ghost

In Luke 1:26-38, we are told that the Holy Ghost will come upon the virgin Mary, and that the power of the Highest will overshadow her and she will conceive a child in her womb. The verb “overshadow” in the Old Testament is associated with the manifestation of God’s special presence. The God-man is conceived in the womb of a virgin through the supernatural operation of the Spirit, thus, he will be called the Son of God. Jesus was conceived by the Spirit by Divine operation, but Jesus was also set apart by God for his earthly ministry when he was anointed with the Holy Ghost.

In Matthew 3:16-17 we read,  “And he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” After this, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After withstanding temptation, Jesus embarked on his earthly ministry. “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).

Anointed with Power

Anointed with the Holy Ghost, Jesus was anointed with power to not only withstand the temptation of the devil (Matt. 4:1-11), but also for “preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people” (Matt. 4:23). That Jesus was anointed with Divine power was evident. It was so evident in fact, that even Nicodemus, who was a ruler among the Jews, came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles thou doest, except God be with him” (John 3:2).

Nicodemus was absolutely correct. God was with Jesus, and had divinely anointed Jesus to be the Redeemer. In the Old Testament, the divinely anointed prophets, priests, and kings were types and shadows of Jesus Christ: Jesus was divinely anointed to be (1) our prophet, to teach us about salvation, (2) our priest, to offer himself as the once-for-all sacrifice, as ransom to pay the price for our reconciliation and redemption, and (3) our king, who defends and governs us, and having delivered us leads us into the kingdom of God.

A Messiah Who Anoints His Disciples

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, he told his disciples that they were going to be anointed with the Holy Ghost and with power–Acts 1:8.

But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.

Jesus is the Messiah–anointed with the Holy Ghost and with power. And this Messiah is the Redeemer of the children of God. Redeeming the children of God, this Messiah has anointed his disciples with the Holy Ghost and with power. Why? “Ye shall be witnesses unto me”–that’s why! We have been anointed to preach repentance and the gospel of the kingdom, “that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43).