Book of the Month: Salvation by Allegiance Alone

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This is the first in a series this month on the new, provocative but powerful book by Matthew Bates. Next week we begin a series on the book.

Salvation by Grace through Faith… But What Is Faith? (A review by Chad Thornhill)

By Chad Thornhill is the Chair of Theological Studies for the Liberty University School of Divinity and the author of The Chosen People (IVP Academic, 2015) and Greek for Everyone (Baker Books, 2016).

There are certain concepts which Christians frequently talk about and yet give surprisingly little critical thought toward how they are actually framed by the Bible. Everyone talks about kingdom, grace, salvation, heaven, etc., but yet often in ways that miss the big picture the Bible paints. Scholars like N. T. Wright (Surprised by Hope), John Barclay (Paul and the Gift), and Scot McKnight (Kingdom Conspiracy) have helped us by returning to the biblical story and framework to sharpen our thoughts on these matters. Surprisingly faith is another one of these topics which every Christian knows is essential, and yet little critical thought and study has gone into articulating what the biblical witnesses actually say about it. Enter Matthew Bates and his new book Salvation by Allegiance Alone (Baker, 2017).

First, on a personal note, as I progressed through my academic journey, some tensions starting piling up. I had come to think of faith as “blind trust” or “belief,” but saw that this was a thin definition based on what is actually happening in the New Testament. Scholars like Murray Harris and Don Garlington were instrumental in sharpening my view. This is precisely where Bates begins. In his first chapter, Bates seeks to deconstruct common Christian definitions of faith, and so faith is not the opposite of examining the evidence, not a blind leap in the dark, not the opposite of works, not wishful thinking, and not intellectual assent. Faith is primarily, according to Bates, allegiance.

Bates settles on this term, in part, by considering the range of meaning which the pist- word group (the Greek words often translated “faith” or “believe”) represents. If you open a standard Greek lexicon, you will find definitions like “faithfulness,” “fidelity,” “commitment,” in addition to “trust” and “belief.” So what does it mean to have “pistis” in Jesus? Bates carefully nuances his framework noting that this doesn’t mean every instance of pist– language means allegiance, but rather ““allegiance” is a better overarching English-language term for what Paul intends with his use of the pistis word group” (78).

Bates the turns to framing the essential narrative of the gospel as portrayed in Paul’s writings and in the Gospels themselves. Bates helpfully summarizes an eight-point outline of the good news story about Jesus.

Jesus:

  1. preexisted with the Father,
  2. took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promises to David,
  3. died for sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
  4. was buried,
  5. was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
  6. appeared to many,
  7. is seated at the right hand of God as Lord, and
  8. will come again as judge.

The seventh point is emphasized because, as N. T. Wright and others have pointed out, understanding Jesus as exalted/enthroned is essential to the New Testament gospel. Bates reminds us that the stage of the good news which we currently occupy is this very place of Jesus’ enthronement. So, “the age we find ourselves in now is defined by the Christ’s dynamic rule as he serves as king of heaven and earth at the right hand of God the Father while his enemies are being subdued” (68).

So when we turn to a verse like John 3:16 (“that whoever pisteuon in him will not perish”) or Ephesians 2:8 (“by grace you have been saved through pisteos”), the framework should not be whoever “trusts absent evidence,” or “takes a blind leap,” or “assents to certain facts,” or “is not trusting in human merit,” but rather “swears committed allegiance to Jesus the King.” This recognizes, for example, the thickness of confessing “Jesus is Lord.” This is not merely a cognitive confession (i.e., “I believe certain facts to be true”), but rather recognizing “Jesus is King and I submit to his kingship.” Bates illustrates the strength of his proposal in looking at debated passages like Romans 3:21-28, Romans 5:1, Galatians 2:11-21, Philippians 3:8-11, among many others, and calling on scholars like Wright, Gorman, Barclay, Garlington, and Hays in support of his case. His approach also aids in interpreting Romans 1:3-5 and 16:25-26 (which frame Paul’s letter to the Romans) when Paul speaks about the “obedience of faith.” Or when he speaks of “the law of Christ” (e.g., Gal 5:14, 6:2; Rom 13:9; 1 Cor 9:21; Rom 8:2). Bates rightly asserts that Paul cannot have a “faith v. works” contrast in mind. This would be self-defeating. Rather, Paul affirms “the gospel is purposed toward bringing about the practical obedience characteristic of allegiance to a king” (86). As King, Jesus has a law for his people to follow. Jesus demands loyalty.

Bates is careful to nuance what this entails. This does not “sneak” merit into salvation in some Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian construct. Pistis/allegiance, Bates clarifies, is not “works,” but rather “pistis is the fundamental framework into which works must fit as a part of our salvation” (109).

Intellectual assent is necessary, but not sufficient (cf. 93-96). For Bates, faith entails intellectual assent, confession of loyalty, and embodied fidelity (or what I have sometimes referred to as cognitive, relational, and behavioral dimensions of pistis).

There is much more to this book that defining faith. Bates has in mind setting biblical soteriology straight concerning the future eschatological fate of the people of God, the place of justification in an allegiance-based understanding of faith, a biblical-theological understanding of “election,” rooted in the Bible’s context rather than later theological debates, and the connection between allegiance to Jesus and the Bible’s teaching concerning the image of God in humanity. What Bates has accomplished in such a small book is admirable. His writing is clear and accessible, yet rooted in solid scholarship. This books gets to the heart of the Bible’s vision on salvation, faith, works, and the gospel.

In spite of the many things Bates accomplishes in this book, his core concern is repairing the weak view of faith and the gospel endemic in much of evangelicalism today. The book is as practical as it is theological. Ultimately Bates forces us to ask, when we proclaim the gospel, to what are we calling people? To pray a prayer and avoid hell? Or to recognize the kingship of the risen and exalted Lord and commit themselves to him, and thus find the true goal of human existence, conformity to the image of Christ? There is a difference both in how narrowly we think of the good news and in what kind of disciples we are making. Bates has given much food for thought, and calls the Church to realign its priorities as it relates to the good news of King Jesus.

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