Is Salvation by Allegiance a Kind of Works?

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 11.34.33 AMThe challenges have been heard. Matthew Bates, in Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King, contends that salvation by faith alone is better translated and understood as by allegiance alone.

Does this — to use the language of some critics — “smuggle” works into the meaning of faith? If salvation is by faith (pistis), then how can it be anything but the single act of turning from the Self to Christ in a surrendering faith?

In addition, how can it be “by grace alone” if grace alone means pure gift? That is, if one can do nothing because it is purely a gift, then how can one contend that the word “faith” combined with “grace” means “allegiance”? Bates knows this discussion well because he was both nurtured into faith in that view and has examined it carefully in his own biblical studies.

Bates takes on what is at work in the above two basic questions and responds to each.

Question: If salvation is by grace (a gift), then how can it depend on our allegiance to Jesus?

One cannot question grace without running directly into the bold and broad language of the Bible: God is the actor in our redemption; we cannot and do not save ourselves.

Thus, it is certain that if we are to be saved, it must come from outside ourselves, as an undeserved gift from God (Eph. 2:5). God graciously takes the saving initiative in both corporate (Rom. 5:6; Titus 3:4-7) and personal salvation (Acts 13:48).

In the recent Apocalyptic model where Grace (upper case) conquers all Sin and Sinners and Flesh, and anything else in the way, God acts for our redemption. There is more than a hint of universalism in much of the Apocalyptic school, but at some point someone has to come in to explain why there is such a demand to repent and believe in the New Testament gospel texts.

For this topic, read D. Bonhoeffer, Discipleship

Which means, both the older form of Calvinism, the newer form of Apocalyptic theology, the Arminian and the less than Arminian or anabaptist … in the end we all talk about the necessity of faith, and this lands us in the classroom of Matthew Bates listening to his explanation of what “faith” means. To reduce “faith” to “trust” in that existential surrender of the Self to God in Christ runs into not just Jesus’ demand of discipleship or Jame 2:14-26 but into what faith means in Paul. To Bates:

Yet not even traditional understandings of faith as belief or trust in Jesus’s saving work claim that humans have no active role to play in salvation. On the contrary, most everyone would affirm that God requires us to perform at least one concrete action in response to God’s grace, to respond “in faith,” however we define it, to God’s offer of salvation in Jesus. In fact, Jesus himself states as much in the Gospel of John. When the crowds ask Jesus, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus responds quite simply, “This is the work of God, that you pisteuete eis the one whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29). Regardless of how we translate pisteuete eis, whether “believe in” or “trust in,” or as I am tempted to translate it, “give allegiance to,” there is no doubt that pistis, to whatever degree it constitutes a “work,” is required—and this is not felt to preclude grace under the traditional understandings of faith.

Grace, too, comes in: and grace as God’s gift of redemption to us creates a bond and an obligation of response.

In other words, Barclay has convincingly demonstrated that it is a misunderstanding of grace (gift) in antiquity and in Paul’s Letters to suggest that grace could not truly be grace if it requires obedience as an obligatory return. We are undeserving of God’s gift of the Messiah—shockingly so!—in ancient contexts as well as contemporary. Yet the modern notion of the “pure gift” (a gift that requires no reciprocation) seeks to perfect grace along the wrong axis and does not align with the ancient evidence pertaining to grace.

That’s the point: most today seem to think the word grace means “pure gift” in the sense of You can do nothing to get it and you can do nothing after receiving it that has any significance. Where did this idea come from? Some will say it is a phenomenology of the meaning of the term (grace, gift) but Barclay proves that is not what gift meant.

It is inappropriate, then, to suggest that God’s gift of the Messiah, if the gift is accepted and subsequently held, would be ineffective in bringing about God’s transformative aims. So we should not set grace at odds with the required behavioral changes (good deeds) associated with allegiant union to Jesus the king.

In short, we cannot say in an unqualified fashion that final salvation is by grace and by faith apart from embodied obedience, for this misunderstands the nature of both charis (“grace”) and pistis (“faith”) in antiquity and in Paul’s Letters.

Question: If we are saved by allegiance alone, and allegiance involves concrete acts of obedience to Jesus the king, then does this not violate the principle that we are saved by faith, not by works? 

Regarding the role of works in salvation, although many systematic treatments attempt to skate around this issue in a variety of ingenious ways, Paul himself states that we will be judged on the basis of our deeds [Romans 2:5-8].

As a PhD student I attended a Tyndale House conference with the theme: justified by faith but judged by works. I recall a brilliant paper by Howard Marshall marshalling the evidence of how often the NT texts about judgment say rather explicitly that we will be judged by works. Not only that, no judgment text says “All I have to ask is if you accepted me into your heart one time.”

So, what happens is… here’s one:

Some of those who are particularly eager to rescue the idea of “faith alone, not works” seek, in squeamish alarm, to propose two judgments (or separate stages within the one judgment)—one on the basis of deeds that is for the purpose of determining rewards only, and another on the basis of “faith alone” that determines eternal destiny.

The fact of the Bible is simple:

Concrete actions and their results (works) are the basis of the judgment—doing or not doing certain things and the specific results obtained (albeit the list of approved and disapproved actions and deeds remains somewhat general).

If so, we are wise then to incorporate faith into the sense of allegiance:

Might it not be better to affirm that when Paul speaks of salvation by pistis in Jesus the Christ, not by works, that he speaks of allegiance to Jesus as the sovereign king? That is to say, we really are eternally judged, just as Paul indicates, in part on the basis of our works, but these works are part of pistis as embodied allegiance or enacted loyalty. Pistis is not the polar opposite of works; rather pistis as ongoing allegiance is the fundamental framework into which works must fit as part of our salvation.

The relationship between pistis and works is not one of cause to effect but rather of overlapping nested categories.

2 Cor 5:10; Rev 20:12-15; Eph 5:5; Gal 5:19-21; 6:8

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.