Is Faith-as-Allegiance Yet Another Instance of the Law of Moses?

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 11.34.33 AMMatthew 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. As we sketched his answers to a couple of questions Monday, today we turn to some other answers to other questions.

I believe many of these questions are forced on 1st Century texts and as NT Wright has said so often, they are asking 16th Century questions of 1st Century texts. Bates has made his positive case in the book so far but he retreats some to survey the field for the questions that many ask. I say again, these questions are often simply not Jewish nor are they Pauline. They are in other words the questions of modern reformed types who confront Judaism in its more original form and it disorients their approach to Paul.

Question: If Paul and other New Testament authors indicate that our eternal verdict will be rendered on the basis of works (at least in part), then how does our salvation relate to obedience to God’s law or other rules? 

It’s very hard to avoid the works-faith-grace problem when one studies the NT in the context of Judaism, and it is also very hard to extinguish having to do something from faith. Bates sets up his answer with a brief, but very solid, explanation of the new perspective.

The biggest idea in the new perspective is a new perspective on Judaism and how works, grace, covenant and redemption worked in Judaism. It begins often with how they were framed in the Reformation.

The New Perspective on Paul

“by faith, not by works.” In arriving at this conclusion, however, the Protestant Reformers, so this scholarly story goes, had in fact falsely projected their caricatured conceptions of medieval Catholic teaching—that is, that Catholic teaching demands “works” as a condition for salvation—onto ancient Judaism.

Regardless of whether this scholarly reassessment has correctly described the real position of the Reformers, medieval Catholicism, or ancient Judaism (and professional opinions on these matters vary considerably), it is beyond dispute that this reassessment has had the salutary effect of forcing all serious interpreters of Paul and the New Testament to step out of habitual ways of reading these texts and to seek to become reacclimated.

Moreover, E. P. Sanders and others have shown that most ancient Jews believed that they were born into covenant membership as an ethnic privilege (chosen by God by race as much as by grace), and hence that they were moving toward final salvation so long as they did not flagrantly disregard the commands.

This has a huge impact on how we read Paul: if his “opponents” were neither non-believing Jews nor works-as-merit-righteousness people, then things roll in new ways.

Thus, when we read about “justification” in Paul, which has traditionally been regarded as denoting the first step of salvation, the moment at which we enter into “right” relationship with God through Jesus, we ought to begin with at least a modicum of suspicion that Paul’s language about justification might be more flexible than has been encouraged by the traditional Reformation-inspired systems.

That is, the nub of the question with which Paul is wrestling is this: Do the people of God have right standing with God through performing a legal code, or is it by allegiance (pistis) to the Christ as the Holy Spirit works in the community to actualize the power of God for salvation? 

Bates then turns to a complex issue that Augustine and Pelagius and the Reformers and Catholics engaged, and the modern constructs of this are very much more than any of the predecessors. Bates expounds what Paul is getting at here — two approaches to redemption and God’s blessings in this life:

Works of Law as Rule Performance

Moreover, the pistis path succeeds whereas the works-of-the-law approach fails specifically because successful performance of all the commands is demanded by the law if life is going to result—but as we have just discovered in [Gal] 3:10, the law itself testifies that the commandments cannot be successfully performed, and the covenant curse is the inevitable result.

The problem need not be that the individual in question is inappropriately trying to “earn” salvation by trying to establish his or her own righteousness (nor is this possibility excluded), but it could merely stem from a failure to see that grace, the gift of the Christ event, has shown that all forms of worth that could determine a person s righteousness are empty.

The good news is that Christ has absorbed the curse.

Yet there is good news in the midst of the gloomy prospect of the covenant curses. For the curses have indeed fallen, but Jesus has taken these curses upon himself: “The Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us!” (Gal. 3:13).

The issue is systems of redemption more than personal merit seeking; the issue is how to read history; the issue is hermeneutics, a hermeneutics that knows what has happened in Christ’s new creation redemption.

As John Barclay puts it, Paul’s compatriots were mistakenly insisting that “God’s righteousness should recognize as its fitting object, the righteousness defined in their own Torah-based terms”—and in so doing they were failing to recognize that the Torah had in fact reached its telos (goal or fulfilling end) in the Christ event. That is, Paul regarded his compatriots as falsely believing that God gives his gift of righteousness only to those who prove themselves worthy—and that God’s “worth” system was enshrined in the performance-demanding Torah. The importance of this subtle difference is that Paul is not critiquing the general human attempt to “earn’ salvation by doing good deeds or self-righteousness as much as he is hinting that all merit-based systems fail to grasp the totally unmerited nature of the Christ gift—a gift that can be accessed only by pistis to the king.

Question: If the law of Moses represents a genuine, God-given standard but at the same time does not result in righteousness, is it the case that the good works necessary for salvation and the good works that the law demands are different? are these good works different than the works demanded by the law of Moses? 

Yes and No.

So while the answer is no because it is the allegiance to the king himself that counts rather than performance of the Mosaic law, it is also yes since allegiance (pistis) to Jesus as king demands obedience to the deepest intentions of the law of Moses (see Matt. 5:17-48) even though this law has now reached its climactic goal (Rom. 10:4).

But this provokes many to ask this sort of question:

How are we, devoid of an absolute rule-based standard such as the law of Moses, supposed to be able to make determinations about what constitutes obedience to Jesus the king? We are to obey the Lord Jesus’s commands through the discerning and empowering aid of the Holy Spirit—and in so doing we will fulfill the good works that all along the law was designed by God to aim toward. The result is that the true intention of all the commandments are fulfilled, especially the love command.

But why is the aid of the Holy Spirit necessary? Why can’t we please God simply by remaining obedient to the Ten Commandments or God’s other moral instructions? Because of the powerlessness of our flesh, God had to do something for us.

Bates sums it all up here:

So, in sum, for Paul, salvation requires the performance of concrete works (deeds) in loyal submission to Jesus as the king (i.e., salvation by pistis necessarily entails enacted allegiance), but Paul stridently opposes the idea that good works can contribute to our salvation when performed as part of a system of rule keeping apart from the more fundamental allegiance to King Jesus. In other words, the real “faith” versus “works” divide in Paul is more accurately framed as a divide between works performed as allegiance to Jesus the king versus works performed apart from new creation in the Christ. And the latter usually but not always takes the form of a system that seeks to establish righteousness through performing prescribed regulations. 

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.