When we confess that we are saved or justified by faith alone what do we mean by “faith”? The answers tend to run from cognitive confession/belief in specific propositions — like Jesus is the Son of God, our Redeemer, etc — to faith as the act of genuinely trusting or relying upon God. The second answer often counters trust in one’s self or one’s moral sufficiency or self-reliance.
You may well know that the Greek word for faith pistis is cognate with the Greek for believing pisteuo. So that faith and belief/believing are the same side of the same coin. The verb and the noun belong together. Further, the sense of faithfulness is tied into the word faith: pistos means both belief/faith and faithfulness, or what I once translated as “trust over time.” (In A Fellowship of Differents.)
Enter a brand new and what some will see as provocative and challenging by Matthew Bates called Salvation by Allegiance Alone. This is undoubtedly one of the best books I have read this year, and I hope you buy it, read it, and discuss it. For sure, it pokes the Reformation slogan — faith alone — in the eye, but it does so by out-Reforming the Reformation crowd opposing this new book. How so? In true Reformation fashion, this book takes us back to the Bible to ask “What does faith mean in the Bible?” The best way to be faithful to the Reformation is to go back to the Bible and to be semper reformanda. Bates is that with courage.
His answer? It means more than what we mean by “faith” and should be translated allegiance. Couldn’t agree more. This definition does not erase trust or faith or believing and instead swallows them up into a larger sense, one that is faithful to the Bible’s own teaching: faith in king Jesus means allegiance to king Jesus.
For the pew sitter who is self-satisfied and wants to be left undisturbed in a thin discipleship, for the Zane Hodges follower who thinks faith and repentance are largely cognitive, for the unconditional, soft love of God folks who think they are (more or less) entitled to God’s love, and for the grace-ist theologian who thinks he elevates God’s glory by over cooking grace and thereby eliminates faith as allegiance (can I hear an Amen for Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace”?) and who needs to read John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift, this book by Matthew Bates is urgently needed.
Read it, digest it, and find a way to speak this word from the pulpit.
Some snippets from the opening to the book:
What is this necessary surgical procedure? Although the words “faith” and “belief” are mentioned in virtually every sermon preached in the English language, although they are prominent in nearly all translations of the Bible, although faith is currently so much at the heart of Christianity that the whole tradition is often called “the Christian faith,” the persistence of this terminology as it pertains to eternal salvation has had, and continues to have, a misleading effect. The best corrective is that “faith’ and “belief,” insofar as they serve as overarching terms to describe what brings about eternal salvation, should be excised from Christian discourse. That is, English-speaking Christian leaders should entirely cease to speak of “salvation by faith” or of “faith in Jesus” or “believing in Christ” when summarizing Christian salvation. For the sake of the gospel we need to revise our vocabulary. 3
The needed surgery involves not just an excision of “faith” language but also a transplant. With regard to eternal salvation, rather than speaking of belief, trust, or faith in Jesus, we should speak instead of fidelity to Jesus as cosmic Lord or allegiance to Jesus the king. This, of course, is not to say that the best way to translate every occurrence of pistis (and related terms) is always or even usually “allegiance/’ Rather it is to say that allegiance is the best macro-term available to us that can describe what God requires from us for eternal salvation. It is the best term because it avoids unhelpful English language associations that have become attached to “faith” and “belief,” as well as limitations in the “trust” idea, and at the same time it captures what is most vital for salvation—mental assent, sworn fidelity, and embodied loyalty. But we do not need to avoid the words “faith” and “belief” entirely. For example, they do carry the proper meaning in English for pistis with regard to confidence in Jesus’s healing power and control over nature; moreover, these terms are suitable when pistis is directed primarily toward facts that we are called mentally to affirm. Our Christian discourse need not shift in these contexts but only with regard to eternal salvation. 5
Bates wonders what happens to allegiance when we say “faith, not works” or “just believe Jesus died for your sins.” He wonders why we then say “genuine faith produces good works” but works don’t save? Why the fumbling around? Why avoid the obvious: genuine faith includes ongoing faith. Why not just translate it with “allegiance”?
Here are the four central theses of this book:
1. The true climax of the gospel—Jesus’s enthronement—has generally been deemphasized or omitted from the gospel.
2. Consequently, pistis has been misaimed and inappropriately nuanced with respect to the gospel. It is regarded as “trust” in Jesus’s righteousness alone or “faith” that Jesus’s death covers my sins rather than “allegiance” to Jesus as king.
3. Final salvation is not about attainment of heaven but about embodied participation in the new creation. When the true goal of salvation is recognized, terms such as “faith,” “works,” “righteousness,” and “the gospel” can be more accurately reframed.
4. Once it is agreed that salvation is by allegiance alone, matters that have traditionally divided Catholics and Protestants—the essence of the gospel, faith alone versus works, declared righteousness versus infused righteousness—are reconfigured in ways that may prove helpful for reconciliation. 9
His question arises after wondering about the filtering of Jesus’ demand through the filter of a specific understanding of Pauline theology and grace: “How many beams of good works must we toss aside as we strain to find the sawdust speck of “faith alone” before we start to wonder precisely how this salvation house has been constructed? If we have to read the “good works” requirement out of so many of Jesus’s teachings about eternal life, might it be the case that the assumed Pauline interpretative lens of “by grace alone through faith alone” and “not by works” is causing the distortion? Or could it be that we have foisted our own questionable contemporary understandings of faith, works, the gospel, and salvation onto both Paul and the Gospels?” 12-13