What exactly does the New Testament mean when it speaks of faith? More specifically, what does it mean when it speaks about salvation by faith? Especially for those of us who inhabit one of the various Protestant traditions of Christianity, our understanding of salvation by faith typically revolves around a conception that emerged first with the Reformers like Luther and Calvin, and was further refined by evangelists like John Wesley and George Whitefield. This model of salvation by faith centers on the idea that all one must do to receive the gift of salvation is to realize his/her inability to do anything to merit salvation and instead place his/her trust in the finished work of Christ’s atoning crucifixion.
While this model of salvation is deeply entrenched in Protestant—and especially evangelical—thought, it is reasonable to ask whether it is the best model. This is exactly what Matthew Bates asks and seeks to address in his newest book Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Baker Academic, 2017). Bates believes that the Church—particularly the Protestant sector—has a grammar problem when it comes to talking about salvation by faith. First, the very use of the word of English word “faith” is problematic, as increasingly in our culture it carries negative connotations of being hostile to rationality, and of being a vague, squishy amorphous “faith in faith.” Second though, is that most Protestant soteriological systems do not adequately convey the holistic nature of faith, works, justification, sanctification, and final judgment that the New Testament writers speak of, especially the Apostle Paul. Bates thus believes that an in-depth surgery of conventional “faith” language is needed when talking about the Greek word pistis. Instead of saying that we are saved by faith alone, Bates proposes that a better translation, and thus a better conceptualization, is that of salvation by allegiance alone. As Bates writes in his introduction:
With regard to eternal salvation, rather than speaking of belief, trust, or faith in Jesus, we should speak instead of fidelity to Jesus as the 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 (p. 5, emphasis mine).
The rest of Bates’ book is a detailed explanation and argument for this restructuring and reconceiving of pistis primarily as allegiance. Bates helpfully summarizes his argument in four parts in the book’s introduction:
- The true climax of the gospel—Jesus’s enthronement—has generally been deemphasized or omitted from the gospel.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. (p. 9)
What is the Gospel?
With this four-fold argumentative structure in place in the introduction, Bates proceeds to tackle each of the four areas. Chapter one (“Faith Is Not”) functions as an extended ground-clearing exercise in relation to the pistis word group in the New Testament. Bates starts by addressing several of the worst contemporary misunderstandings of biblical faith. These include the notions that Christian faith is opposed to evidence, that it is a leap in the dark, that it is the polar opposite of all good works, that it is a Pollyanna-esque “all good” attitude, and that it is reducible to merely intellectual assent (pp. 15-25). Bates rightly and strongly calls out the egregious error of all these caricatures. True biblical and Christian faith incorporates evidence and rational thought, as well as good works. Similarly, true Christian faith is not naïve about the suffering and fallenness of the world, and it requires a good deal more than just intellectual assent (though intellectual is a necessary condition).
Having addressed some of the worst popular misconceptions about faith/pistis, Bates moves into chapter two (“Loyalty and the Full Gospel”), where he addresses popular misconceptions of the gospel itself. Bates describes most the prevalent form of this as “the Truncated Gospel”: Jesus died for your sins so that you go to heaven if you accept Him into your heart. If you are like me and grew up in a conservative evangelical setting, then you’ve almost certainly heard this “Romans Road” truncation of the gospel. As Bates rightly observes, the plot of this truncated gospels is extremely self-centered. More importantly still, it seems to leave out some of the most important aspects of the true gospel proclamation, including its communal and creational aspects (pp. 27-29). Instead, Bates argues that the true gospel—the whole gospel—is far grander and all-encompassing:
Anticipating my conclusions, the gospel is the power-releasing story of Jesus’s life, death for sins, resurrection, and instillation as king, but that story only makes sense in the wider framework of the stories of Israel and creation…It is, in the final analysis, most succinctly good news about the enthronement of Jesus the atoning king as he brings these wider stories to a climax (p. 30, emphasis in original).
Bates then proceeds to trace this story and its connections to the story of creation and Israel throughout the rest of the chapter. Coming to a climax point in Paul’s thesis statement in the Epistle to the Romans (Rom. 1:16-17), Bates weaves the narrative threads together:
Rephrasing slightly, we might summarize Paul’s “by pistis for pistis” in this way: in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed (1) by Jesus’s allegiance to God that ultimately led to his enthronement, and (2) in order to bring about our allegiance-yielding response to Jesus as the king. The saving power that the gospel unleashes must be tapped by allegiance to Jesus as the Christ, when this allegiance is pledged and lived out through the power of the Holy Spirit (p. 43).
Chapter three (“Jesus Proclaims the Gospel”) concludes the first part of Bates’ argument. After having corrected misunderstandings about faith and the gospel, Bates lays out a working outline of the apostolic gospel proclamation. Drawing on C. H. Dodd’s seven elements of the earliest gospel proclamation, Bates puts forward eight necessary elements that comprise the gospel message: (1) Jesus’s preexistence with the Father, (2) His incarnation, fulfilling the Davidic covenant promises, (3) His atoning death for sins (4) His burial, (5) His bodily resurrection on the third day, (6) His post-resurrection appearances to many people, (7) His ascension as Lord to the Father’s right hand, and (8) His return to at the final judgment (p. 52). While Bates works meticulously through each of these components, he places particular emphasis on #7, Jesus’s ascension and installment as reigning king:
We need to recover Jesus’s kingship as a central, nonnegotiable constituent of the gospel. Jesus’s reign as Lord of heaven and earth fundamentally determines the meaning of “faith” (pistis) as “allegiance” in relation to salvation. Jesus as king is the primary object toward which our saving “faith”—that is, our allegiance—is directed (p. 67).
As Bates goes on to argue, this aspect of Jesus’s present and universal kingship is an element that is almost totally lost in the truncated gospel that is often preached in evangelical pulpits. In fact though it is a key, nonnegotiable element of the New Testament gospel. Further still, when we begin to really reckon with the reality of Jesus’s present kingship, we begin to see why “allegiance” is fitting as a macro-understanding of pistis unto salvation (pp. 68-72).
With chapter four (“Faith as Allegiance”) Bates moves into a more detailed explanation of how pistis as allegiance is construed in the New Testament, and how it connects to the full-fledged apostolic gospel proclamation. Bates puts forward several arguments for “allegiance” as the overarching concept contained within the pistis word group in the New Testament. Among others, these include a close contextual analysis of how pistis and pisteuō (the verbal form) are often used by the New Testament writers (particularly Paul) and how the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” presupposes a context of “allegiance” in the use of pistis and pisteuō (pp. 78-89). Bates also helpfully notes that not every use of pistis or pisteuō perfectly maps onto the English word “allegiance.” Sometimes, context calls for the more conventional translations of “believe,” or “trust.” However, Bates argues, that these specific meanings are still “best adjusted and subsumed with the richer category of allegiance” (p. 90. emphasis in original). This is especially the case when “allegiance” is understood as comprising the three necessary dimensions of mental affirmation of the truth of gospel, professed loyalty to Christ, and embodied fidelity to Christ (pp. 92-99). While mental affirmation and professed loyalty will be familiar to most Protestant readers, Bates’ third dimension of embodied loyalty will likely put some on edge, for Bates argues that this necessary dimension of allegiance entails the doing of good works and obedience:
Professed allegiance is not sufficient [though it is necessary]; the allegiance must be realized by genuine, albeit not perfect, obedience. Pistis must be embodied. In fact, because salvation is a bodily journey [e.g., resurrection] it cannot be any other way (p. 99).
Such a major reframing of how we should understand pistis in the New Testament is bound to raise some questions. Indeed, Bates devotes the whole of chapter five (“Questions About Allegiance Alone”) to answering some of the most pressing of such questions. While Bates responds to many potential questions in this chapter, there are two in particular that merit sustained attention here. First, Bates puts forward the possible question of how we can both be saved by God’s grace and how salvation depends on sustained embodied allegiance, and thus obedience, to Christ. Here Bates fully affirms that it is only by God’s gracious saving initiative in Christ that we have the possibility of salvation (p. 102-03). However, for the writers of the New Testament (as well as the whole world prior to Luther), the concept of a gift or grace (charis) with no element of response from the recipient was utterly foreign. Here, Bates draws on the monumental and magisterial work of John Barclay in Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015) to show how even an incongruous gift like that of God’s gift of Christ still entailed (and entails) the response of obedience from those who received it:
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…For Paul “faith” recognizes we are utterly dead and totally undeserving of God’s grace, but the grasping of God’s life-from-the-dead grace demands a trajectory of loyal obedience (p. 105).
In addition to integrating Barclay’s insights on grace and obedience into his analysis, Bates also looks at how an “allegiance” understanding of pistis comports with New Testament texts (e.g. Rom. 2:5-8; Gal. 5:19-21; Rev. 20:12-15) that speak of works as factoring into final judgment. Bates’ answer to this question flows naturally out his answer to how pistis and obedience interact. Bates (drawing on Barclay) notes that in a first-century context, grace and enacted obedience to Christ were not antithetical. Such an antithesis emerges more out of modern thought starting with Luther onward (pp. 112-13). As such, it is not the case that faith and works as such are wholesale opposed to one another. Rather, what the New Testament writers (particularly Paul) are opposed to is a system of rule-based works that are used to establish or merit righteousness before God:
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 (p. 117, emphasis in original).
However, pistis (allegiance) can only truly be such when it is embodied in how one lives and acts. Embodied loyalty naturally entails Spirit-empowered and Spirit-effected good deeds and works. The key is that these works are not used to merit or establish one’s own righteousness. Instead, they are the fitting response of obedience to Christ that is entailed with reception of the Christ gift:
…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 divide between works performed as allegiance to Jesus the king versus works performed apart from new creation in the Christ (p. 121, emphasis in original).
New Creation and Justification as Union
Chapter six (“Resurrection Into New Creation”) and chapter seven (“Restoring the Idol of God”) begin to look at the salvific goal of allegiance to Christ. First, Bates examines the New Testament data pertaining to the final destination of God’s people. Following in the footsteps of scholars such as N. T. Wright and J. Richard Middleton, Bates thoroughly demonstrates how the end goal of salvation-history is not a disembodied existence in heaven. Rather, it is radically renewed, transformed, and embodied creation and life (pp. 129-35). While this in itself is not new info, Bates shows how understanding pistis as allegiance in the present makes better sense of the continuity between our present Christian life, and our future resurrection life. “Allegiance to Jesus the king is the basis of citizenship in the new Jerusalem” (p. 131).
This directly connects to Christ’s restoration of the marred image of God of in humanity after the Fall. Jesus is the only full image of God. Even though Adam chronologically preceded Him, Jesus was and is the only image of God who was “fully imbued with the divine presence.” This is made even more evident by Jesus’s kingship. And this is where the concept of allegiance connects. Because Jesus is the true and full image of God, our sustained and embodied allegiance to Him will inevitably involve a gradual transformation into His image (p. 157). Part of embodied allegiance means being conformed to the image of our King.
Chapter eight (“Justification and Allegiance Alone”) serves as the climax of the book. Here, Bates brings together the different strands of thought in his argument thus far. He does so in order to challenge the typical Protestant conceptions of justification (dikaiosynē) and what exactly it means to have the “righteousness of God” (dikaiosynē theou). While Bates’ argument is too detailed to lay out fully here (as this review is already far too long anyway), in summary he proposes that justification should not be understood as one step within an order of salvation (ordo salutis). Rather, Bates believes that “justification” acts as a holistic metaphor:
…justification is best regarded not as a discrete additional step in the midst of calling, regeneration, sanctification, and glorification, but as a metaphor explaining union that is informed and bounded by these other terms…Paul, when he gives his famous “order of salvation,” [Rom. 8:29-30] is not speaking about a sequential progression that an individual must be moved through, but rather about God’s actions, holistically considered, as events that have been accomplished on behalf of the collective people of God (p. 172, emphasis in original).
Having argued for this more holistic and corporate understanding of justification, Bates goes on to examine how both the models of understanding justification as imputed righteousness (Protestant) and imparted/infused righteousness (Catholic) fall short of explaining the larger, New Testament, corporate view of justification (176-88). Instead of either imputed or infused righteousness, Bates proposes that a better model would be called incorporated righteousness:
…rather than imputed or infused righteousness, it is better to speak of in-the-Messiah righteousness or incorporated righteousness. In-the-Messiah or incorporated righteousness can be defined as the saving perfect righteousness of Jesus the Christ that is counted [reckoned; Gk: logizomai] entirely ours when we join the Spirit-filled body that is already united to the righteous one, Christ the kingly head. That is, this alien righteousness, this righteous standing that properly belongs to Jesus alone, becomes ours derivatively when we give allegiance to Jesus as the sovereign king, at which moment the life-giving Spirit that already envelops the allegiance-yielding community also enters into us (pp. 189-90. emphasis in original).
In other words, our righteousness as individual Christians is derivative of our connection to the corporate people of God, whose righteous king is Jesus, the source and formal cause of our righteousness. We are reckoned as righteous (or justified) only by nature of our allegiance to Jesus Christ. As much as we are “in Christ” so we are incorporated into the corporate people of God who share in His righteousness.
Concluding Thoughts and Assessment
Bates’ book is excellent. It is thoroughly researched and argued, and is very convincing on many levels. Not only does Bates provide a cohesive synthesis of the New Testament data which speaks of the need of both grace and obedience in the Christian life (something many Protestant scholars and theologians have either glossed over or tried to explain away), he does so in a way that is thoroughly compelling. By both reclaiming the oft-neglected kingship element of the gospel proclamation, and incorporating it into a more holistic concept of salvation by allegiance, Bates presents an interpretation of the biblical data that connects what are often thought of as disparate strands of thought in the New Testament. Bates’ allegiance model makes better sense of Jesus and Paul as both proclaiming the same gospel message, rather than as being opposed to one another, as figures like Adolf von Harnack and his progeny have (wrongly) argued over the last century or so. When we understand the pistis language of both the Gospels and the Epistles as embodied allegiance that is fundamentally oriented toward Christ as Risen Lord and King, many pieces of historical and theological data that didn’t seem to quite fit beforehand now begin to fall readily into place.
More importantly still, Bates’ work is not only a boon to academic studies of New Testament soteriology. It also has direct import for the Church, as it helps Christians on the ground to better understand how to integrate the three pistis elements of mental assent, sworn fidelity, and embodied loyalty into a holistic way of Christian discipleship (this is what Bates devotes much of his final chapter, “Practicing Allegiance,” to). And it does so in a very ecumenical way. Bates’ allegiance model incorporates the best elements of traditionally Protestant and Catholic soteriological concepts and produces a model that is simultaneously faithful to the biblical data and a workable middle-ground between the two traditions: incorporated righteousness. While Bates’ book is probably not going to heal the whole rift between Protestants and Catholics, it is a great step toward increased ecumenical theological understanding.
To reiterate, Salvation by Allegiance Alone is excellent. Buy it, read it, and let it challenge you to give embodied pistis to Christ the King.
*Disclosure: My thanks to Baker Academic for providing me with a free review copy of the book in exchange for a fair and honest review. This in no way affected my opinion of the book, or the content of my review.*