[Update: 14/03/18. After some reflection and a conversation with the author, I softened my critique a little to reflect my current perspective.] Western Christians exist in a sub-culture of “prepackaged…definitions of belief, faith, works, salvation, heaven, and the gospel that in various ways truncate and distort the full message of the good news about Jesus the Messiah that is proclaimed in the Bible” (p2-3). With this opening volley of Salvation by Allegiance Alone, Matthew Bates is on the offense, and Christianity-lite is in his crosshairs.
Salvation by Allegiance Alone
Bates’ goal — to rethink salvation — is ambitious. Indeed, he suggests that “Christian leaders should entirely cease to speak of ‘salvation by faith or of ‘faith in Jesus’ or ‘believing in Christ’ when summarizing Christian salvation” (p3). This is not because he denies the truth that can be in these ideas, but because they are misleading and thus unhelpful. When we discover certain commonplace words and phrases no longer communicate as they ought, we adjust our vocabulary accordingly.
One word in particular, our usual translation of pistis — “faith” — needs to be rethought in light of its usage in the first century and NT. Thus, Bates suggests allegiance is a better translation of pistis in most contexts as it captures the fuller range of the Gospel-context in which it is placed.
For Bates, allegiance has three dimensions (p92):
- “mental affirmation that the gospel is true;”
- “professed fealty to Jesus alone as the cosmic Lord;”
- “enacted loyalty through obedience to Jesus as the king”
On first hearing, I say “amen”. For too many, the first dimension, mental assent, alone is sufficient. Even more, the content of that affirmation is often simply that Jesus died for my sin, without the fullness of the Gospel and its implications. No wonder Bates wishes to reject “salvation by faith alone” as a useful phrase. I too wish that all believers would grasp what allegiance to Lord Jesus truly means, and am deeply concerned for those who do not!
However. Read on.
Recovering THe Full Gospel
Bates’ argument in Salvation by Allegiance Alone consists of four primary points:
- The climax of the Gospel is Jesus’ enthronement. This is often overlooked by only prioritizing his atoning death.
- If Jesus is enthroned, then our proper response is allegiance. This fact requires more than simply “believing in Jesus,” but loyalty.
- The goal of salvation is not going to heaven but “embodied participation in the new creation” (p9).
- Salvation by allegiance alone opens the door for reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants.
Bates’ thesis is provocative and worthy of deep thought. However, I feel that there are two competing purposes. One is to recover a holistic salvation: “approaching salvation from a different, wider angle” (p2). This includes the full Gospel as the story of Jesus’s enthronement, recovery of the new creation hope, our restoration as imagers of God, etc. The other purpose is to rethink faith and works. Of course, these are intimately connected, but to my mind, the latter overshadows the former here. The effectiveness of points 1 and 3 are obscured by points 2 and 4.
The majority of the book is building a case for allegiance replacing faith. The two chapters on new creation and restoring the idol of God are integral to Bates’ goal of viewing salvation from a wide-angle lens, but they seem disconnected from the allegiance debate. The content of these two chapters is solid and needs to be recovered by the church, but they seem like add-ons that jar the flow of what seems to be Bates’ primary goal. Other readers of the book have expressed similar concerns. In other words, the controversial rethinking of pistis undermines the goal of recovering a wide-angle salvation.
Faith vs Allegiance
Salvation by Allegiance Alone is clearly inspired by Bates’ own lively faith and desire for personal obedience to Christ. This is something with which I can resonate strongly. Easy-believism is a major problem in the church, and a desire for obedience is not legalism. And Allegiance is a tremendously helpful paradigm for reframing the discussion.
Consider the typical evangelical ‘faith’ paradigm. “Jesus died so that I could be forgiven” (and some will add “no matter what I do”). Jesus plus nothing equals everything. In this paradigm, exhortations for obedience are easily seen as legalistic additions to justification by faith alone. Obedience may be urged, but is optional.
However, the ‘allegiance’ paradigm say something like this: “Jesus defeated sin and death, and is now exalted as Lord of all”. It doesn’t downplay his atoning death, it simply places it in context. And how ought one respond to such a message? Trust, bowing one’s knee, allegiance. The proper response to news of an enthroned king is devoted loyalty. In this paradigm, obedience is not optional, it’s appropriately integral.
Before reading the book, I explained its thesis to my wife. We both agreed that the concept of loyalty is essentially correct. It even reflects the proper understanding of Deut 6:4, that Israel must worship Yahweh alone. In a world of competing gods, one must choose whom they will serve. Loyalty is key. That said, I have some exegetical, theological and pastoral concerns that will require more time to process. As much as Bates’ thesis resonates with me, I remain “yes, but.”
I commend Matthew Bates for his creativity and boldness in issuing this challenge. It is a bold and provocative thesis, logically argued and clearly written. Salvation by Allegiance Alone is excellent for students, clearly being road-tested in his own classes.
Salvation by Allegiance Alone has the potential to shake up one’s faith intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. Ideas change people, and however one lands on the thesis, the ideas contained in this book are worthy of deep consideration.
For myself, some rereading and meditation on the thesis will be required before I bow my knee.
Many thanks to Baker Academic for a review copy