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Love at First Sight
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. And I suppose that’s usually true. But there are moments when a book’s title seems to leap out at you. Seeing ‘Salvation by Allegiance Alone’ on Amazon’s ‘Recommended Reads’ list was one of those moments.
I immediately knew, by the title and subtitle alone (Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King), that this would not only be a book that I’d enjoy – it would be a book I could have written. And after finishing it, I can only confirm my initial thoughts. Matthew Bates’ message here is exactly what the Church needs.
Searching for a Bigger Gospel
For too long, we’ve been satisfied with a gospel that is less than gospel. We’ve assumed that scripture was written to us rather than for us. We’ve demanded answers to questions the Bible doesn’t even address. And we have been left with a nice story that fits perfectly in our individualistic culture: Jesus died on the cross so my sins can be forgiven and I can go to heaven when I die. And all I have to do is agree with the statement, ‘Jesus died for my sins.’
We’ve traded bold, public confessions of ‘Jesus is Lord!’ for a hand quietly raised when all eyes are closed and all heads are bowed.
May that gospel-that-is-no-gospel die a speedy death!
And may it be replaced with the robust, world-transforming, Kingdom-proclaiming, Jesus-Is-Lord-Gospel that Scripture reveals and Matthew Bates sketches in Salvation by Allegiance Alone.
Meeting Matthew Bates, Author of Salvation by Allegiance Alone
If you’re unfamiliar with Bates (as I was), you may be interested in knowing a little more about him. He doesn’t accept any particular theological label (neither Calvinist nor Arminian, Catholic nor Orthodox). And he draws from a variety of scholars and sources (both N.T. Wright and John Piper are referenced, with agreement, in the footnotes). And though there are places where he sounds New-Perspectives-On-Paulish, he doesn’t adhere to everything that people associate with that group (but who does, right? It’s really too broad a label to be of much use). For example, he disagrees with Wright’s interpretation of ‘the righteousness of God’ as ‘covenant faithfulness.’
Bates also reaches his hands out – full of olive branches – everywhere he can, by noting areas of agreement with traditional Protestant and Catholic theology. This is something I have a great deal of respect for. Error is seldom pure. It usually comes, like a poison, mixed with truth. Too often, we see an error and then assume that the opposite must be true rather than teasing out any truth that may lie under the surface.
Bates is careful to tease out truth wherever he finds it.
With that said, those Christians who are committed to a traditional reading of the text will have a hard time with what Bates writes here. He shakes things up. But even if you know you’re going to disagree, I’d encourage you to read it anyway. If nothing else, he’ll force you to think through more clearly what you believe – as well as why.
So, what is Bates’ argument?
Faith is Faithfulness
He begins, like Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride, by telling us that though we keep using that word, faith, he doesn’t think it means what we think it means. We have, in Bates’ view, reduced the idea of faith down to mere mental assent. As if nodding my head after someone asks, “Do you believe Jesus died for your sins?” is all Paul had in mind when he said, “If you…believe in your heart that God raised Him out from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). This is, in my opinion, one of the strongest parts of the book.
Bates marshals all of the ancient evidence available – Scripture and secular sources alike – to paint a more robust picture of faith. Faith isn’t the opposite of good works. It isn’t mere intellectual agreement. It isn’t a positive attitude. Faith – especially in its saving form – is more akin to our modern idea of allegiance. One of the most powerful evidence of this, in my mind, is a story Bates quotes from Josephus’ autobiography. Josephus, a general at the time, encountered a rebel leader whom he told “repent and believe in me” – using almost identical language to Jesus. And this isn’t the only example of ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ referring to fidelity. There are dozens of others.
Bates argues that the idea of pistis, the Greek word normally translated ‘faith’, includes three aspects: “intellectual agreement”, a “confession of loyalty”, and “embodied fidelity.” This understanding is desperately needed in churches where faith has been simplified down to ‘agreement.’ Honestly, I felt like this part of the book alone is worth the price. If we’re going to overcome the idea of ‘cheap grace’ that has pervaded the church over the past century, we’re going to have to seek a fuller picture of faith.
The Gospel is About Jesus
Bates also spends a sizable amount of time answering, What is the Gospel?
Here, he follows very much in line with N.T. Wright. The gospel is the story of Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and enthronement. In other words, the gospel is a cosmic story that God calls us to enter. It isn’t three-steps-to-salvation or the Romans Road. It’s all about Jesus.
Just as contemporary Christianity has flattened its understanding of faith, it’s done the same thing to the Gospel. It’s simplified and personalized it to the point that it barely reflects the truth behind it. Bates does an admirable job at arguing that Jesus’ enthronement as King is central to the gospel – from Matthew through Revelation. Sadly, this central aspect has been largely left behind for many modern Christians. Today, it’s all about Jesus’ death on the cross.
Don’t get me (or Bates) wrong, Jesus’ death is hugely important. But it would be just another death without his resurrection and enthronement. If we’re going to accurately proclaim the Gospel, we must proclaim the whole Gospel.
I was also happy to see that Bates included a whole chapter of common questions he gets when explaining his understanding of faith as allegiance. Unfortunately, some of his explanations only made me want to ask him more questions. Especially when discussing assurance and the place of works in the Christian life. Nevertheless, it’s a good start.
Though again, if you’ve been reared in traditional Protestant theology, you’ll find plenty to disagree with here. Bates argues that we are judged based on our works (though to be fair, so does Paul – see Romans 2:5-8). He adeptly argues that Paul was not against works per se, but works as a system of salvation. I agree with Bates here. You may or may not.
A Quick Summary of the Rest
The idea of faith as allegiance is everywhere in the first five chapters. The next two, one focusing on ‘heaven’ and the other on ‘the image of God’, seem less directly involved in the allegiance discussion – though they are nonetheless excellent. Basically, Bates argues that our eternal home will be the new heaven and new earth; and the image of God is not something we have but something we are. If these ideas seem new to you, all I can say is read these two chapters. They’re a great summary of a needed theological course-correction within much of evangelicalism.
The eighth chapter focuses on how ‘faith as allegiance’ fits into the Biblical understanding of justification. I love the way he argues that trying to force scripture to give us an ‘order of salvation’ is an absurd endeavor. I happen to agree. The New Testament authors (and the Old Testament authors for that matter) were not systematic theologians. They were writing practical documents, not theoretical ones. Again, this is something that modern Christians – especially more theologically inclined ones – need to hear.
For Bates, justification is rooted firmly in the idea of union-with-Christ. He deviates from the Calvinistic view of individual predestination (though he leaves the door open for its possibility) and instead points to a corporate view of election. God chose those who are in Christ – though they can enter or leave that union as an employee might join or leave a particular company. As long as one is in union with Christ, he is justified. In this, he commends both Catholics and Protestants for important contributions to a biblical understanding of justification. Though he also critiques both groups.
He ends the book with a chapter on making the idea of ‘faith as allegiance’ practical. This is something that more theological books need to include. Though Bates doesn’t expand nearly as much as I would have liked. He basically argues that we need to proclaim the Gospel as the full story it is and call people to discipleship – not just a sinner’s prayer. Finally, he closes with a recommendation that I wholeheartedly endorse: making the Apostle’s Creed a regular part of worship.
I could say so much more about this book. I loved it.
A Couple Complaints
With that said, I feel like the chapters were a little out-of-order. They didn’t flow as naturally into each other as they could have. For example, chapter eight should have been chapter five and everything else should have been pushed back.
Likewise, his view of assurance felt flimsy to me though I think my disagreement has more to do with his wording than anything else.
Ultimately, this is a book you’ll either love or hate. If you believe we need to proclaim a more robust, Biblical Gospel – if you believe faith includes more than merely saying “I do” – if you believe Jesus is calling us to faith and faithfulness – if you like the phrase ‘King Jesus’ – you’ll find much to love about this book.
But…if your feet are firmly planted in the concrete of Reformed (or any other) tradition, you’ll probably want to throw the book down and scream from time to time. But that’s okay. Use it as an opportunity to return to scripture and judge your views – and Bates’s – by God’s revelation.
May we all seek THE Gospel. And accept no imitations.
You can pick a copy of Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King up at Amazon.com.