Book Review: Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone

batesIn his new book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone, Matthew Bates argues that Christians “should entirely cease to speak of ‘salvation by faith’ or of ‘faith in Jesus’ or of ‘believing in Christ’ when summarizing Christian salvation” (3). In fact, he proposes nothing less than “to rethink the gospel, faith, and salvation” (8). And, to boot, Bates suggests that his book “will ultimately contribute to the healing of that long-festering wound between Catholics and Protestants” (6). Most books that make such ambitious, even grandiose, claims inevitably disappoint readers hoping for something truly insightful and meaningful. Bates, however, actually delivers on his promise, penning a work that is, at once, sharply erudite, richly theological, and deeply pastoral.

Bates notes up front that he is writing as a committed Christian committed to earnestly wrestling with what God has to say to us through Scripture. Bates makes clear in chapter 1 his concern that many Christians today have an incomplete notion of “faith”; for Bates, “like rot in an apple, much of the malaise in contemporary Christianity stems from a rotten core,” which he here identifies as an overly simplistic rendering of the Greek pistis as “faith” or “belief” (15). Pistis is not, Bates insists, naive fideism, a Kierkagaardian leap in the dark, the opposite of works, blind optimism, or (perhaps most significantly in today’s church context) intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. In particular, as Bates goes on to contend in chapter 2, viewing salvation as simply a matter of mentally agreeing with the statement “that Jesus died for my sins” is dangerously reductionistic (25).

Bates is particularly concerned to demonstrate that the gospel cannot be reduced to a me-centered “Jesus died for my sins,” but rather that the gospel is in fact a story about Jesus the King. In chapter 2, Bates surveys key texts in which Paul describes the gospel (Rom 1:1-5; Phil 2:6-11; 1 Cor 15; Rom 1:16-17) and concludes that the Pauline gospel is “the power-releasing story of Jesus’s life, death for sins, resurrection, and installation as king” (30). Drawing on Ben Witherington, Bates emphasizes the “V pattern” of the gospel in which the preexisting Son of God took on flesh, died, and was resurrected and now takes on “an even more exalted role” as “Son-of-God-in-Power” and “Lord” (37). This gospel, Bates demonstrates from Paul, is not merely an interesting story but one that “unleashes God’s saving power for humanity” (41); Jesus’s pistis to the Father facilitates our pistis to Jesus (43; cf. Rom 1:17).

Likewise, in chapter 3, Bates demonstrates that the Gospels depict a single gospel message including the following specific content (which can also be found in Paul): Jesus preexisted with the Father, took on human flesh, died for sins, was buried, was raised on the third day, appeared to many, is seated at the right hand of God as Lord, and will come again as judge (52). The gospel, again, is not about how we are saved, but rather about how Jesus has become Lord; thus, pistis and justification are not part of the content of the gospel, but rather the gospel’s intended response and result (54). For Bates, it is the ascension, when Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father as Lord, “that is the most critical yet most neglected component of the gospel today” (66) and is in fact “the most important part of the gospel for us today” (67). Why? Bates explains (67):

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 saving allegiance—is directed.

After all, of all the components of the gospel, Jesus’s reign is the only one which corresponds with the present time in which we live; here Bates draws especially on the work of N.T. Wright in re-centering our understanding of the Gospels as the story by which Jesus became Lord or King.

Having surveyed this biblical data, Bates then reaches the heart of his argument in chapter 4, showing how pistis is best understood as allegiance when it is used in the context of ultimate salvation. Drawing on contemporaneous texts such as 3 Maccabees, Greek Esther, and Josephus, Bates demonstrates that “allegiance” is the best way to understand Paul’s use of pistis in texts such as Rom 3:21; Rom 5:1; Gal 2:16; Gal 2:20; Gal 5:4-6; Phil 3:8-11; 1 Cor 1:21; 1 Cor 15:1-2. Bates also appeals to leading Pauline scholars such as Wright, Michael Gorman, and John Barclay to indicate that this proposal is hardly idiosyncratic. Bates then uses this notion of understanding pistis as allegiance to illuminate otherwise difficult Pauline ideas such as the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; Rom 16:26) or the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21). The clear clincher for his argument, though, is the simple appeal to the indisputable imperial context of the early Christian confession “Jesus is Lord”; as Bates shows, in imperial rhetoric, pistis or fides “had sociopolitical overtones of loyalty to the emperor (or other patrons) as well as reciprocity in receiving benefits in exchange for demonstrated loyalty” (88). What, then, does allegiance to Christ look like? Bates identifies three “basic dimensions”: (1) mental affirmation of the gospel; (2) professed fealty to Jesus as Lord; and (3) enacted loyalty through obedience to Jesus as King (92). Bates unpacks each of these elements in detail and then, in chapter 5, addresses potential objections to his thesis, showing how his proposal is consistent with Christian emphases on grace and free will, ties in with several of the insights offered by the New Perspective on Paul, and allows for even imperfect allegiance to Christ in this life. These discussions are fairly detailed and will be useful for those interested in these topics, but some readers may feel these sections drag a bit beyond what is necessary to make Bates’s points.

At this point, the focus of the book shifts rather abruptly, with Bates turning away from his discussion of allegiance to instead probe the notion of salvation more generally. Thus, Bates presents a defense of understanding salvation in terms of the Christian hope of bodily resurrection into the new creation (chapter 6) and the restoration of the imago dei (chapter 7). Those familiar with N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope or the work of John Walton will find much that is familiar here. These chapters make some important correctives to contemporary misunderstandings of these aspects of salvation, but one wonders if the thread of “allegiance” could have been carried through more consistently in these chapters, perhaps yielding more genuinely new insights.

Finally, in chapter 8, Bates picks up the main thread of his argument, seeking to situate his understanding of “salvation by allegiance alone” with respect to different models of justification. For Bates, justification is not simply a matter of a cosmic transaction between Christ and sinner; rather, “an individual’s justification is entirely bound up with the union of the church to Jesus the king” (167). Bates thus (correctly, in my opinion) foregrounds our union with Christ as centrally determinative for salvation, developing his understandings of corporate election and the righteousness of God to reject traditional models of imputed or infused righteousness in favor of Michael Bird’s language of “incorporated righteousness,” which Bates defines as “the saving perfect righteousness of Jesus the Christ that is counted entirely ours when we join the Spirit-filled body that is already united to the righteous one, Christ the kingly head” (190). Bates ties this back to his notion of allegiance in this way (190):

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. At the moment of allegiance-generated, Spirit-enabled union, the individual is born again, is declared and truly is fully righteous in God’s sight, and can properly be described as having eternal life because and only because she or he is united to Jesus the king and so shares his totally righteous standing. Paul envisions all of this ordinarily happening as part of the baptismal process.

This leads Bates to challenge the Reformed position on eternal security, instead seeming to suggest that there may be some who will not persevere in allegiance and therefore not maintain their salvific union with Christ; “our ongoing and future justification depends on the maintenance of our righteousness-union with Jesus the saving king” (191).

Finally, in chapter 9, Bates considers some practical implications of his argument for salvation by allegiance alone. His metaphor of a “shield of allegiance” feels a bit cumbersome (it’s a lot to remember and the connections aren’t always immediately obvious), but he succeeds in making the case for providing a better gospel presentation that connects with the actual gospel. Simply put, “A true gospel invitation must summon the hearer toward a confession of allegiance to Jesus as the king or cosmic Lord”; after all, “the present-tense moment of choice in a gospel invitation should always be understood to be a response to the present-tense reality of Jesus’s kingly rule” (199). Bates also highlights some other important points: The focus must be on God and not the self. Tell the whole story of God’s work of creation, redemption, and re-creation, and give an invitation to live into that story. Heaven should be downplayed in favor of the new creation. False assurance of salvation should not be given in light of the need for perseverance. Public “ratification” of this newfound allegiance needs to take place publicly, through baptism.

From there, Bates describes how the “one path to final salvation” is the “path of discipleship” (205), which is of course precisely how Mark and the other writers of the New Testament portray the true Christian life. Bates offers up this insight (206):

A person is not first ‘saved’ by ‘faith’ in Jesus’s death for sins and then, once that is secured, plugged into a discipleship program as an optional extra in hope that he or she might ‘grow.’ On the contrary, a person is first saved when she or he becomes a disciple by declaring allegiance to Jesus the king — that is, when a person agrees to submit obediently to Jesus’s wise and sovereign rule so as to take up his way of life.

What is this way of life? It is, again as Mark clearly demonstrates, the imitation of Christ in his self-emptying and death to self. Finally, Bates turns to the Apostles’ Creed as not simply a summary of Christian belief but “a concise presentation of the allegiance-demanding gospel” (211). Drawing a parallel with the American Pledge of Allegiance (here James K.A. Smith came to mind), Bates offers this as a “trinitarian pledge of allegiance to Jesus the king” (211).

In many ways, Bates is simply restating key insights from the popular Anglican trio of N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and Michael Bird. The success of this work, in my estimation, is his ability to synthesize these different developments and set out a model of salvation that is both deeply grounded in Scripture and the best modern biblical scholarship in a way that will be accessible to students and educated laypeople. Where Bates shines in this book is his exegesis of key New Testament texts, demonstrating a comprehensive awareness of relevant lexical, grammatical, cultural-historical, and scholarly issues impacting interpretation. While some reviewers (e.g., Will Timmins in JETS) have not found Bates’s exegesis as compelling as I have, I think it is important to remember that Bates only wants to foreground pistis as allegiance in the context of passages talking about eternal salvation, and in this sphere the notion of owing allegiance to the rightful and enthroned King makes perfect sense.

There are, however, a few places I wish Bates would expand his argument. For instance, he several times attacks the Reformed position that works flow from genuine faith, arguing that such a formula misunderstands the terms “faith” and “works.” This may be true, but I struggle to see how, practically speaking, this would impact a person’s approach to discipleship; either way, one is compelled to examine one’s life for evidence of good works and therefore true allegiance. I also wish Bates would have given more attention to early Christian literature outside of the New Testament; Bates contrasts his (and by extension his understanding of the New Testament’s) definition of faith with that of Augustine and then that of the Reformers, but his argument could have been strengthened by showing how his definition is evidenced in, say, pre-Nicene Christian literature or by explaining the historical or philosophical context for the change in definition between the New Testament and Augustine. In sum, though, I judge this to be a rich book precisely because I suspect that even readers who disagree with some of Bates’s conclusions or would prefer to see some issues clarified will find much to consider and will profit from his challenge to present (and live!) a more complete and nuanced version of pistis.


About krhughes14

Smyrna, Georgia
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