A Feature Review of
Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Jesus Misses for Salvation in Christ
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
It feels difficult to articulate a response to a book which made me bristle, squirm, sigh in deep relief, feel both profoundly encouraged and deeply agitated, and ultimately, want to know more. Matthew Bates’s new book, Gospel Allegiance, which is a follow-up to his well-received academic work Salvation by Allegiance Alone, is pointed, honest, fearless, passionately argued, and should not be ignored, even by those who will disagree vociferously with his conclusions.
First, it should be noted that one does not need to be familiar with Bates’s previous work to understand and appreciate Gospel Allegiance. This new book was written with the express purpose to both refine some of the arguments in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, and also to present them in a more accessible format, for those who aren’t interested in a higher level of academic writing.
A major goal of Bates’s argument is to clear away the clutter around the terms “Gospel” and “faith.” Both words, he argues, have developed so much cultural and religious baggage, not to mention wildly divergent church and theological traditions that employ them to seemingly different ends, that significant work must be done to deconstruct and reconstruct helpful meanings. In the case of “Gospel,” he advances a narrative, event-based definition. In the case of “faith,” he contends for the use of an entirely different English word: allegiance.
Gospel Allegiance is structured in two sections: the first of which spells out the theological and exegetical support for both a clearer understanding of what Christian tradition means by the word “Gospel,” as well as his distinctive case for the use of the word “allegiance” in place of “faith.” The second section responds to specific questions and concerns that readers may have, as well as very practical considerations for applying Bates’s ideas in ministry and local church contexts.
In the first chapter, “Getting the Gospel Right,” Bates begins what (at least for some readers, especially those of conservative-Evangelical-Reformed backgrounds) will surely be a painful process. Popular understandings of concepts like “justification by faith,” “the cross as the center of the Gospel,” and even the “Romans road,” are interrogated and challenged. Bates also isn’t afraid of a polemical edge. Names as prominent as John Piper and R.C. Sproul are named and directly challenged, though, it should be noted, antagonism and name-calling are not involved in any part of Bates’s presentation. The thrust of Bates’s writing, and even his passionate polemics, are clearly directed at helping the American Evangelical church recover and reclaim a clear sense both of what we are talking about, and what we are not talking about when we use the term “Gospel.” In one example,
Jesus says, “believe [pisteuete] in the gospel.” This makes it clear that the gospel itself is different and separate from the believing, for the gospel is the thing to be believed. . . Believing, the faith activity, the pistis action, is better understood as the required response to the gospel. (41, emphasis in the original)
Through such linguistic and conceptual sorting, and Bates clearly understands both the original Greek language and the historical setting of the New Testament, he walks the reader through a process of clarifying what proclaiming the gospel might actually mean, and what may be better understood as the results of, or the responses to, the proclamation of the gospel itself.
Another crucial layer of Bates’s argument is his preferred use of “allegiance” as an English translation for pistis, what is traditionally translated “faith.” Here, Bates employs a great deal of nuance, allowing for the reality that pistis has a wide range of meanings, some of which are surely best understood as “faith” or “faithfulness.” An important element of his argument, and one which some readers will surely differ on, is his contention that “faith” has simply become so over-used and culturally loaded as to be a problematic word in English. Whether or not one is convinced by this will impact one’s view of his overall argument. But even if one isn’t swayed quite enough to begin exclusively using the term “allegiance” in place of “faith,” Bates’s writing helps reinvigorate a religious construct that is at-risk of being diluted in popular Christianity.
Two chapters in the second section of the book deserve particular mention. In “Grace in Six Dimensions,” Bates summarizes the massively influential recent work of John Barclay (Paul and the Gift). Barclay’s rigorous academic writing is largely out of reach (not least because it is quite expensive!) for the average reader, and Bates presents the broad contours of his work in very intriguing and understandable fashion. As the concept of “grace” is utterly crucial to Christianity, and therefore also to the long-held assumptions that Bates is challenging, the nuances that Barclay’s work provides to the discussion are wisely included here. And for those who are unlikely to ever read Barclay’s text (this reviewer included!), this chapter is, indeed, a “gift.”
Additionally, in “Faith is Body Out,” Bates advances the notion that allegiance/faith, rightly understood, is necessarily a fully-embodied reality. This is core to his overall argument, and is possibly the most important chapter in the entire book. In the vein of other recent, popular books like You Are What You Love (James K.A. Smith) and Love Thy Body (Nancy Pearcey), Bates pushes against a mind-body dualism that seems to plague Western culture. Simply put, “if a person is to exercise faith at all, this cannot be done apart from his or her human flesh.” (165) The implications for how we think and talk about the role of “works” in one’s salvation-journey suddenly take on new life. His explicit connection of this concept to our response to the gospel of Jesus, especially within the context of the rest of his overall argument, merits serious consideration today.
Finally, there is a surprising ecumenical through-line in Gospel Allegiance. Once the clutter around these concepts is cleared away, so argues Bates, healing work can be done to repair divides between Protestant and Catholic Christians. “As we consider the actual gospel, one of the most important insights is that no portion of the content of the true gospel is a matter of dispute among Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox Christians.” (110, emphasis in original)
In a book that has a certain polemic edge, and that will undoubtedly stir up vocal and impassioned responses from its detractors, the inclusion of this plea for unity is welcome and inspiring.
Don’t read Bates’s book expecting to agree with it, but don’t read it looking for point of disagreement either. Simply read it.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com