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Theology and Evangelism
A Review of
Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King.
Hardback: Baker Academic, 2017.
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Reviewed by Danny Yencich
Matthew Bates’s recent Salvation by Allegiance Alone is a welcome book. It is useful—vital, even—for Christians of any traditional or denominational stripe grappling with the Gospel.
The book, which is clearly aimed at a mixed audience of laity and students, forwards a simple but important thesis: contemporary Christianity has, for the most part, gotten it wrong when it comes to “belief, faith, works, salvation, heaven, and the gospel” itself (2). Bates’s argument hinges on a fresh take on the first item in that list— “belief” (pistis). Whenever the Greek term pistis appears in the New Testament with reference to eternal salvation, Bates suggests that allegiance, not “belief,” “is the best macro-term available to us that can describe what God requires from us for eternal salvation” (5). Thus, “it is by grace you have been saved through allegiance” to Jesus the Christ (Eph 2:8, Bates’s translation, 4). This is a marked departure from the standard rendering of this and most other NT instances of the term pistis, which is to say: Bates has picked a fight with a lot of people. His argument, however, is robust and demands a close reading from anyone who would immediately dismiss the thesis out of hand.
While not limited to a redefinition of the term pistis, the weight of the thesis rests here. Accordingly, Bates begins in chapter one by first naming what belief is not: the opposite of evidence assessment, a leap in the dark, the opposite of works, an ‘it’s all good’ attitude, or reducible to intellectual assent. This is an important clearing of the forest to avoid reader confusion, and it serves the book well. Once we clear away what pistis is not, we gain a better vantage point to see what pistis actually is.
With pistis properly cleared of its inaccurate definitions, Bates advances in chapter two a robust synthesis of the gospel (euangelion) as framed by the full witness of the New Testament. Within that corpus, euangelion is a specific term with a particular meaning: “the power-releasing story of Jesus’s life, death for sins, resurrection, and installation as king” (30). Bates expounds on this in chapter three and assembles an eight-part, quasi-creedal outline of the apostolic euangelion, which highlights Jesus’s preexistence, incarnation, death for sins, burial, resurrection, post-resurrection appearances, lordly installation at the right hand of God, and eschatological return (52). Each of these themes receives its own treatment, as Bates contextualizes them within the four canonical Gospels. Readers interested in the current debates on christology in the Gospels will want to pay particularly close attention to the section on Jesus’s preexistence in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (55-58). While each of these themes is of import, the messianic lordship of Jesus is the keystone of Bates’s argument here: if Jesus is King, “allegiance to” rather than simply “belief in” is a natural, even logically necessary gloss for giving pistis to Christ.
Chapter four is the heart of the book, offering up a sustained exegetical argument for why “allegiance” is the best “macro term” for translating pistis in the New Testament whenever salvation is also in view. Bates marshals four specific arguments to support this claim. First, the Greek word, pistis, often carries exactly this meaning in ancient texts outside of the NT. 3 Maccabees, for example, speaks of an “unswerving loyalty [pistis]” toward the Ptolemaic dynasty during a time of political revolt (3 Macc 3:2-4). In the expanded version of Esther in the Septuagint (LXX), Haman is described as one “distinguished for his…steadfast fidelity [pistis]” to the Persian king (Addition B, inserted after Esther 3:13). Josephus used the term to denote “allegiance” to a king or ruler so often that Bates simply offers a few parade examples (see Josephus, Antiquities 12.47; 12.147; 12.396; Jewish War, 1.207; 2.341; cf. Bates, 78-80). Second, Bates turns to Paul and finds that the Apostle uses pistis in remarkably similar ways (“[allegiance] is the most natural way for Paul to speak of how the people of God should relate to Jesus,” 78). Third, framing pistis as “allegiance” solves older theological puzzles in Paul, namely the relationship between “faith” and “obedience” in Romans, with the payoff that “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26) may now be understood as “enacted allegiance” (86). Lastly, pistis-as-allegiance allows another avenue for understanding the New Testament’s relationship to empire (87-89).
Here also Bates attempts to counter a potential objection by offering a close reading of Romans 4 and Galatians 3—the example of Abraham’s pistis. Bates admits that, at first reading, these texts “might preclude understanding pistis as fundamentally concerned with allegiance” (89). Because Abraham’s example serves as the crux of Paul’s argument in both Romans and Galatians, it “cannot be dismissed as merely marginal to the issue at hand” (89). What follows is a careful, nuanced exegetical argument that affirms the traditional reading—Abraham trusts or believes in God and his promise—while pushing that interpretation further, taking Abraham’s “trust” in Genesis 15 as an instance of Abraham’s broader allegiance to YHWH. Indeed, while Paul certainly does emphasize Abraham’s trust in God in Galatians 3 and Romans 4, the narrative logic of Abraham’s story would demand the kind of broader framing that Bates offers. “Consistent trust in situations of duress over a lengthy period of time is [one aspect of] allegiance” (90, emphasis original). Abraham does not simply offer intellectual assent to God once; rather, he trusts God, enters a covenant with him, and then follows. “Allegiance” as macro-term fits this story well.
The responses to potential objections continue in the fifth chapter, as Bates answers a series of questions one might raise in response to his pistis-as-allegiance thesis. If salvation is by grace (a gift), how can it also depend on our allegiance? The offer of salvation is itself a gracious, free gift, “but it absolutely does come with strings attached. Obedient loyalty to the king is required as a condition of acceptance” (104). Divine election, the relationship of faith and works, salvation and the torah of Moses, and practical issues, related to struggling with sin and having “enough” allegiance, also receive pastorally sensitive and exegetically satisfying answers.
Chapters six and seven stretch beyond pistis-as-allegiance and explore the salvation that allegiance to Christ ensures. The good news is not simply that Jesus died for our sins so that we could spend eternity in heaven. Instead, it is even better news than that, with concrete, this-worldly implications. The salvation offered in exchange for allegiance is not just about strumming harps in heaven: it is participation in the renewed creation, wherein God makes “all things new” (Revelation 21:5). As we await that new creation, we enact our allegiance to Christ and, in so doing, are “fully conformed to the image of Jesus the Christ” (162).
Bates returns to a discussion of Paul again in chapter eight, focusing on how the justification of believers coheres with pistis-as-allegiance. Against those who would place “justification” at the center of Paul’s gospel, Bates joins a growing chorus of New Testament scholars who argue that justification, while important, is overshadowed in Paul by language of believers’ participation “in Christ.”Just as in his discussion of Abraham’s pistis in chapter four, Bates does not seek to throw out the traditional reading, but instead seeks to augment its best insights by contextualizing them within union with Christ. Thus Jesus is the only one who has already been judged by God to be in the right (justified) and we Christians have the hope of our own future justification only through our embodied allegiance to our already justified King because we are “in Christ.”
The book ends with a chapter devoted to the practical implications of Bates’s thesis. If Christians are saved by their embodied allegiance to Christ, this has immediate implications for evangelism and Christian living. No longer may we reduce the gospel to the so-called “Roman’s Road” or assume that the kingship of Jesus is an ancillary issue. If Bates is right about salvation and allegiance—and I believe he is—then we must work in our churches, with our brothers and sisters, to reframe our theology and evangelism accordingly.
Salvation by Allegiance Alone is an engaging, well-written, and persuasive work of biblical theology that advances a strong claim and supports it with solid exegesis. It is very accessible and would be a welcome addition to the library of any thoughtful Christian. I can easily imagine its usefulness in churches, colleges, and seminaries, and for this reason I recommend it widely. This important book deserves the widest possible audience among Christians.
Salvation by Allegiance in our Moment: A Theological Coda
I ended my review above with the genuine hope that Salvation by Allegiance Alone finds the widest possible audience not simply because I think the book is great (I do) or because it is interesting (it is) or because it advances a novel thesis (it does). All of these are true, but I want this book to land in many Christian hands—and to change many Christian minds—because lives are at stake.
When we pledge allegiance to someone or something, we live our lives accordingly. Allegiance is a zero-sum game: as with commitment in a marriage, you can only give allegiance to one thing. Far too many Christians have pledged allegiance to things that are not Christ, things that are, in a properly Johannine sense, anti-Christs (1 John 2:18). When we pledge and enact allegiance to anti-Christs, we do anti-Christian things. That German Christians happily supported Hitler, Nazism, and the Final Solution is a perfect example of where allegiance to something other than Christ can lead. That Christians among the Allied forces exchanged fire with their German brothers-in-Christ is more anti-Christ fallout of misplaced allegiance. What might a world look like in which Christians pledged allegiance solely to Christ? Dare we dream?
In the wake of Charlottesville, in which “alt-right”/neo-Nazi/white nationalist groups clashed violently—mortally—with Black Lives Matter counter-protesters, this book and its provocative, vital thesis presses me to dream of that world. More than that, it presses me to chase after that dream. Our current cultural moment in America showcases for all to see where misplaced allegiance can lead. Bates’s book, which argues that embodied allegiance to Christ leads us to live lives like Christ’s, offers us a glimpse of where embodied allegiance to our atoning king might lead. It leads to a renewed creation, with a renewed humanity reformed in the image of Christ at its center. From my vantage point, that’s a path worth walking; an allegiance worth swearing and enacting.
Danny Yencich is a PhD Candidate in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. He blogs intermittently about Christian origins, pedagogy, and devotion to the rule of God at Let the Reader Understand.