A Book Review
There’s an entertaining yet unsettling short story by Graham Green about a band of boys who secretly dismantle a house from the inside. While the homeowner is out of town, they strip everything from the home but the outer walls. While reading Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Jesus Misses for Salvation in Christ by Matthew Bates, the question that kept nagging me was, “What is Bates working to dismantle?”
Is he dismantling what Christians have historically understood to be the gospel? Bates claims with great confidence that up until he arrived on the scene, all of Christendom has only managed to get the gospel message mostly right. Men like John Piper and John MacArthur and John Calvin have unknowingly, and with the best of intentions, been preaching a distorted gospel. According to Bates, “justification by faith is not part of the gospel” (37). Instead, the one true gospel is “Jesus is the saving king” (86). Is this what he’s dismantling?
Or is Bates dismantling the Reformation and its emphasis on sola fide (“faith alone”)? He asserts that “No portion of the content of the true gospel is a matter of dispute among Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox Christians” (110). He maintains that Catholics are “equally and fully Christian” (112). Throughout the book, evangelicals absorb the brunt of his criticism for straying from the biblical gospel. Is this what he’s dismantling?
Before offering my conclusion on what he is tearing down, I readily acknowledge that this book offers valid theological and exegetical observations. It raises some important questions. And Bates undoubtedly has a genuine passion for the gospel. And I totally agree that the gospel is not merely mental assent. But Bates seems to thrive on making confusing distinctions and ultimately, problematic innovations. Confusing distinctions include his claim that Christ’s death was not for individualistic forgiveness, it was for our collective sins (94) or that Scripture emphasizes “group” salvation more than it does “individual salvation” (141). And his most problematic innovation is removing belief from faith and replacing it with mere allegiance. The Apostle Paul already did an admirable job of stipulating our response to the gospel in Romans 10:9:
…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved
The gospel demands belief and submission to the lordship of Jesus.
By the final chapter, I thought I finally figured out what Bates is dismantling. Is it the definition of faith that’s being dismantled? After all, the subtitle of the book is “What Faith in Jesus Misses for Salvation in Christ.” The weight of faith is transferred from belief to allegiance (i.e., works). But, in the book’s final chapter, when anticipating the objection that faith clearly communicates belief in Ephesians 2:8–10, he marks out five words in bold. He then tests readers on their ability to define these terms in light of his previous chapter. If you redefine grace, saved, faith, works, and boast, as Bates says we should, then you will arrive at a similar conclusion: “The purpose of the gospel is allegiance to Jesus the king in all nations” (228). We respond to the gospel, not with faith, but with allegiance that “includes good deeds done through the power of the Holy Spirit” (228).
So what is Bates working to dismantle? Does it go beyond faith to encompass soteriological vocabulary that Christians have studied, understood, and maintained for centuries? I’m still not sure. The characters in the Graham Greene story had a pile of rubble to show for their effort by the end. In my final analysis, I remain unconvinced that “faith in Jesus” misses anything based on the teaching of Scripture. And if we look to the historic creeds, as Bates would have us do, “as a summation that safeguards gospel allegiance” we find no mention, in the Apostles’ or Nicene, of allegiance, only belief. Belief, properly understood, is a good enough word for πίστις.
You can read the “entertaining yet unsettling story,” The Destructors, by Graham Greene freely online here.
I purchased this book on my own. This did not affect my thoughts in any way so far as I’m aware.
I haven’t read this second book by Bates, so I can’t speak to whether he goes too far afield in it, but I very much enjoyed his previous one (Salvation by Allegiance Alone). He was more emphatic in that one that he was not saying connotations of belief or mental assent are absent from the lexical range of pistis; only that belief language is not enough to fully capture the term’s ethical dimensions. That is to say, pistis must not only be read as belief/faith, but as an ongoing, active faith (inclusive of notions of faithfulness, or allegiance). I think this actually goes a long way toward reconciling St. Paul’s teaching on salvation through faith alone with James 2’s statements about what true faith looks like (it proves itself through good works). And what is Romans 10:9 describing in its cultural context but a profession of allegiance? One must also remember that when we recite the creeds we are (or ought to be) pledging allegiance to the truths contained therein and, ultimately, to the Lord who is the subject thereof. I think that for all the flaws there might be with some elements of his argumentation, Bates is right to challenge the “easy believism” rampant in evangelical Protestantism these days. The Christian faith has always included the call to virtue and faithful endurance, not merely signing off on a doctrinal statement or praying a single prayer one time.
Thanks for weighing in, Derek. And I’m totally with you and Bates in the need to oppose “easy believism.” My main concern is that Bates comes down too hard on evangelicals and not hard enough on Catholics to propose a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist since Scripture covers allegiance under the rubric of Christ’s lordship (As covered by the Rom. 10:9 reference you mentioned above.) Bates has much good to offer. Allegiance is critical. I’ve taught the necessity of allegiance myself from the book of James. I’m just not sold that the good is saying most Christians have gotten the gospel wrong.
Salvation by Allegiance was perhaps clearer than this book. I was initially very critical about the book, but now truly appreciate his emphasis on how salvation isn’t assent or simple belief, but allegiance. This has obvious implications for one’s flavor of soteriology, of course, but I loved the allegiance motif. I think it captures much of what the Bible says about the matter, and I regularly use it in my preaching. I have to read it again (it’s been several years), but I have good memories of it. Admittedly, it took me a little while to get there though!
Thanks, Tyler! I knew this review would probably generate a little disagreement. And I do appreciate and support the need Bates stresses on allegiance. I just don’t think you need to redefine πίστις to make it happen. And I still embrace the Protestant view of the relationship between salvation and works.
Yes, I recall some weirdness about faith and works in “Salvation … Alone,” but I don’t remember the specifics. I don’t think he’s redefining faith for the allegiance concept, but simply summing up God’s expectations for Covenant membership across the canon. The analogies to sin as treachery and adultery, for example (Ezek 16, Hos 1-3), certainly justify summing up this “belief” as something like “allegiance.” But, his whole project isn’t something I buy. Meed to read it again one day.