This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting the Ninety-five Theses in the city of Wittenberg. One question that arises is whether the five solas—which rightly capture some of the major theological emphases of the Reformation—should be nuanced after 500 years of reflection and study.
Matthew Bates, a gifted young scholar who teaches at Quincy University, thinks that an adjustment would be salutary, suggesting we revise “faith alone” and reformulate with the slogan “allegiance alone.” As those who believe in Scripture alone, we should be open to reforming and sharpening what we have held in the past, and Bates challenges us to look at the Bible anew.
In this new book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King, Bates considers afresh the nature of salvation and the gospel. He argues “faith” and “belief” aren’t always the best terms to translate pistis and pisteuō in the New Testament. Instead, with regard to salvation it would be better to speak of allegiance to Jesus as King, so that faith has the idea of fidelity. The advantage of allegiance is that it includes the idea that good works are necessary for final salvation. Bates rightly maintains that faith can’t be defined as mere intellectual assent, a leap in the dark, or wishful thinking.
The notion that faith is best rendered by “allegiance” is supported, according to Bates, by a look at evidence in Second Temple Jewish literature. He then argues for this meaning in key Pauline texts, saying that the notions of mental assent, “professed fealty,” and “embodied loyalty” better account for what is meant by salvation or justification through pistis. Hence Paul teaches “embodied allegiance” to Jesus as King. Bates prefers “allegiance” to “trust” since he thinks the latter doesn’t sufficiently capture loyalty to Jesus as the enthroned King. According to Bates, we’ll be judged on the last day on whether we were genuinely loyal to Jesus, not whether we kept an itemized list of commands.
As Bates argues, the gospel can’t be reduced to the formula “Jesus died for our sins,” since the gospel centers on the truth that Jesus is King. He’s the resurrected and enthroned Lord over all, and we’re called to express our allegiance to him as our Lord. According to Bates, there are eight elements to the gospel:
- Jesus pre-existed with the Father;
- He became incarnate and fulfilled the promise to David;
- He died for our sins according to the Scriptures;
- He was buried;
- He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures;
- He appeared to many, showing he was raised from the dead;
- He is seated at God’s right hand as Lord; and
- He will come again as judge.
Bates particularly stresses that Jesus is enthroned as King and Messiah over all the world.
Salvation as a Gift and the New Creation
Bates emphasizes we can’t earn salvation; it’s a gift of God. At the same time, however, he rejects individual election and contends corporate election more accurately captures the biblical witness. In any case, grace is effective and transforms our lives. Though Protestants often say our works are the necessary evidence and fruit of our faith, it’s better, Bates says, to speak of allegiance to Jesus as the enthroned and reigning King, and thus works are “integral to final salvation” (110).
Bates takes issue with the notion that Christians simply go to heaven after death. The New Testament picture has more vigor and strength than this popular conception of heaven. Believers are raised from the dead and live as citizens in the new creation. We’re awaiting a transformed universe and look forward to ruling with King Jesus to fulfill the purpose for which God originally created human beings. We will not be ethereal creatures floating on clouds, but persons with transformed and immortal bodies residing in a new universe.
Bates rightly sees how the enthronement of Jesus as King anticipates a new universe where we’ll reign with and under him. Bates also suggests everything true and good we’ve done in this world will be preserved in the coming new creation. As those created in God’s image, we have purpose in our lives even now. If we follow the path of idolatry—if we fail to live in the way we’re designed as those made in his image—we deface the world and damage other human beings. Jesus is the full image of God, and we’ll be conformed to his image even if there is some discontinuity between us as human beings, since Jesus is the exalted and enthroned King.
When it comes to justification, Bates roots it in the vindication of Jesus. Jesus was condemned as a messianic pretender, and his death on the cross signified to the Jewish religious leaders that he was cursed by God. Yet God reversed the judgment of those who condemned Jesus and demonstrated his vindication (justification) by raising him from the dead. Christians are also justified (right with God) when they’re incorporated into Christ. Those belonging to Christ through union with him are declared to be in the right with God, because Jesus’s vindication is also theirs.
Bates also questions the order of salvation (ordo salutis), which is common in Reformed circles, arguing it’s more indebted to systematic than biblical theology. He defends imputation in the sense that believers are united with Christ as our enthroned King. While Bates endorses imputation, he also suggests that imputation may possibly be lost so that some who are now justified, according to Bates, may actually lose the status of justification and end up experiencing final damnation. He says justification is forensic, but also says righteousness is infused (though infusion isn’t gradual but instantaneous upon declaration of allegiance).
Keep to the Old Paths
Salvation By Allegiance Alone is full of helpful insights, and space is lacking to interact with everything Bates writes. His emphasis on submission to Jesus as King, the enthroned Lord of the universe, nicely captures the New Testament emphasis on what it means to be a Christian. He also reminds us that our lives in this world matter, and that idolatry isn’t an abstraction but shows up in how we live. We aren’t disembodied entities; we’re flesh-and-blood creatures anticipating new-creation life. Bates rightly says the gospel is broader than simply receiving Jesus as Savior, and he emphasizes God’s grace in saving us. I also sympathize with his emphasis on allegiance; too many Protestants reduce faith to mere verbal agreement. Many are mistakenly assured they’ll enjoy eternal life apart from any obedience if they accept Jesus as Savior. Bates convincingly demonstrates that such a reading doesn’t accord with the New Testament’s emphasis on works, for works are clearly essential for the reception of eternal life. We must maintain our faith until the end to be saved.
Despite the advantages of the word “allegiance,” though, I still believe “trust” or “faith” is better since “allegiance” puts the emphasis squarely on the human subject—on what we do, on our commitment. “Allegiance” captures the importance of subsequent good works, but it leaves something out as well, for faith is fundamentally receptive. We receive the gift of righteousness with an empty hand, and this conception is absent when we put “allegiance” in place of “faith.” Similarly, the notion that true faith or trust inevitably leads to good works handles the New Testament witness in a more fitting way.
Despite the advantages of the word ‘allegiance,’ I still believe ‘trust’ or ‘faith’ is better since ‘allegiance’ puts the emphasis squarely on the human subject—on what we do, on our commitment.
I’d also argue Bates wrongly separates corporate from individual election. The attempt to carve out a place for corporate election apart from individual election, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is logically flawed and biblically unsupportable. Bates says that not a single verse supports individual election. This is an astonishing claim, especially when we consider concepts and not words. I’d point to John 6:35–44 as a clear example. And despite what Bates says, Romans 9:6–23—with its many singular forms and soteriological context—also supports individual election. Certainly corporate election has a long legacy in evangelical circles, but all of the magisterial Reformers believed in individual election.
Additionally, the notion of an ordo salutis has more merit in my judgment than Bates claims (see Rom. 8:29–30). He rightly reminds us we need to ground our view in Scripture, though I’d suggest the typical Reformed understanding gets it right here. In terms of justification, I don’t think Bates offers the clarity we need. According to him, justification is both forensic and transformative, includes both imputation and infusion, and the righteousness we have may end up being lost. I deeply appreciate Bates’s claim that we need to live changed lives as disciples of King Jesus, but his view of justification and works when merged together veers away from Scripture’s witness. Despite the many fine insights in this book, the old paths are clearer and, I believe, biblically warranted.
Faith Alone and the Five Solas
Though the truth that we’re justified by faith alone can’t be defended in detail here, perhaps it’ll help to reflect on a text or two and some theological implications. Consider, for instance, Ephesians 2:8–10, which famously captures Paul’s soteriology and where it’s clear we’re saved by grace through faith. I’d suggest “faith” more aptly captures the meaning of pistis (which Paul uses) than “allegiance,” because “faith” is opposed to “works” in the text. Works are excluded because, if salvation came from them, we’d be prone to boast. We see a contrast here between doing and believing, between achieving and receiving, between acting and resting. So the term “allegiance” doesn’t work as well because, again, it puts the emphasis on human commitment, whereas “faith” conveys trust in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
Despite the many fine insights in this book, the old paths are clearer and, I believe, biblically warranted.
But does the notion of trusting and receiving cancel out the importance of good works, which Bates so helpfully emphasizes? As Paul would say, certainly not! Ephesians 2:10 features the good works that believers will do; such works don’t qualify us for salvation but are the fruit of being a new creation in Christ Jesus. The empty hands with which we receive Jesus as Lord and Savior don’t remain empty. By virtue of being in Christ, we’re empowered to live a new life that pleases God. Genuine trust in God—saving faith in Christ—inevitably leads to a new life manifesting the Spirit’s fruit.
The story of the sinful woman in Luke 7:36–50 illustrates the same truth. We don’t know her exact sin, but it was notorious, and thus was probably sexual. She demonstrated her love for Jesus by weeping on his feet, drying them with her hair, and pouring perfume. Jesus proclaims her sins are forgiven (Luke 7:47), and the story ends with the ringing words: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50). Again, I think the word “faith” is better than “allegiance.” Yes, she was devoted to Jesus as her King. Still, the point of the story is that she trusted Jesus to forgive her sins. She came to him with empty hands, and the love and devotion that flowed out of her were a result of the forgiveness she’d received.
Faith alone, as we saw in Ephesians 2, highlights grace alone. God’s grace and kindness save us through the atoning work of Jesus as our crucified and risen Lord. But how does our faith save us? We aren’t saved by our faith per se. Faith saves us because of its object—because through faith we’re united to Jesus Christ, and his righteousness becomes ours.
We’re saved by grace alone through faith alone on account of the work of Christ alone to the glory of God alone. And, of course, we derive these truths from Scripture alone.
In other words, faith alone implies Christ alone! And if, by grace, the hands of faith receive Christ for righteousness, then all the glory goes to God for salvation. We’re saved by grace alone through faith alone on account of the work of Christ alone to the glory of God alone. And, of course, we derive these truths from Scripture alone.
The term “allegiance,” then, though helpful in some respects, puts the accent at the wrong place, and thus I believe “faith alone” stands the test of time in representing faithfully Scripture’s teaching.
Matthew W. Bates. Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017. 234 pp. $24.99.