While my first review of Matthew Bates’ latest book dealt with his Introduction and opening chapter, here I will deal with the book as a whole. Gospel Allegiance brings out important questions, many of them being questions Christians have debated for some time. While these may not all be new questions, Bates poses them in a new light, which is why this book is important for students of the Bible (and especially of the New Testament world) to read.
The author points out a basic gap between what the word “faith” has evolved into visa vis what the Greek word pistis would have meant to the authors of the New Testament and their immediate audience. “Ancient words have their own meanings that do not map perfectly medieval, Reformation-era, or modern words or definitions.”
Faith, in our naturalistic-leaning setting, now carries the unfortunate connotation of being anti-evidence, as being “blind” and illogical. Bates insists that faith in the New Testament does not carry such connotations; if modern evangelicals continue to mainly use such language, we may be guilty of misleading people and misrepresenting the gospel, “wrongly mak[ing] people think that Christian faith is irrational and arbitrary.”
I find Bates’ point relevant especially in light of the “Science vs Scripture” debate and dichotomy. I am reminded of Ken Ham who authored a children’s Bible insisting that the earth is 6,000 years old. (This is done in the name of faith of course.) “Faith” has become a loaded term, and in in some circles it has taken on the connotation of “stupidity” and “naivety.” While I don’t think we should cater to intellectuals (this would be very “Corinthian” of us), we ought to take great care to preserve what the biblical authors would mean by certain words rather than accept what they (over time) evolved into.
Bates’ solution is to point to a word like “allegiance.” The question is, Why this word? Is it really better than our cherished word “faith?”
Bates finds a word like allegiance to be more holistic, carrying connotations of “faithfulness, reliability, fidelity, and commitment.” He finds support from various passages, one example being Acts 16: “When Paul tells the Philippian jailer, “Pisteuson on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, both you and your household” (Acts 16:31 AT), context demands that this involve an embodied switch in the jailer’s loyalty, no longer to the emperor’s magistrates” but now to Jesus as Lord (bold mine).
Bates notes that a contemporary of Paul’s, Josephus, commonly uses pistis in terms of allegiance. Besides this, there is also such usage found in the Apocrypha and Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). Bates is quick to point out that pistis does not always mean “faithfulness”—we must let context decide.
In chapter 3, the author stresses the kingship of Jesus, and how often this is left out of our gospel presentations. Christians, for one reason or the other, don’t really talk about Jesus as king, unlike the New Testament authors. What is usually mentioned in our presenting the gospel is the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death, while the enthronement of Jesus to God’s right hand and the fact that he has been exalted as king is often left in the dust (or reduced to a mere footnote). “This must change if we are to get the gospel right.” (When “Christ” is mentioned in the New Testament, this is a reference to the kingship of Jesus.)
A very important section graciously deals with John Piper’s objections to those who see Jesus’ kingship (rather than justification by faith) as the center/heart of the gospel.
“Although Piper has wrongly forced euangelion [Greek for gospel/good news] to carry improbable meanings, he is correct to insist that Paul’s gospel absolutely must include the good news of forgiveness from sins.”
And yet, as Bates rightly points out, the “overarching framework” of the gospel is that “Jesus is the saving king.”
The author points out that the way evangelicals present salvation as instantaneous can be at odds with how salvation in the New Testament is often presented as a process (1 Corinthians 15:1-2). A common notion is that salvation occurs instantaneously when one utters a prayer and/or has a profound and deep experience with God. But what if we are both saved and being saved? While the notion of being saved may very well rub some evangelicals the wrong way, this is one way the the New Testament authors frame salvation.
Another discrepancy between the evangelical presentation of the gospel and that of the New Testament is our emphasizing of the individual: Christ died for your sins whereas in the letters of Paul the emphasis is on a community: Christ died for our sins. Although we enter the church individually, upon our entering we become a corporate identity.
What I most appreciate in Gospel Allegiance is the author’s gracious and warm tone. My hope for this book is that rather than further divide believers, this be a conversation starter regarding the role of works in salvation, sanctification, and the nature of the gospel.
Who is this Book For?
I recommend this carefully-written book to anyone who is serious about studying what Scripture says about discipleship, faith, and the gospel. A call to abandon naivety and to take upon ourselves a more well-rounded and robust (and well-thought out) faith, Gospel Allegiance ultimately beckons us to return to what the Bible says over and against what we’ve been told the Bible says.