Today, all around the world, Protestants will commemorate 500 years since the Reformation. October 31st is called “Reformation Day,” after the tradition that Martin Luther nailed his “95 Thesis” to the door of All Saints’ Church in 1517. Therefore, this year marks the quincentennial of that event, which many consider the spark that lit the fires of the Reformation. The Reformation is a highly complex phenomenon; it was of course theological, but also cultural and historical. Perhaps there are even facets of the Reformation that continue to remain unexplored. At least one aspect of the Reformation’s legacy that has been explored in great detail has been the doctrine of “justification by grace through faith.” Among Protestants, this is the doctrine that is held in highest esteem, and which ostensibly distinguishes the Protestant movement from all others. Nevertheless, even as a cornerstone of Protestant theology, the Reformation laid the groundwork for this doctrine, like everything else in Protestantism, to be continually reforming. As goes the phrase which became a Reformation slogan: semper reformanda.
For example, in his lightning rod of a book, Justification , N. T. Wright responded to criticism from his fellow Protestant scholar (of a different sort) John Piper. In it, Wright lambasts the stale way Piper and his particular tribe of “Reformed” thinkers have clung to a centuries-old traditional interpretation while other scholars, drawing from the best, recent scholarship, were making new discoveries. As Scot McKnight so succinctly and bitingly put it in an endorsement:
“Tom Wright has out-Reformed America’s newest religious zealots—the neo-Reformed—by taking them back to Scripture and to its meaning in its historical context. Wright reveals that the net-reformed are more committed to tradition than to the sacred text. This irony is palpable on every page of this judicious, hard-hitting, respectful study.” 
One of the great marks of the Reformation, one for which all Christians can be grateful, is its challenge to all such ecclesial structures which would prevent any gifted member of Christ’s body access to the Scriptures themselves. Of course, there have been and continue to be further challenges associated with such a democratization. One particularly biting criticism is that the Reformation exchanged a personal Pope for a paper one. However, a return to the sacred text in a serious effort to honor Christ and follow him faithfully, even if it requires challenging some strongly-held beliefs and traditions, is a noble endeavor insofar as it succeeds. One problem is that not all Protestants agree upon the extent to which tradition has run amok or is in need of reform. Many Protestants recognize the wisdom of the church having an educated clergy and a scholarly academy for the equipping of disciples. Many more recognize the wisdom of creeds which express the kergimatic Gospel of the Christian faith. Yet, in any case, whether Anglo-Catholic or Fundamentalist Baptist, Protestants have looked to the Scriptures first for their rule of faith, with lesser or greater respect to the tradition of the church catholic.
This has led to various positions on the hallowed doctrine of justification. Some Protestants have clung to the traditional Lutheran dichotomy of “works” and “faith,” or “law” and “grace,” with its accompanying characterizations of Judean faith, and have railed against “works righteousness” as a particularly seditious evil. Others, like N. T. Wright, have continued to seek the reform of the church’s theology, pursuing ever greater knowledge and understanding of the sacred text in its contexts, having unearthed new ways of conceptualizing the doctrine. Hence the need for his 2009 book. In this effort, there has arisen a school of thought which has come to be known as “the New Perspective.” However, as Wright himself points out, this is an unfortunate moniker since there is a more diverse collection of views than the term signifies. “…there is no such thing as the new perspective… There is only a disparate family of perspectives, some with more, some with less family likeness, and with fierce squabbles and sibling rivalries going on inside.”  A family trait these new perspectives all share is their exploration of the relationship between the covenants, the role of the church, and meaning of faith (among others). These are complex, interrelated subjects. Subjects that reach into many other areas of Christian theological exploration. For now, we turn to a recent entrance into this on-going discussion, one that has promise for reforming the Reformation yet again.
A New Proposal
Into the fray of this churning sea change of new perspectives dives a new book by New Testament scholar Matthew Bates, called http://advancedgastroonline.com/about/doctors/tina-vazirani/ Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King. Bates’s proposal is nuanced but essentially builds upon a Wrightian-style new perspective combined with the “King Jesus Gospel” of Scot McKnight. It also sets out to create a shared confession between the Roman Catholic conception of justification and that of Protestants. Though his thesis is broad, it’s also incisive. In the introduction he writes some of the most exciting and radical statements I’ve read in recent years.
“…the gospel cannot be accurately summarized by saying, ‘I trust that Jesus paid the price for me, so I am saved,’ or ‘Faith in Jesus’s death for my sins saves me as a free gift apart from my works,’ or even ‘I am saved because I am trusting in Jesus’s righteousness alone.’ ” (3)
“The best corrective is that ‘faith’ and ‘belief,’ insofar as they serve as overarching terms to describe what brings about eternal salvation, should be excised from Christian discourse. That is, English-speaking Christian leaders should entirely cease to speak of ‘salvation by faith’ or of ‘faith in Jesus’ or ‘believing in Christ’ when summarizing Christian salvation. For the sake of the gospel we need to revise our vocabulary.” (4)
Bates’s straightforwardness continues in the book’s introduction where offers a welcome and very concise summary of the book’s main premises.
“1. The true climax of the gospel—Jesus’s enthronement—has generally been deemphasized or omitted from the gospel.
2. Consequently, pistis has been misaimed and inappropriately nuanced with respect to the gospel. It is regarded as ‘trust’ in Jesus’s righteousness alone or ‘faith’ that Jesus’s death covers my sins rather than ‘allegiance’ to Jesus as king.
3. Final salvation is not about attainment of heaven but about embodied participation in the new creation. When the trust goal of salvation is recognized, terms such as ‘faith,’ ‘works,’ ‘righteousness,’ and ‘the gospel’ can be more accurately reframed.
4. Once it is agreed that salvation is by allegiance alone, matters that have traditionally divided Catholics and Protestants—the essence of the gospel, faith alone versus works, declared righteousness versus infused righteousness—are reconfigured in ways that may prove helpful for reconciliation.” (9)
With his thesis clearly spelled-out, Bates takes some time in preparation for his arguments to more precisely specify what faith is not.
An important exercise in a discussion as contentious as this one is ground-clearing. In the first chapter, Bates sets out to distinguish biblical “faith” from many common, modern misconceptions. While Bates invites some readers to skip this chapter, I think this may be one of the book’s most important. Too many conversations about Pauline theology, justification, salvation, or faith are sidelined before they ever fully start due to these pernicious preconceptions. Therefore, this ground-clearing exercise isn’t just academic; it’s highly practical.
There are at least five misconceptions of faith from which Bates disabuses readers. The first is “ buy xenical cheap without perscription fideism,” the view that faith is opposed to evidence-based assessment of truth, or is reducible to some kind of private, subjective experience. Bates’s example is that of a Mormon missionary who describes a ‘warm sensation’ in one’s heart. This Bates insists is “neither a biblical nor a Christian understanding of faith.” (17) Here, too, I’m reminded of conversations I’ve had with many modern skeptics influenced by the so-called “New Atheism” movement. It has been assumed by many that “faith” is opposed to reason or science. Bates disposes of such a distortion clearly saying, “…we should all agree that the ‘faith’ God requires of us has nothing to do with ignoring relevant evidence that is easily available when adjudicating truth claims.” (17)
The second misconception of faith Bates corrects is that which correlates “faith” with stepping out of security or rationality or common sense. We might call this “ Tastylia Oral Strip no prescription blind faith.” Bates uses the classic example of Indiana Jones’s “step of faith” off a ledge into a dark chasm. Bates points out that this distortion is dangerous because it is partly true. While faith does require trusting action that may be uncertain, “stepping out in faith is not intrinsically good in and of itself.” (20) Rather, as Hebrews 11 teaches, “the true people of God are willing to act decisively in the visible world not for reasons that are immediately apparent but because an unseen yet even more genuine underlaying substance (hypostasis), God’s reality, compels the action.” (19) In other words, stepping out onto an unseen bridge that spans a chasm is only laudable if the bridge is trustworthy. “…it must be remembered that neither Noah nor Abraham launched out into the void, but rather each responded to God’s command. They acted in response to the call of a promise-fulfilling God with whom they had experience.” (19)
A third distortion of faith Bates confronts is what McKnight calls “ grace-ism” in the book’s foreword. This is perhaps the most pervasive and pernicious distortion. This misconception is particularly common in the Western world influenced by the Reformation. In it, “faith and works are pitted against one another as opposite paths to salvation.” (21) As Bates points out, once it is discovered what Paul really means by “works of the law,” this schema of works/faith dichotomy comes tumbling down. In fact, one comes to realize that biblical faith, by its very definition, includes works. (22) More on this later!
Fourthly, Bates distinguishes faith from “faith-as-optimism.” (23) This one is unfortunately very common in popular culture. Faith is merely the belief that things will work out favorably in spite of seemingly bleak circumstances. Similar to “blind faith,” the fatal flaw of this distortion is that by it faith is divorced from the object of faith. Faith becomes a good in and of itself, like the power of “intention” from New Age philosophy like The Secret.
Fifth and finally, Bates tackles the misconception of faith as affirmation of propositional truths or “faith-as-intellectual-assent.” I was grateful that Bates did not shy away from naming names, by identifying the Free-Grace movement. It’s important that these schools of thought be called out because they often have influence beyond the knowledge of their explicit teaching. For example, many are likely unaware that popular television preacher Charles Stanley (In Touch Ministries), father of megachurch pastor, Andy Stanley, is a proponent of this view.  I was also encouraged by Bates willingness to associate this distortion of faith with the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. There have been some who have resisted this correlation, but I think it is more than apt. I would have liked to have also seen Bates make the correlation between this misconception of faith and Enlightenment compartmentalization of “reason” from “tradition.” N. T. Wright has sufficiently explicated this connection in many of his writings.
With its clear sections, direct language, and some labels which can be used as shorthand, I found this chapter highly practical and a vital part of the overall argument. From here, Bates can begin to establish his argument by starting with the Gospel itself.
The Full Gospel
Five hundred years since Luther’s protest and the Gospel is still very misunderstood by a significant portion of Christians in the United States. Before Bates can fully extend his arguments regarding faith, he must address the misconceptions of the Gospel that calls for exercising faith. So, in chapters two and three, Bates will establish not only how the Gospel has been distorted in modern conceptualizations and presentations, but also the fact that Jesus preached the Gospel. (One might think it a given that Jesus preached the Gospel, but one would be wrong.)
In chapter two, Bates takes aim at the modern distortion of the Gospel that has taken such root in the American church that entire groups have formed to promote it.  The Gospel’s perversion has not happened overnight, but it has morphed over the last several hundred years. Bates does a great job pinpointing several of the key areas of distortion.
The very first error Bates points out is a critical one: many so-called “gospel” presentations paint discipleship as optional. (28) What Bates calls the “truncated” gospel has at least two distorted aspects he identities. First, it is in reality not the Gospel at all, but is instead a “Plan of Salvation” presentation. To the untrained, this distinction will be difficult to recognize. But placed side-by-side with the Full Gospel it becomes obvious.
|Truncated (Plan of Salvation) “Gospel”||Full Gospel|
|1. You and I have a problem called “sin,” and we are currently on the road to perdition.||1. Jesus, the pre-existent Son of God, took on a human life (incarnation) fulfilling the promises made to Abraham, David, the Hebrew prophets, and Israel.|
|2. Jesus died for your sins.||2. Jesus lived a fully human life, he proclaimed and demonstrated (through miraculous signs) that in and through him God’s Kingdom was breaking into this world. He was crucified, died, and was buried, in accordance with the Scriptures.|
|3. If you make a decision to believe in Jesus, you’ll be saved and go to heaven when you die.||3. On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead, in accordance with the Scriptures, appeared to many, ascended to heaven, where he is seated at the right hand of God the Father, from which he reigns as Lord, and will come again to judge and unite heaven and earth in a renewed creation forever.|
One of the first and most obvious differences between these two presentations is that the Truncated (or Plan of Salvation) “Gospel” is self-centered, not Jesus-centered. It’s primarily about me and you, not primarily about Jesus. Jesus only shows up in the Plan of Salvation “Gospel” as a mechanism by which you and I are “saved.” In the Plan of Salvation “Gospel,” Jesus is less a person (much less Lord) than a salvation device. This is just one of the many destructive effects of placing Jesus in the wrong story. It fits within the broader destructive effect of distorting the concept of salvation itself. The very concept of salvation has to be reconsidered if we are to properly assess our presentations of the Gospel.
“…this truncated gospel assumes that the ultimate goal for humanity is spiritual bliss in heaven rather than… embodied participation in the new heavens and new earth. The difference has radical implications for what salvation actually means. In short, the story into which the truncated gospel has been made to fit needs to be rethought…” (29)
The incarnation rarely factors into the Plan of Salvation “Gospel,” because it doesn’t easily fit it into a guilt/forgiveness conception of salvation. Change one’s conception of salvation from guilt/forgiveness to embodied participation in a flourishing world and suddenly incarnation matters. This merely illustrates one particular way the controlling narrative either accentuates or attenuates the Gospel.
Bates shows that the Plan of Salvation “Gospel” has led to the neglect of at least two of the most important parts of the Gospel: Incarnation and Enthronement. When it comes to the Gospel, the story that frames our presentation is key! If creation and Israel are somehow left out, not only is the Gospel truncated, but our very concept of salvation is distorted, perhaps beyond recognition. “…the gospel cannot be holistically comprehended without seeing the manner in which the incarnation fulfills God’s promise to David, a promise God spoke shortly after David had secured the throne…” (32) Bates makes this connection between incarnation and enthronement explicit by way of the Resurrection.
“Yet the gospel is not just about the Davidic promise; it is also about the resurrection. The most compact yet explicit articulation of the gospel, as found in Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, makes this clear: ‘Remember Jesus the Christ, raised from among the dead ones, of the seed of David—that is my gospel” (2:8). […]the resurrection in turn is intimately connected with the coronation of Jesus.” (33)
Bates has a wonderful section called “The V Pattern” to make the connection between resurrection and exaltation more accessible to lay-persons. He uses more common parlance to teach some highly important yet sometimes overly technical theology. Bates shows that many of the most didactic of Paul’s teachings about Jesus’s life and what it means have a similar “down, then up” pattern to them. That is, they describe Jesus’s voluntary submission, humility, suffering, and sacrifice (down) as an expression of God’s very nature of love. Which leads to resurrection and exaltation (up) as an expression of Christ’s victory over sin and death and sovereign reign over the world. “The Son of God is now the enthroned and actively ruling Son of God, the cosmic Lord. […]this new super-exalted status as cosmic Lord is not peripheral to the good news about Jesus. It is at the very heard and center—the climax of the gospel. Jesus has been enthroned as the king. To him allegiance is owed.” (37)
So, now that Bates has cleared the ground, and has re-established the controlling narrative, he can begin to make this definitive summary of the gospel. Here’s a hinge on which he turns to it: “the gospel proper is not in the first instance a story about human need for salvation but a story about Jesus’s career, a career that culminates in his attainment of heavenly authority. The gospel story integrally involves Jesus’s death for sins, but that is only part of the story, and the gospel narrative draws our eyes above all to Jesus’s kingship.” (51)
Here’s Bates’s outline of the Gospel proper:
“Jesus the king
preexisted with the Father,
took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promises to David,
died for sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
appeared to many,
is seated at the right hand of God as Lord, and
will come again as judge.” (52)
If it is not yet obvious, salvation, grace, and faith, what so often are exclusively thought to be “the gospel” are missing. That is because, with other New Testament scholars like N. T. Wright and Scot McKnight, Bates identifies the Gospel Proper as “the power-releasing story of Jesus’s life, death for sins, resurrection, and installation as king[…] The gospel is not… justification by faith alone.” (30) Rather, “Properly speaking, pistis is not part of the gospel but the fitting response to the gospel. Moreover, our justification is not part of the content of the gospel proper either… Our justification is a result of the gospel when we are united by pistis to Jesus the atonement-making king.” (54)
This brings us to the crucial discussion of the doctrine of justification. No doubt few doctrines are more hotly-contested than this one. And many powerful institutions, organizations, and networks are all built on a particular understanding of this doctrine. It’s no wonder, then, why that understand it so fiercely protected nor why it is supported by so much money. These groups must continue to survive to ensure the preservation of the status quo. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that some of the reviews of Bates’s book have been scathing. One such review included this statement: “…the writing is peppered with outrageous statements, caricatures, logical leaps, confusing language, theological imprecisions, and deficient scholarship, making the book unsuitable for a general audience.” One thing you can be sure of, whatever it is that Bates is saying in this book, it has ignited passionate discussion. Now we will turn to the heart of that matter.
Translation of the Bible is a political act. There’s simply no avoiding its ramifications for the Christian community and its mission. So too is the translation of crucial terms in the Bible. And few terms in the Bible are more crucial than “faith,” or more precisely the Greek word transliterated “pistis.” The moment someone suggests an innovative translation for such an important term, there is bound to be pushback. Bates anticipates this, of course, and lays out the kind of disclaimer one might expect:
“The word pistis is Greek has a much wider range of possible definitions than the English allegiance. (Put more technically, scholars speak of its large semantic domain.) My intention is not to flatten the rich multiple meanings and nuances of pistis into a bland singleness. Rather it is to claim that, when discussing salvation in generalized terms, allegiance is a better overarching English-language term for what Paul intends with his use of the pistis word group than the more customary faith, belief, and trust.” (78)
But make no mistake, even with this disclaimer, people will no doubt criticize Bates’s proposal. They will caricature it as reductionistic. That is why it is important to note that Bates also finds many contexts in the New Testament when “loyalty” and “faithfulness” are adequate translations. With such a range of possible translations, Bates is in good company with New Testament scholars the likes of N. T. Wright, Michael J. Gorman, John Barclay, and Richard Hays. (83) But this will not be enough for many readers; they will need to see evidence from the Scriptures themselves. That’s fine; Bates is happy to oblige.
Chapter four is chock-full of biblical evidence for his proposal. However, for me the most persuasive is the political/imperial cultural and historical context of the New Testament. Given the vocabulary utilized in the New Testament, there is no way to avoid the direct confrontation with their political connotations. As Bates puts it:
“In the broader Greco-Roman world, the word euangelion, ‘gospel,’ could mean good news of military victory or of the emperor’s birth or reign. The term kyrios, ‘lord,’ along with soter, ‘savior,’ was a favored term used by the emperor. In fact if one had ceased to be a Christian and wanted to prove that to the Roman authorities, then one could offer a sacrifice in the presence of a statue of the emperor while saying ‘Caesar is Lord,’ which was understood in such contexts as incompatible with the sworn confession ‘Jesus is Lord.’ ” (88)
For a more concrete example, Bates points to the Philippian jailor from Acts 16. The context is the Roman colony of Philippi, which Luke is keen to make readers aware of. Paul and Silas’s appeal is to “pisteuson upon the Lord Jesus…” Note the “Lord” title. Any Roman official knows who their Lord is, and it isn’t a Crucified Jewish rabbi. Bates describes this as “…an exhortation to the jailor to transfer his ultimate allegiance from the emperor to the enthroned Jesus.” (88) What happens next demonstrates his choice. He defies the command of the magistrates and embodies obedience to his new Lord. “…the jailor has transferred his allegiance by bodily serving the ambassadors of the Lord Jesus (Paul and Silas) rather than the clients of the emperor (the magistrates).” (89)
One particularly interesting section of this chapter is where Bates takes on Reformed definitions of faith inherited from Augustine.
“[Translating pistis as allegiance] is a deliberate alternative to the classic definitions of ‘faith.’ For instance, Saint Augustine determined that faith (fides) has two primary components: (1) ‘the faith which is believed’—the content that must be intellectually affirmed; and (2) ‘the by which it is believed’—the interior commitment of ‘faith’ that takes place in the heart/mind. Meanwhile, during the Reformation a threefold definition of faith developed among Luther’s followers: (2) notitia—the content to be intellectually apprehended; (2) assensus—intellectual agreement that the content is true; and (3) fiducia—trust or a disposition of reliance (rooted in the will/affections as variously defined). This trifold definition of faith is still used by many Lutheran and Reformed theologians today.” (92)
Instead of 1. Content; 2. Agreement; and 3. Trust, Bates proposes: “Mental affirmation that the gospel is true; professed fealty to Jesus alone as the cosmic Lord, and enacted loyalty through obedience to Jesus as the king.” (92) On each of these Bates spends a few pages expounding. By mental affirmation, he does not mean absolute certainty (as some are likely to misunderstand). Instead, he means something closer to the “sufficient” confidence to obey. I would have used the term “conviction.” Bates writes, “If a person is intellectually confident enough in the truth of the gospel that she or he is willing to give allegiance to the Jesus who is described in that gospel as the universal Lord, then the intellectual-agreement for salvation has been satisfied.” (95) This dispenses with long doctrinal requirements or even technically-specific theological nuances. This is not about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but is instead about whether you agree enough with the Gospel to act upon that agreement.
Where ‘confession of fealty’ is concerned, Bates doesn’t imagine the “praying of the sinners’ prayer,” as so many Evangelicals are keen to emphasize. Instead, Bates has a much more public and political “confession” in mind.
“Paul does not envision raising your hand in church or silently praying a prayer in your heart as a sufficient ‘confession’ (nor does Paul say that such an action couldn’t initiate salvation, but he clearly intends something more substantive). Paul is talking about something public and verbal, like what might happen at an ancient baptism…” (98)
Bates biblical example is when Paul is on trial before Felix in Acts 24 and he “confesses” he belongs to “the Way.”
Likely it’s Bates’s third element that will ruffle the most feathers. I can already hear the chants of “works righteousness” coming from the Reformed camp. Nevertheless, Bates is smart to point directly to Jesus’s teachings on works in the Sermon on the Mount. Like any Anabaptist would, Bates shows that Jesus wasn’t concerned merely with professed loyalty, but embodied loyalty. “Jesus himself indicates, in what is perhaps the most terrifying statement in the New Testament, that confessing that he is Lord is not on its own sufficient to secure eternal salvation [referring to Matt. 7:21-23]. Allegiance includes obedient action.” (99) Bates goes on to summarize this point, “Professed allegiance is not sufficient; the allegiance must be realized by genuine, albeit not perfect, obedience. Pistis must be embodied. In fact, because salvation is a bodily journey, it cannot be any other way.” (99)
When an author who is providing such an innovative proposal as this one, I personally love it when she or he includes an entire chapter addressing potential objections—especially when the potential objections are so thoughtfully considered and responded to. On a related note, few things aggravate me more in a book review than a reviewer who raises questions the book addresses as if they are left unanswered by the author. This is precisely what happened when this book was reviewed in Christianity Today.  The reviewer asks, “When, for instance, have I shown enough allegiance?” This a very good question—one the author absolutely anticipated! That is why the author devoted four pages to answering it in an entire chapter devoted to addressing potential objections (cf. p.124-127). Honestly, when I read a review that raises questions a book answers, I question whether the reviewer actually read the book. Whether the Christianity Today reviewer actually read chapter five or not, you should! Bates thoughtfully responds to the questions that came up for me and which I anticipated others may have. And, unlike that reviewer, I paid close attention to how Bates nuanced his arguments. I thought he did a fine job.
There was a footnote (8 on page 107) in which Bates lumps Open theism and Process theism together in one group and dismisses both. I found that to be very unfortunate. Wright has made similar dismissive statements. I’m not sure why New Testament scholars remain so ignorant of the distinction between these two groups, but it continues to be a source of frustration for those of us who have studied the subject extensively. If I had been Bates’s editor, I would have advised him to only comment on what he has actually researched.
Bates’s specific discussion of “The New Perspective on Paul,” (114-117) is nuanced, but he ultimately and correctly sides with scholars like Sanders and Wright that a reassessment of Paul’s theology apart from Reformation goggles reveals the deep distortions that have haunted Pauline studies ever since. For example, he writes, “E. P. Sanders and others have shown that most ancient Jews believe that they were born into covenant membership as an ethnic privilege (chosen by God by race as much as by grace), and hence that they were moving toward final salvation so long as they did not flagrantly disregard the commands.” (114) And later in that same section, “[In Galatians for example] Paul is probably not as concerned with perversions regarding how an individual might enter into right relationship with God as he is with false ideas about what can truly demarcate the people of God as the genuinely ‘declared to be in the right’ people of God…” (114) Those who have read any of Wright or McKnight’s work in this area will surely recognize these cues and see that Bates is drinking from the same wells (so to speak). That is not to say that Bates does not make a point to distinguish himself from Wright on a couple of occasions like in a footnote on page 181.
All in all, this chapter should serve to settle some minds enough to continue reading, or it will clarify Bates’s thesis so much that those with prior commitments too big to fail will simply stop reading. And that is very unfortunate, because the next two chapters form a hook on which Bates’s entire thesis hangs. Unless Bates can show that the Gospel is part of an altogether different meta-narrative (overarching story), then his proposal of salvation by allegiance alone will fall flat. He must show that the very concept of salvation has been distorted and that will require reimagining the human person and human destiny.
Restored and Reigning
Chapters six and seven demonstrate that the primary reason why Christians have traded in the Full and True Gospel for a Truncated (Plan of Salvation) “Gospel” is because they have misunderstood the overarching story the Bible is telling. If one is convinced that the story the Bible is telling is one of legal-indebtedness to a wrathful judge in a cloudy realm somewhere up above, and that Jesus died to settle that debt, appease that wrath, so that those who accept his free gift of grace can go to heaven when they die, then the Plan of Salvation “Gospel” makes perfect sense. Problem: Angry debt-collector in the sky. Solution: Human sacrifice to pay the debt and appease the wrathful god. But if this story is shown not to be the one the Bible tells, suddenly this “gospel” doesn’t seem like such “good news” after all.
In fact, the reality is, this is not the story the Bible is telling. Bates, like Wright and McKnight before him, stands in a long line of New Testament scholars who have been championing a new vision of the biblical narrative. Instead of the angry divine banker in heaven, these scholars have shown that the God of the Bible is the God of love whose original covenant of vocation (the “Image of God”) still stands today. This God created human beings to be “idols” (as Bates puts it), who rule and cultivate the world God made. “The purpose of bearing the image [of God] is so that the created order can receive proper governance, so that humans can bring the wise rule of God in a tangible fashion to creation.” (148) This “idol” language is important because it gets at a very central part of the biblical story, immersed in the ancient Near Eastern cultural context in which the Bible was written. In the ancient Near East, the best possible location for an idol to reside was in a temple where worshippers access the power and healing of the deity. In this section, Bates wisely draws upon some of the ground-breaking and highly relevant work of acclaimed Old Testament scholars like John Walton and Nijay Gupta.
Together, these two chapters pack a powerful one-two punch. They shape an alternative narrative from that which N. T. Wright calls the “works contract” story. Instead, Bates shows that the Bible is telling the story of humans having the image of God restored in them by Christ so that they can rule and reign over the created order alongside God as they were always intended. This new meta-narrative forms a compelling foundation upon which Bates’s salvation-by-allegiance-alone thesis can build.
“For if final salvation is not primarily about the individual soul going to heaven, but about embodied transformation as the individual participates alongside others in the holistic restoration of the entire cosmos, then the logic of the allegiance-alone proposal takes on greater coherence. Moreover allegiance entails an invitation to rule alongside him and is the foundation for transformation into his image.” (131)
“The good news, on the other hand, is that when we participate in worship of the one true God, the result is that we become increasingly sensate and insightful—we see, hear, smell, and touch the God-crafted reality of the created order, and we correctly recognize that it points to truths about God’s very self. And in so doing we are set free to be fully human one again; that is, we are increasingly conformed to the image of the Son, the truly human one, the one who fully images God. […]
In the incarnation, Jesus comes to us as the genuinely human one, the fulfillment of God’s intentions for what it means to be most completely human. The stunning mystery of what it means to be a flourishing human is this: to be fully human doesn’t mean to be the opposite of God; it means to fully image God, to reflect and represent God flawlessly in God’s entirety, glory, and splendor.” (155)
This new meta-narrative also cuts against all individualism that has crept into our conception of salvation and of justification. I’m particularly grateful to Bates for the phrase “allegiant community” for it inspired my imagination in ways I can only attribute to the work of the Holy Spirit. A better summary of overarching story of the Bible, I have not read in some time.
“God placed humans in Eden as idols imbued with his own spirit so that other humans and all creation could dynamically experience the sovereignty of God through the image of God borne by each human. Yet immediately the Adamic image of God became defaced and distorted through sin so that creation failed to receive its proper stewardship. Jesus the Messiah is the authentic, full image of God, the faultless representation. Jesus, who died for our sins, fully bears the image of God, and subsequently our own image can be renewed as we join the allegiant community in gazing upon him. So the end goal of salvation is that through allegiance we become fully human—that is, that we flawlessly mirror God because we have been fully conformed to the image of Jesus the Christ.” (162)
This telling of the biblical story directly contrasts with the “works contract” narrative and undermines the individualistic, transactional, and escapist connotations of the Truncated (Plan of Salvation) “Gospel.” Which makes it a great segue into chapter eight, which is no doubt the crux of Bates’s proposal.
Bates’s proposal thus far has cleared the ground of misconceptions about pistis, clarified the content of the Gospel proper, and established the correct biblical narrative in which the Gospel is situated. Now it’s time to turn to that contentious doctrine of justification. What does the allegiance proposal have to say about justification?
First, Bates supplies readers with a bit of historical and theological background. An essential part of Reformation’s theological dimension was its development of an alternative doctrine of justification from the Roman Catholic church. Here Bates summarizes the two contrasting views succinctly: “Protestants tend to favor a model of ‘imputed’ righteousness… and Catholics ‘imparted’ or ‘infused’ [righteousness].” (166) Then he discusses the famous Pauline doctrine of being in Christ: “…if union with Jesus the king is key to understanding personal salvation, then it is worth asking what this union entails.” (167) Indeed, that’s what the debate is all about.
But before Bates can put forth his proposal regarding justification, he has one last stop to make at notoriously arcane and extraneous discussion of “order of salvation.” Reformed thinkers in particular are often obsessed with it! Here, I found Bates discussion fine overall, but best in the places where he critiques individual election and where he contrasts the systematic options with an approach that employs “biblical theology.” (170) There was one place in this section that disappointed me, however. I was disappointed by his brief comments on divine foreknowledge. Like the footnote on Open theism and Process earlier, Bates again wades into philosophical waters well over his head while devoting far too little space to a very complex subject. In cases like this, it would be better not to discuss it at all than to discuss it with a single sentence and a string of proof texts. Readers deserve better.
In this section, I was most appreciative of Bates’s argument for union with Christ beginning at baptism along with the footnote on page 174 which outlines an early church baptism. Overall, his discussion of the order of salvation was well done, especially in the places where he shows the artificial nature of systems that are imposed upon Romans to create an order that isn’t inherent in the text. To top it all off, Bates includes a wonderful quote from Michael J. Gorman in a footnote on page 175 that includes the phrase “cruciform theosis.” Bonus points!
But, by far, the most important part of this chapter is the development of “incorporated righteousness.” This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. Here is where Bates intends to propose a way forward between Catholics and Protestants. On the one hand, Protestants are insistent that righteousness be God’s alone and never ours alone. But, on the other hand, Catholics are equally insistent that righteousness be something that God grants to human beings. The first step to bridging this divide is to deconstruct some unhelpful categories. The legal nature of the Protestant doctrine of justification has led to some implications which do not square with the text. Bates wants to be sure to begin his proposal with the text as the center-piece, not a borrowed systematic theology from centuries ago. I particularly liked this section:
“Protestants urgently need to reassess their grammar of salvation. For such distinctions between initial righteousness (so-called justification) and subsequent righteousness (so-called sanctification) simply cannot be consistently maintained by a careful exegesis of the specific terms, thought structures, and categories actually used by even a single one of our biblical authors. Such terminology promotes an individualistic, one-time transaction model of justification and in so doing does not deal seriously with justification’s past, present, future, communal, and creational dimensions. In the final analysis Scripture does not make consistent qualitative distinctions between the declared righteousness of the Messiah attained at our initial moment of justification (when we are united with him) and our righteousness in the Messiah as subsequently nurtured and maintained by the Holy Spirit, as if one or the other were more primal or important for our final salvation.” (186)
This passage alone might make the entire chapter worth reading. But, Bates goes on to show how “incorporated righteousness” does the most justice to the biblical material. He has criticisms for both “imputed” as well as “infused” righteousness. For Protestants, he argues:
“…unless classical notions of imputation are reduced from instantly ‘covering’ to an in-the-Christ ‘reckoning’ or ‘considering’ (per logizomai in Gal. 3:6 and elsewhere)—which does not really clarify how the ‘reckoning’ transpires, then imputation cannot be regarded as a biblical concept or term. That is, apart from a prior (or simultaneous) union with the Messiah, imputed righteousness collapses.” (188)
Meanwhile, for the “infusion” view, Bates writes,
“On the other hand, infused righteousness does front union, and so it is a helpful metaphor; but it is inadequate as a standalone description of how we attain a right standing before God. […] An organic metaphor, such as infusion, that suggests the flowing over of the Messiah’s righteousness and resurrection life into us upon declaration of allegiance is totally appropriate so long as it is clear that the righteousness communicated properly belongs to Jesus as the Christ and only derivatively to us (that is, it is never imparted so that it becomes our own independently.” (189)
So both conceptions have shortcomings. Imputation is a legal fiction that does not comport with the biblical witness, while infusion can devolve into impartation if it is not guarded against independence. Bates’s solution is “incorporated” righteousness.
“In-the-Messiah or incorporated righteousness can be defined as the saving perfect righteousness of Jesus the Christ that is counted entirely ours when we join the Spirit-filled body that is already united to the righteous one, Christ the kingly head.” (190)
That is, Christ’s righteousness overflows to the allegiance-yielding community empowered by the Spirit. All those who are joined to that body through baptism and communion, who share in its embodied obedience share too in Christ’s declaration of being in the right before God. Bates’s proposal demonstrates a high ecclesiology that combats the endemic individualism of too much Protestant soteriology. However, only time will tell what kind of reception it receives. As for me, I welcome it happily.
All of this is wonderful, provided it finds legs and feet in our everyday lives. But how? In Bates’s final chapter, he homes in on practical ways the allegiant proposal can be applied.
First, this new proposal must yield new modes of presentation. “…a true gospel invitation must summon the hearer toward a confession of allegiance to Jesus as the king or cosmic Lord.” (199) To do this, the presentation of the Gospel must cease to be direction to invite Jesus into one’s heart, and instead be the proclamation of the Jesus story in all it’s power-releasing glory. Bates calls it “a grand, sweeping cosmic drama that encompasses Jesus’s entire career.” (199) But this especially means that the preaching of the Gospel cannot be reduced to “forgiveness transaction.” (200) And this means keeping the focus squarely on Jesus, not on the individual.
“The gospel proper is not a salvation procedure focused on the individual. It is the universal-wide story of Jesus’s entire life—from preexistence to anticipated return—a story that unveils God’s saving power for the whole created order. It is a salvation story into which the individual can be whisked up when he or she joins the allegiant community.” (201)
Furthermore, this means we must be sure to center Gospel proclamation in the right meta-narrative. Rather than polemics against “works,” as in the meta-narrative N. T. Wright calls the “works contract,” the allegiant proposal puts works in their proper context, as embodied union with Christ in obedience and discipleship. An appropriate proclamation of the Gospel is one which is nested in the entire breath and depth of the biblical story, from creation to New Creation. (What Wright calls the “covenant of vocation.”) And, finally, a proper Gospel presentation will not give hearers a false sense of assurance, suggesting that a one-time prayer guarantees ultimate salvation. Such glib promises are more harmful than good. As Bates puts it, “Instantaneous assurance compromises the allegiance-demanding gospel and spiritually endangers anyone who blithely accepts it.” (204)
Second, the allegiant proposal connects the Gospel to ministries of compassion, justice, and mercy in way that the truncated, “Plan of Salvation,” false gospel never could. Since salvation is no longer conceptualized as an escape from the world, or as opposed to doing good works, all the aspects of the church’s mission that strengthen and empower this-worldly lives. While the Plan of Salvation “gospel” tells people that they get a ticket to heaven when they die, the Full Gospel contained in the allegiant proposal proclaims that God is making all things right, redeeming the whole world, and that whole communities can be restored in anticipation of their ultimate restoration. The allegiant proposal puts the proleptic Kingdom of God back into the Gospel that was hacked off by the Plan of Salvation “gospel.”
This breathes new life into the church’s mission, as it ennobles the work of believers in all manner of spheres. Artists are joining with God in the aesthetic beatification of the world in anticipation of the new creation. Activists are fighting for a world of equity characterized by justice in anticipation of the new creation. Engineers, medical professionals, first responders, —the list goes on and on; in every sphere of life, the work that Jesus-disciples take up with integrity and intentionality is a contribution to the restorative mission of God in the world.
Third, the allegiant proposal gives us eyes to see the ways our allegiance is demanded by powers other than Christ. The more aware we become of the Gospel demands of obedience and discipleship, the more evident it is that we must resist the non-Gospel demands of other powers of this world. Bates clearly contrasts the United States “pledge of allegiance” with the Apostles’ Creed. While the flag pledge inculcates allegiance to America, the Apostles’ Creed inculcates allegiance to Jesus Christ.
“Each week children in the United States place their right hands over their hearts, face the flag, and pledge allegiance. […] The Apostles’ Creed needs to be mobilized so that it functions like a flag pledge—to become the Christian pledge of allegiance for the universal church.” (210)
Practices such as these are formative, whether we realize we are being formed in the moment, or not. The allegiant proposal simply makes the obedience-demanding aspect of these practices more overt. While we cannot live our embodied lives free from formative practices, we can be more intentional about which practices we allow ourselves to formed by. The liturgical confession of the Apostles’ Creed has been forming Christian communities for centuries. Bates only encourages readers to recover this ancient, powerful practice and harness its formative potential.
There are many additional applications not covered here. The allegiant proposal will likely give rise to several new expressions of Gospel proclamation that are faithful to the New Testament. And those proclamations will unleash the creative Spirit to empower Jesus-disciples to embody the restorative Kingdom of God in myriad ways and by myriad means.
Criticism: Atonement Mishaps
Overall, Bates does an excellent job summarizing complex theological concepts for a lay, if informed, audience. However, there was one area of the book that fell flat in this regard. That was Bates’ treatment of atonement. Obviously, a book of this brief length cannot comprehensively express all the many nuances of atonement theology. Nevertheless, there were a few frustratingly poor sections in this regard. In particular, it was very disappointing to read Bates take up the language of “wrath satisfaction” in regard to atonement. Considering that he seems very well-read in McKnight and Wright’s work, I expected a much more careful and rich exploration of these themes than was often present. For example, Bates writes, “The Messiah was put forth by God as a hilasterion (‘mercy seat’), the place where atonement was made, which involved the satisfaction of God’s wrath and the removal of sins.” (180) Well, the first half of that sentence is correct and the second half is patently incorrect. No one disputes that the authors of the New Testament use the temple imagery to metaphorically describe what happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus. They also use a wide range of other metaphors which Bates makes very little mention of. But, to make such a direct correspondence between a fact like: the hilasterion is the mercy seat where atonement was made, and the unbiblical theory that God’s “wrath” was somehow “satisfied” is sloppy at best, but possibly grossly irresponsible.
Perhaps Bates completed this book before having the benefit of reading N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began. One could forgive him if that were the case. But, either way, such a terse and self-assured statement loaded with centuries of false presuppositions does not belong in what is otherwise a thoughtful and precisely-written book. In any case, these few off-handed references to debunked and destructive atonement theories do not constitute a large enough component of Bates’ overall proposal to call it into question. However, his case would be strengthened if they were not included.
The Future of Justification
Nearly two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul warned that there will be false presentations of the Gospel. Today, a truncated, “Plan of Salvation” “gospel” (if it can be called that) has become pervasive. Many millions of people who profess faith in Christ believe they have a ticket to heaven, to evacuate the planet, because their guilt vanished in a legal fiction called “justification” when they intellectually affirmed an abstract concept of Jesus’s death somehow taking away their sins. Many of these millions of people continue living their lives unchanged by this gospel, and unchanging of the world they inhabit, because this gospel makes no demands upon them, and grants them no vision of a God restoring the world. It is a discount gospel, a gospel of “free stuff,” which can be collected and discarded at will like all the other disposable products consumed or wasted in so many American malls. This false gospel has in recent years been confronted by several of the world’s leading New Testament scholars and practitioners. And it is time to lay it to rest once and for all. In the place of this truncated, “Plan of Salvation” gospel, the church must embrace the ancient-yet-ever-new Gospel of King Jesus and its accompanying demands of allegiance and discipleship. With a renewed focus on the Gospel story of God in Christ redeeming the world, the church can once again take up its holistic mission and resist all other allegiance-demanding powers. Without it, the church may cease to be a relevant movement in the world, while other powers dictate the narrative of history.
The allegiant proposal has the potential to produce fruitful dialogue among Christian traditions who have long held seemingly-irreconcilable differences. But, Bates’ theses are so straightforward, an optimistic person could be forgiven for dreaming of the day when Christians from all three major branches of the church could share in the same power-unleashing and world-transforming Gospel of King Jesus. The reality is far more complex, of course. Dialogue between Catholics and Protestants has not always been as diplomatic as it has in recent decades. Nevertheless, I am choosing to allow this book to give me hope for the future of the church and our understand and practice of salvation. And I’m grateful to Matthew Bates for giving the church this gift.
- Justification by N. T. Wright
- McKnight’s endorsement of Justification
- “Free Grace Theology, History” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_Grace_theology#History
- “The Gospel Coalition”
- Anthony Daw, Review in Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry, Fall 2017, Vol. 14, No. 2, p.106-108.
- Kelly M. Kapic, “Do We Need a Stronger Word for ‘Faith’?” Christianity Today, June 21, 2017 [http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/july-august/do-we-need-stronger-word-for-faith.html]