Sunday, September 15, 2019

Book Review -- Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Jesus Misses for Salvation in Christ

In his latest book, Gospel Allegiance, Matthew W. Bates, associate professor of theology at Quincy University in Quincy, Illinois, takes the foundation laid in his previous book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone, and builds the superstructure of how these ideas can be worked out in the life of the church and Christian witness. Whereas Salvation was directed a little more toward academic students of theology (while still being accessible to informed laypersons), Gospel Allegiance brings the discussion to the local pastor and small group leader, who may or may not have advanced formal theological training. In this latest volume, Bates expands and expounds on the ideas first proffered in Salvation, adding two points to his detailed definition of the gospel message, as well as getting more into a boots-on-the-ground application of what understanding pistis (the Koine Greek word usually translated “faith”) as allegiance entails in the process of Christian discipleship.
In the book’s introduction, after presenting two real-life stories that deal with the meaning of allegiance and the gospel message as commonly presented, Bates makes two statements that, at first glance, seem contradictory: “The true biblical gospel can never change. The gospel must change.” The rest of the book unpacks how followers of Christ—and especially those involved in preaching and personal evangelism—must return to what the Scriptures actually present as the gospel message, avoiding popular versions of the gospel that truncate and oversimplify it. Bates points out that it is not only prosperity preachers who get the gospel message wrong, but also well respected conservative pastors and writers who are frequently praised for their biblical fidelity. It’s not that these preachers are teaching a gospel contrary to the Scriptures; the points they present are central facts that must be believed. However, they are omitting other key points that give the full gospel message its power. The fact that the best teachers the church has often miss essential parts of the foundational message of the faith demonstrates how pervasive the problem Bates is confronting has become.
In this book, Matthew Bate takes a cue from the best preachers and communicators, beginning each chapter with a story (often from his own life experience) that demonstrates in concrete terms the point that chapter aims to drive home.
In chapter one, “Getting the Gospel Right,” the author points out that, while God works to save people despite the flaws of those presenting the gospel, it is still incumbent upon the church to refine its message toward the truth of Scripture, due to the eternal consequences at play. Bates makes the claim, “Gospel everything is nothing.” When we apply the word gospel to everything, it ends up losing any real meaning, often becoming simply a marketing tactic (consider churches, conferences, and publishers that use “gospel-centered,” “gospel-focused,” “gospel-driven,” and other “gospel-something” phrases to gain the trust of people looking for truthful messages). Bates also notes that a distinction must be made between the gospel message proper and the benefits that result from believing and accepting the gospel, going on to point out the dangers of making the gospel about the resulting benefits to us rather than what it really is: a declaration about Jesus the Christ.
Chapter two, “Not Faith but Allegiance,” discusses many of the linguistic issues first addressed in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, pointing out the fact that the English words “faith” and “believe” don’t do justice to the various shades of meaning contained in the semantic ranges of pistis and pisteuō. “Ancient words have their own meanings that do not map perfectly onto medieval, Reformation-era, or modern words or definitions.” While making the case for allegiance as one of the primary meanings of pistis in the New Testament, he also points out that pisteuō hoti (“to believe that”) does not refer to giving allegiance, but to affirming the truthfulness of a statement. The thrust of this chapter is that the purpose of the gospel message as stated in the Scriptures is obedience and allegiance to King Jesus among all people groups. Working from this framework, Bates provides a particularly clarifying explanation of the often difficult-to-understand phrase “from faith to faith” in Romans 1:17.
The third chapter, “The Full Gospel of the King,” Bates presents the following essential points of the complete gospel message:
“The gospel is that Jesus the king:
1.      Preexisted as God the Son,
2.      was sent by the Father,
3.      took on human flesh in fulfillment of God’s promises to David,
4.      died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
5.      was buried,
6.      was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
7.      appeared to many witnesses,
8.      is enthroned at the right hand of God as the ruling Christ,
9.      has sent the Holy Spirit to his people to effect his rule, and
10.  will come again as final judge to rule.”

He then explains each of these ten points in detail with supporting Scriptures that flesh them out, before dealing with potential objections to this royal definition of the gospel (much as the Apostle Paul deals proactively with an unknown interlocutor in his epistle to the Romans).
In the middle of the book is a “bridge” rather than a chapter, with the heading “Gospel Clarified—Gospel Mobilized.” The purpose of this “bridge” is to connect the gospel definition from the first part of the book with its implications for our understanding of the relationship between grace, faith, and works explored in the latter half.
Chapter four, “Grace in Six Dimensions,” tackles arriving at a contextual understanding of grace (charis) as Paul would have understood the term, providing an abbreviated summary of John Barclay’s six perfections of grace unpacked in Paul and the Gift. Bates makes a strong case for the specific saving grace God gives being the gospel itself, and that grace gift requires a reciprocating return gift of allegiance. To fail to give allegiance to Christ the saving King is to reject the gift of God. The author does an excellent job of showing how biblical election is primarily corporate, especially with regard to salvation; when predestination is spoken of in individual terms, vocation rather than salvific destiny is in view.
Chapter five is entitled “Faith is Body Out” and deals with the distinction between faith as an inner psychological or emotional state (as it is often perceived in our modern post-Enlightenment cultural context), and faith as outward-enacted allegiance. Bates observes, “Throughout the history of Western theology, faith increasingly became inward personal confidence in the effectiveness of the exchange transaction on the cross, rather than outward allegiance to Jesus the saving king.” He goes on to make the case that good works are involved in salvation, but they do not earn or merit salvation. On their own, good works do nothing; they only have power when they are an embodiment of the believer’s allegiance to Jesus the King. The importance of faith as not simply a one-time transaction—but a life-long discipleship journey of imperfect but real embodied allegiant trust—is established, based on Abraham and others the Bible recognizes as people whose lives exhibited faith in God.
The title of chapter six, “How Works are Saving,” may be the most controversial heading in the book. I must admit, I was taken aback at first by some of the author's claims in this chapter, but as I followed his train of though and the scriptural basis of his reasoning, I concluded that, while Bates pushes against traditional thinking in the church to some degree, he is actually pushing back toward what the biblical text actually says. Bates here makes the distinction between “works of the law” (taking into account insights from proponents of the New Perspective on Paul regarding Jewish boundary markers, while at the same time noting problems with forms of the NPP) and the “good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10, NIV). He shows that there are numerous passages in Scripture that point out how evil deeds result in condemnation (Gal. 5:19–20, 6:7–8; 1 Cor. 6:9–10; Eph. 5:5). These declarations do not deal only with rewards in the eternal kingdom, as free grace proponents contend, but actually impact whether a person will enter into eternal life. Bates is careful to point out, however, that the good works that are part of salvation are not produced solely by human effort, but are only made possible through the empowering of the Holy Spirit indwelling those who are allegiant to Jesus. He skillfully navigates the straits between the Scylla of cheap grace and easy-believism on side, and the Charybdis of performance-based legalism on the other, noting that “a list of required works of allegiance for salvation can never be produced.” Good works are about what the Holy Spirit leads the believer to do in their Christian life day by day, not a legalistic checklist of dos and don’ts.
Chapter seven, “Taking the Allegiance Challenge,” takes what has been presented in the preceding six chapters and describes how individual believers, small groups, and church congregations can go about changing the way they talk about salvation from a transactional model to an allegiance model. Bates takes an anticipated objection to his thesis—someone is certain to quote Ephesians 2:8–10 as a showstopper—and walks through how one can take that passage, evaluate it context, and explain each word and how it actually relates to a gospel allegiance model of faith. He also deals with the challenge some raised after the publication of Salvation by Allegiance Alone: how much allegiance is enough, and doesn’t a focus on allegiance lead to a loss of assurance of one’s salvation? Bates points out that, under traditional models of “faith” as interior confidence in God’s promises, no one claims that perfect faith is necessary for salvation. Consequently, perfect allegiance is not required either. “Even when we are faithless (disloyal), we are still part of his body if we have not decisively rejected or denied him as our true king.” Bates goes on in the chapter to point out that the point of the gospel isn’t making converts, but rather making disciples: discipleship cannot be separated from salvation.
The book concludes with two appendices. The first provides a summary of the book’s main points, listing the ten facets of the gospel message, along with short and expanded (though still brief) summaries of the gospel suitable to get a conversation started (an elevator pitch, if you will). Four brief paragraphs discuss the gospel’s purpose, our expected response to the gospel, the benefits of the gospel (which are not the gospel message itself, but its entailments), and the backdrop to the gospel (the story of Israel and the Old Testament promises that point to Jesus as the coming Messiah.)
The second appendix is a guide for further conversation and includes discussion questions to stimulate deeper reflection. It may seem odd that these questions come in an appendix rather than at the end of each chapter. But most books that include study/discussion questions have between three and five per chapter, and Gospel Allegiance has a minimum of two questions for each section of each chapter. For example, there are a total of twenty questions for chapter four. Placing so many questions at the end of each chapter would have made them too intrusive, in this reviewer’s opinion. Placing them in the appendix also makes it easier for a small group leader to pick which questions to use for discussion, without the group members necessarily wondering why they didn’t choose to include other questions.
The only quibble I have with the book is purely one of personal preference. I prefer footnotes to endnotes, because I can glance down at the bottom of the page to see the reference or further explanation. I am much less inclined to flip to the back of the book (or chapter) and search for the note number. As a reader who frequently highlights material in the footnotes as well as the main text, I find the separation of the notes from the main text makes me more likely to miss something that could benefit me. But I don’t blame Matthew for this, as the decision usually rests with the publisher rather than the author.
This book is sure to receive criticism that accuses it of trying to “undo” the Protestant Reformation (as did its predecessor, Salvation by Allegiance Alone). Bates states that all three of the main streams in Christianity (Catholicism, Protestantism, and Easter Orthodoxy) “are in complete agreement with the content of the gospel as the Bible presents it.” There is no doubt this will raise the hackles of those Protestants who refuse to recognize Roman Catholic and Orthodox believers as “truly saved.” But rather than negating the work of the Reformation, Bates is actually advocating for one of its guiding principles—ad fontes—“to the sources.” Gospel Allegiance helps strip away the barnacles and algae that have gathered on the hull of the good old gospel ship over the centuries, with the goal of getting back to the message preached by Jesus and the Apostles.
I find Gospel Allegiance a very helpful book that leads us to think about the whole gospel and challenges us to give our whole selves to the saving King in response. I highly recommend that anyone involved in gospel preaching or personal evangelism read this book and let it impact how you present the gospel message. Maybe if we present a more complete gospel message, and let our call for response mirror the more complete response of embodied allegiance rather than only belief in a set of facts or a petition for forgiveness, we will see more disciples of Christ being made, instead of only converts to a philosophical system, which is all-too-soon abandoned by many when life's circumstances don't meet expectations.
Gospel Allegiance is arriving on the scene at a critical time. Shortly after I finished reading this book, I saw a discussion on social media about the gospel and how works relate to our salvation. I saw several comments with declarations such as “Sola gratia! Sola fide!” One commenter claimed that Ephesians 2:8-9 was the heart of the gospel message. That online discussion illustrated just how much the church needs to get back to a fuller, richer, multi-faceted understanding of the Good News about the crucified, risen, ascended, enthroned, and soon-coming King who saves.
Gospel Allegiance is available in print and electronic formats at https://www.amazon.com/Gospel-Allegiance-Misses-Salvation-Christ/dp/1587434296/


Disclaimer: I received a pre-publication copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. No other compensation was provided.