I was glad to get my hands on a copy of this book, as I’d very much enjoyed the author’s more technical and theological explanation of the ideas, Salvation by Allegiance Alone. This book, Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Jesus Misses for Salvation in Christ is a more popular level, practical follow up volume. You will likely find it helpful reading my review of Salvation by Allegiance Alone before this review, but that’s up to you.
The basic premise of Gospel Allegiance is sound, as it is in Bates’ first book. We often reduce ‘the gospel’ to just one of it’s various essential parts – justification, grace, penal substitutionary atonement, etc. – without thinking about what it might actually mean to link our understanding of the Gospel to our living for Jesus. Bates book is a helpful corrective, challenging faulty understandings of faith, and providing friendly tweaks/reminders to those whose books on the Gospel are right in what they affirm, whilst missing out important parts. Bates writes as a man on a mission – and the case he makes is compelling. Core to his argument is that evangelicals in particularly but Christians who take the Bible seriously more broadly, have misunderstood the greek word pistis, often translated as ‘faith’. His basic argument is that it would be better to understand this, in terms of biblical fidelity and obedience, as ‘allegiance’. He offers a compelling narrative description of the Gospel – ten events that echo the Creeds of the Church, and that all major branches of Christianity can agree on.
One of the best overflows of Bates’ approach into the life of the average Christian is a robust invitation to get stuck in to politics. Particularly given that he is writing as an American, I was deeply encouraged by this:
“We can certainly never worship Caesar or his non-Jesus ways. But to say that ‘Jesus is king, so Caesar is not’ is at the same time too simple. Our allegiance to Jesus might in fact call us to support Caesar – as when we pay taxes (Rom. 13:6-7), pray for government leaders (1 Tim. 2:1-4), and live an orderly life amid non-Christians under the government’s partial authority (Rom. 13:1; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13-14). On the other hand, gospel allegiance might compel us to actively resist Caesar and his policies (Rev. 2:10-11, 13; 14:8-12; cf. Exod. 1-3). Jesus as the King of kings recieves our unconditional allegiance. Mere earthly kings and governmental leaders recieve our qualified allegiance, as long as it is not in conflict with our allegiance to the true king. Beyond government, we also must sort out how allegiance to family, employers, friends, and colleagues can all be ordered appropriately under allegiance to Jesus“.
Amen! In today’s turbulent times, replacing ‘Caesar’ in the above with ‘Trump’ or ‘Johnson’ may challenge some of us. The Gospel is meant to do that.
Another key theme that runs through his book is that of embodiment. Simply put, the Gospel is not just a set of ideas but a way of life that requires obedience in every part of our selves. There is a tension here, as faith is also for our internal, personal transformation, but it is important to acknowledge the challenge that “Without denying its interiority, saving faith must be externalized as allegiance to Jesus the forgiving king for it to save“. This touches on a number of issues, some of which I’ll explore later in this review. As Bates writes, “When we get the gospel right, our present life together enters into the eternal quality of life through discipleship“. Part of this discipleship is embodied – and this book focuses on baptism as a first and simple example of this. This book offers a compelling argument for the place of the sacraments in gospel-shaped faith – whilst also warning of the dangers of giving too high a priority to them.
Bates’ understanding of pistis as ‘allegiance’ is also helpful for tying together loose threads. This way of understanding the Gospel makes more sense of the Old Testament, particularly when Paul is alluding to or quoting from it in his letters. With reference to Abraham and the faith/allegiance that he is known for, Bates writes “The same allegiance-demanding gospel of Jesus the king is ultimately in view with regard to faith and the crediting of righteousness“.This understanding of the Gospel also gives us genuinely useful grounds for unity with other Christians – by grounding our unity in the Gospel that we can affirm, rather than getting sidetracked. This is nuanced, however, and is another reason why I would strongly recommend that Church leaders read this book and ponder it.
In my review of Steve Chalke’s shambolic The Lost Message of Paul, I noted that it is important to be precise in what we are saying when we are talking about faith and works. Bates is certainly concise, and, I would argue, in line with what the Bible is actually saying. This is an interpretation of Paul that might seem novel, but is in fact well within the heart of classical Christian theology. His section engaging with the New Perspective on Paul is genuienly helpful, and readable for non-specialists. It is interesting to note that it is here that he observes something slightly out of kilter with a simplistic reading of his calls for unity in the gospel: “Although Catholicism upholds the one true gospel, it does partially compromise the only acceptable response to the gospel (pistis) in such a way that one of its benefits (justification) is jeopardized. Catholics do not uphold pistis alone“. Bates notes the importance that Catholicism places on sacraments, echoing consistent and historic Protestant concerns over the articulation of the faith of the Church of Rome. As Bates writes, here regarding Catholicism but a charge equally levelled at many Protestants, “Any system that makes use of mandatory obligations to dictate the terms of true saving allegiance is not compatible with Spirit-led allegiance in this new era of the Messiah’s reign“. Amen! As Bates concludes his penultimate chapter, “by differentiating the gospel from response and benefits, gospel allegiance may help Protestants and Catholics find new common ground. On a personal level, it also helps protect us from spinning endlessly in a faith-works vortex“.
As he closes this dynamite book, Bates writes “This book has argued that the gospel in our churches needs to change. But not as an end in itself. For the gospel must change us“. To this later point, I believe all Christians can heartily assent. To the former, I would suggest reading this book with an open mind and an open Bible, and consider what it might mean to expand our view of God’s grace, and the mission of the Church. I would warmly recommend this book to all church leaders pondering how to lead their people in discipleship, to those interested in understanding what the Bible actually teaches about faith and discipleship, and to anyone concerned about how ‘Christianity’ and politics can so often become uncomfortably intertwined.