Old and Bald: Responding to Salvation by Allegiance Alone by Matthew Bates

Reading though Matthew Bates’ recent work, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King, took me back 20 years to my seminary days.1  Back then the New Perspective on Paul was tearing up the scene in biblical studies and the Federal Vision was doing the same in church courts across the Reformed landscape. Weighing the evidence and assessing the case that Bates puts forth feels just like wading through the morass of information that accompanied those debates back then. The reason for the familiarity is that Bates does not bring forth anything new. He perpetuates old arguments alleging that sola fide leads to lax views of obedience, forms of antinomianism, and the ever-present bogeyman of individualism. As a solution, he reheats leftovers from N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, Scot McKnight, The Council of Trent, and The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman communion) among others, arguing that Biblical Theology trumps Systematic, for the priority of union with Christ over justification, for corporate election over individual election, for infused righteousness over imputed righteousness and for defining saving faith as human faithfulness (or in this case “allegiance”).

A Frank Rejection Of The Reformation

Where Bates differs with some of those mentioned above though, is that he does not purport that his work is compatible with Reformed theology. Indeed, with much appreciated openness and candor, he refers to Reformed Protestantism as something in need of change and rescue.  Additionally, he employs a bold use of a postmodern hermeneutic through which contrary evidence is acknowledged but dismissed with ease for its lack of compliance with the story he is telling.  Thus, Bates regularly employs the bald assertion as a tactic in seeking to refute the confessionally Reformed doctrines of justification by faith alone, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and God’s gracious, unmerited election of individuals to a salvation that cannot be lost. Instead, he claims that people are saved by their allegiance to Jesus the King. Defining exactly what this means, however, proves to be a tricky task.

He states his goals for this work upfront with the same frankness mentioned above. He is avowedly ecumenical in his approach, desiring particularly to reconcile Roman Catholics and Protestants on the central issues that have divided them, notably justification/salvation sola fide. To accomplish this Bates says that Christianity needs “surgery,” and he is just the doctor to perform it:

Surgery is necessary. The proposed operation could create conditions conducive to healing within the fractured church.  What is this necessary surgical procedure? Although the words “faith” and “belief” are mentioned in virtually every sermon preached in the English language, although they are prominent in nearly all translations of the Bible, although faith is currently so much at the heart of Christianity that the whole tradition is often called “the Christian faith,” the persistence of this terminology as it pertains to eternal salvation has had, and continues to have, a misleading effect. 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.2

Thus, his aim is “to rethink the gospel, faith, and salvation in the church and the academy, but to do so within a broad Christian framework for the sake of the entire church,” and his contention is that “salvation is by allegiance alone.”3  He then states that his argument, “reduced to its simplest form” is as follows:

  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 true 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.4

These are considerably bold claims, and the reader is right to wonder how the church could have missed such crucial truths for over 2,000 years.  How does he back up such a proposal?

Bates’ Postmodern Hermeneutic

As stated above, he uses a postmodern hermeneutic that permits him to assert his case in the face of admittedly contradictory evidence. He most certainly does not defend any postmodern literary theories but rather (and maybe even unintentionally) operates in kind. For example, it is crucial that Bates reject a traditional ordo salutis (order of salvation) because it completely undoes his program (i.e., if God has definitively predestined, called, regenerated, and justified people for eternal life apart from their works, then Bates’ case for salvation by their allegiance alone fails.)  Thus, he seeks to obscure such definitive works of God with well-worn assertions that (his) biblical narrative is, by default, more authoritative than systematic definitions: “When election is reified as a distinct theological category in such a manner, it is then made to fit into an overarching scheme of additional reified categories that are likewise slightly artificial (calling, regeneration, justification, sanctification, glorification).”5 The fact that this list is nearly a verbatim quotation from Paul’s explanation in Romans 8:29–30 of how God has brought us to Himself in salvation is not even mentioned by Bates but he does not need to address evidence which could contradict his claims, as long as he sticks to the story he thinks the Bible wants to tell. He demonstrates this as he continues his criticism of the concept of an ordo salutis, rejecting the notion of individual election on the basis that the story supports corporate election in Christ, and not of particular people:

Nevertheless, within biblical theology, foreordained individual election may not be a safe starting point, for even if it is allowed (perhaps even encouraged) by the general biblical evidence and is philosophically consistent, at the same time it runs roughshod over the election story the Bible wants to tell…But God’s prior choosing of specific individuals for eternal life or reprobation remains at best on the outer fringes of the story our biblical authors want to tell about salvation (emphasis added).6

Thus, the contrary evidence is there, encouraged by the text and even philosophically consistent with it but it does not fit Bates’ story so it can be marginalized to the “fringe” and ignored.  This methodology explains otherwise shocking gaps in Bates’ case. He has already decided how he wants the movie to end, thus conflicting evidence falls to the cutting room floor.

Faith (Pistis) as Allegiance

More than anything else, Bates’ case hangs on his ability to define the Greek noun πίστις (pistis) as “giving allegiance to,” contrary to traditional interpretations which primarily define it as “faith” or “trust.”  He admits that there are places where pistis means “trust,” but contends that “allegiance” is a better fit in passages where salvation by faith is in view. Lexical resources will grant a small handful of examples that refer to pistis as “faithfulness” in the New Testament (NT), and perhaps one or two that come close to  “pledge.” The vast majority, however, refer to “belief” or “trust.”7 Thus, to make his case, Bates resorts to the Apocrypha for a few references that he believes prove that pistis not only means “faithfulness,” but also extends to “giving allegiance.”8

Armed with what he deems proof from outside the NT, he decides that he can smuggle in the allegiance freight that he placed in the noun pistis, to the verb πιστεύω (pisteuo), which is nowhere defined as “allegiance.” Throughout the NT it is defined as “believing” or “trusting.”9 Bates easily solves this problem:

In Greek the noun pistis has the same root as the verb pisteuō (traditionally, “I believe, have faith, trust”). But unfortunately, there is no verb directly associated with “allegiance” in English, making my thesis more cumbersome to discuss in English than in Greek. So in this study, when appropriate, the verb pisteuō has been rendered “I give pistis” or “I give allegiance” (and the like) as a way of foregrounding pistis and the allegiance concept.10

Why is this an acceptable move? What justification does he give for allowing the root of the noun pistis to govern the definition of the verb pisteuo? None. What permits Bates, with the scantest of evidence that pistis in a few instances means “allegiance,” to then bring that over into the definition of a verb that is nowhere defined as “giving allegiance”? The bald assertion strikes again.

This has crucial impact on his use of Romans 4, which is rightly seen as Paul’s locus classicus explanation of saving faith. As Will Timmins has noted, Bates’ treatment of pistis in Romans 4 is his undoing.11 Here again Bates’ self-given editorial powers rear their head. He admits to contrary evidence in Paul’s account of Abraham’s saving faith, and then, exercising his right to assert baldly, dismisses it, and redefines whatever words he needs to in order to tell his story.

Paul’s use of pistis here shows that this word in and of itself does not map perfectly onto the English word allegiance; rather it can and does often refer to mental assent to a certain proposition and confidence in the reliability of God’s promise. Here for Paul pistis does mean something like “trust”… In other words, yes, Paul and others do say that we must believe or trust, but these metaphors are best adjusted and subsumed within the richer category of allegiance. 12

Why? What is deficient in these words which clearly mean “trust” or “belief”? And how can such a claim function when Paul is clearly contrasting belief with works here?  It only succeeds if one, like Bates, ignores such a contrast. Therefore, while relying heavily on Romans 4, Bates does not even mention, let alone interact with, Romans 4:5.

3For what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed [pisteuo] God, and it was credited to him for righteousness. 4 Now to the one who works, pay is not considered as a gift, but as something owed. 5But to the one who does not work, but believes [pisteuo] on Him who declares the ungodly to be righteous, his faith is credited for righteousness (Rom 4:3–5; CSB).

Neither does Bates ever even mention or interact with Ephesians 2:9, or Titus 3:5. He comes close, suggesting that Ephesians 2:8 should read, “It is by grace you have been saved through allegiance.13 But he then slams on the brakes and does not proceed one word further. And how could he? Paul’s complete exclusion of works from this formula destroys Bates’ case that faith equals works. But again, Bates’ self-described surgical project allows him excise what does not fit his story.

There is much more to address in Bates’ book as it is a wholesale rejection of nearly all classically Christian soteriology but doing so is beyond the scope of this response. Suffice it to say that when someone endows themself with as much editorial authority as Bates does, it is difficult to take seriously any of his theological formulations. Whatever objections you might bring and whatever evidence you may present will be cut off with Procrustean assertions.

Ironically, this project, undertaken in many ways to guard against Western individualism and self-absorption, will likely lead to the most severe kinds of individualism. When the Christian’s salvation depends on how well they have been faithful in their “pledge of allegiance to Jesus,” they must obsess over their own performance. How can they afford not to? Eternity is on the line. Freedom from this self-absorption can only result from the finished work of Christ as a free gift to the believer, through Spirit-given trust in the Gospel. Knowing that Christ has lived perfectly in their place, died their death, and risen to give them eternal life provides freedom from the bonds of individualism. Why?  Because believers have not received “a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, ‘Abba , Father!’” (Rom 8:15; CSB). Christ has secured the Father’s favor for all who believe through His perfect allegiance to the Father on their behalf. Nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus their Lord.

The surgery Bates calls for would in fact cut out the very heart of the church. This is a case where the illness does not require surgery but rather can be healed with some dietary restrictions—namely, feasting on the truth that every Christian is

8… saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—9not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:8–10; CSB)

©Tom Wenger. All Rights Reserved.


1 Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).

2 Ibid., 3.

3 Ibid., 8.

4 Ibid., 9.

5 Ibid., 169–70.

6 Ibid., 171–72. [bold emphasis added; italicized emphasis original]

7 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 818–20. (Hereafter, BDAG).

8 Bates, 78–80

9 BDAG, 816–818; see also Will N. Timmins, “A Faith Unlike Abraham’s: Matthew Bates on Salvation by Allegiance Alone” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 61.3 (2018): 605–06.

10 Bates, 37, n.16.

11 Timmins, 613.

12 Bates, 90.

13 Ibid., 4.


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  1. This brushing aside of salvation by faith alone seems to be a growing trend that I have noticed. I don’t pretend to be an expert in why this brand of theology is gaining traction, but it seems to me that in the west (where orthodox Christian faith is declining), many within Christian circles are seeking to draw new boundary lines of orthodoxy to distinguish themselves from those whom they perceive are not “radical” or “sold-out” enough for Jesus.

    That is to say, those churches that confess justification by faith alone are not doing enough to prove their allegiance to Jesus in a secularizing culture. They say, “If we would just TRULY give our allegiance to Jesus (i.e. embody the eschatological reign of Jesus now) and obey his radical commands, then maybe our culture wouldn’t be in a state of decadence.”

  2. I appreciate the review. I read the book and thought it horrible. I wanted to write a review but didn’t. I came from a Roman Catholic background. His book led me led me back in that direction. It reminds me of every other reformulation of the Gospel of God’s grace. Thank you for this review. I had hoped someone would review it.

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