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What is saving ‘faith’?

Faith versus works is a big thing for Protestant Christians. In elevating ‘by faith alone’, they pour scorn on the perceived ‘works’ aspect of Roman Catholic views of salvation. The danger of polarised views like these is a failure to give proper attention to the common features of the middle ground. Here is a book that examines one aspect of that middle ground. It is Salvation By Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King by Matthew W. Bates (Baker Academic, 2017).

Bates looks at the meaning of ‘faith’ (Greek pistis) and makes a solid case for his argument that it means a good deal more than mere mental assent, or ‘belief’. He shows—from both the NT and other literature from the NT period—that it contains a strong element of faithfulness, or fidelity, and reckons that the word ‘allegiance’ is the best English word to sum it up.

He argues that the NT presents Jesus primarily as Lord, or King (with Saviour as a secondary aspect), and that the proper response to his lordship is allegiance. That, by definition, means a sustained commitment rather than a quick, one-off moment of commitment—though the latter may well be the start of the former. But salvation requires that ongoing allegiance, and the obedience to Christ that it entails. That, of course, is where many will cry, ‘This is salvation by works!’ And maybe it is, to some extent. But Protestants have long been good at ignoring the NT’s plain statements that works are somehow involved anyway.

En route to his conclusions, the author tackles various related issues. For example, like many scholars today, he holds that the biblical concept of election is chiefly corporate rather than individual. He is also strongly opposed to the notion that ‘going to heaven’ is our destiny.

You may not go along with all his opinions, but the book is worth reading to help you escape the faith vs. works polarisation that, since the Reformation, has probably caused as many problems as it has solved.


The word pistis (and related terms) has a much broader range of meaning. This range includes ideas that aren’t usually associated in our contemporary culture with belief or faith, such as reliability, confidence, assurance, fidelity, faithfulness, commitment, and pledged loyalty. The question is, then, when a person today says, “I am saved by my faith in Jesus,” what portion of the range of meaning of “faith” is understood to effect salvation?  (p3)

I hope that the correct identification of the high point of the gospel as Jesus’s kingship and a retargeting of “faith” as allegiance will reinvigorate the life and mission of the church today.  (p9)

For many today faith is defined as the opposite of evidence-based truth. This is neither a biblical nor a Christian understanding of faith.  (p17)

The most straightforward explanations of what the word “gospel” meant for the earliest Christians are found in three passages in Paul’s Letters, Romans 1:1–5, 1:16–17, and 1 Corinthians 15:1–5 (cf. 2 Tim. 2:8). Another passage that does not use the word euangelion but aligns closely with the above mentioned is Philippians 2:6–11, which can help fill out our understanding.  (p30)

We might summarize Paul’s “by pistis for pistis” [Rom 1:17] in this way: in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed (1) by Jesus’s allegiance to God that ultimately led to his enthronement, and (2) in order to bring about our allegiance-yielding response to Jesus as the king.  (p43)

We need to recover Jesus’s kingship as a central, nonnegotiable constituent of the gospel. Jesus’s reign as Lord of heaven and earth fundamentally determines the meaning of “faith” (pistis) as “allegiance” in relation to salvation. Jesus as king is the primary object toward which our saving “faith”—that is, our saving allegiance—is directed.  (p67)

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.  (p78)

Scholarship committed to a hard faith/law antithesis has generally had to fall back on problematic explanations of “the law of the Christ” [Gal 6:2]…  The “law of the Christ” (and the like) is spoken of in a positive fashion because pistis is not fundamentally opposed to all law but involves enacted obedience to the wise rule that Jesus the king both embodies and institutes.  (p86)

What is essential for salvation? Public declaration that Jesus is Lord is at the bedrock, because this designates mental agreement with the gospel and the desire to live a life of personal fidelity to Jesus as the sovereign ruler of heaven and earth.  (p98)

Paul is firm even if some modern commentators are not: we will be judged, at least in part, for eternal life on the basis of our works.  (p108)

I do wonder…if the contemporary tendency, at least at the level of popular Christian teaching and preaching, to center “image of God” theology on the human essence (ontology) rather than on the human purpose (teleology) might give the doctrine short shrift.  (p147)

When a person is truly acting as the image of God, he or she serves as a genuine contact point between God and creation, mediating God’s presence to creation (including other humans and all other creatures).  (p152)

Properly speaking, at the present time Jesus the king is the only person who has already been directly judged by God (the Father), found to be in the right (justified), and vindicated. His resurrection from the dead is proof of his innocence—that he truly has been justified. Resurrection constitutes Jesus’s deliverance and total vindication. Currently no other person has been directly justified and declared righteous apart from him. All other cases are reserved for the final judgment.  (p168)

The transactional idea of the Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us so that it covers our unclean sins is nowhere to be found in Scripture…  The language of imputation can be preserved if it retains a more modest valence as a subset of union with the Christ-king. Paul favors the language not of covering for imputation, but of counting or reckoning or considering (logizomai) for those who are found to be “in the Messiah” (e.g., Rom. 4:3–11, 22–24; 2 Cor. 5:19; Gal. 3:6). Imputation can be maintained from a biblical standpoint only if it is predicated on a prior or simultaneous union and if it is regarded as a counting or reckoning.  (p182)

This point should be regarded as absolutely nonnegotiable: a true gospel invitation must summon the hearer toward a confession of allegiance to Jesus as the king or cosmic Lord…  We must stop asking others to invite Jesus into their hearts and start asking them to swear allegiance to Jesus the king.  (p199)

Although contemporary Christian culture tends to separate personal salvation and discipleship, allegiance is where they finally meet—and they don’t just meet, they embrace. For when we discover that saving “faith” means above all allegiance to Jesus the king, the intimacy between discipleship and salvation is easy to recognize.  (p206)

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