Salvation By Allegiance Alone: Introducing a Book Review Series and Some Engagement with Scot McKnight

I plan on doing a type of dialogical review of Matthew Bates’ recently released book, Salvation By Allegiance Alone, through a series of posts. I wanted to introduce the book to you all by quoting, at length, part of the foreword written by Dr. Scot X. McKnight. McKnight works and thinks from a largely Wesleyan/Arminian perspective, and so you will understand why he is so excited by Bates’ proposal; which you will see the basic lineaments of that proposal described by McKnight in the following quote.

Allegiance, then, is at the heart of grace as it was perceived in the ancient world. Grace was not simply—or ever—pure gift in spite of what some say today. One must define terms by their usage not by our contemporary beliefs or usages. Grace can both be one hundred percent gift and at the same time summon the gifted person with an obligation, a heartfelt and intentional duty, to respond in gratitude and behavior in accordance with the new social bond created by the gift-giver’s gift. This grace runs right through the Old Testament, through Judaism, and into the New Testament. What distinguished the kind of Judaism that did not believe in Jesus and the one that did was not the appearance or absence of grace itself but how grace was understood. It is, then, a popular misunderstanding of Paul to conclude that grace did not obligate the Christian—the one who received God’s gift of Christ and redemption—to respond to God through real behavioral change. Grace in fact required a life of gratitude, praise, and—here’s the language from Matthew Bates’s outstanding book—“allegiance to Jesus as king.”

Some theologians (past and present) think that any kind of obligation attached to grace must somehow entail a dangerous works righteousness. Such people are wrong. But you’ll have to read Salvation by Allegiance Alone to see how deftly and biblically Matthew Bates dismantles this worry about works while simultaneously offering fresh proposals regarding how a gospel-infused allegiance connects with righteousness.

I want to approach the obligation of grace from another angle, that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As a college student I became a voracious reader and, so, as a sophomore I began reading Bonhoeffer, beginning with (what was then called) The Cost of Discipleship. Perhaps his most enduring contribution to Christian theology, at least Christian ethics, is his section on “costly grace,” a concept that put into words my deepest convictions and concerns about the church I was then witnessing. The church was marked by sanctimonious attendance, judgmentalism on all outsiders, expressed certitude of the security of the believer because of a single act of accepting Christ into one’s heart, and rigor in theological propositions. It was also a church pockmarked body-wide with a lack of love, a lack of genuine holiness, and an inability to foster discipleship in the heart of the true believer. Sadly, what it lacked was created by its deficient gospel: “if you just believe” was its watchword and safety net. But “believe” meant mental acceptance and a single act of reception, and never meant what the term also means in the whole Bible: the kind of faith that is also faithfulness.

The superficiality of American evangelicalism’s gospel-obsession with security and assurance has led me at times to wonder if we should not teach justification by discipleship. Or justification by faithfulness. But Matthew Bates has landed on a beautiful and biblically sound term: allegiance. When Jesus first called the four disciples along the Sea of Galilee he didn’t say “receive me into your heart” but “follow me.” When a crisis arose among his followers he didn’t say “you’re safe” or “get your orthodoxy on” but “deny yourself and take up your cross.” Moreover, when he finished the greatest sermon on earth, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus didn’t say “Repent and believe these things” but “the one who hears these words of mine and does them.” So, too, the apostles Paul, Peter, and John called their listeners to a life swamped by the Spirit, a life of holiness amidst suffering, and a life of living in the light of love. These apostolic expressions are all condensed in this book into the term “allegiance.”

King Jesus summons people into a kingdom where he alone is king, and kings expect one thing from their subjects: allegiance.[1]

I have only read a few pages beyond the foreword thus far, but I have been listening to and reading some interviews (and a debate) that Matthew has done since the release of his book. I am also “friends” with him on FaceBook and have gotten to get more of a feel of where he is coming from that way as well; particularly as that is based upon the folks who are commenting in favor of his book and where they are coming from theologically.

One thing I will note, inchoately, is that based upon my impression, what potentially may be missing in this whole mix is an adequate development, in regard to Bates himself, of a theological ontology as the basis of his hermeneutic in general. My concern is that the theological in exegesis is not adequately addressed, and that what we are given then is just more of the type of ‘naturalist’ engagement with the text that I would say even attends the work of N.T. Wright in his exegetical conclusions. In other words, if Christology, for my money, is not the framework from whence Bates comes to his exegetical conclusions, particularly as his book deals directly with both soteriological and theological-anthropological issues, then the proposal itself will not be as fruitful as it could have been or should be. If McKnight’s comment—“When a crisis arose among his followers he didn’t say “you’re safe” or “get your orthodoxy on”—is indicative of the tone we are supposed to expect from Bates, then I am afraid, I, at least, am going to be very disappointed with what Bates presents.

Materially, when someone can assert/argue that someone in union with Christ today could not be in union with Christ eschatologically or in the final salvation, all this reduces down to, traditionally, is no more than the classically Arminian view that a person can ‘lose their salvation’; or on the classical Calvinist side, it boils down to the notion that ‘someone who may have professed Christ or even looked like they were “saved” were never really saved to begin with.’ Bates believes people can be in union with Christ today, but at the same time may well not be in eternal union with Christ when that final day comes. Is his conclusion any different than the Arminian’s? No. How he gets there might well be more innovative and creative relative to the way he marshals the “biblical data,” but his conclusion is tried and true throughout the centuries; whether that be within a Roman Catholic or Protestant expression.

What I would hope to be present is something like Karl Barth’s and Evangelical Calvinism’s Christologically conditioned doctrine of election and union with Christ. What I would hope to be in the hermeneutical mix, for Bates, is a heavy commitment to the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. If “allegiance,” as Bates interprets that, was somehow located objectively in the vicarious humanity, in the vicarious faith and faithfulness of Christ for us, then what he is communicating might not be so problematic theologically. But I am getting the sense that all of that “theological ontology” is missing within Bates’ offering; I’m getting the sense, particularly from McKnight, that Matthew is simply engaging in the work, ostensibly, of biblical studies—and that understood from the deconfessionalized mode bequeathed by the Enlightenment etc.—and that these highly important theological and inner-theological connective tissues are not really present. That’s what concerns me most about what I am sensing about Bates’ offering. Maybe he’ll surprise me.

Stay tuned. As I read through Matthew’s book, as I noted, I plan on doing a running and critical kind of review of his book. Again, I hope I am moving too fast and jumping to unfounded conclusions too early. But I’m thinking I’m not.

[1] Scot McKnight, “Foreword,” in Matthew Bates, Salvation By Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and The Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2017), 11 Scribd version.