Review of Matthew Bates, Gospel Allegiance. How does allegiance save?

The second part of chapter two of Matthew Bates’ important book Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Jesus Misses for Salvation in Christ considers the means by which the “gospel of allegiance” saves people.

He sums up the argument so far: “The gospel in Romans 1:1–5 is about the incarnation and enthronement. It is purposed toward the allegiance of the nations to Jesus the king” (73).

I disagree about the incarnation but the emphasis on the “enthronement” of Jesus as the content of the gospel is correct. The second statement also needs to be adjusted, I think. It would be better to say that the “allegiance of the nations” to Jesus as king belongs to the prophesied future: following judgment on the pagan world and the revelation of the glory of Jesus to the whole oikoumenē, the nations as nations would switch political-religious allegiance from the old pantheons to one God, the Father, and “one Lord, Jesus Christ” (cf. 1 Cor. 8:6). Until that day, faith would consist in holding fast to the “hope”, proclaimed by the apostles, that a root of Jesse would sooner or later rule over the nations (Rom. 15:12-13).

Anyway, we now have to ask: “if the gospel is not a system of salvation per se but the story of how Jesus has become king”, how does it save? To answer this question Bates moves forward a few verses:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom. 1:16–17 ESV)

There are five stages to Bates’ analysis.

1. It is the work of the Spirit that gives this gospel saving efficacy. The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead works salvation and obedience in believers. “When citizens of the Roman Empire hear Paul’s message about Jesus the heavenly king, they are changing allegiance by repenting of their former sinful ways of life, joining the Spirit-filled community, and proceeding to live new lives as citizens under the rule of King Jesus” (75).

2. The “righteousness of God” is explained by the reference to the revelation of the “wrath of God” in verse 18. So “if we see the righteousness of God as having a strictly pleasant saving function—like a status of “justification” or “innocence” that we receive—totally apart from weighing its condemning function, then we have oversimplified and are off the mark” (76).

Bates is absolutely right to highlight the importance of Habakkuk for understanding what Paul meant by “salvation”. But I don’t think he does justice to his own insight.

3. Habakkuk says that the righteous person will live by pistis or, in the Hebrew, ʾĕmûnâ. This is not a matter of “faith” or “belief” but of something more like “fidelity”—loyalty to God and to the covenant “during the crisis of God’s judgment on Babylon”. Bates argues that Paul means pistis here to be understood in the same way. A person is saved from the wrath of God by “loyalty” or “allegiance”; and the “righteousness of God” is the “status that results when one is vindicated by loyalty when judged by God” (78).

4. What does “by pistis, for pistis” mean? Bates, naturally, thinks that the phrase should be translated “by allegiance, for allegiance”, foreshadowing the same distinction in Romans 3:21-22: the righteousness of God has been revealed “through the pistis of Jesus Christ, for all who give pistis“ (his translation). So the phrase in Romans 1:17 means: “by Jesus the king’s allegiance to God, for the purpose of cultivating allegiance to Jesus the king in all the nations of the world” (79).

5. Finally, Bates asks who the “righteous one” is who will live by allegiance. The answer is obvious by this stage: “it is first of all Jesus the king who lives because of his pistis (loyalty) in going the way of the cross, and it is secondarily anyone who gives pistis (loyalty) to him” (79).

Bates is absolutely right to highlight the importance of Habakkuk for understanding what Paul meant by “salvation”: it is determined not by belief in Jesus’ atoning death but by the orientation of a person to the sort of narrative that Habakkuk has in mind. But I don’t think he does justice to his own insight.

If “by pistis, for pistis“ is to be explained by reference to Habakkuk 2:4, “allegiance” is not a good translation. God’s answer to Habakkuk is that the fulfilment of the vision of judgment “awaits its appointed time”; it may seem slow in coming, but “it will surely come; it will not delay” (Hab. 2:3). The right response to this is not to draw back (LXX) or be puffed up (MT); rather, the “righteous person shall live by his ʾĕmûnâ. In this argument ʾĕmûnâ (or pistis) is not a matter of loyalty either to God or to the covenant. It has to do with “trust” or “confidence” in the prophetic vision. The righteous person will live by holding fast to the promise that God will not let unrighteousness in Israel go unpunished

Paul is saying more or less the same thing: the righteous person will live by persistently believing that YHWH will act first to judge both the Jew and the Greek, secondly to establish his Son as ruler of the nations of the Greek-Roman world. Jewish and Gentile believers will alike be justified by their belief or hope that they will inherit the world left to them by the demise of classical paganism (cf. Rom. 4:13). That entails allegiance to Jesus as Lord, but that is not the point of the statement about pistis.

The other problem with Bates’ approach is that to speak of the “allegiance of Jesus” to God rather obscures the connection between the apocalyptic argument and Jesus’ death as an act of propitiation (Rom. 3:25). By translating pistis as “faithfulness” we more easily preserve the idea that it was Jesus’ obedient trust that took him to death on a Roman cross (cf. Phil. 2:8). The gracious response of YHWH to the faithful obedience of Jesus was to overlook or forgive the former sins of Israel; therefore, those who believed in the prophesied new future would not be condemned along with unbelieving Israel but would gain the life of the age to come. There you have the atonement in a nutshell.

He probably won’t appreciate this reflection, but the way I see it, Bates has started down the road towards a thoroughgoing narrative-historical reading of the New Testament. Because he is writing for the church as he knows it, however, he can only go so far. He wants people to follow him. Fair enough. But I don’t think that we can honestly expose these new perspectives without, sooner or later, bringing much more clearly into view the limiting historical parameters of the New Testament vision—or visions. The proclamation of Jesus’ kingship was aimed at a decisive political outcome. The wrath from which Jews, in one sense, and Greeks, in another, needed to be saved would be expressed in concrete social terms. Faith was what would enable the churches to grasp and remain true to that new future. Faith was not allegiance to the Lord but adherence to the apocalyptic vision.

Samuel Conner | Fri, 11/15/2019 - 15:30 | Permalink

Does Bates state very clearly what it is that “the Jew” and “the Gentile” are saved from?

I’m tempted to suspect that Paul’s distinction between “first to the Jew and then the Gentile” may imply a distinction between what “salvation” means for the respective groups.

For Israel in the land (and also, I suppose, for the diaspora that may be tempted to back-migrate to help after a war breaks out — this happened at scale during the Bar Kochba war), faced with national calamity and mass slaughter, ‘salvation’ might be something as concrete as “not dying in the coming war.” This also suggests a very concrete way in which “allegiance” or “obedience” toward Jesus could effect “salvation.” Leaving Jerusalem when the armies approach, as Jesus commanded, would indeed save one from that kind of wrath. Not taking up the sword would be a concrete way of not dying by the sword.


 In the OT wisdom literature, it is “understanding” that saves one from (untimely) death. Is it valid to see (or infer, or suspect)  continuity between OT and NT understandings of “what salvation is”?