Staying On Message: A Review of Gospel Allegiance by Matthew Bates
Staying On Message: A Review of Gospel Allegiance by Matthew Bates
Two years ago, on the Quincentennial of the Protestant Reformation, I wrote a review of a new book that was advancing research that’s been going on in New Testament theological circles around the distinction between The Gospel and the Protestant doctrine of justification by grace through faith. That book is Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King by Matthew Bates. Bates’s book built upon the arguments of several other popular works such as The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight, How God Became King and Simply Good News by N. T. Wright. Bates’s book contributed to this field by being more in-depth around the specific challenge of how Modern Westerners, particularly Protestants, understand the New Testament concept of “faith.” Bates argued persuasively that, due in part to cultural changes that may have been exacerbated by the Reformation, pistis, the Greek word for faith in the New Testament, should often be translated allegiance rather than faith in many passages. This relatively simple proposal actually goes a long way toward healing the divide that has been created by Protestantism’s unhappy habit of driving a wedge between “faith” and “works” since Luther. It also goes a long way toward helping modern Christians recover a model of discipleship that is more in line with our sisters and brothers from the earliest Jesus movement. I’ve been really encouraged by this project overall. Since then, Bates has released a second book which addresses some objections raised since the release of the first book. This book also adds to several points he made in the first book and promises to be more lay-accessible. This new book is titled Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Jesus Misses for Salvation in Christ. (A confession: Even after having read the previous book, and finishing reading this book, I still find the subtitle confusing. Not only have I carefully read both books, I’ve already read other books in this stream of thinking, and the subtitle seems to me highly convoluted.) Thankfully, the book is better than its subtitle. However, like the previous book, it is not without its faults. In this review I’d like to survey the landscape of this new addition to the conversation, highlight some of the aspects which were most encouraging, and then point out some very unfortunate missteps.

What is this book about?

First, the landscape. Gospel Allegiance, like Salvation by Allegiance Alone, seeks to stress that The Gospel presented in the New Testament is primarily about the enthronement of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. The content of the Gospel is an outline of what Jesus did in his messianic career. Bates helpfully breaks down the ‘bare bones’ kergyma into ten easily understood and memorized points. Here is my interpretation of them:
  1. Jesus Preexisted as the Divine Son
  2. Was Sent by God the Father
  3. Took on Human Flesh in Fulfillment of God’s Promises to David/Israel
  4. Died on the Cross for our Sins
  5. Was Buried
  6. Resurrected, Conquering Death, by the power of the Holy Spirit
  7. Appeared to Many Witnesses
  9. Sent the Holy Spirit
  10. Will Return to Judge and Reign
The distinction between the content of the Gospel and either the response we are called to demonstrate or the benefits promised by the Gospel, is central to Bates’s contention. To the surprise of millions of Western Christians who have adopted the Protestant doctrine of justification by grace through faith the Gospel proper is about Jesus, not our salvation! But not only have Protestants often mistaken teaching about salvation for the Gospel itself, we’ve also pit “faith” against “works” in a mistaken interpretation of the New Testament. Bates spends more time in this book addressing this critical error. Gospel Allegiance is divided into two parts: I. Discovering Gospel Allegiance; and II. Advancing Gospel Allegiance. In part 1, there are three chapters; 1. Getting the Gospel Right; 2. Not Faith but Allegiance; 3. The Full Gospel of the King. In part 2, there are four chapters: 4. Grace in Six Dimensions; 5. Faith is Body Out; 6. How Works are Saving; and 7. Taking the Allegiance Challenge. In between parts 1 and 2, Bates inserts a bridge chapter called Gospel Clarified—Gospel Mobilized.

What this book does well

The most encouraging part of reading this book which covers much of the same territory as the first, was its specificity with regard to who is advancing mistaken notions of the Gospel and grace. That was something I felt was glaringly missing from Salvation by Allegiance Alone. Thankfully, in Gospel Allegiance, Bates names names. I was encouraged to see that Bates calls out Neo-Reformed superstars such as John Piper, John MacArthur, Matt Chandler, and R. C. Sproul. I felt this was very courageous and right. Bates could have played it safe and merely alluded to some general errors that “scholars” make, but he didn’t. Bates quotes these popular leaders where they are dead wrong about the Gospel and I commend him for it. I would have been even more encouraged if Bates had noted the obvious similarity between most (if not all) those whom he cites as examples: that they are Neo-Reformed! In fact, unless I overlooked it, Bates doesn’t call out The Gospel Coalition itself—which is practically patient zero for the precise error he’s calling out. The Gospel Coalition is one of, if not the, primary purveyors of “Plan of Salvation” Gospel that Bates so boldly confronts in both books. Why not name the entire group? Nevertheless, Bates’s specificity in this book—to name some of the main culprits of the errors he addresses—is something this book does far better than his previous one. Bates also does a good job in this book of addressing some of the objections which are naturally evoked by Salvation by Allegiance Alone. I was glad to see him utilize Barclay’s new work Paul and the Gift to address concerns about Bates’s use of “grace.” In the chapter Grace in Six Dimensions, Bates uses Barclay’s categories to argue that he is in fact understanding grace more biblically than his detractors. I liked that in several places Bates points out the social and political implications of the biblical understanding of faith as allegiance. For example, when Bates writes succinctly:
“Bear in mind that any royal message is inherently political and social.” (p.43)
Or when he writes, a bit more specifically,
“The gospel of Jesus resonates within, yet subverts, its Roman imperial context. 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.” (p.75)
Gospel Allegiance is an improvement on Salvation by Allegiance Alone in its specific critique of popular Neo-Reformed figures who distort the Gospel and the New Testament’s teaching on grace and faith. Gospel Allegiance also goes further into likely objections that are raised by his proposal. And Gospel Allegiance mentions the social and political dimensions of this proposal. However, Gospel Allegiance is also plagued by many of the same unfortunate missteps that reduced the potency of Salvation by Allegiance Alone.

More Unfortunate Missteps

As much as I believe this proposal is vitally needful in our day, when popular leaders like those Bates names seem to continue to grow in their influence even while distorting the Gospel, I am nevertheless disappointed by the many unfortunate missteps this project continues to suffer from. As I read Gospel Allegiance it felt as if Bates takes three steps forward and then two steps back. He challenges and confronts popular misunderstandings of the Gospel and grace and faith with precision and care and scholarly acumen. But then he makes a careless comment about a related or unrelated topic. Similarly, Bates spends an entire chapter engaging with Barclay’s take on grace, but dismisses huge aspects of New Perspective research and writing in a few paragraphs. But most egregious of all is when Bates makes reference to work that is almost completely unrelated to his project in a dismissive way, without any substantive critique. Here’s Bates mentioning an enormous project on interpreting the Hebrew Bible in light of the primacy of Jesus:
“The Bible is clear that the specific saving grace God chose to give—the Gospel—is not maximally benevolent in every way. Interpreters who have tried to avoid this conclusion end up in the wrong place. To preserve the absolute benevolence of God’s grace, they suggest the God of the Old Testament is entirely different from the God of the New (e.g., Marcion). Or that God is Christ-like (true!) and therefore does not (or will not) actively punish the wicked (untrue!).” (p.135)
In the footnote on this paragraph, Bates cites Greg Boyd’s two-volume, 1,300-page work The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. I shouldn’t have to tell you that dismissing a work of that magnitude in a couple sentences is not just inappropriate but arrogant. When I reviewed Boyd’s project I wrote 18,400 words! It’s perfectly appropriate for Bates to have an opinion on Boyd’s work—I think he should! But, if Gospel Allegiance isn’t the venue for a thorough and fair assessment, then it should be left out entirely. But Bates not only does this with projects only tangentially related to his own, he also does this some that are more directly related. Scot McKnight is the author of The King Jesus Gospel, which is arguably the book that Bates’s work builds upon the most. In McKnight’s work he has done extensive research and writing into the relationship between the King Jesus Gospel and empire critique within the New Testament. For example, with co-author Joseph Modica, McKnight edited a collection of essays entitled Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies. Contributors to this volume include: David Nystrom, Judith A. Diehl, Joel Willitts, Dean Pinter, Christopher W. Skinner, Drew Strait, Michael F. Bird, Lynn Cohick, Allan R. Bevere, and Dwight Sheets. One would think that a group of scholars as reputable as these would deserve a fair hearing. But Bates dismisses the entire concept of allegiance to Jesus directly contradicting allegiance to Caesar in just a few paragraphs. “…it is true, but too simple, to say ‘Jesus is king, so Caesar is not.’” (p.115) One of the tragedies of this book is that it lacks a robust engagement with political theology, even while adamantly advocating for a model of discipleship that is saturated in political language. Bates does his readers a disservice by flippantly dismissing such a crucial field of related study. Readers are likely to think they can have a King Jesus Gospel and remain apolitical, which is false. Finally, as in his previous book, Bates also dips his toe into the atonement debate only so far as to muddy the waters and frustrate readers like me. If Bates wishes to tie to his proposal a robust defense of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, complete with Reformation and Patristic support, that would be one thing. But that’s not at all what he does. Instead, he assumes readers support the idea that God poured his wrath out on Jesus on the cross, cavalierly mentions this, and then just moves on. This is a major distraction from the book. One does not need to agree on any particular theory of atonement to agree on the kergymatic Gospel that Bates is reminding us of. And a book like Gospel Allegiance does not have adequate space to explore all the nuances of these theories, so it should simply avoid broaching the subject.


Bates’s project is a very important one. It concerns nothing less than the foundation of our faith: The Gospel. And Bates’s project advances the conversation significantly. It has the potential to spark important discussions about Protestant-Catholic dialogue. It has the potential to move us into exciting new applications for discipleship at the local church level. It even has the potential to engage us in more substantive political theology. Unfortunately, Bates’s project is plagued by a proclivity to dabble in other subjects that may only be tangentially related, or worse, to flippantly dismiss subjects that are closely connected. Because of these unfortunate missteps, I have to offer a conditioned recommendation for this book. If I were to recommend this book to a parishioner or colleague, it would have to be accompanied by some significant caveats. That’s disappointing to me. I wish that Bates had simply stayed on message. Nevertheless, I’m still glad that Bates has embarked on this journey and done the work he has. Perhaps a future monograph from him will be less bedeviled.