Review: What is saving ‘faith’?

11 January 2018

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).

sbaalarge_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.

Here are some quotations.

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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A bit of negative confession is a good thing

22 December 2010

I just heard that a young businessman—a distant acquaintance of mine—has gone bankrupt. It has caused immense pain to him, his immediate family, and to the kind folk who, too late in the process, parted with money to help him try and avoid bankruptcy.

One telling feature of the story is that the business had been in financial problems for a very long time before he told anyone about it. Why, I ask myself, didn’t he open up at an earlier stage, in which case the worst might well have been avoided?

i-cantPart of the explanation, I’m sure, lies in the fact that he is a committed Christian.

At the start, of course, this was a huge ‘plus factor’ in the situation. His Christian standards ensured that he conducted his business with integrity. Also, it meant that divine help was available, and I don’t doubt that he called on the Lord many a time when things began going wrong.

But being a Christian also brought, I suspect, a ‘minus factor’ to the situation. In certain types of church culture there is strong pressure to be victorious, to be on top of things, to be seen to be the head and not the tail, to win success that will show the world how it’s done, to be people of faith, and generally to be up-beat about everything. And that, alas, makes many a believer reluctant to admit falling short of the ideal. When everybody else is apparently living in victory it’s doubly hard to admit defeat.

Most non-Christians in this young man’s position would probably have been a lot quicker to make the problems known and to seek advice and help early on. Unlike Christians they have no ‘faith culture’ to pressure them, no ‘I’m a winner’ reputation to maintain before their peers.

That’s why I’m all for a modified ‘victory’ culture that leaves room for vulnerability and the admission of failure. Leaders are especially responsible here. If they keep pumping out faith and victory all the time they will actually produce failures more serious than might otherwise have been the case.

Let church leaders, therefore, be judiciously frank about their own weaknesses and difficulties from time to time. A bit of negative confession can do a powerful lot of good.


Yom yom

25 November 2010

No, not ‘Yum yum’. I’m not talking food here; I’m talking God’s word to me about money.

Let me explain. Yom is the Hebrew word for ‘day’, as in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Doubling it up to yom yom gives a phrase meaning ‘day by day’ or ‘daily’. It occurs in Psalm 68:19 – ‘Praise be to the Lord, to God our Saviour, who daily bears our burdens.’ And that is a verse especially meaningful to me.

yom yomYears ago I was thinking how nice it would be to get a huge financial windfall. I imagined a lawyer calling me to say that my Great-uncle Eustace—who I’d never known existed—had died, that he had been rich, that I was his sole heir and that a couple of million pounds was about to be deposited in my account. Brill! I’d be set up for the rest of my days.

It never happened, of course. Instead I felt the Lord saying to me, ‘Don’t expect anything like that, son. I have different plans for your financial welfare. I’ll take care of you just one day at a time—I will ‘daily bear your burdens’—so you’ll have to trust me one day at a time. Can you manage that?’

I thought I probably could. Yes, I would continue to keep a budget and manage my accounts sensibly, and I would be grateful for any occasional extras that might come my way over and above my regular income—currently my smallish pension. But that said, daily reliance on the Lord would be my bottom line.

This has been my approach to financial security ever since, and the Lord has been true to his word. He puts unexpected extras my way now and again, and I remain solvent and well provided for. Praise him!


Joyless religion

23 November 2010

‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!’ (Phil 4:4).

That’s an easy command for true Christians to obey. In fact it’s impossible not to rejoice when the Holy Spirit lives within convincing us of the reality of God’s love for us, our relationship with him, the forgiveness of our sins and the assurance of coming glory.

I don’t mean the pseudo-joy of a fixed cheesy grin and a ‘hallelujah’ in every sentence. I mean the deep-seated, unshakable joy that comes from knowing all is well at the level that matters. This is the joy that, when Christians meet together, spills over in heartfelt, exuberant songs of praise to our God.

No other religion knows this. There’s no joy on the faces of ayatollahs. Buddhist monks may claim some inner peace, but their religion produces few smiles. Sikhs and Hindus know how to party, but joy is nowhere to be seen in their temple rituals.

Joy is a Christian hallmark. Let it show!


Naïve–again!

30 September 2010

‘Three score years and ten.’ Yes, I’ve recently had my 70th birthday. It’s a good time, I reckon, for assessing my life, my values and my intentions.

Naive-logoDoing so, I find myself coming back to the statement in Hebrews 11:6 that ‘Anyone who comes to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.’ That’s where I continue to take my stand, with deep satisfaction.

The theologian Paul Ricoeur wrote about a phase of the Christian life that he called the ‘second naivety’. When you first become a Christian, you are pretty naïve, taking everything you are taught at face value. Then, with the passing of time and the receiving of a few knocks, you begin to look at matters of faith, doctrine and practice more intently, and have to cope with the troublesome doubts that sometimes arise. But as you stick in there you come out of the storms and, in spite of still not understanding everything or resolving all the tricky issues, sail into the calm waters of a ‘second naivety’, where simple faith in our loving God rules supreme over every aspect of life.

This, I can testify, is a good place to be, and I plan to cruise around in these waters for the rest of my days, be they few or many.