3 Dilemmas, 2 Discoveries, and 1 Desire: My Thoughts on Matthew Bates’s Gospel Allegiance
When you’re throwing a baseball, you’re not expected to pause and look down, studying the baseball’s texture, memorizing the train track curve of the threads, contemplating its shape and weight before throwing it. You just catch it and throw it.
When it comes to words, however, we do well to pause and consider the terms we throw around.
We Christians are pretty good at calling time-out when it comes to popular culture misusing words. For example, the word “love” gets used a lot on the Billboard’s Top 40. But, we rightly ask, have those recording artists ever paused to really ask what love actually is? As another example, I recall reading a news article listing Americans’ top guilty “sins,” and most included particular kinds of food. Is that what God thinks of when contemplating our nation’s sins?
Unfortunately, however, we Christians can get sloppy with how we use our own words.
Even really important words. Pillar words like “gospel” and “faith.” What exactly is the gospel? What is the faith that saves? Biblical scholar and Renew partner Matthew Bates steers us back to more accurate definitions for these foundational terms in his new book Gospel Allegiance. But more on that in a minute. First, let me mention 3 dilemmas the Church faces at this cultural moment. Hang with me; we’re heading somewhere.
Dilemma #1 – How effective is evangelism?
Some weddings, it’s hard not to be a little cynical. Ever been to a wedding and thought, Lovely wedding. Too bad the marriage won’t last…?
If you thought that was a dark thought, how about this: you ever seen someone get saved only to think, “It’ll take a miracle if this sticks”? Thankfully, God does miracles. In fact, the very act of God saving sinners is a miracle which should drop our jaws and lift our praises. Still, isn’t it disillusioning just how many people get saved only to walk away from Jesus? We are cynics waiting to happen when we do evangelism hoping it will “take,” assuming optimistically that the long-term process of discipleship will naturally happen sometime. This is the dilemma of an unfinished missiology.
Dilemma #2 – How compelling is Christ?
I remember talking to a friend whose parents divorced when he was quite young. He explained that, oddly, he didn’t feel all that sad about it. While it seemed that every other child of divorce felt deeply wounded, he frankly didn’t feel much sadness. What he did feel was guilt—because he didn’t feel the sadness he knew he was supposed to. He even recalled trying to force himself to cry by concentrating on how sad the divorce must have been.
Something very sad happened long ago: the Cross. Some days, our remembrance of how Jesus died for our sins brings on the appropriate emotions: sadness, remorse, gratitude. Other times, we have to concentrate and concentrate in order to get ourselves to respond with the right feelings. It’s easy to feel guilty for not feeling as we know we ought to.
Is it just me, or does it seem like our primary orientation with Jesus can easily become one of sadness, pity, and guilt? To where His relevance to us is based in something which happened in the distant past, which we sometimes have to psych ourselves up to get passionate about today? If my faith in Jesus means only that 1) I believe what He did back then, and 2) I trust in Him based on what He did back then, then it takes quite a bit of mental and emotional control for my faith in Christ to feel relevant today. This is the dilemma of an unsatisfying Christology.
Dilemma #3 – How simple is salvation?
Let us begin by acknowledging that, yes, mercifully, salvation is by grace through faith. I can’t earn this gift. It’s given freely. There is an elegant and encouraging simplicity at the core of Christianity, and that is worth affirming and celebrating.
But when it comes to how I should live as a saved person, it’s easy to get uneasy. What role in my salvation do my good deeds play? The standard line—which gives temporary relief—is that good deeds don’t play any role whatsoever in saving me. Cue the relief. And yet, what if our lives aren’t displaying the fruit of righteousness? What if, as Jesus put it, we call Him “Lord, Lord,” but we keep failing to do the will of God (Matthew 7:21)? Will He respond, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers” (Matthew 7:23)? True, we don’t earn salvation by our works, but it is little comfort to be told that, if we don’t begin doing the right works, we might not have been saved in the first place.
I have heard that people afflicted with OCD are compelled to seek relief from their persistent anxiety, and that is why they often engage in ritualistic behaviors (e.g., checking the locks on the same door again and again). Does the relief come? Yes, but only briefly. Because once the ritual is performed, the same anxiety comes back just as predictably.
I sense a similar type of instant, but not lasting, relief, in the way we typically handle the relationship between faith and works. This is the dilemma of an uneasy simplicity.
So is salvation simple or complicated? Are good works both not at all required (to be saved) and yet very much required (to show oneself to be saved)? Is the gospel mainly about what Jesus did back then (the past) and what He will do when He returns (the future), but with Jesus not really doing much in the present? Is there anything in the gospel which is happening right now? And how do we evangelize in such a way that we are calling people to more than a short-term relationship with Jesus?
The answers to these questions center on 2 words which we sometimes throw around without studying them very carefully: gospel and faith.
By digging deep into the scriptures, Bates has made 2 discoveries which actually simplify salvation (not just a slick simplicity which we have to backpedal), reveal Christ to be compelling today (not just significant in history), and mobilize long-term discipleship (not just short-term evangelism). Here they are:
Discovery #1 – The gospel is more than the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
Somehow we often manage to leave out of our descriptions of the gospel its climactic moment: the enthronement of King Jesus and His present reign. As we study the scriptures, we discover that gospel is more than justification by grace through faith (after all, that is how we respond to the gospel, not the gospel itself). And the gospel is more than just the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel is far more than merely a past event or future hope; it’s a present and powerful reign by King Jesus. Jesus is infinitely larger than a figure to psych ourselves up to feel pity for. Here is Bates:
The gospel’s royal framework is everywhere apparent once we begin to look at our texts with fresh eyes. Jesus’s enthronement is the gospel climax. Jesus’s appointment to the office of Son-of-God-in-Power is the culmination of the gospel’s description in Romans 1:3–4; moreover, this connects to his authoritative titles and the gospel’s purpose of allegiance in Romans 1:5. In Philippians we are reminded that Jesus has been super-exalted and has received “the name that is above every name” (2:9). Every knee will bow and every tongue confess, not that “Jesus died for my sins,” but that “Jesus the Messiah is Lord” (2:11 AT). This royal climax is found repeatedly in Acts. Peter’s Pentecost sermon builds toward a finale with the declaration that Jesus has been “exalted at the right hand of God” in fulfillment of Psalm 110:1 (Acts 2:33). But it reaches a crescendo with the final words, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ!” (v. 36 AT). (Bates, 96-97)
Though kingdoms crumble and markets crash, King Jesus reigns! What a relief!
Discovery #2 – Faith is more than just belief and trust in Jesus.
The Greek word typically translated as “faith” is pistis. As regularly translated, pistis often means “faith” and “trust.” However, what is it called when you demonstrate persistent faith in someone over time, for the long haul? Such a faith that proves itself by lasting through trials would appropriately be called “loyalty” or “allegiance.” Thus, Bates demonstrates numerous examples in both the Bible and extrabiblical literature how pistis would best be translated as “loyalty” or “allegiance.” Consider how the word translated in both of the following passages as “faith” (pistis) could appropriately be translated “loyalty” or “allegiance”:
Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus (Revelation 14:12).
Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering (1 Thessalonians 1:4-5).
Line these 2 discoveries up, and what picture emerges? 1) The gospel includes Christ as king, and 2) faith includes our allegiance.
Therefore, evangelism is so much more than an invitation to make a one-time decision that we hope will stick. Rather, it is an invitation to trust and follow King Jesus in embodied allegiance. Salvation in King Jesus is as simple and sweeping as that.
Psalm 100:5 says, “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” My desire is that our generation of Christians will be faithful to Him. May we place our unwavering allegiance in King Jesus.
Curious to read more about having a “gospel allegiance”? To help cultivate faithfulness in your life and church, and to aid you as you invite others to place their trust and allegiance in King Jesus, please check out Matthew Bates’s excellent new resource Gospel Allegiance. We will be giving a free copy of the book to everyone who attends the Renew Gathering on November 6, 2019.