Salvation by faith alone?

Matthew Bates & book

Probably the most important distinctive of Protestantism is the doctrine of salvation by grace alone (not merit) through faith alone (not good works).

But does this emphasis properly reflect the Biblical teachings, especially the teachings of Jesus?

This ground-breaking book argues for a slightly different emphasis.

The teachings of Jesus

The Reformation view of salvation by grace through faith comes from Paul’s statement in Ephesians 2:8-9: “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith …. not by works”. But Matthew Bates suggests we need to pay attention to Jesus’ own words. For example:

  • In Mark 10 (also Matthew 19 & Luke 15), Jesus is asked by a wealthy young man how he can inherit eternal life. Jesus doesn’t tell him, as a modern evangelist would, to repent and believe, but rather refers him to the commandments. When the man says he has kept them all, Jesus tells him he lacks only one thing – to sell everything, give to the poor and follow him.
  • In Luke 10, a lawyer asks Jesus the same question, how to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what he thinks and the lawyer says to love God and love neighbour. Jesus replies. “Do this and you will live.”
  • In the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25), the “sheep” who enter eternal life are those who cared for those who were suffering, while the “goats” who missed out were those who failed to care in a practical way.
  • There are many other places in the gospels where Jesus’ words suggest our final salvation depends, at least in part, on actions we take (e.g. Luke 19:8-9, Matthew 7:13-14, Mark 10:28-30).

All these teachings make little reference to faith (though of course we’d have to believe Jesus before we’d take notice of him), but they all emphasise what we need to do to receive eternal life.

Protestant Christian teachers try to harmonise these teachings of Jesus with Paul’s statement in Ephesians 2. Generally they say Jesus only mentioned actions so that his hearers could realise they could not pass this test, and so would be ready to accept salvation by faith alone.

But Jesus doesn’t say this and it trivialises the strength of his word. So Bates argues we need to take Jesus’ sayings seriously and not try to explain them away.

Gospel & faith

Matthew Bates examines several theological issues in trying to arrive at a truly Biblical position on faith and works.

What is the gospel?

Most Christians “know” what the Gospel is – forgiveness of sin and salvation through faith in Jesus and his death. But Bates argues that in the New Testament, especially in Jesus’ teachings, the gospel isn’t primarily about the importance of our faith.

The word translated “gospel” means a message of good news, often related to the crowning of a king or his victory in battle. When Jesus announced this good news (e.g. Mark 1:15), he was saying God was beginning to rule on earth in a new way, and he, Jesus, was the king.

After Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, the gospel was the announcement that Jesus was now enthroned as king. Our faith isn’t part of the gospel, but our response to it.

What does “faith” mean?

This is where things get really interesting.

We are mostly all familiar with wrong ideas about “faith”, especially from critical unbelievers, but also from fellow believers. So faith is not:

  • believing without evidence;
  • a leap in the dark;
  • the opposite of works;
  • a positive attitude that “it’s all good”;
  • intellectual assent.

English words which carry the meaning of the original include (the context will generally determine which meaning is most appropriate):

  • belief
  • trust
  • loyalty
  • faithfulness
  • fidelity
  • allegiance

Bates argues that in the New Testament. salvation faith is best understood as allegiance to Jesus the king. (To truly be blessed by a king, we don’t just believe in him but give him allegiance.)

The meaning of “allegiance”

Allegiance includes:

  • mental affirmation ( = belief in Jesus)
  • professed fealty ( = commitment to him)
  • enacted loyalty ( = living it out)

This mix of belief and action reflects teachings by both Jesus and Paul:

  • “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’” (Matthew 25:34-36)
  • “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he [God] will give eternal life.” Romans 2:7.

The gospel according to Bates

Drawing on work by historian CH Dodd, Bates proposes the following gospel outline:

Jesus the king ….

  • pre-existed with the Father,
  • took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promises to David,
  • died for sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
  • was buried,
  • was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
  • appeared to many,
  • is seated at the right hand of God as Lord, and
  • will come again as judge.

This, Bates says, is the good news. Our response is to believe it and give allegiance to Jesus the king.

Grace and works

So how does “grace’ fit into this? Well nothing changes. Everything we have, our world, our lives ….. and our forgiveness, are gifts from a loving God. Our allegiance doesn’t earn our salvation, it is just the means by which we can receive God’s grace.

So this isn’t salvation by works. Instead of our faith ( = belief) being the response we need to make to receive the gift of eternal life (as in most formulations), our allegiance is the necessary response. The gift is from God, we make a response.

Not everyone agrees with him of course. Many prefer the older formulation of faith. Here is one sympathetic, but ultimately critical review.

Sharing the good news

How does this change the way we might share the good news?

Bates suggests that the basis of gospel proclamation must be the story of Jesus and how he is now king. This may not always need to include all eight elements in the list above, but he says it is better to err on the side of completeness.

So he says, it is misleading to tell people that they only need to “accept Jesus”, that once they have responded to Jesus, they can be confident they are saved and cannot lose their salvation. Rather, he says, salvation is discipleship, being transformed into the image of Jesus, our king. Our allegiance doesn’t need to be perfect (any more than our faith would need to be), but we do have to be heading in the right direction.

I’m not 100% sure

I have some problems with some of this though I think he is mostly correct.

I have long felt that the standard evangelical formulations of the gospel (we are all sinners and deserve death, Jesus died to save us, all we need to do is accept this gift of salvation) was simplistic and not true to what Jesus, and sometimes Paul, said. As outlined already, the New Testament clearly teaches our response must include some level of obedience as well as faith (or belief or trust).

But I feel he is a little too theological or complicated in two things:

1. Assurance of God’s love

The standard evangelical way is easy and comforting. Turn to Jesus, receive and you can feel safe. It’s called “assurance”. But on his view, what if we don’t continue to give allegiance? What if we don’t give enough? Is there even a measure of “enough”?

What about “good Christian people” in affluent western countries? They have asked Jesus to save them, attended church faithfully but passively, comfortable with their “ticket to heaven”. They’ve lived normal affluent comfortable lives, but they’ve never done much to care for the sick and poor because they were never taught from their pulpit that this was an important part of the gospel. Are they in danger of missing out? Is their “ticket” not enough?

I am so glad I’m not God having to decide how he judges each person! But I somehow feel that Bates’ teaching may be a little harsh, or black and white, even though I think it is mostly true. God’s grace may be more inclusive than he thinks.

2. Complicating the message

I can’t really agree that in evangelism we should teach all the eight points in his gospel outline, even though I think they are all true. I think God’s grace is larger than that and I think the message can be simpler than that.

Several times in the gospels, Jesus called people to follow him. Several other times he pronounced forgiveness to people who couldn’t have known all those 8 points (of course, some of them hadn’t happened yet!). But I think this illustrates that a simpler call is quite sufficient, provided there is some statement about repentance and allegiance.

So what should our message be?

I think I’d feel happy to include something like the following:

  • God loves you.
  • Jesus is king.
  • He died for you and rose again.
  • Believe he did this for you.
  • Turn away from what you know to be wrong.
  • Commit to living now his way as best as you can.

The rest can come as the person responds and joins in the Christian community.

The last word

This is an important book. It addresses issues that others are ignoring or explaining away. It provides a more Biblical answer to the question “what must I do to be saved?” But I think we can maybe be slightly “looser” in how we apply these new truths.

What do you think?

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