Abraham’s “allegiance” to King Jesus? Part 4 of the Matthew Bates interview

Welcome to the fourth installment of our Hot Seat interview with Matthew Bates, author of Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).

In this segment, we discuss Bates’ interpretation of Abraham’s pistis in Romans 4:1-25, Teresa Morgan’s definitive work on pistis in the ancient world, and the potential contribution of “allegiance alone” to recapture the heart of the Christian gospel in the church today.

theLAB: A pressing question came to mind reading your fourth chapter, “Faith as Allegiance”: was Abraham justified by allegiance? If not, then what is Paul attempting in Romans 4, a passage that showcases Abraham’s pistis and prefaces the statement in Rom 5:1 that “we have been justified by pistis.” Did Abraham demonstrate allegiance to King Jesus? Is there any correspondence between Abraham’s pistis (however defined) and the pistis of believers, if the object of that pistis, and the very meaning of pistis itself, is different for Abraham and for believers since the Christ event?

Abraham-related questions are frequently asked by those who are most closely interrogating my allegiance thesis. Rightly so, and I treat the question of Abraham in Salvation by Allegiance Alone (p. 89-99), so I cannot rehearse my entire answer. But I think what follows sharpens and goes beyond what I say there in helpful ways.

Abraham is Paul’s parade example of pistis. Yet, I wonder if those prone to skepticism have come sufficiently to grips with the degree to which Abraham’s pistis is not defined abstractly (“faith” in God’s promises in general), but by the gospel.

And this gospel is emphatically not that Abraham was justified by trusting in “justification by faith” and so we are justified in this fashion too. We are indeed “justified by pistis,” but this is not how Paul (or the New Testament elsewhere) defines the gospel.

The gospel is a narrative about Jesus that climaxes with his enthronement as the royal Messiah. Recognizing this helps us make better sense of pistis with respect to Abraham.

In assessing my proposal it is imperative to recognize that pistis as allegiance does not exclude trust, but includes it. Allegiance and trust are not mutually exclusive categories. Abraham was justified by trusting in God’s promise, but this was not a generic trusting in God’s promise. It was, as Paul stresses, a trusting in the gospel of Jesus the king as it had been announced in advance to Abraham.

Here’s the key verse: “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by pistis and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham, ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’” (Gal 3:8). Here Paul focuses on what he elsewhere describes as the purpose of the gospel, to bring about the “obedience of pistis” of the nations (Rom 1:5, 16:26; cf. 15:15-18).

Abraham was not justified by trusting in “justification by faith” (as this is not the gospel for Paul), but by trusting in the gospel of Jesus the king, to the degree that had been revealed to him. The gospel would result in the blessing of all nations.

What is this blessing of all nations? It is that the nations are in the process of coming under the banner of Jesus the king as they yield allegiance to him and are integrated into the Holy Spirit’s community (Gal 3:14).

Paul also details this in Romans 4:16-25, showing that Abraham’s pistis was really a trust in the gospel of the Jesus the king (see Rom 4:25; for Paul, Jesus’ justification/resurrection is the prelude to the enthronement—cf. Rom 1:4).

In particular for Abraham this involved a trusting that God could bring life (Isaac; corresponding to Jesus and to the resurrection) from death (Sarah’s lifeless womb; corresponding to the virgin’s womb and to the tomb) through a singular offspring (Rom 4:17-18; cf. Gal 3:16), so that through this singular “seed,” the blessing to the nations could be delivered—all of which has happened in and through the royal Christ, as the Holy Spirit has now been given to the nations (cf. Gal 3:14).

So, yes, there is a correspondence in pistis between Abraham and present day Christians, because the same gospel is ultimately in view with regard to the crediting of righteousness.

Jesus’s kingship over the nations as announced in the gospel, and for which the gospel was largely purposed, is the blessing to the nations promised to Abraham.

Did Abraham demonstrate allegiance to King Jesus? Yes and no.

Yes inasmuch as he was allegiant to the God (ultimately triune: Father, Son, and Spirit) who promised to bless the world through the death and resurrection of a future seed, Jesus the king. (You may want to review the rule expressed in part II of this interview— fides ad personas trinitatis indivisa est).

No inasmuch as the second person of the Trinity had not yet become the human king, nor ascended to the right hand. Moreover, fully saving pistis had not yet been revealed in the Old Testament era, as that was only to come in the Christ (Gal 3:23-25), and Jesus’s death for sins would then cover previously committed sins (Rom 3:25).

In sum, Abraham gave allegiance to God by trusting God’s promises that anticipated Jesus the king, and Abraham embodied this trusting loyalty to God (at his initial call and over his lifetime). The content of these promises anticipated the Christ-event, including Jesus’s death for sins, resurrection, and vindication as king, and his rule over the nations—as the nations respond to Jesus with an obedience of pistis.

Thus, Abraham’s pistis resulted in righteousness being credited to him precisely because it was a response to the gospel of Jesus the king. The same is true for us (for this logic, see especially Rom 4:23-25). For Abraham this pistis involved an allegiance to the promising-making triune God and the unfolding of the gospel of Jesus the atoning king that was inchoate in the promise.

The important point is that Abraham wasn’t declared righteous because he had an abstract and objectless “faith” in God in general or because he believed in “justification by faith,” but because his trusting allegiance to God was directed toward the promised gospel, that all nations would be blessed in and through his future offspring’s kingly rule.

theLAB: Teresa Morgan’s recent book, Roman Faith and Christian Faith: Pistis and Fides in the Early Roman Empire and Early Churches (OUP, 2015), is perhaps the most significant and comprehensive study of pistis published in our lifetime. You reference her work a few times in your book. However, I’m not sure if she would agree with your thesis. In fact, her study comes to different conclusions regarding the meaning of pistis at the time of the writing of the NT. For her, as you perhaps aware, pistis ultimately has the connotation of “trust.” How might you respond to Morgan if she were to challenge your thesis on the grounds that it doesn’t sufficiently account for the expansive data available from the many Jewish and Graeco-Roman sources?

I do not know what Morgan would make of my thesis. Her book was published around the time I was finishing my first draft, so when I saw it announced, I was very anxious to read it. Fortunately in reading it, I felt that her work largely complemented my own, even if she does not stress allegiance per se with regard to salvation.

However, because her work appeared near the completion of my first draft, I was unable to build on her results as much as I might have otherwise. (For an overview of Morgan’s book, see the review at the Gospel Coalition.)

To my mind, to say that her conclusions are different than mine is true but misleading. For my thesis does not deny that “trust” and relationality is at the center of the pistis word group; it affirms the centrality of “trust.”

The vital point is that I follow Morgan’s lead in contending that in the Graeco-Roman world “trust” was not understood primarily in cognitive or psychological terms, but as embodied activity. That is, I agree with Morgan that the focus of pistis was not predominately interior, but exterior.

So, as I see it, my study does not contradict Morgan’s results, but rather seeks to build on them. Her study goes far beyond mine by illustrating how pistis (and fides) functioned across the vast and complex social, political, and economic Graeco-Roman world that is pertinent to the study of the New Testament. I did not attempt to paint as richly or broadly since my book was not exclusively on pistis, but rather on salvation theory writ large.

My emphasis on allegiance with respect to the gospel of Jesus as king is not developed by Morgan, so it is my own contribution. It is a contextual argument.

My preference for “allegiance” springs from the conviction that the proclaimed gospel centered on Jesus the royal messiah, and this suggests that the “allegiance” portion of the range of meaning of pistis is in play in some crucial New Testament texts pertaining to salvation.

Yet I am convinced, with Morgan, that pistis was predominately an enacted and embodied relational term in the New Testament era. So it is extremely unlikely that Paul felt that pistis was something that was ultimately in tension with or contradictory to embodied activity (i.e., good works as a general category). Paul’s complaint with works (of Law) lies elsewhere, as I explain in Ch. 5.

theLAB: You make an interesting statement on page 94 regarding your feelings about many Christians’ inability throughout church history to articulate the eight stages of the gospel, as you present them in your book. Would you say that this is more of a problem today, when there is such a lack of catechesis, a lack of solid preaching, and a lack of doctrinally-rich worship music in the Western church in general? How will allegiance alone address this deficiency?

I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not think that Christians down through the ages have been bereft of the gospel or have not experienced salvation—as if God’s saving plan was off-track until that blessed moment when Salvation by Allegiance Alone was published.

Yet a great number of righteous men and women down through the ages would not have been able to articulate the eight elements of the gospel as I lay them out in this book.

I affirm that all these people tacitly accepted the eight stages and lived in light of the Christ narrative articulated therein, including an allegiance to Jesus as king.

I claim that many knew the gospel intuitively because it was the mental furniture that they inhabited, even if they couldn’t name or describe all the pieces of furniture. We can be confident that they found final salvation in the Christ.

Inability to articulate the gospel is more of a problem today than in the past. For the past 1600 years those raised in Western Civilization were given the gospel as a mental framework through cultural diffusion. Not everyone accepted the gospel, but its claims permeated daily life and colored everyone’s perception of reality. In our postmodern world this is no longer true.

How can allegiance alone help? We are in an era where we deliberately need to name and situate the furniture. The eight-element articulation of the gospel makes the gospel explicit. Also, there has been confusion over the gospel, with many mixing it up with “justification by faith” or “salvation by grace not works,” or reducing it to a forgiveness transaction.

With regard to the gospel, Jesus’s kingship has been forgotten and neglected, and even when it has been remembered, it has largely been considered an isolated fact external to the gospel rather than internal to it.

Allegiance alone helps the church recognize that “Jesus is king” is not only part of the good news, it is the climax of the good news—and that Jesus deserves our unswerving allegiance.

Matthew W. Bates is Associate Professor of Theology at Quincy University in Quincy, Illinois. Bates holds a Ph.D. from The University of Notre Dame in theology with a specialization is New Testament and early Christianity. His books include Salvation by Allegiance Alone (Baker Academic, 2017), The Birth of the Trinity (Oxford University Press, 2015), and The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation (Baylor University Press, 2012). He also co-hosts OnScript, a popular biblical studies podcast.

You can access the earlier segments of this Hot Seat interview here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

View all articles

Your email address has been added

Written by Tavis Bohlinger
Explore top resources on counseling, mental health, grief, pain, and loss.
Unlock curated libraries and Bible study tools for up to 30% off with your first Logos 10 package.