In this book review of Gospel Allegiance by Matthew Bates, Chad Harrington offers summaries, applications, and critiques to help you decide on the next right discipleship book for your church.
Subscribe to HIM Publications to get weekly blogs like this delivered to your inbox.
Gospel Allegiance by Matthew Bates is one of the most important books I’ve read in recent years. It’s important because it seeks to resolve long-held debates in Christianity about the gospel, especially the “works versus faith” debate.
Bates approaches this gargantuan task with boldness and clarity, but more important than that, he tackles important questions about faith, life—and allegiance (as the title suggests).
I am impressed that Bates engages with popular-level authors (like Matt Chandler) and popular scholars (like N.T. Wright). His boldness strikes me, but I am also impressed by his skill in this book to communicate simply dense and heady concepts.
My review below includes*:
- This Book Compared to Other Discipleship Books
- My Major Takeaway
- How Churches Can Use Gospel Allegiance
- Chapter by Chapter Summary
- The Value of Bates’s Gospel Allegiance
- My Critique of Gospel Allegiance
- My Recommendation
*Quick links work only for some browsers.
The outline of the book includes:
Part 1: Discovering Gospel Allegiance
- Getting the Gospel Right
- Not Faith but Allegiance
- The Full Gospel of the King
Bridge: Gospel Clarified—Gospel Mobilized
Part 2: Advancing Gospel Allegiance
- Grace in Six Dimensions
- Faith Is Body Out
- How Works Are Saving
- Taking the Allegiance Challenge
Compared to Other Discipleship Books
Published in 2019 through Brazos Press, which focuses on books that inspire Christian engagement, Gospel Allegiance by Matthew Bates is a discipleship book. Plus, it was released by Brazos Press in partnership with Renew.org, a disciple-making initiative that exists to fuels disciple-making theology. Bates clearly seeks in this work to inspire Christian action, which is clear from his opening story about evangelistic efforts all the way to his closing advice for those who wish to engage people in the church more deeply about gospel definitions.
That’s common with many other discipleship books.
It’s unique from other discipleship books, though, because:
It primarily challenges one’s theology, but doesn’t neglect the head and the heart.
Most discipleship books today are very practical and contain everyday stories, which has its place. Bates’s book includes a smattering of those, but provides more of a thematic commentary trending toward a biblical theology of the gospel and faith. So it offers theology but still communicates in real-world language.
Further, Bates treats discipleship with high esteem in the book, and makes it part of his central aim: “My prayer is that this will lead to enhanced evangelism and discipleship …” (p. 15). I admire that, and that’s one reason it’s included as a review on this site.
Discipleship for Bates involves one’s whole life. In fact that’s a major part of his “gospel allegiance” model. That is, he doesn’t just make a theological point in this book; he offers a workable model, a fresh way of framing the gospel in a way that takes historical realities and translates them into an entire model.
I found myself comparing and contrasting this book to other books on the same topic. At HIM Publications, I published Bill Hull and Ben Sobels’s book The Discipleship Gospel, and while the content in Gospel Allegiance overlaps with this book, they serve different purposes.
Both books define the gospel with clarity and are based on Scripture, but they do so with different anchor texts. The Discipleship Gospel feels less academic and includes more stories. It is also explicitly practical (probably because it’s written by two pastors).
So these books share a theme and an aim (readdressing how we define “gospel” biblically) but they come at it from different angles.
My Major Takeaway
While Bates shares ten points, which make up “the gospel,” he also helpfully boils the gospel down into one sentence (p. 86):
“Jesus is the saving king.”
This was my favorite line of the book because it solves for me a theological conundrum that I’ve been wrestling with since I entered seminary.
I had read N.T. Wright’s and Scot McKnight’s material (and other biblical theologians who are part of the New Perspective on Paul) when I studied at Ozark Christian College, but questions remained for me. What Wright and McKnight, among others, have rightfully surfaced is the importance of the enthronement of Jesus as king.
As important as every part of the gospel is, I must also say this book makes the vital point that:
The gospel is more than “Jesus died on the cross for my sins.”
As vital as his death on the cross is, Jesus did more than that as part of “the gospel proper.”
Jesus was resurrected—and also sits enthroned at the right hand of the Father, which is indeed Good News. In fact, Bates’s central message is that the climax of the gospel is Jesus’ enthronement “at the right hand of God as the ruling Christ” (p. 86).
Scholars have been talking about the importance of Jesus’ enthronement, but now Bates provides a resource to encourage and equip pastors and other church leaders to take seriously this missing aspect of gospel proclamation among Christians today.
How Churches Can Use Gospel Allegiance
Church leaders must read this book. Reformed, Arminian, Catholic, and Orthodox (and all who don’t fit a label too) can benefit from this resource through its challenges and commentary on familiar biblical themes.
It carries potential to majorly shift your thinking and the lives of people in your church. For some preachers and teachers, in particular, this book may dramatically change your preaching and teaching.
Once you’ve read it, I suggest working through it with a group. You could do a book club. In fact, I did a book club with some friends, and it worked well (just four of us total). Some great discussions can be had! We met three times, but I’d recommend meeting only twice (once for Part 1 and once for Part 2).
If you use this book with your church more broadly, I highly suggest you ease your people into it. It has the potential to ruffle feathers and alienate people who might not engage it fully, so prayerfully consider how to approach it to avoid confusion and misunderstandings.
As far as its usefulness for churches…
This book is a great tool to help Christians “gospel” one another.
Even though we don’t use “gospel” as a verb in English, it’s a verb in Greek (euaggelizō). So when I talk about “gospeling” one another, I mean simply proclaiming the gospel to one another.
Dallas Willard, in his posthumously published book, The Allure of Gentleness, says apologetics is primarily for Christians. We need to gospel one another.
This book is a solid tool for gospeling.
In fact, I’m taking time to talk through with my wife as family devotional material the ten points of Bates’s model with the Scriptures he lists (pp. 86–104). He goes line by line through the ten points with a short description for each one.
On top of that, Bates has included discussion questions that go with each chapter and each section of each chapter in Appendix 2. So it’s well designed for groups to process the material together.
Chapter by Chapter Summary
The book is divided into two parts:
- Part 1, “Discovering Gospel Allegiance” addresses the problem and the solution—gospel proper.
- Part 2, “Advancing Gospel Allegiance” extends Bates’s primary thesis into related themes of the gospel proper (the more precise nature of grace, faith, and works in the New Testament) based on his conclusions in Part 1.
Part 1: Discovering Gospel Allegiance
In Chapter 1, “Getting the Gospel Right” Bates sets the stage by naming the problem and what the gospel is not, in order to frame the overall importance of this discussion. He even names specific influential individuals today with whom he’s disagreeing.
Importantly, he states that Christians today are confused about what the gospel is. This might seem shocking, but I agree that we need a resolution to this confusion.
His main bone to pick with influencers today is this:
They define the gospel inappropriately because they don’t use explicitly gospel texts of Scripture for their definitions.
This is Bates’s most important point.
To address this problem, he introduces in this chapter two of the three explicit gospel texts he treats in the book: 2 Timothy 2:8 and Romans 1:2–4. He saves the third, 1 Corinthians 15:1–5, for later.
In Chapter 2, “Not Faith but Allegiance,” he details his core thesis:
“Faith” in New Testament gospel texts is not mere belief but allegiance.
Can we really have missed the meaning of such an important part of our response to the gospel?
Bates answers yes. And he traces this issue for English speakers back to John Wycliffe’s 14th-century Bible and the 1611 KJV, which favored “faith” and “believe” over Bates’s “allegiance.”
Then, he sets forth the case that:
- “Faith” (pistis in Greek) can mean allegiance.
- That pistis usually does not mean allegiance.
- But in NT gospel texts, where the frame is royal, pistis does mean allegiance.
His argument is convincing and I commend it, but I was an easy sell because I already agreed with him on this point from my research before publishing “Justification by the Faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (The Asbury Journal, 2010).
In my favorite section of this chapter, “How Words Mean Things” (pp. 66–68), he brings his logic down to earth and helps readers understand on a deep level how certain relevant aspects of language work. He translates what he’s gleaned from scientific studies of language, even psycholinguistics, in an easy-to-understand way and applies it to the current gospel discussion today.
He models the type of necessary work the church needs to do in order to undo damage that’s been done to our understanding of the gospel.
I agree with his thrust, that we’ve got to go back to some basic hermeneutical principles, like context.
Bates takes what other scholars have argued elsewhere—Scot McKnight, N.T. Wright, and others—and delivers it in a fresh way.
I think Chapter 3, “The Full Gospel of the King,” uniquely offers a thorough, concise, and even systematic, treatment of the gospel in the New Testament. This chapter kept me thinking and talking with others about it after I put the book down.
He states the gospel in one sentence, as I mentioned:
“Jesus is the saving king.”
Then he details the fuller “story” in ten points in this chapter. His arrangement of gospel material is appropriately narratival, starting with the preexistence of Jesus as God the Son and ending with Jesus’ Second Coming. These and his eight points in between—each grounded in Scripture—comprise Bates’s representation of Scripture’s “full gospel.”
The climax of the gospel, Bates repeatedly emphasizes, is the enthronement:
Jesus, he says, “is enthroned at the right hand of God as the ruling Christ.”
The enthronement of Jesus is the major missing piece of the gospel today, Bates argues.
We’ve focused on the cross and sometimes the resurrection, but we’ve almost entirely neglected the enthronement of Jesus.
Why is this so terrible?
Because Jesus’ enthronement is essential to his saving power.
How can Jesus save without actual power? And how could he have power without taking it up by receiving that power through his enthronement?
We know that Jesus was destined to be king, but without the actualization of his sovereign rule, the realization of his reign does not reach our lives. That is, the gospel is good news because Jesus actually became king, not just because he acted like a king on earth—even as revolutionary as he was.
At this point, the reader knows the “gospel allegiance” framework, but how does this affect other tenants of salvation theology?
Part 2: Advancing Gospel Allegiance
The first chapter of Part 2, Chapter 4: “Grace in Six Dimensions,” clearly describes the nature of saving grace.
The question Bates answers in this chapter is this: Doesn’t the gospel allegiance model violate God’s grace?
He answers no and helpfully describes the different ways “grace” can mean things. Like he did with “faith,” he unpacks the importance of frame for the specific meaning of “grace” in this discussion.
God’s general grace is nuanced from his saving grace—and the difference is important.
So no, he says, the fact that our allegiance is saving doesn’t violate God’s grace. Describing God’s unmerited saving grace, he writes, “Humans can do nothing to deserve this gospel-grace” (p. 129).
This is a chapter that deserves careful reading and re-reading because it’s thick, rich, and challenging.
Chapter 5, “Faith Is Body Out,” extends his thesis about “faith” meaning “allegiance” with a focus on the bodily nature of allegiance.
Essentially, he affirms the inward importance of faith but argues that we cannot separate our faith from our body.
Chapter 6 describes “How Works Are Saving.” Wait, what?! Works don’t save us!
It’s very shocking to read, but listen to what Bates is saying because this is the most important chapter in the Part 2.
“Works” in the New Testament are vastly misunderstood by most Protestants (and others) today, and Bates clarifies the difference between works as “good deeds” and “works” (as in “works of Old Testament law”).
Paul’s normative way of contrasting God’s justification with our “works” is to talk about the inability of one’s enactment of Old Testament practices to justify (particularly for Jewish Christians).
But this is different than good works. The difference is important for how we understand the gospel. Plus:
The gospel is what Jesus does, not what we receive from him.
This opens up the vital role of our good deeds to display the authenticity of our allegiance.
He says, “Actual works or deeds are said to be the foundation of the judgment for eternal life in Romans 2:5–8” (p. 184). Bates does an excellent job articulating this for younger generations, similar to what Wright and others have done. So pay careful attention to Chapter 6.
The final chapter, Chapter 7: “Taking the Allegiance Challenge,” helps the reader work out by summary some kinks that might arise as they live out and talk about this challenging thesis with others.
Explaining the gospel-allegiance model from Scripture is the basic challenge.
The final challenge is embracing disciple-making as the way to help others find salvation in him, and “the path of discipleship is the path of salvation” (p. 222).
My favorite line in this chapter is from page 222:
“Our imperfect allegiance is perfectly saving when it unites us to him.”
This perfectly describes where he lands with regard to sovereignty and salvation.
The Value of Gospel Allegiance
In the end, the value of this book is how it provides a model, a frame, and a biblical-theological approach to the current gospel debates.
The greatest practical value is that Bates offers readers a simple, one-sentence summary of the gospel, plus ten points that summarize the full gospel. This book serves as a richly useful tool for individuals, families, and churches.
My particular takeaway has to do with how he resolves the faith-works debate.
Most people I know say, “We will never settle that one,” but I believe Bates joins others’ works to masterfully settle this debate for me (as much as possible). Hopefully, other readers will at least find rest on this topic and no longer feel plagued by the tension they feel from “balancing” faith and works. There’s no need to balance faith and works with allegiance.
We can adopt the gospel-allegiance model as a tool to help integrate faith and good deeds because they cannot truly be separated in the first place, Bates argues.
My Critique of Gospel Allegiance
As I continue to process Gospel Allegiance, I keep coming back to this question:
Why is enthronement the climax of the gospel?
I agree that the climax of the gospel is not the cross, but I’m not convinced that the climax is the enthronement.
I think the resurrection is the climax of the gospel, not the enthronement.
Bates claims on page 87 that the New Testament repeatedly treats enthronement as its climax, but I’m not convinced of this.
I think Jesus’ enthronement is the beginning of the resolution of the gospel narrative. That is, if we’re talking about story (which we are when we talk about “the climax” of the story), we exit strict Scriptural terminology and enter into modern story speak.
Now, I do think that Scripture explicitly speaks about the climax of the story of humanity as a whole using the language of telos (often translated “the end”), but that is not Bates’s point.
Bates is talking about the climax of the gospel proper.
To me, his discussion departed, surprising enough, at this point from explicitly Scriptural argumentation and entered into modern story theory.
Again, based on my understanding of story,
I would argue that the resurrection is the climax of the gospel proper.
And I think Jesus’ enthronement is the resolution of the gospel, not its climax.
Romans 1:3–4 isn’t explicit, as Bates is, and 1 Corinthians 15 as a whole focuses on the importance of the resurrection, so I just wasn’t fully convinced that Scripture is as clear on this as Bates is.
That is my soft critique.
I do, however, have a more pointed critique. My sense is that Bates left a major gap in his “full gospel” presentation: the fact that he didn’t include the active and public ministry life of Christ as part of the full gospel—the life of Christ between his birth and his passion.
I consider the life of Jesus to be part of the full story, but from what I understand of Bates’s book, he does not.
The Gospel narratives are called “Gospel” not just because of the beginning and end of the story but because those parts are embedded in the life-of-Christ narrative as a whole. While Bates may have a response to this elsewhere, it was not clearly articulated in this book. To me, this is a glaring weakness in his overall presentation of the full gospel.
Perhaps he would point to the lack of explicit mention of Jesus’ ministry in Scripture as part of the gospel proper, but I think he may have taken his good thesis—and critique of those who make “gospel” mean anything and everything—and thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
I believe the inaugural period of Jesus’ reign during his earthly ministry cannot be separated from the full gospel proper. He seems to have overreached his important explicit-text approach and missed something that might come with an even more nuanced approach. Perhaps this was outside of this book’s purview, but I think it hurt his argument in the end.
I highly recommend this book.
It’s worth the time, the challenge of working through the sometimes arduous material, and the opportunity to receive the theological challenges it presents to modern-day readers. The challenges come in the form of pressing commonly presupposed beliefs about the “gospel.” While I think it’s written at more of an academic level, it’s still accessible for all.
This book is worth your attention, and rethinking your gospel with this book in hand is well worth your time.
Learn more about Matthew W. Bates here.
Subscribe to HIM Publications to get weekly blogs like this delivered to your inbox.