There is no shortage of bad Christian books in the world. It seems these days that every megachurch pastor (real, aspiring or otherwise), child of a famous Christian, and Christian blogger (gulp!) believes that their words are deserving of at least a paperback edition.
If only this were the case! Frankly, I find most popular Christian books to be about as enjoyable as the flu. At first glance you break out in a cold sweat, then comes the headache, and by the end you are nauseated. The genre as a whole suffers from too many maladies to detail here, but some key issues are plagiarism, a failure to do any significant research on key claims, straw man arguments, excess sentimentality and a constant appeal to popular catchphrases.
Fortunately, we have some alternatives. Whatever you think about Amazon and online bookstores they do provide us with access to far more than what a Christian or popular bookstore carries. And there are some wonderful, and important, new Christian books out there.
All that being said, I am starting a bi-weekly tradition here of sharing recently published (within the last ten or so years) or largely unknown books that are deserving of your time and attention. Each of these books has deepened my discipleship, pushed me further into God's mission, and provided me with new understanding and excitement about God's story and God's work in the world. I will call these books "Burning Books," as they served to make God's word and calling clear to me.
I am not going to provide a book review for these books. Some I will write a fair bit about; others I will be very brief. The point is simply to pass on the blessing that these books provided me with, and I do hope you will task the risk of cracking open a few of them!
Burning Book of the Week: Salvation by Allegiance Alone, by Matthew Bates
Salvation by Allegiance Alone articulates what many Protestant scholars and pastors have uncomfortably hinted at for years: the word "faith" in the New Testament is closer to what we call allegiance or loyalty than "belief" as a mental category. Faith is not primarily an intellectual understanding or propositional belief about Jesus, but rather an adherence and faithfulness to Jesus as King.
Bates is able to succinctly demonstrate that the Greek word pistis (usually translated "faith") was often used to express one's allegiance to a ruler. In other words, if you were a Roman citizen you gave pistis to Caesar. Soldiers gave pistis to their commanders (as seen in Josephus). These citizens and soldiers were not merely saying they believed that their king and supervisor existed, or even that that trusted them, but rather that they supported them and would be faithful to them.
This argument is further strengthened by Bates' demonstration that the Gospel message itself was not a/the plan of salvation (as is often used in Reformed and Evangelical circles), but was rather the message that Jesus was God's anointed Messiah, and the resurrected King of the world. Of course as such He could offer salvation, but the point of having "faith" in the gospel message was the transfer of allegiance to Jesus the King.
Ultimately Bates points to three elements of faith that are at play in the New Testament when the word pistis is used:
1. Mental affirmation (yes, we still need this and at times is the meaning of "faith")
2. Professed fealty (publicly claiming Jesus as Lord)
3. Enacted loyalty (obedience)
In many ways Bates' argument resolves the questions surrounding faith and works in the New Testament, as someone who believes and trusts in the message of the Gospel will give their allegiance to Jesus and earnest seek to obey Him.
Bates' work serves as a helpful admonition for ministries dedicated to evangelism and discipleship, as he shows how evangelism fails without a call for obedience to King Jesus (hello discipleship). Bates helps us see how evangelism and discipleship are inseparable; they are in fact two sides of the same coin. And this understanding frees us from an evangelism built on convincing someone about theological truth claims up front and hoping for speedy success. Rather, if we conceive of our task as revealing Jesus's kingship and helping people come under Jesus's rule (which still includes the necessary information, but goes beyond it), then we can begin the long-term work of disciple-making with patience, knowing that transformed lives require far more time than accepting minds.
While Salvation by Allegiance Alone is not a terribly challenging read (some of the later chapters are a little more difficult, but aren't central to the argument), it is a challenge to modern believers who have separated their "belief" from their "faithfulness." It is a call to reexamine our own faith, and to ask if it is a faith characterized by allegiance and loyalty. As a good "Burning Book" should do, it points us back to the journey of repentance- aligning our life with the King- and therefore it begins to direct us into His mission. After all, those who are loyal to the King are called to fight in His battles.