by Stephen Ferguson  |  16 July 2019  |

Does loyalty matter more than moral virtue and efficient competency? Does our loyalty to a cause trump any personal shortcomings?

Would you rather have a loyal employee, a loyal spouse, a loyal friend or even a loyal president, or would you rather have a good one? In the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-13), Jesus seems to praise a wasteful and lazy servant who finally puts his master first, achieving the best outcome circumstances allow, if albeit an imperfect one.

The righteousness of two generals

Consider the righteousness of two men who would become famous generals. The first was raised in the model of an English gentleman and Christian, a top graduate at West Point, where he earned the nickname “marble man” for avoiding even a single demerit point. He was a war hero twice over, selected to command the entire Union Army at the beginning of the US Civil War. He was so honorable in war he ensured even a captured prisoner had his stolen hat returned. He was never filled with hate, only ever referring to the enemy as “those people.” He was well-known for his self-control and piety, not permitting even war to interrupt his daily reading of the Bible. He finished his career as the president of a college.

The second was raised the son of a tanner. A quiet boy often called “useless,” he also attended West Point, where he was an unremarkable student. He sought a spot in the cavalry but was assigned to the infantry. He was not brilliant but a doggedly determined soldier and general. Despite being raised by pious parents he was never a churchgoer. He was probably an alcoholic and didn’t handle idleness well. He finished his career as President of the United States, where he was seen as ineffectual and corrupt. In his twilight years, he was swindled out of his fortune and ended his life penniless.

Now which of these two men sounds more righteous? It is certainly hard to judge. I won’t offer any definitive answers, as God alone can judge the heart.

I will point out that the first man was Robert E. Lee, the famous Confederate general, and admit by most metrics he seems the more righteous. Yet no man probably did more to help defend the institution of slavery, the greatest evil and original sin of the United States.

The second man is Ulysses S. Grant, the famous Union general who finally defeated Lee. In my mind, he was never on par with Lee on even military terms, let alone in personal probity. Yet after Abraham Lincoln himself, or possibly even William T. Sherman (another colorful character with a mixed personal record), Grant probably did more than any person to defeat the scourge of slavery and see that all men truly are born free and equal. Sure, we probably are not even there yet, but don’t discount Grant’s place in that story.

So is righteousness just a matter of belief?

As Christians we like to say we are saved by what we believe and not what we do. And even when it comes to what we do, we have some imagined test of what sort of actions count. But do the life sketches of Lee and Grant illustrate how righteousness is perhaps a tricky question – trickier than we might think?

For example, does it matter that Lee professed not to believe in the institution of slavery while he continued to own slaves; whereas, when Grant inherited a single slave, he set him free, despite being in hard financial place? Does it matter that Lee read his Bible every day and attended church; whereas, Grant drank alcohol and didn’t attend church? Does it matter that Lee remained a true patriot to his cause, to its bitter end, when it was probably one of the worst causes in human history; whereas, Grant would eventually show his own half-heartened commitment to his own country?

In Christian terms, this whole issue very much falls back on that age-old question over whether salvation is by faith alone or is by faith and works? You’ve probably heard this debate a thousand times. I recently spent many hours debating this exact question with a number of very smart, well-known, Adventist thought-leaders. To be honest, I came away more muddled than when I started.

We have the Apostle Paul teaching, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Meanwhile James said, “Faith without deeds is useless… faith without deeds is dead” (Jas. 2:20, 26).

In the teachings and examples of Jesus, we have much about the superficial piety of the scribes and Pharisees. Yet in Matthew 25, about judgment being akin to separating sheep and goats, Jesus suggests we must do something. Jesus elsewhere says heaven is for “only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21).

This issue ignited the Protestant Reformation and has caused controversy within Adventism. The problem has never really been resolved, with the New Perspectives of Paul movement re-igniting a new 21st century civil war.[1] Confused?

Redefining faith as loyalty rather than belief

Entering this debate again is Matthew Bates and his fascinating book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King.[2] To pilot this confusing historic debate, he suggests a novel approach.

Bates does affirm salvation by faith alone. However, the nub of Bates’s thesis is we have been mistranslating the biblical word “faith” – pistis in Greek. In English pistis is usually translated as “faith,” “belief” or “trust.” Bates suggests “loyalty,” “allegiance” or “fidelity” would usually be more appropriate.[3] He sees allegiance as combining three sub-concepts: mental agreement, professed fealty and embodied loyalty.

In support of his argument, Bates points to biblical and extra-biblical sources. In my mind, viewing faith as allegiance may be a neat way to satisfy five key concerns of both Conservatives (i.e., Catholics and Traditional-Adventists)[4] and Liberals (i.e., most Protestants and Evangelical-Adventists):

  1. Loyalty denotes something beyond private, passive, mental affirmation

As Paul explained,Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:3). However, if we translate “believe” (pisteuson) as “show loyalty,” it indeed suggests doing something forms part of the cause, not simply the consequence, of salvation. A soldier who makes an oath of allegiance to defend the nation from enemies demonstrates inherent disloyalty if he or she passively does nothing when the country is attacked (Matt. 21:28-32).

By faith Noah built an ark (Heb. 11:7-8). Noah obviously had mental agreement and professed fealty. But Bates points out that Noah wasn’t saved until after he had completed the third step of allegiance – embodied loyalty – by building the boat.

  1. Loyal people are not always perfect, but imperfect people can be loyal

To this end, Bates points out that the rich young ruler claimed to be essentially perfect in terms of his commandment-keeping, a claim Jesus curiously never challenged. Nonetheless, that young man could not do the one thing that would have demonstrated his allegiance to Jesus: “Go, sell your possessions… then come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21). Without that one deed of loyalty, the young man’s professed life of perfect obedience meant absolutely nothing.

Conversely, the thief on the cross was a horrid sinner. Yet there was still time for the thief to do what ultimately mattered: defend Jesus before the other thief and affirm Christ as king (Luke 23:40). The thief wasn’t perfect by any ordinary measure of perfection, but in the end he was loyal.

It seems Bates is therefore saying that to the extent doing something contributes to our salvation, what counts are “loyalty deeds” (my term for his idea). Importantly, in Jesus’ revolution pronouncing His kingdom of God, He seemed to prefer the loyalty of prostitutes (unclean outcasts), tax-collectors (who were collaborators with the Romans) and Samaritans (seen as colonizing invaders) over Israel’s own Jewish religious leaders (Matt. 21:31).

  1. Deeds don’t actually save, except where they express underlying loyalty

Following from the proceeding point, it is within this prism of revolutionary-morality that God demands perfection and obedience (Matt. 5:48). Bates emphasizes that God is not establishing some humanly-discerned “rule-making” system as the requisite of salvation.

Rahab the prostitute hid spies (Jas. 2:25). Abraham attempted a child sacrifice (Jas. 2:21; cf. Lev. 20:2-5). Hosea married a prostitute (Hos. 1:1). On the face of it Mary’s expensive oil did look like a waste of money, probably better spent on the poor (Matt. 26:6-13). If you asked your local church board, they would probably view these God-inspired acts as immoral – perhaps even criminal. Yet these biblical figures were all declared righteous for deeds that expressed loyalty from the heart.

The key point being, there is an equal danger in thinking our deeds in themselves do anything. They don’t. And even worse is thinking we are ever in a position to judge another person’s loyalty.

Abel was considered righteous for offering a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain (Heb. 11:4). Yet as any good vegetarian-Adventist knows, this should not suggest God literally prefers the taste of meat over fruit (Gen. 4:3-5, 8:20-21; Amos 5:21). A deed can only ever matter insofar as it expresses underlying loyalty, and it is that underlying loyalty – alone – that counts.

  1. Loyalty is not the opposite of doubt

Eternal life is not something one only obtains in the past, as in the cliché, “I got saved in 1987.” Bates emphasizes that just as we can demonstrate allegiance to Jesus, we can turn traitor.

Nonetheless, God isn’t looking for excuses to keep you out of heaven. In parables such as the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), to the extent salvation is ever lost, it is we who do the rejecting – not God.

Bates suggests it is the ironic nature of loyalty that loyal people are most likely to worry they may not be loyal enough (Matt. 26:22). If you worry you might not be “in,” it probably means you are in!

In Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, it is the self-deprecating sinner, not the person who believes they have it all together, who is saved (Luke 18:9-14). Any doubt, fear and trembling we may feel (Phil. 2:12), is fatefully, usually, proof of our assurance. Ellen White makes the point that it was Judas who was most self-assured about his own loyalty.[5]

  1. Loyalty suggests something deeply personal

You can have faith the sun will rise tomorrow, believe the moon landing wasn’t faked in a Hollywood studio, and trust a Boeing 737 Max won’t crash. However, allegiance denotes something personal, if not feudal, familial and almost nepotistic (Luke 11:11).

To the apostles and first Christians facing martyrdom, this soteriological debate was much less confusing but no less profound: “Do you give loyalty to Jesus in heaven or Caesar in Rome?” Loyalty means personal fealty to Jesus as your king (John 19:3; Rom. 10:9-10).

Christians are not soft in saying Jesus must be the center of everything. Relationship with Jesus is not the icing on the cake – it is the cake!

Is Bates’s thesis helpful?

I tend to believe salvation mysteriously involves faith alone, as well as faith and works. Yet by viewing salvation through the prism of loyalty – not merit – I feel we can address some of the extremes and misunderstandings that have long affected this discussion.

What do you think?

[1] N. T. Wright, explains: “Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism, affirms that God’s final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led – in accordance, in other words, with works.” N. T. Wright, ‘New Perspectives on Paul,’ 10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, 25–28 August 2003, retrieved 31 Aug 14.

[2] Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Baker Pub.: Grand Rapids, 2017).

[3] To avoid doubt, Bates does not deny that sometimes pistis means mere mental ascent. But his point is that is not the most common meaning a majority of biblical authors had in mind, especially when discussing “salvation texts.” Ironically, it appears James may use pistis as mere mental belief or verbal acclamation in James 2:19, noting even the demons believe in God. But note James only uses pistis in this way to criticize it.

[4] Some Conservative-Adventists might be offended with lumping them with Roman Catholics. However, on this topic of faith and works, both groups largely seem to agree. Catholics and Conservative-Adventists differ on how divine aid is imparted to the believer in order to obey—not that obedience is required. As acknowledged by Conservative-Adventist commentator Kevin Paulson: “Catholics are not wrong to emphasize inward grace as essential to the justifying process, despite what some within and on the edge of Adventism have erroneously taught in recent decades. Where Catholicism is wrong is in its interposition of human mediators and human requirements as prerequisites for justification. Catholic salvation theology doesn’t exist without the sacraments, confession to priests, and the man-made traditions that comprise this theology.” Kevin Paulson, “Does Salvation Require Human Effort,” ADVindicate, Mar 16 2019, Comment. 

[5] In contrast to the other disciples who were deeply worried about Jesus’ statement that one would betray them, Ellen White writes that Judas did not consider himself a traitor. Note that irony. In fact, he considered himself the most loyal disciple, the one who would ultimately be most credited for his actions. “Judas did not, however, believe that Christ would permit Himself to be arrested. In betraying Him, it was his purpose to teach Him a lesson. He intended to play a part that would make the Saviour careful thenceforth to treat him with due respect… Judas would have the credit of having placed the king on David’s throne. And this act would secure to him the first position, next to Christ, in the new kingdom”: Ellen White, Desire of Ages, p.720.

Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church. 

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