Justification by Faith — The Only Basis of Christian Fellowship
Justification by faith is the only basis of fellowship with God. We are accepted only because Jesus is accepted, counted righteous only because Jesus is righteous. The truth of justification by grace alone calls all that we do and all that we are into question. It calls even our sanctification into question for no matter how far we might have come in our Christian experience, we must confess we still fall far short of God's ideal (Rom. 3:23). As the grand old Scottish Confession says:
"We willingly spoil ourselves of all honour and glory of our own salvation and redemption as we also do of our regeneration and sanctification"
"All that we do is unworthy, so that we must fall down before you and unfeignedly confess that we are unprofitable servants."
Holding to the truth of justification by grace alone means acknowledging that we never reach a point in our fellowship with God where we are able to do without forgiveness of sins. We never "pay our own way", but must keep begging and borrowing His mercy. There is no place for a religion which says "have patience with me, and I will pay thee all." We live in fellowship with God by sheer mercy, and are never accepted on the basis of sanctification, but on the basis of the "alien righteousness of Christ." (Luther) "It is because of the imputed righteousness of Christ that we are counted precious by God." O.H.C. 53
If the principle of justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ becomes a living principle in our hearts, it must certainly be manifested in our fellowship with one another. Just as justification by grace alone is the only basis of fellowship with God, it is the only basis of fellowship with one another. Our relationship with one another is only an extension or reflection of our relationship to God. This is illustrated in the Lord's parable of the unforgiving servant. Because he really expected to pay his own way with the King ("have patience with me and I will pay thee all") he expected his fellow servant to pay his own way with him. He did not want to go on living by forgiveness in his relationship to the King, so he did not extend any forgiveness to his erring fellow servant. See C.O.L. 245-246.
If we fail to grasp the principle of justification by faith, we will imagine that we will be accepted on the merit of sanctification. Then we will make our fellowship with our brother depend on whether he measures up to our standard—and when he doesn't we take him by the throat. It makes all the difference whether our religion is based primarily on mercy or on performance.
It is inevitable that we shall extend to our brother what we ask for ourselves at the throne of grace. The consciousness that we are accepted, not by our performance, but because of the righteousness which is found in our Representative and Head will be reflected in our relationship to one another. If we ask God to accept us as precious and righteous because of what Jesus is, then we will accept our brethren in Christ as precious and righteous on the same basis. If we confess that we are righteous in the sight of God only by "the alien righteousness of Christ", then we will acknowledge that our brethren in Christ are also righteous in the same way.
Now our brethren may make mistakes as we do; we may see our brother "sin a sin which is not unto death" ("there is a sin not unto death" 1 John 5:16,17). But unless he commits a "sin unto death"—that is, unless he obviously apostatizes from faith in Christ and makes it plain that he has utterly divorced himself from Christ—we must continue to count him as righteous and regard him as a saint of God. Paul, the great exponent of justification by faith, demonstrated this to us in his relationship to the Corinthians. In his absence there were many who distrusted and despised the great apostle. They fell into divisiveness, carnality, and spiritual pride. Yet the apostle still addressed them as saints—literally, holy ones. Why? Because, as he said, they were "holy in Christ Jesus" 1 Cor. 1:2.
We state the principle again: God does not accept us and enter into fellowship with us because of what we are in ourselves, but because of what we are in Jesus our living Head. Then we must accept all our brethren in Christ and be willing to enter into fellowship with them on the same basis.
All this is comprehended in Jesus' command, "If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet " John 13:14. The Church is a community that "washes one another's feet". Wherefore? Firstly, because they all confess that they are sinners. Although they have been baptized into Christ, they are not altogether without sin. Just as the feet are quickly and often soiled after a bath, so believers in Christ cannot escape some contamination with sin. They need a continual cleansing. Furthermore, God's people will continue to" wash one another's feet" as long as they celebrate the holy Supper—which is plainly said to be until Jesus comes (1 Cor. 11:26).
We confess we are sinners, and ask our fellow believers to accept us as righteous, not because of what we are in ourselves, but because of what we are in our great Substitute and Head. When we "wash our brethren's feet" we accept them as without sin on the same basis. How this world needs to hear the truth of justification by faith and see it demonstrated by those who live by the principle of "washing one another's feet"! Nothing else will lighten the earth with the glory of God.
We must now press this principle of justification by faith to our relationship to and attitude toward the church of God. It is only by faith that we confess that the church is holy. If we keep looking at the church as it is in itself, we could never really believe that the church is holy. It is the same as if we would keep looking at ourselves—we wouldn't believe that we were "holy and unblameable and unreproveable in His sight" Gal. 1:22. There is sin and imperfection in the church just as there is sin and imperfection in the best saint who walks the earth (Eccles. 7:20). The church is pure and holy, not in itself, but in its great Head. "For if the firstfruit (Christ] be holy, the lump (the church] is also holy: and if the root [Christ] be holy, so are the branches [God's people]" Romans 11:16.
Just as the believer is simul justus et peccator, so is the church. And unless the church has utterly renounced Christ and turned her back entirely on the covenant (like the Jewish nation did when it claimed no King but Caesar) then we must believe that the church is holy, and by faith confess that "He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath He seen perverseness in Israel" (Numbers 23:21). Faith sees a pure church, "not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing" Eph. 5:27. Such are the inescapable consequences of believing in justification by faith.
If on the other hand, we try to be accepted of God and have fellowship with God on the sanctificationist principle (whose logical end is perfectionism), we will be too prone to withdraw fellowship from those who do not measure up to our standard or from those who cast out devils in Christ's name but not by our methods. We shall be too easily exasperated and offended by the faults of our brethren and the imperfections of the church. In short, there will be no true basis either for fellowship with God or with one another.
All these ideas about a shaking that will result in a Seventh-day Adventist Church which will be empirically perfect, or worse still, that some other group will survive the shaking and become empirically perfect, are the fantastic dreamings of gross theological immaturity. Mrs. White truly said that such a notion of perfection only "...exists in our imagination" (R. & H. Aug. 8, 1893). Yet these wild fancies have persisted throughout the history of the Advent Movement and have persisted in charts of last day events drawn up by both ministers and laymen. Let the truth of justification by faith be proclaimed and understood, and these idle fancies will go like fog before the rising sun.
If the church has not utterly renounced allegiance to Christ, then we must confess that God is reconciled to the church. Now if God is reconciled to the church, we cannot be in harmony with Him unless we are reconciled to the church. It must be manifest that we have unequivocally forgiven those who have wronged us, so that the only question left is, Have those whom we have wronged in the gospel forgiven and accepted us on the same basis?
We cannot close this section without acknowledging the other side of the paradox. Christians still have the solemn responsibility to rebuke a brother when he sins and to sigh and cry for the abominations that be done in Israel. When we do this in the full consciousness of our own sinfulness and need of justification by grace alone, we shall manifest the spirit of the prophet Daniel who identified himself with the sinful in Israel, and confessed the sins of Jerusalem as his own sins (See Daniel 9:1-20).