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The Radical Basis Of Christian Fellowship
Geoffrey J. Paxton


Sadly, the word justification does not conjure up thoughts of life and vitality in many modern ears. Yet it would not be difficult to show that in the New Testament (especially Paul) the word is well nigh synonymous with life. Since the Reformation the concept has somehow lost its radiant color and vibrant, life-giving nature.

Consider the place of justification in so much preaching. If it is preached at all, it is preached on one of those days that the speaker thinks fitting — like Reformation Sunday. Or it may be preached occasionally to remind the congregation of one of the distinctives of Protestantism. For the most part, justification is seen as synonymous with conversion — a sort of first step which enables the believer to get down to the real business of cultivating a holy life. The great preponderance of sermons focus on sanctification or the theme of moral obligation. And justification is not thought to have any real connection with each step of the Christian walk.

This thinking is an offense to the Bible. Only the complete denial of justification is more incorrect. As a matter of historical fact, justification is the most relevant doctrine in the entire Bible. Justification is living and vibrant. And the church that does not experientially know this is a church that is in a sad state indeed. In the Scriptures justification is the backbone of acceptable, practical behavior. If there is behavior which is not determined by justification, it is sub-Christian.

Consider the problem of Christian fellowship. We say "problem" of Christian fellowship, because it was a problem in Paul's day and, in many instances, is a problem in our day as well. When we speak of Christian fellowship, we are speaking of our acceptance of other Christians. We are speaking of the ground and nature of fellowship. On what basis do we accept others as Christians? What does it mean to accept others as Christians? We repeat, these factors were a problem in Paul's day, and they are a problem in our day also.

Paul sought to solve these difficulties with the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This was so much the case that some have (wrongly) suggested that justification, far from being central to Paul's theology, was merely the specific doctrine particularly applicable to the question of fellowship, to the question of the unity of Jewish and Gentile Christians. Though the deduction that justification is only one of many centers in Paul is false, the observation that justification is supremely applicable to the question of fellowship is right on target.

What of today? Is justification normative in ecumenical dialogue? Is justification informing our approach to the problem of fellowship? We believe that in all too many instances it is not. We believe that justification by grace alone, because of Christ alone, holds the answer to a deeply disunited Christendom.

Let us face this issue honestly. It is all too easy for us to think that we do not have any problem regarding fellowship with other Christians. We can be so embedded in our own self-justification and self-rationalization that we completely miss the message of the gospel to us in the evangelical circle. When we come to this question of the ground and nature of fellowship with other Christians, let us not say with the Pharisee of old, "God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men." Let us, dear brethren, be open to the Word.

Part 1

So that we may hasten to draw some relevant conclusions for the evangelical church today, we shall content ourselves with a succinct statement on Paul's understanding of justification. For Paul, justification is the divine declaration of acceptance because of the total acceptability of Jesus Christ. There are two ways we can explicate this statement:

1. We may concentrate on the Christological aspect and so major on the meaning of the total acceptability of Jesus Christ. In so doing we highlight the truth that Jesus Christ has come to this planet and worked in our place. Actively and passively, by doing and dying, Jesus has pleased God for all who believe in Him. Jesus Christ, the divinely sent Substitute, has fulfilled all of God's requirements for full and everlasting fellowship with Himself.

We may explicate this statement by highlighting the theocentric aspect. Here the message is that God himself, in the Person of Jesus Christ, has come to this earth and Himself met the requirements of His own self-consistency. The Judge has become the judged for us. The only One able to inflict the punishment has Himself borne the punishment.

Both the Christological and theocentric emphases point to the one grand truth of justification particularly relevant to our topic: God has provided the only ground on which fellowship with Himself and with men can be enjoyed. To state the matter differently, God Himself has provided the ground on which He may declare men and women acceptable.

This glorious truth burned deeply into the soul of Paul the apostle. He addressed himself to all who seek to be acceptable before God and man. The status of acceptability cannot be acquired by works (Gal. 2:16; Rom. 3:20, 24; Eph. 2:8, 9). All who wish to stand accepted on the day when God will examine all men's works and pronounce the verdict (Rom. 2:6; 1 Cor. 3) must flee to Christ and embrace Him as their hope before God. The status of "Acceptable!" is a free gift now because Jesus Christ has provided all that is necessary for fellowship with God and man. (The expressions "not by works" and "by grace alone" express the gift-nature of acceptance negatively and positively.)

Another important feature in Paul's enunciation of God's method of making men acceptable is the present reality of acceptance with God. What Judaism had expected as a future verdict to be pronounced at the last day, Paul has moved up and made a present experience (cf. Rom. 3:21 for the contrastive "now"; see also Rom. 5:1; 2 Cor. 5:16, 17; 6:2). True, Paul also has a future dimension (cf. Gal. 5:5). Yet the present reality of acceptability is inescapably present in his thinking.

This point demands another: If God declares a man acceptable here and now, does this mean that God declares wicked men acceptable? For there is no perfection before the end. The answer is an unequivocal Yes! God declares wicked men acceptable. (This is the justificatio injusti, the justificatio impii [cf. Rom. 4:5; Mark 2:17; Rom. 3:21].) Those who have absolutely nothing to commend them to justice are commended by God. The marvel of marvels is that God accepts men and women on the ground of His own acceptability brought to light in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:21). It is this last fact which demonstrates that God does not wreck all standards of morality by accepting impious men on no ground of integrity whatsoever. No, God has honored His law by meeting the requirements Himself.

Let us consider a final point from Paul before we draw some consequences. It will be remembered that Luther added the word sola to the wording of Romans 3:28. We say added the word sola, because Luther did not make any addition in meaning. The fact that the declaration of acceptability is only by a gift (grace) is paramount in Pauline theology. The declaration of acceptability is only by Christ, meaning that it is only on the basis of His acceptability that we can be pronounced acceptable. The same is true of the expression "only by faith." This means that a man is acceptable to God and his fellow man through trusting in what God has done (grace) in Christ only. There are no requirements. One needs simply to trust in Christ's meeting the requirements on his behalf.

Much more could be said. However, we have stressed these facets of the revelation of God to Paul because of their bearing on the topic under consideration.

Part 2

We have stated that justification by faith alone is God's declaration of acceptability because of the acceptability of Jesus Christ. This is the justification of God. It is the justification of God because it is God's method of declaring men acceptable and also because God Himself is honored as holy and unblamable in such an action. He has, in Christ, maintained His faultless and holy self-consistency.

The justification which contrasts with the justification of God is the justification of man himself. Actually this is no justification at all. It is a spurious accreditation wholly lacking in honor for God and help for man.

These two justifications come into head-on collision in the question of fellowship. Here man either accepts those whom God rejects or rejects those whom God accepts. The godlessness of man expresses itself no more strongly than in his godlike acceptance or rejection of himself or his fellow man. Man gnashes his teeth at God and seeks to sit on the throne of the universe
pronouncing his self-spun verdict of acquittal or condemnation.

In the question of fellowship twin evils emerge. There is the evil of fellowship without any justification, and there is the evil of justification without any fellowship. The Word of God is bypassed, and the word of man goes forth to destroy, mutilate, and turn our churches into Gestapo-like ghettos.

Who will dare to deny that evangelical religion is deeply marked and marred by divisions? True, there is a surface unity, the hailing of a common Lord. But beneath this lies the dragon of division. Once it was division between evangelical and liberal; now it is between fundamentalist and new evangelical. Once it was between evangelical and Pentecostal; now it is between evangelical and new Pentecostal. This is to say nothing of the variations which mark the word Presbyterian or the word Reformed.

There is something highly conducive to the pretense of unity, and that is the fear of facing up to the real situation which pervades our age and which is aided every day by the media. We do not want to face the fact of deep divisions within the circle that claims to hear the Word of God more clearly than anyone else.

The tragic fact is, however, that we all have our own rules and regulations which determine whom we shall accept and whom we shall reject. In the multitudinous in-groups within evangelicaldom there are written or spoken codes which act as the basis of adjudication of others.

The besetting sin of evangelicalism is deep division — in some instances, flat rejection — on the ground of failure to conform doctrinally. Unless the particular creed or confession of our particular setup is endorsed to the last degree, fellowship is prohibited. Consider the present situation in the United States of America with regard to the question of eschatological convictions. So often in a recent lecture tour of the U.S. this writer was confronted by those for whom the burning question was not, "Do you confess Jesus Christ as Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead?" (cf. Rom. 10:9), but, "Are you premil, postmil or amil?" It was also evident that eschatological position was normative in the consideration of theological data. One theological professor was heard to ask after a lecture in theology, "How does this fit into our scheme?"

We are not advocating fellowship with no (scriptural) justification. There is the irreducible core of confession of the Lordship of Jesus Christ demonstrated conclusively by the cross and empty tomb (Rom. 15:lf; Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:1-3). Faith in the crucified and risen Saviour entitles a person to fellowship with God and His people. This we do not seek to deny or lessen. What we do advocate is uninhibited fellowship on the basis of God's action in Jesus Christ for us, and that alone!

We shall now address ourselves to the message of biblical justification for the question of fellowship.

Part 3

God declares men and women acceptable because of the acceptability of Jesus Christ. This is our first truth which is patient of elucidation.

If God declares people acceptable, we should be very cautious indeed that we do not treat such people as unacceptable. This, then, ought to be a fundamental question with regard to fellowship: "Does God accept this person?" If He does, then no man or institution ought to regard that person as unacceptable.

Earlier we stressed Paul's teaching that acceptability before God and men cannot be acquired by works. This is another way of stating that the only ground of acceptance is Jesus Christ — His perfect doing and dying. Therefore, all who refuse those whom God has accepted refuse to acknowledge the sufficiency of the merits of Jesus Christ. Jesus' merits are for all who trust in Him. If we treat such a person as even a little unacceptable, we are saying that something has to be added to the merits of Jesus Christ. Our faith in the adequacy of the merits of the Saviour will be practically expressed in the uninhibited way we accept those who stand on those merits.

Another way of expressing this truth is to say that failure to give the right hand of fellowship to those who trust in the merits of the Saviour alone is a serious defect in faith. Such a (weak) faith poorly apprehends the Saviour and the extent of H is merits.

Though we shall have occasion to later elucidate this truth more fully, we shall here mention that acceptance apart from works means that we can never ask people to fulfill anything in order to be uninhibitedly accepted by us. Acceptance can only be by trust in the Saviour's perfect doing and dying. Acceptance cannot be by works. It does not matter what the work is. We must ask for no deed to be done or deed not to be done. We must ask only, "Do you believe in the merits of Jesus Christ for you?" If God requires no work, we should require no work.

The second truth for elucidation is this: Paul stressed the present reality of justification. God's declaration of a man's acceptability on the ground of the acceptability of Jesus Christ is a here-and-now reality. This means that we cannot postpone our acceptance of another until the end. We cannot say, "I will accept him when God accepts him at the last day, if that be the case." No, there must be here-and-now acceptance of the one who trusts in the Saviour. God does not pronounce a person acceptable (justified) and then leave him to wander the earth alone. The justification of God is justification in the sight of men here and now. In fact, the acceptance of our fellow men because of Jesus Christ is part and parcel of sanctification, so there must be no justification without acceptance of those whom God has righted. The final verdict of God should confirm what we have been acting upon rather than provide de novo information about our brother's status with God.

The third great contribution of Paul which we have highlighted is that God pronounces the ungodly acceptable when they believe on Christ. Because of Jesus Christ, God is happy with the ungodly who believe. Are we? Or do we experience a lump in the throat when we find ourselves in the company of those Christians whose practices differ from ours? Happy fellowship with such will be the expression of the happiness of God. Let us remember: God is happy with us because of Jesus Christ. The merits of Jesus Christ are imputed to the believer. If we find ourselves unhappy with those with whom God is happy because of Christ, what does this say about our regard for Christ?

Justification is the justification of the ungodly. As important as we think sanctification to be, it cannot be the ground of fellowship. We repeat, sanctification cannot and must not be made the ground of fellowship with others. If this were the case, the new converts from a life of paganism would never enter the visible community of believers. Such a one has almost no sanctification to his credit at that point.

Constantly we find ourselves expecting others to do this or not to do that in order to be accepted by us. If this continues, some of us will never have real fellowship until glorification! However, fellowship is a here-and-now reality because its foundation — justification — is a here-and-now reality. If justification is a here-and-now reality, it must be the justification of the ungodly, because all are ungodly until their final transformation.

The final truth which we sought to highlight is the truth of the sola — the alone. justification is by grace alone, Christ alone and faith alone. The simple truth of this Pauline-Reformation sola is this: justification by God, unlike the justification of man, is by grace alone with no "plus." In other words, sola — alone — eradicates the little conjunction and. It is grace alone and not "grace and . . ." It is Christ alone and not "Christ and. . ." It is faith alone and not "faith and . . ." Here we are able to more sharply focus what we have been saying throughout our exposition:

1. The declaration of another as acceptable must be on the ground of Christ and not faith in Christ plus a certain denominational allegiance. Denominational allegiance plays no part in God's declaration of acceptability, and it should play no part in ours. There is no de facto righteousness on the face of the earth. That means that there is no de facto denominational righteousness on the face of the earth. We may gain no security from denominational allegiance.

We are not saying that we should have no denominational allegiance, but only that such ought to provide us with no security for acceptance with God or our fellow man. Let us beware lest we seek to expect a denominational righteousness from our fellow Christians.

A Christian who is a Baptist is no better than one who is a Methodist, and vice versa. Should we ever think we are better when we believe all partake of the perfect good (i.e., the best) in Jesus Christ? We think not. We may slightly alter the wording of Paul and say, "There is no one denominationally righteous, no, not one" (Rom. 3:10).

The declaration of another as acceptable must be on the ground of Christ's acceptability and not the acceptability of Christ plus party allegiance. Sometimes so many of us only need to hear that a person is in a particular party in order to determine our subsequent relationship with him. Time and again in the U.S. this writer heard people designated as "liberal", ''neo-evangelical," etc., in such a way as to close all discussion of the matter. A man's allegiance to a particular party was apparently more determinative — one fears, omni-determinative — than his allegiance to Jesus Christ. But there is no de facto party righteousness on the face of the earth. Therefore, we ought not to trust in such.

One of the truly tragic elements in party warfare within evangelical Christianity is the overt denial of the Holy Spirit. We are here referring to the idea that nothing good can come from the pen of someone who happens to belong to a party which we look upon with disfavor. We have had people write to this magazine and ask to be removed from the mailing list because we quoted someone whom they view with disfavor. Apparently there is not even room for common grace, let alone special grace! We do sin against God and each other when we believe we have a monopoly on the Holy Spirit.

3. The declaration of another as acceptable is because of the acceptability of Jesus Christ and not because of Jesus Christ plus the endorsement of our supporters.  Here is a real problem — the power of the voice of God and the power of the voice of the supporting constituency. The voice of God must be absolute, and not the voice of the constituency. If we are asked whether the two have to be in opposition, our answer is, Not at all. The voice of the constituency (can we speak of "the voice"?) must be heeded as the voice of God when that voice is in accord with sacred Scriptures. But so many of us want the justification of God and the justification of the supporting constituency. We must not seek the justification of God and the justification of man.

Surely our faith will be on trial here. We have a work. We believe it is a work of God. We want to see that work grow and prosper. But we need the financial support and good will of the supporters to achieve this. The great temptation is to want to not make the constituency unhappy.

There needs to be real heart-searching here. There needs to be real courage and a willingness to see our work dissolve rather than to shackle the truth of the gospel to the voice of our supporters. It is better to have no work and God's favor than to have a work at the expense of the gospel. We need to honestly ask ourselves whether our work is valuable to us because it acts as the objectification of our own ideals, whether it is but an empirical verification of our own skills and intrinsic acceptability. Reputation! To be well thought of! To be seen as a man whom God really blesses! These things can be really demonic and, we fear, in many instances are demonic. We hunger after praise and adulation from men and not (really) from God. We want the approval of men before we want the approval of God.

These are but some of the implications of the little word sola — alone. If anything is joined to grace, Christ and faith, then it is not the justification of God but the justification of man.

Perhaps more than any other, the question of fellowship highlights the normative significance of the justification by God of the ungodly. We of the evangelical church need to give serious attention to the quality of fellowship, its ground and nature. There is more than a little evidence that the justification of man is seeking to dethrone the justification of God. Grace and works for acceptance with God are incompatible. They will always be incompatible. If we have the one, we cannot have the other. We must beware of choosing the two under the guise of adhering only to the one.