The editorial staff of the Salt Shakers asked me to write on the subject of the believer’s fellowship with God.
It is necessary to begin by defining fellowship with God. Fellowship with the Father is the covenant. The covenant is the gracious relationship of fellowship and friendship between God and His elect people in Christ. So God said to Israel throughout the Old Testament, “I will be your God, and you shall be my people”. This covenantal formula teaches that the essence of the covenant is that believers have fellowship with God. To have the covenant is to have the experience of the covenant, which is fellowship. To have fellowship with God, which is the covenant, is to have the experience of fellowship with God. There is no separation that can be made between the covenant and the experience of the covenant or between fellowship with God and the experience of fellowship with God. The inseparability of the covenant and its fellowship must be clear when fellowship with God is explained. Fellowship with the Father is to know God as one’s God and to walk with God as one’s God in the world and finally in the perfection of that covenant in the life to come. The fellowship of the covenant is that the believer through God’s gracious work knows God, experiences God, and walks with God as his gracious God in the world.
Equally important as the definition of fellowship with God is the confession that the covenant is salvation. The covenant is not the means or instrument that God uses to save believers, but when God incorporates believers and their seed into his covenant that is their salvation. It is the highest good of man to be in covenant with God. In that covenant with God man has been delivered from sin, death, and damnation, and he enjoys God forever as his God. The salvation that God appointed to the sinner in election and that Christ merited for the sinner at the cross comes into his possession in the covenant.
The Reformed describe the benefits that God bestows on the elect sinner in the covenant as regeneration, calling, conversion, faith, justification, sanctification, and glorification. The order of these benefits is important. The order gives the logical and experiential order in which the Holy Spirit bestows these benefits on the elect sinner. All these benefits are blessings of the covenant of grace. Because God is the God of the believer and because God has made with the elect sinner an eternal covenant of grace, God regenerates, calls, converts, bestows true faith, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies the elect sinner.
The believer’s experience in the covenant is the enjoyment of God’s gracious work to bestow all these blessings on him and save him. By the reception of these benefits he experiences God as his gracious God and enjoys God’s fellowship. For example, in regeneration he experiences God as the one who raises him from the dead. In the calling he experiences God as the one who speaks to his heart and summons him from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear Son. So it is true for all the benefits of the covenant of grace. The point is that the covenant is salvation. In the covenant the elect sinner is saved in his own mind, heart, and conscience by God’s gracious work to bestow Christ’s benefits on him.
Because the covenant is to have God as one’s God, to have fellowship with God and to have full salvation, the covenant is also life. Life is the grand benefit that God promised in Christ Jesus. In Adam all whom he represented died. In the garden Adam departed from God who was his life and being guilty God inflicted the punishment of death on him and all his posterity. So all men are conceived and born dead in trespasses in sins, far from God, and outside God’s covenant. To live apart from God is death. Death is the experience of the sinner in Adam. In Christ all whom He represents shall be made alive. To be a member of the covenant of grace is life. It is specifically life with God. God alone is life and to live with God is life for man. The life promised in Christ is eternal life so that the believer in the covenant on this side of the grave has in principle what he will receive in perfection in heaven.
Thus the covenant is essentially also union with Christ. To have fellowship with God is to have fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ. God incorporates the elect sinner into his covenant of grace when God incorporates the sinner into Jesus Christ and makes him a member of Christ. To be in Christ is to be in God’s covenant of grace. To be a partaker of Christ is to be a partaker of the fellowship of God in the covenant and thus also a partaker of all the benefits of the covenant.
The fundamental question, then, is this: What is the ground and foundation of the believer’s reception of salvation and of all the benefits of salvation and of the covenant and the fellowship of the covenant? What is the ground now in the believer’s conscience and experience? What is the only ground in the world to come when he receives the perfection of the covenant? The answer is the cross of Jesus Christ, who merited salvation for the elect sinner and reconciled him to God by the death of his cross. At the cross specifically Christ merited righteousness for the sinner. This righteousness is God’s verdict that the sinner is perfect in God’s sight and worthy of every blessing. God blesses — God always blesses and God only blesses — the righteous.
How can an elect sinner be righteous before God? The answer is the justification of that sinner before God by faith alone. In justification God declares the ungodly sinner who believes in God to be righteous and worthy of eternal life and of every blessing of salvation. By faith alone the believer receives from God in his own conscience the forgiveness of his sins and the gracious imputation of the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Jesus Christ as his very own. That gracious verdict of God overcomes the testimony of the believer’s conscience that he has broken all the commandments of God and is worthy of condemnation. By His justification of the believer, God cleanses the conscience of the believer and establishes peace with God in his conscience.
Peace and the covenant are synonyms. Always the promise of God’s covenant is the promise of peace with God. This was the very form of the original covenantal promise in Genesis 3:15. The promise was enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. Enmity is hatred and leads to warfare. The promise of Genesis 3:15 positively stated is peace with God. So God calls his covenant “the covenant of my peace” because peace is the covenant’s fundamental and all-embracing benefit (Isa. 54:10). For the same reason God says in Ezekiel that he will make with Israel “a covenant of peace” (Ezk. 34:25; 37:26). The reign of the Messiah is prophesied as a time of “peace” (Ps. 72:7). At the birth of Jesus, the angels sang of “peace” (Luke 2:14). And the fulfilment of the promise given in Genesis 3:15 is described as peace: the “God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly” (Rom. 16:20). The good news is the “gospel of peace” because it proclaims and brings this peace to all who call on the name of the Lord (Rom. 10:15).
This peace, which is the covenant, comes into the believer’s conscious possession by justification. This is the testimony of Romans 5:1: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”. Peace with God is the grand benefit of justification. The believer knows God as his God and understands that God is for him and that nothing can be against him. To be at peace with God is to understand that God is one’s covenant-God and to live in that reality. To put it another way, the believer is reconciled to God in his mind.
The same relationship between justification and the covenant is stated in James 2:23: “The scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was it was imputed to him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God”. In the first part of the verse, James quotes from Genesis 15:6, the great Old Testament passage on justification by faith alone. In the second part James gives the benefit of Abraham’s justification: he was called the friend of God. He was called that by God and he was called that in his own conscience and experience because God justified him by faith alone. Scripture establishes here that in the believer’s own conscience and experience the benefit of justification for the believer is that he is at peace with God and is called the friend of God. It is as if in justification God says, “I forgive your sins, friend. I impute to you the righteousness of Christ, friend. On this basis and for this reason you are my friend now and for eternity”. To be the friend of God is nothing less than to have the covenant and to enjoy God’s fellowship. Abraham was called the friend of God because he was justified by faith alone.
Before God justifies the elect sinner in his conscience, there are several gracious works that God works in the sinner’s heart: God engrafts the him into Christ, which is the essence of the covenant; regenerates him with the life of the covenant; calls him from fellowship with sin into God’s fellowship in the covenant of grace; and works faith in his heart, both the will to believe and the act of believing. But the ground of these gracious works remains the same: the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ. So the ground, the only ground, of all of the believer’s salvation is that perfect righteousness of Christ Jesus merited at the cross. Consider any benefit of salvation and always the ground of that benefit remains the same: the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ. This is true whether one considers the elect sinner’s regeneration, his sanctification, or his glorification and the reception of the reward of grace. The only ground and foundation of that gracious bestowal of salvation and the grant of every reward and blessing of salvation is the righteousness of Christ alone merited at the cross and imputed to the believer by faith only.
In the believer’s justification God brings that truth into the conscience and possession of the believer by faith. By faith God acquits the believer of his sins and sinfulness and justifies him, freeing him from the guilt of his sin and dreadful sense of liability to divine punishment. In so doing God also causes him to understand that God is his God, that God does him good, and will always do him good, and that he is the friend of God. When God justifies him, the believer understands that God has loved him from all eternity, that Christ has died for him personally, that God has united him to Christ, regenerated him, called him, and given him faith, and that God will also sanctify him and glorify him and present him in heaven among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.
This is what Zacharias said concerning the ministry of John: “To give the knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins” (Luke 1:77). The knowledge of salvation means the knowledge of all of God’s merciful and gracious acts of salvation. That knowledge comes into the consciousness and experience of the believer by the remission of sins, or his justification. If we understand knowledge as experience of salvation, then we experience God as the gracious God of our salvation by the remission of sins. If we understand that the covenant is salvation, then the knowledge of fellowship with God comes through justification. The justifying work of God is the entrance into the experience of salvation and all the experience of salvation comes by it and is founded upon it. The reason is that every benefit of salvation rests solely on the righteousness of Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross and that righteousness becomes the believer’s only by faith.
This is the same thing that the apostle Paul teaches in Romans 5:2: “By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God”. The apostle here adds to the truth that he taught in verse 1: “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”. He adds the truth that those who have peace with God, or justification, also have access by Jesus Christ into this grace wherein they stand, and they rejoice in hope of the glory of God. The apostle speaks of the all-embracing effect throughout the whole life of the believer and into glory of that justification by which he has peace with God. By “this grace” the apostle means that by faith the believer is justified and has peace with God. To have that peace is basically the same as to have the experience of God as one’s covenant-God — the one who loves him, the one who is for him and is never against him, and the one who averts all evil or turns it to his profit. A believer has that peace being justified by faith.
The apostle calls justification “this grace” because justification is a wholly gracious act of God itself and because justification is the believer’s introduction into the sphere of God’s favour and wonderful grace. Being justified, the believer lives in the presence of God in God’s favour. Paul says that the believer’s access, or introduction, is “by Christ” because Christ provided the righteousness that is the basis of this introduction into divine favour and further because Christ by His Spirit brings believers into that favour. He says this access is “by faith” because the believer is a partaker of Christ’s righteousness in no other why than by faith only, and by faith the Spirit also works in the believer and brings him into God’s gracious presence.
The apostle’s point with the words “wherein we stand” is that this position of standing in the favour of God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone by faith alone is that in which the believer constantly abides. He stands always in the presence of God in God’s favour. The believer stands in this life. He stands in the judgment every day. He stands over against every affliction, sorrow, tribulation, and suffering. He stands over against the wicked world and the kingdom of Satan. He stands over against his own sinful flesh and his own actual sins. He stands in the final judgment. He stands and abides in God’s covenant, in his peace, and in his favour. The believer stands to all eternity in God’s grace. The believer stands in life and to all eternity on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone received by faith alone. To say this in another way: the believer stands as God’s covenantal friend in this life and to all eternity on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone received by faith alone.
By “and rejoice in hope of the glory of God,” the apostle means that because the basis of the believer’s standing in God’s favour is Christ and His righteousness and because that basis is sure and unchanging, the believer also rejoices in hope of the glory of God. Because he stands in grace through faith alone on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, the believer rejoices in the sure and certain expectation that he shall see the glory of God in eternal life.
Always in all his life he stands in God’s grace because always in all his life the only ground and foundation of his salvation and of every benefit of salvation is Christ’s righteousness received by faith alone. Christ alone is the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by Christ. The one who has Christ has the Father also. The one who has fellowship with Christ has fellowship with the Father. The one who believes in Christ is called the friend of God. The one who is justified by faith shall live, live now in God’s covenant and live in eternity in the perfection of that covenant when God’s tabernacle will be with men.
Written by: Rev. Nathan Langerak | Issue 52