Reforming Fellowship

by John Thorhauer Presented to the Men’s Reformed Fellowship January 15, 2010
"All we can say, therefore is: the community of Christians springs solely from the Biblical and Reformation message of the justification of man through grace alone; this alone is the basis of the longing of Christians for one another." Dietrich Bonhoeffer1 Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! Psalm133:1

The doctrines that came to be known as the five solas of the Reformation were the core principles from which the protestant church emerged in the sixteenth century. These principles are still held dear by some in the church today as is evident by the many ways in which the Reformation is cited, hailed, and commended. Many pray for a new Reformation to take place. Books are written expounding the virtues of the doctrines upon which the Reformation was based. Reformed alliances are created and reformed conferences are held. This emphasis on the doctrines of the Reformation is bearing fruit in calling God's people back to the essentials of the Gospel. When this happens God is brought glory and God's people are redirected to a biblical understanding of their relationship with him. However, in gaining a right relationship with God through Christ we also gain a new relationship with each other. “We though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Romans 12:5). Therefore, as much glory as God is brought when we gain a biblical understanding of the Gospel, God is dishonored if we fail to apply that understanding to fellowship with each other, the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Therefore as we look to remain true to the five solas of the Reformation we must be sure to ask ourselves what implications these doctrines have in all areas of life not the least of which is the union with fellow recipients of God's grace. We must be willing to reform fellowship. This paper will contend for what I believe are the some of the implications of the five solas of the Reformation for fellowship among the children of God. Before we go any further some terms must be defined. We must understand what is meant by “the five solas” and the term fellowship. The Five Solas The five solas are Latin phrases that refer to the basic theological principles at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. The word sola simply means alone or only. Each sola is a distinct concept that is fundamental to a proper understanding of the Gospel. Each doctrine also has unique implications for the Christian life. The five solas are: • Sola Scriptura – Sola scriptura is the teaching that the Bible is the only inspired
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Harper One 1954 pg 23


• •

and authoritative word of God, is the only source for Christian doctrine, and is accessible to all, that is, it is perspicuous and self-interpreting2. Solus Christus – Solus Christus is the teaching that our salvation is accomplished by the mediatorial work of the historical Christ alone. His sinless life and substitutionary atonement alone are sufficient for our justification and reconciliation with the Father3. Sola Fide – Sola fide is the teaching that justification is received by faith alone, without any mixture of or need for good works, though saving faith is always evidenced by good works4. Sola Gratia – Sola gratia is the teaching that salvation comes by God's grace or "unmerited favor" only and not as something merited by the sinner5. Soli Deo Gloria – Soli Deo Gloria is the teaching that all glory is to be due to God alone since salvation is accomplished solely through His will and action6.

Fellowship Fellowship comes from the Greek word koinonia. It is translated into English as fellowship, partner, communion, and participate.7 In scripture it refers to those who are in partnership with one another or those who share a common interest.8 Fellowship was at the heart of the church from the very beginning when the church first gathered and “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Fellowship and Truth Christian fellowship has always grown out of a common understanding of truth. Without that common understanding we cease to be a fellowship and become simply a loose association of people that may live close to one another, have kids in the same school, be of a similar demographic or share in some common hobbies. It is only the bond created by the truth of the Gospel in us that produces something greater, something authentic9. This is why John writes: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may
2 3 Here We Stand ! A Call From Confessing Evangelicals for a Modern Reformation, Ed. James Montgomery Boice, Benjamin E. Sasse, P&R Publishing 2004 4 5 Ibid. 6 Ibid. 7 Vine, Unger, White, Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words, 1985 pg 233 8 Jerry Bridges, The Crisis of Caring, NavPress 1985 pg16 9 William Edgar, Truth in All its Glory Commending the Reformed Faith, P&R Publishing 2004, p2


have fellowship with us” (1 John 1:2-3a) The fellowship that John looked forward to with his readers could only come about through the proclamation and affirmation of the “the word of life”, Jesus Christ. It is union with Christ that gives us a new bond with each other. Fellowship as relationship and partnership While Christian fellowship cannot exist without truth it has not reached its purpose if we fail to go beyond a simple affirmation of truth. Fellowship based on the truth of who we are in Christ creates a new bond between believers. This new bond means that we now have both a relationship and a partnership with each other. The Bible uses both of these terms in reference to fellowship. The emphasis on the relationship aspect of fellowship reminds us of the community we share together. The emphasis on partnership highlights that we are to be active in taking up the cause of Christ in the Gospel in this new community.10 One final note on fellowship before moving forward. This paper does not take up aspects of fellowship that fall within the realm of corporate worship. Although there is a kind of fellowship that takes place during corporate worship, it is better addressed under the umbrella of corporate worship. While that may be worth considering it falls outside the scope of this paper. There are several very good works one can read that take up the subject of reforming worship.11 This basic understanding of the five solas and a biblical understanding of fellowship set the groundwork for going forward. We will now try and understand how these five great truths shape and guide our fellowship with each other. Sola Scriptura We will start with the foundation of all the solas and that is sola scriptura. When we say that the Bible is the only source for Christian doctrine we mean that it alone contains all that one needs to know in order to obtain salvation and to live the Christian life. The Bible is what we call, sufficient. However, God's word when combined with the work of the Holy Spirit also becomes efficient. That is, it becomes an effective means that God uses to bring about salvation and sanctification in the life of his children. The implications of sola scriptura and the truths that flow from it are far reaching. Scripture must permeate and direct every aspect of our lives. We must look to scripture for the revealing of eternal truth and for the wisdom to apply that truth in every day life. When we come to the topic of fellowship we are no less constrained by Scripture than when we consider topics such as worship, marriage, or eternity.

10 Jerry Bridges, The Crisis of Caring, NavPress 1985 pg17-18 11 John Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth, P & R Publishing 1996; D.A. Carson, Worship by the Book, Zondervan 2002


Faced with such an all-encompassing view of Scripture the questions that must be asked are first, what does it mean to those in Christian fellowship that Scripture is both sufficient and efficient? Second, what should fellowship therefore look like? Sufficiency of Scripture: Direction in fellowship. We know from scripture that God calls us to “exhort one another every day as long as it is called 'today' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). But how do we exhort one another? What is the content of that exhortation? Is scripture sufficient for us here? The apostle Paul gives a resounding yes! Not only should our exhortations to one another be founded on scripture but also they must be infused with the very words of God. In a passage where Paul is expounding on the abc's of 'one anothering' he writes “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom...”. (Colossians 3:16) It is through the word of God dwelling in us that our exhortation and encouragement to one another finds its direction and its content. Efficiency of Scripture: Confidence in fellowship. Scripture should give us great confidence in fellowship. You might ask 'Why do I need confidence in fellowship?'. If we are going to faithfully and lovingly engage one another day in and day out to be fighting the good fight then we will need confidence. There will be times when we see in each other what we often see in ourselves, a lack of will or desire to continue in the fight. There will be occasions where it seems that fellow believers receive our own exhortations and counsel with coldness or indifference. How in moments like this do we continue exhorting each other on in the fight? From where do we draw confidence? We find confidence in God and faithful reliance on his word, knowing that he is not dependent on our abilities of persuasion or a brother’s deep intellectual ponderings to bring about transformation. For example, Paul shows great trust in God's active word in believers when he describes it as “the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:14). Paul trusts God's word to accomplish what he cannot when he tells the elders at Ephesus “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (Acts 20:32). So we too must trust that God's word will be effectual in conforming brothers and sisters into the image of Jesus Christ. Sola Sciptura: What should fellowship therefore look like? How should this great truth, sola scriptura, shape our community? What should be distinctive about a group of people who truly trust in the sufficiency and efficiency of the Word of God? First, the word will permeate our interactions. When we trust that God's word has for us all that we need we will look to it to direct all our interactions with each other. We will eagerly anticipate God directing us day in and day out through the word as to how to 4

encourage, how to teach, how to exhort. Second, we will commend the word to each other. If it is through the words of the Bible that God has both communicated truth and given life to his people we will eagerly seek to see God continue in this by recounting God's word to each other. We will study it hoping to have a better grasp of it that we might speak a tender word of much needed strength to a sister in need or a loving but firm word of exhortation to a brother wandering from his God. Third, we will have peace and confidence as we care for one another. We must be a community that finds its comfort not in the perfect earthly communion of the saints but in God who will, by his word, bring about the sanctification of each believer. This means we will not fracture as a community every time there is a disagreement or a misunderstanding. We will humbly and faithfully continue trying to “live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18) and spur each other on in the good fight. Fourth, and finally we will follow the pattern of scripture, which is to point each other over and over again to the cross of Jesus Christ. We must not allow our interactions with each other to become simply self-help groups trying to survive one crisis after another. As Michael Horton writes, “To be sure, Scripture provides God-centered and divinely revealed wisdom for life, but if this were its primary objective, Christianity would be a religion of self-improvement by following examples and exhortations, not a religion of the cross.”12 So it is that we move to our next sola and place our focus where it must be, on Jesus Christ. Solus Christus Solus Christus, the teaching that our salvation is accomplished by the mediatorial work of Christ alone, is not only the central truth of the Bible but it is also the binding truth in Christian fellowship. In fact, without the centrality of Christ and his work on the cross the concept of Christian fellowship would cease to be. Once the centrality of Christ is understood, the challenge is then to see each other in light of who we are in Christ. Christ: The Air of Fellowship Being united to Christ is truly the only basis for our reconciliation with God. It is through Christ that each individual can now “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16). However, if we understand the ramifications of unity with Christ in only a vertical sense, that is, the restoration of the relationship between God and man, we fail to see all that we gain in Christ. For once united to Christ each believer is now also united to one another “so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:5). So as we interact with each other we do so as
12 Michael S. Horton, Here We Stand! A Call from Confessing Evangelicals for a Modern Reformation, P&R Publishing 2004, pg 115


part of the body of Christ. Being members of one another is not an optional part of being a Christian. It is just as much an objective fact as being declared righteous before a holy God. Therefore if we are eager to receive the forgiveness that we find by being united to Christ we must also be eager to live as members of one another, united in Christ. The two are inseparable. Bonhoeffer writes: "I am a brother to another person through what Jesus Christ did for me and to me; the other person has become a brother to me through what Jesus Christ did for him. This fact that we are brethren only through Jesus Christ is of immeasurable significance. Not only the other person who is earnest and devout, who comes to me seeking brotherhood, must I deal with in fellowship. My brother is rather that other person who has been redeemed by Christ, delivered from his sin, and called to faith and eternal life. Not what man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community, what determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us"13 So it is that Christ becomes the air we breathe in fellowship. Anything done in fellowship outside of the realization of who my brother is in Christ is not true fellowship. We must therefore consider what practical implications follow from Christ being the air of fellowship. Community: Breathing the Air So when we seek to have community we seek to breathe. The air that we breathe is Jesus Christ. Christ is at the center of each Christian relationship. This reality frees us from the worldly demands that are typically placed on a relationship because Christ is now the focal point of the relationship. We now can find the ultimate fulfillment in Christ and not in each other. There are many things we look for when entering into a relationship with another person. We seek loyalty, love, friendship, and leadership. Yet all these are found in perfect fulfillment in Christ. Who is more loyal than Christ? “If we are faithless he remains faithful” (2 Timothy 2:13). Are we looking for someone to give of himself or herself in love towards us? “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13). Do we seek friendship? Jesus said “ No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15) Is it a leader that we want? There is no leader who is bolder who says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”(Matthew 16:24) and yet no leader more loving who says “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I
13 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Harper One 1954, pg 25


am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29). As we find fulfillment in Christ we become truly free to live in Christian fellowship with one another. We are now free to forgive one another just as Christ forgave us. We also pursue reconciliation with each other “as a way of exhibiting our union with Christ”14. We may now serve one another as Christ has served us all. All this is only possible if we are united in Christ. Sola Fide Sola fide teaches us that it is only through faith that we can be made right with our Creator. This faith has an object, a person that it looks to. We do not simply have faith in faith. That is, we should not think that if we believe long enough and strong enough we will be commended and accepted by God because we did so. Faith is a looking away from ourselves and toward someone else. The object of our faith is none other than Jesus Christ the Righteous. When we say we have faith in Christ we really mean that we have knowledge of who Christ is, a conviction that what he accomplished is necessary, and a trust that the work he performed is effectual15. In each of these areas; knowledge, conviction, and trust, we look outside ourselves to the one who provides the reconciliation that we desperately need. We do not look within to find what we need when looking to be reconciled to God. Now let us take this principle of faith, looking outside ourselves and toward Christ, and see how it applies to fellowship. When relating to a brother or sister in Christ are we eager to see Christ accomplishing for them the same great work that he has done for us? Many times I believe we do the opposite of what sola fide demands of us. We hastily stop looking to see the great work that Christ did on the cross and simply stare with unblinking eyes into the souls of our brothers and sisters in Christ wondering when they will get themselves straightened out? We look around and can easily see the speck in the eye of every person around us. Philip Ryken writes: “The sins of others often disturb the communion of the saints. James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) used to tell the story about the Scotsman who doodled during a sermon. The man wrote a short poem that was discovered in one of the pews after the service. He seems to have been looking at his fellow worshipers, for he wrote, To dwell above with saints of love, Aye that will be glory! To dwell below with saints I know, Now that's a different story.”16

14 Philip Graham Ryken, The Communion of Saints, P&R Publishing 2001, pg65 15 William Edgar, Truth in All its Glory Commending the Reformed Faith, P&R Publishing 2004, pg 184186 16 Philip Graham Ryken, The Communion of Saints, P&R Publishing 2001, pg 10


So instead of staring at each other we must look with eyes of faith to the one who unites us in one body and see the divine reality that is only true in the community of the saints. Faith: Seeing Christ as the Divine Reality in Fellowship Dietrich Bonhoeffer has much to say about the role of faith in fellowship and the difficulties that arise when saved sinners spend time with each other. He writes, “Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God's sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it."17 The promise that we look to for reconciliation with our God is the same promise that we must look to when trying to live peaceably in Christian community. As we experience pain in relationships that are still subject the effects of a fallen world we have two choices; withdraw from the relationship to protect ourselves from pain, or continue in the relationship with the faith that those with whom we share Christ in common are not merely fellow sinners but are also fellow participants in a new divine reality. Again Bonhoeffer writes: “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.”18 It takes faith to see in others what is only theirs through faith in Christ. What is it that we are demanding of others? Are we frustrated when those around us do not conform to the Christian ideal that we place upon them? Let us not shy away from exhorting and rebuking as we are called to by Scripture but at the same time let us not forget that our gaze is not to be fixed on the one that we exhort but on the author and perfecter of our faith and theirs, Jesus Christ the Righteous. Sola Gratia Sola gratia is understood as the teaching that salvation comes by God's grace or "unmerited favor" alone and not as something merited by the sinner. One of the key passages often cited in establishing this doctrine is Ephesians 2:4-10 God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
17 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Harper One 1954, pg 27 18 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Harper One 1954, pg 30


Even more specifically verses 8 and 9 are cited in answering the how question in regards to our salvation. How is it that we attain faith? The faith that saves us does not come from our own work but it comes to us as a gift from God. Now if we step back and take a look at the surrounding verses we also see that God tells us why he has saved us in this way. Once we understand what the Bible tells us about why God chose to relate to us through free grace we can better grasp the significance sola gratia plays in Christian fellowship. Grace: The Immeasurable Riches of God Ephesians 2:7 tells us why God saved us by grace. It was so that in times to come he might show how rich his grace is that is given to us through Jesus. Amazing! God uses undeserving rebellious sinners to display the treasure that is his grace. Not only that but also this display of God's riches in us will be shown in the ages to come! It is not just for the present time that God's grace in us brings glory to him, although it certainly does, but in decades, centuries, ages to come well beyond our earthly lives. Vessels of Grace: God's Painter or My Paintbrush? The impact that this has on Christian community is amazing. It means that as we live day in and day out with one another we are coming into contact with vessels specifically designed to display God's glory. Verse ten then goes on to say that God, before we were even alive, designed works for each one of us to walk in, to show that we are his workmanship. So each recipient of God’s grace is an individual who God has created for his purposes and even the works that each of us will do are those that God has determined for us to do. How does this change our approach toward one another, knowing that God uses us in this way? We must approach one another knowing that God has a design and specific purpose in mind for each of us. This is not the typical way that people relate to one another in our culture today. Boice writes, “Our present-day mechanized society treats people as things that have a function, rather than as people with a purpose”.19 We must fight against this cultural norm and see each other not as a tool that can perform a function for us but rather as a person that has been lavished with grace to then live a life of glory to God. We must begin to see each other as painters and not paintbrushes. If we see a paintbrush we simply see a tool that we can use to accomplish our goals. If we see a painter we see and individual who has been redeemed by God to now display the riches of his grace. The difference is massive. Soli Deo Gloria Soli deo gloria, to God alone be the glory, is the teaching that all glory is due to God alone since salvation is accomplished solely through his will and action. As new creations we are to now live out our purpose in life, which is to bring glory to our God through every
19 Here We Stand ! A Call From Confessing Evangelicals for a Modern Reformation, Ed. James Montgomery Boice, Benjamin E. Sasse, P&R Publishing 2004, pg 193


thought and every action. There is no area of life that is exempt from the call to bring glory to God. This requires a close reexamination of all facets of life. We must be careful to think about not only what we do but also why we do what we do. When motivations are not primarily for God's glorification anything flowing forth from that motivation is nothing but another form of idolatry. So it is with fellowship as well. We must not assume that if we slap the label “Christian” on the time we spend together that it automatically becomes a thing that brings God glory. We should be willing to ask ourselves the tough questions. Why do I love meeting with brother Bill? What is it that I am enjoying when I gather with others for prayer each week? What is my goal in the relationships that I am building? Fellowship Pitfalls: Making the We All About Me It is all too easy to take the gift of Christian fellowship that God has given us and turn it into an idol factory that churns out idol after idol. There are many different molds from which the idol is cast but they all are made from the same material, love of self. Here are just a few of the forms that self-love takes on in the Christian community. • Self pity – We all too often feel sorry for ourselves and our position in life. When we feel this way we like nothing more than having others tell us how right we are. How often does one gather with brothers and sisters simply to “share” of the struggles in life, looking for reassurance that struggles encountered are the result of attacks from outside or of the injustice others? Instead what needs to be asked for is a loving but insightful evaluation of ones self by those who know and love both the person and God's word. • Laziness – Many times the motive behind Christian fellowship is not to serve others with the gifts that God has given but to only be served by others. While there most certainly is a place for learning to humbly accept service from others there must be a yearning and seeking to find the place of service that God has called us to within the body. If we fail to do this can we truly be faithfully looking to be a participant in the body? • Godward indifference – There are some who use service to others as a cloak to cover their own lack of love to the God they are to be serving. These are people who are so busy serving the church that they just cannot find the time to commune with their God in solitary prayer and bible reading. This is just another form of self-love. Serving the church becomes a cover so that one does not have to address the lack of love for the one that is ultimately to be served. • Pride – Some quickly become puffed up with pride as they serve within the community. Usually these are those that are looked to as leaders and decision makers. This is a particularly tricky pit to avoid. Clearly God has called some into leadership in the body. Yet the various motivations behind leading can lead to either a humble servant-leader or to a tyrannical self-promoting leader.


Today's Community, Eternal Glory How is it that we can bring glory to God and avoid these dangerous pitfalls that so often arise in community life? I believe one of the best ways we can do this is to fervently pursue fellowship, seeking both joy and, yes, even glory in those we fellowship with while always keeping our eyes set upon the triumphant return of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is what we see Paul do when he addresses the believers at Thessalonica when he writes “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.” (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20). Paul looks to the return of Christ and sees the people he has been ministering to as his “crown of boasting before the Lord”. In saying this I believe that Paul is reflecting on what it will be like when Jesus returns and gathers his people. Jesus will gather a people who are not indifferent to him. He will gather a people who have been eagerly anticipating his return. They will be a people who are overjoyed to finally be able to worship their king face to face without the veil of a broken world. As Paul looks over the throngs of worshipers he will see those that he had a direct impact upon in Thessalonica and he will be overcome with joy as they all together praise their King. This is to be our focus as well. What are we doing in community but preparing each other to on day be eternal worshipers of our God and Savior Jesus Christ? When we remind ourselves of this we lose ourselves in the glory that is to come. The glorification of Christ becomes the backdrop for our fellowship. In this way the focus is shifted from an inward selfish focus to Christ and his rightful place as the one who deserves all glory. With our gaze fixed on Jesus we will not be able to continue on in pride, laziness, indifference, and self-pity. When we see his people we see a community that will one day stand together and sing endless praises to the King of Kings. Summary In closing let us remember that in gaining a right relationship with God through Christ we also gain a new relationship with each other. This new relationship sees itself realized in fellowship or community. Each of the five solas has a profound connection to fellowship so that as we think about each of the five we see implications for the foundation of fellowship, actions taken within fellowship, and the glorious end goal of fellowship. Let us look to take these great truths of the Reformation and use them to shape and direct our lives together. Let us reform fellowship.