By Bob Wilkin
This is Appendix 4 from the forthcoming book, The Power of Repentance.
What is the relationship between confession, repentance, and fellowship with God? What precisely must one do to have and maintain that fellowship? How does a born-again person know that he is currently in fellowship with God?
God has given us some broad principles to give us assurance that we are in fellowship with Him. The first four principles are essential to being in fellowship. Someone can follow one, two, or even three of these principles and yet not be in fellowship. All four are needed. The fifth principle concerns assurance that we are experiencing mature fellowship with God.
Principle #1: Loving God Is Vital to Fellowship with Him (1 John 1:4; 4:19)
First, you must love God to be in fellowship with Him. The Lord Jesus indicated that the greatest commandment is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Deut 6:5; Matt 22:37//Mark 12:30).
The word fellowship (Greek, koinōnia) has a basic sense of sharing. When we fellowship with other Christians, we are sharing experiences with them (a meal, worship, prayer, etc.). Fellowship is a relational term. When we are in fellowship with God, we share His way of looking at life (principle #2), and we recognize that our life is lived in communion with Him. His Spirit energizes and motivates us. One of the central motivations for a believer in fellowship is love for God. John said, “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). As he reflected on Christ’s death for us, Paul said that “the love of Christ constrains us” (2 Cor 5:14).
If a believer does not love God, then he is not in fellowship with God. Almost everyone in Christendom recognizes that fact.
However, the opposite is not true. The fact that someone loves Jesus does not mean that he is necessarily in fellowship with Him. It is possible to have great love for Jesus and a strong desire to please Him and yet promote works salvation (or other false teachings), not confess one’s sins, and not assemble each week with other believers.
Principle #2: Walking in the Light Is Necessary for Fellowship (1 John 1:3-4, 7)
Second, fellowship with God requires walking in the light, as opposed to walking in the darkness. Hodges suggests that “to walk in the light must mean essentially to live in God’s presence, exposed to what He has revealed about Himself. This, of course, is done through openness in prayer and through openness to the Word of God in which He is revealed.” In many spheres of Evangelicalism today there is an anti-doctrinal sentiment. Many Evangelicals think that doctrine is bad since it can divide people. Therefore, many put an emphasis—or the entire emphasis—on loving God (principle #1).
But Scripture shows that only those who “walk in the light” (as opposed to walking in darkness) are in fellowship. Only then does “the blood of Jesus cleanse us from all sin” (1 John 1:5-7).
God’s Word is to be a light unto our path if we are walking in fellowship with God (Ps 119:105). Walking in the light is to bring our lives under the spotlight of God’s Word.
That means, of course, that we must regularly be exposed to the teachings of God’s Word. Typically, that occurs in our local church (see principle #4), though today most people have the Bible in their own languages and can supplement the teaching they receive with personal Bible reading.
Part of walking in the light is continuing to believe the core doctrines of the Christian faith. The core doctrines include the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and justification by faith alone, apart from works. Some would include the inerrancy of Scripture as a fundamental truth. If a person rejects any fundamental doctrine, then he is not in fellowship with God (cf. 2 Cor 11:3; Gal 1:6-9; 1 Tim 1:18-20; 4:16; 2 Tim 2:16-18; Titus 1:9).
We should not confuse walking in the light with obeying His commandments (compare 1 John 1:7 and 1 John 2:3-11). John is speaking of the mature believer when he refers to those who obey His commandments (1 John 2:3-11). A brand-new believer can walk in the light, even though he does not yet know or apply most of the commandments.
The second greatest commandment, loving your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:39//Mark 12:31), falls under principle #2 (as well as principles #3-5). Anyone walking in the light is loving his neighbors (1 John 3:16-18; 4:20).
Principle #3: Confessing Our Sins Is Required for Fellowship (1 John 1:9)
Third, one must confess his sins. The issue of confession is rather fuzzy for most Evangelicals. Is it enough to acknowledge to God that I am a sinner and I’ve sinned this week? Many churches have public readings in which the entire congregation confesses their sinfulness.
There is no indication in 1 John 1:9 that a weekly confession at church is what God has in mind. Certainly, it is fine to confess our sinfulness at church. But God wants us to be open and honest about our sin as soon as we recognize it.
King David said, “When I kept silent my bones wasted away all day long” (Ps 32:3). He was talking about the time, nearly a year, after he committed adultery and murder. He kept silent about his sin and he was in pain all day long. Only when he confessed his sin to God did he experience God’s forgiveness: “I acknowledged my sin to You…and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Ps 32:5; see also 2 Sam 12:1-15, esp. v 13, “I have sinned against the Lord”).
According to 1 John 1:9, our forgiveness and cleansing are conditioned upon our confession of our sins as we become aware of them (“If we confess…”). Therefore, we not only confess the general fact that we sin and fall short of God’s glory (Rom 3:23), but we also confess the specific sins of which we become aware (cf. 2 Sam 12:7, 13; Ps 32:3-5; Prov 28:13). I. Howard Marshall says, “To confess sins is not merely to admit that we are sinners, but to lay them before God and to seek forgiveness.” Similarly, Smalley says, “The use of the plural, ‘sins’ (tas hamartias), probably indicates that the confession of particular acts of sin is meant in the context, rather than the acknowledgement of ‘sin’ in general.” A century earlier Westcott wrote that the confession “extends to specific, definite acts, and not only to sin in general terms.”
The other contextual indication that specific sins are to be confessed is the expression “all unrighteousness.” God forgives us our sins, the sins we confess, and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. While many commentators see these expressions as synonymous, the word all before unrighteousness suggests otherwise. Hodges says that all unrighteousness “is broader and covers any latent attitude or outlook that is sinful in character, whether or not it has found expression in overt sin…the cleansing that follows [confession of specific sins] covers everything that needs cleansing.” None of us can possibly confess all our sins. Hodges says, “No one but God can ever possibly know the full extent of our sinfulness, so that we can only actually confess the sins of which we are aware. God does not ask more of us than that.” The sins which we confess are but the tip of the iceberg.
There is no special prayer of confession of specific sins given in Scripture. The words of the Lord’s prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” are general in nature. What God is looking for is for us to be honest with Him.
Confessing the sins of which we are aware is a vital aspect of fellowship with God.
Principle #4: Going to Church Is Essential for Fellowship with God (Acts 2:42; Hebrews 10:23-25)
Fourth, one must gather with other believers regularly. While we may respect and admire monks who spent years in isolation in a cave, the truth is that asceticism does not work (see, for example, Col 2:20-23). Fellowship with God occurs in a corporate context, not in isolation.
The local church is the place in which believers are to gather and encourage one another until Christ returns (Heb 10:23-25). To forsake such assembling together is to violate a crucial fellowship principle.
I realize that some today have difficulty finding a solid Bible teaching church close to them. In that case I’d suggest moving to a place where there is one. If that is not feasible, then gather with your family for the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and a message from God’s Word each week.
Some people treat their home Bible study as church. If you were to add in the Lord’s Supper and baptism, that study becomes a home church.
I. Howard Marshall says, “Persons who cut themselves off from fellowship with other Christians cannot have fellowship with God.”
The early church in Jerusalem was growing steadily. Luke says, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread [i.e., the Lord’s Supper], and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). Fellowship with God flourishes in a context where people regularly receive the teaching of apostolic doctrine, where the Lord’s Supper is presented, and where prayers are uplifted.
Principle #5: Living Righteously Demonstrates Mature Fellowship (1 Corinthians 2:14–3:3; 1 John 2:3-11)
Fifth, mature fellowship with God manifests itself in a holy life. Many Evangelicals equate fellowship with God with Christian maturity. In that view immature Christians are not in fellowship with God. Only mature Christians are in fellowship with God.
That would mean that all new believers, who are by definition “babes in Christ” and not yet spiritual believers (1 Cor 2:14–3:3), are out of fellowship. But that is incorrect. A new believer begins the Christian life in fellowship (Acts 10:43). If he continues to love God, walk in the light, confess his sins, and learn about Christ at church, he remains in fellowship with God, even though he is spiritually immature.
There is a subtle distinction in First John between being in fellowship with God (1 John 1:6-10) and knowing God in our experience (1 John 2:3-11). Only the mature believer knows God experientially. Hodges explains the distinction in this way, “Just as a claim to fellowship with Him is false if we ‘walk in darkness,’ so too a disobedient lifestyle falsifies any claim to intimate knowledge of Him.”
Can You Answer These Questions Affirmatively?
Based on the five principles given above, we can generate some fellowship questions. Answer the first four positively and you know you are in fellowship. If you can also answer question five affirmatively, then your fellowship with God is mature. Here are the key fellowship questions:
- Do you believe fundamental Bible doctrine?
- Do you love God and wish to please Him?
- Do you confess your sins to God?
- Do you fellowship with other believers each week?
- Do you manifest a transformed life?
I realize that some would say that if a person is not yet manifesting significant transformation in his life, then he cannot be in fellowship. However, Paul indicated that it is not surprising for “babes in Christ” to continue to live like unbelievers until they have had enough time to grow (1 Cor 3:1-3). So, for the first year or so, a believer is a baby Christian. He is in fellowship with God if he walks in the light, loves God, confesses his sins, and fellowships weekly with other believers. But spiritual maturity is yet future for him.
If someone has been a believer for four or five years, as the Corinthians had been when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians (the first word in the Greek text of 1 Cor 3:3 is eti, still, “for you are still carnal”), and he is still in spiritual diapers, then his growth has been stunted. That does not necessarily mean that he is out of fellowship with God. He is culpable for his continued spiritual immaturity. But he may love God, walk in the light, confess his sins, and assemble regularly with other believers.
I have not mentioned repentance thus far in this appendix. That is because believers only need to repent if they depart from fellowship with God. For the believer who is in fellowship with God, he needs to walk in the light, love God, confess his sins, and assemble regularly with other believers in order to stay in fellowship with God. Repentance only comes into play if he turns away from the Lord (cf. Luke 15:11-24; Jas 5:19-20).
If you are a perfectionist, you may have trouble with the ambiguities in what I wrote above. What is the full list of fundamental doctrines I must believe to be in fellowship? How do I know if I’m loving God with my whole heart, soul, and mind? Do I confess my sins in the right way? Am I attending the right church?
If you are struggling with questions like these, I would encourage you to realize that God is not out to trip us up. He loves us and wants us to be in fellowship with Him. He has not made it difficult to know if we are in fellowship.
But the second thing you should realize is this: God has given each local church a group of men whose job is to oversee the spiritual lives of the flock. In the NT, these men are called elders or overseers. Maybe your church calls these people pastors, deacons, or the board. Whatever they are called, they are tasked with making sure that those who are members of the body are in fellowship with God. If they consider you a member in good standing, then they are saying that they believe you are in fellowship. If they permit you to partake of the Lord’s Supper, and they do not exercise church discipline against you, then you can take comfort that someone external to you believes you are in fellowship with God.
I was raised under a lot of perfectionism. When I came to faith, I found it hard to envision God loving me just as I was. Oh, I knew He accepted me just as I was. But for a time, I thought He must be dissatisfied with me as my earthly father was. Only as I matured in the faith did I realize that God the Father is not like my earthly father. I came to see that He was satisfied with the gradual progress I was making in the Christian life.
I’d love to be perfect right now. I bet you would too. But that day is yet future (1 John 3:2). Until then, let’s walk in fellowship with God. It is better than anything this world has to offer (Luke 15:11-32).
Bob Wilkin is Executive Director of Grace Evangelical Society. He lives in Highland Village, TX, in fellowship with his wife of 42 years, Sharon, though sometimes he gets banished to the outer darkness. This article is taken from his latest book, The Power of Repentance.