In my youth, I attended countless evangelistic events. Often it was explained that I should strive to have a relationship with God. When the evangelist tried to explain how to have a relationship with God, the message would usually get muddled. He would start by saying that salvation is a free gift. He would then say that salvation comes by a relationship with God. After that, he would explain what a relationship with God looked like. It invariably included reading your Bible, praying, and going to church. That description of "a relationship with God" was contradictory to the message that "salvation is free." Even at a young age, I saw this contradiction and often sought to understand.
That evangelist illustration expresses a common confusion between a relationship with God and fellowship with God. A relationship is not the same thing as fellowship. That brings us to the topic of this chapter. What the evangelist got right is that we do need a relationship with God. Our salvation is based on our relationship to God. However, the level of our discipleship determines our fellowship with God.
So what is the difference between a relationship and fellowship with God? It's the same distinction we've been discussing since page one. A relationship with God begins the moment one receives salvation. However, fellowship with God is maintained through discipleship.
Let's take a look at John 1:12 which will give us a description of the fundamental relationship with God that we must have to be saved.
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name:1
What does it mean to be a child? Childhood represents a relationship with a parent. Are there good parent-child relationships? Yep. Are there bad ones as well? Of course. If I ever hear someone say, "he is my biological father," that usually clues me into the fact that their relationship may not be so great. They do, however, still have a relationship even if it's an estranged one.
In a similar way, salvation makes God our spiritual Father, but it's not a given that the relationship will be a close one. To be a child of God is to be saved. However, not everyone's relationship with God is warm. In fact, some saved people have estranged relationships with God. They are certainly saved, but their relationship may be strained.
The above verse tells us how one receives this child status. In fact, the verse says it three times in three different ways. Each of these signifies the same event.
1. Receive Him [Jesus]
2. Become children of God
3. Believe in His name
Each of these represents the same relationship to God. To "believe in His name" is a familiar phrase and is used over and over to signify that someone has salvation. So having a relationship with God, receiving Jesus, and believing in His name are all synonyms for having salvation.
You can see now how the evangelist I mentioned in the opening illustration slipped up. He implied that all people who are "truly saved" will have a good relationship with God. That's like saying you can only be a person's biological child if the relationship between child and parent is good. That's ridiculous, and it's not what the Gospel of John teaches.
We have already mentioned that fellowship is a discipleship issue and not a requirement for salvation. However, what is fellowship? To get a clue let’s take a look at 1 John 1:3.
that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.2
The same author wrote these verses from 1 John and the verses from the previous passage. In 1 John we find that the purpose of the letter is to teach believers how to have a closeness with God. John wants to show people who have a relationship with God how to make that relationship a good one, which he calls fellowship. Ultimately he wants to teach saved people about a critical aspect of discipleship, which is fellowship with God.
It should be said that these verses are not talking about how to be saved since he's sharing them with people who already have salvation. He explains the most important step in fellowship with God just a few verses later.
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.3
Now that we know the context, we should quickly see that this verse is not explaining how to have salvation, as many have taught. Instead, it's about how to be close to God. The key is the confession of sins.
Confession is not a requirement for salvation because salvation comes by faith alone in Christ alone. 4However, if you want to have fellowship with God; if you want to be close to Him, you are expected to confess your sins.
I'd like you to notice an interesting aspect of the verse above. It says that if we confess our sins, which means if we confess the sins we are aware of, He will forgive us of ALL of our unrighteousness. So the path to fellowship with God is not one in which I have to confess perfectly. There are certainly sins that I've committed of which I am unaware. However, if I confess the ones I know about to the best of my ability, He will also forgive the rest.
You may be thinking, “now wait a minute. I thought God already forgave my sins? Why do I have to confess?”
He forgave all of your sins in order for you to be saved. Regarding judgment and salvation, you're forgiven, but we're not talking about judgment and salvation here, remember? We're talking about fellowship. To have a basic relationship with God is to be saved. However, you need to confess daily sins, if you want fellowship with God.
You could think of it like a marriage. My wife committed to sticking by my side until I'm dust in the ground. She made that commitment knowing that I would sometimes offend her, and sometimes upset her, and sometimes let her down. By committing to be married for life, she promised to accept my shortcomings and stay together none-the-less. So positionally, I'm forgiven even before I hurt her feelings. My position will continue to be, husband.
Even though my position is always going to be husband, does that mean I will never have to apologize, and maybe even ask for forgiveness? Obviously, even though she's committed to forgiving me in the general sense, it would do tremendous damage to our fellowship as a couple if I trimmed her hair while she was sleeping to spite her. I would absolutely need to confess, apologize, and beg for forgiveness. Otherwise, our fellowship would be in the dumps. We'd still be married, but we would lose our closeness for sure. I would be made to sleep in another room, and all scissors would be hidden out of my reach. A relationship can be damaged, without being broken.
In spite of my appalling behavior, I'm confident that we could stay married since she is such a loyal person but the relationship would be dreadful. If I want a good relationship, I may have to work at it. In that case, I should confess to her any offenses I've caused and work hard to overcome them.
In a similar way, when we confess our sins to God, we are not seeking the kind of forgiveness that is needed on judgment day. That is already in place because Jesus has bestowed on us everlasting life. He's promised that life to everyone who believes. Jesus has committed to never allow the relationship to end, but He doesn't promise perpetual fellowship. That takes work. If we want a good relationship with God, we better confess.
In this light, you can see that a relationship with God is what we have when we gain salvation. However, fellowship with God is the result of discipleship. Fellowship is hard work sometimes, but it's well worth it. We are not saved because of the quality of our fellowship with God, but we are fulfilled by it. If you want not only a relationship with God, but fellowship with Him, then do what John says, and confess.
1 John 1:12.
2 1 John 1:3.
3 1 John 1:9.
4 John 3:16, 3:36, 5:24, 6:47, 11:25-27