How are we counted forgiven of our sins and righteous before the judgment bar of God? By faith alone in Christ alone. Christ is our righteousness, our justification. If Christ is our righteousness, that means that nothing else outside of Christ is our righteousness. Our righteousness is not Christ plus anything. Our righteousness is Christ alone.
In being counted righteous in Christ, God tells me who I am: I am his image-bearer, a true son. In Christ I am in the right and look forward to the last day when God declares me in the right before the entire creation when I am raised from the dead.
But justification is not all about me. It is about me, but it is not all about me. The justification that I have in Christ I share with all those in Christ. No one is justified any differently than me. All who are justified in Christ are justified because of his death and resurrection. Those who share this justification are all sons, children, of God. As justified in Christ we are one family.
The implications of the biblical teaching of justification reach far beyond the individual effects. Justification by faith tells me who my family is; with whom I am to be sharing the Table. Paul made this abundantly clear in Antioch when he confronted Peter and some other Jews (cf. Gal 2). Peter and Barnabas, both Jews, had been sharing the Table with the Gentiles. When some Jews from Jerusalem came into town, Peter and Barnabas withdrew from Table fellowship with the Gentiles and ate only with the Jews. This wasn’t because the Gentiles smacked when they ate. It was because the Jews considered themselves a distinct family of God over against the Gentiles, even the Gentile believers. Paul confronted Peter and told him that he wasn’t walking in step with the truth of the gospel in separating himself from Table fellowship with the Gentiles (Gal 2.14). What Peter and company were in danger of doing was nothing less than setting up a rival way to be justified before God; a rival to the justification revealed in Christ Jesus. If Jew and Gentile are really justified in the same way–in Christ apart from the works of the Law (i.e., living Jewishly)–then there is no separation in the family. If there is no separation in the family, then there should be no separation at the Table.
Amidst all of Paul’s concerns about justification in Christ is the concern that the church understand herself to be one family. This is evident in Romans. In Romans 3 Paul asks if God is a God only of the Jews or if he is a God of Jews and Gentiles. He concludes that because there is one God who created and is saving the world, this one God will have only one family. He is not a “tribal deity” (Rom 3.27-29). Through justification in Christ Jesus God makes Jew and Gentile into his one family.
Many times in guarding the purity of the doctrine of justification the tendency (at least in our tradition) is to guard the propositional purity of the doctrine. There is nothing wrong with that because it must be guarded. But where we must be careful is that while guarding the propositional purity we are not, at the same time, functionally denying the teaching of justification by faith alone that we so dearly hold. Any non-essential standard for fellowship with other Christians that separates us from Table fellowship with them is tantamount to setting up a way of justification that is outside of Christ Jesus.
Paul will speak of these very issues in Romans 14–15. These “matters of indifference”–matters that some people hold very dear–are not what define us as being part of the family of God. If the Law distinctions that God himself are now obliterated in Christ Jesus so that there is no more Jew or Gentile, how much more the differences we create with our own strong opinions about areas of freedom? Sure, there are some deep disagreements between Christians about important issues; issues such as paedobaptism, the presence of Christ at the Table, predestination, etc. But are we justified by believing in those doctrines, or are we justified by trusting Christ? We work our differences out as a family, not to become a family. Justification by faith alone in Christ alone means that we are a family and all of these debates are family debates.
Let us then be careful that we not set up alternative ways of justification by insisting upon our opinions about matters of indifference. We will find ourselves fighting against God himself, and that is never a battle we will win.