John Owen: Communion with God
The day before John Owen departed to be with Christ (23 August, 1683), he dictated his last letter to a friend: ‘I am going to him whom my soul has loved, or rather who has loved me with an everlasting love, – which is the whole ground of my consolation.’ The following day William Payne brought him news that his Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ,1 was now ready for printing. Owen replied, ‘I am glad to hear it; but, O brother Payne! the long wished-for day is come at last, in which I shall see that glory in another manner than I have ever done, or was capable of doing, in this world’. These death-bed expressions of Owen’s piety confirm a truth that was, in effect, the pulsebeat of Puritan piety in general – communion with God was ‘the very heart of Puritan theology and religion.’ Whatever else Puritanism was, its animating heart was cultivated fellowship with the Triune God.
No subject more exposes the poverty of our lives before God than communion with God. We feel, or we should feel, totally out of our depth. However highly other Christians might esteem you, you know only too well how weakly, how inconstantly, how poorly, how coldly your heart engages in communion with God. Like Paul you desire ‘to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings’ (Phil. 3:10), but O how often that desire is weakened by the sluggishness of the flesh, the diversions of the devil, and the enticements of a dying world. And yet, is not the believer’s truest longing for communion with his Saviour? Even as regenerate men and women, we are spiritual enigmas!
I would like us to reflect a little on the biblical teaching that defines for us the fact, the shape, and the nature of the believer’ s communion with God. Fellowship with God, living, personal, mind-engaging, heart-affecting fellowship, is held out to us as the consummating fruit of the gospel. Our Lord Jesus defined eternal life as knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he had sent (John 17:3), a knowing that is intimate as well as intellectual, personal as well as cerebral, profoundly spiritual as well as deeply theological. It is this fellowship or communion that John is referring to in 1 John 1:3. There are a number of things we should consider briefly in this verse:
First, there is such a thing as fellowship with God. It is not an ‘enthusiastic fancy’. It is not something reserved for the especially enlightened. It is the birthright of every believer. The gospel initiates every believer, by the new birth, into ‘fellowship with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ’. This was a prospect the Lord Jesus promised to his disciples. In John 14:23, he speaks of his Father and himself coming, by the Spirit’s new covenant presence, to make their home in the lives of his people. It is this intimate, homely picture that is mirrored in the risen Lord’s words to the church in Laodicea: ‘Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me’ (Rev. 3:20). Owen comments on this verse in his treatise on Communion With God:
Certainly this is fellowship, or I know not what is. Christ will sup with believers: he refreshes himself with his won graces to them, by his Spirit bestowed on them. The Lord Christ is exceedingly delighted in tasting of the sweet fruits of the Spirit in the saints.2
It is striking, as well as deeply humbling, to hear Owen again and again highlight the Saviour’s delight in his communion with his people. We are so accustomed in this shallow, man-centred age to start with ourselves as we contemplate communion with our holy and gracious God. If we are truly to savour communion with God, we must learn that the initiative in this grace lies with God. As in all true theology, ‘from him and through him and to him are all things, to him be the glory’ (Rom. 11:36).
Second, What is this fellowship or communion with God? John Owen gives us this definition:
Our communion . . . with God consisteth in his communication of himself unto us, with our returnal unto him of that which he requireth and accepteth, flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him.3
The basis and foundation of communion with God is union with Christ. By God’s grace, believers have been vitally united to the Saviour, married to him who is the Lover of our souls, our covenant King. As in all unions, there is a ‘mutual communication’, a ‘giving and a receiving, after a most holy and spiritual manner.’4 In communion, God gives himself to his people, and they give to him what he requires and accepts – our love, trust, obedience and faithfulness. In this most glorious of all unions, where our Maker is our Husband, he looks for and longs for the returns of love.
It is striking that in classical Greek, koinönia, was used to describe the marriage relationship, the most intimate of all human relationships. How profoundly appropriate then that believers, Christ’s Body and Bride, should have koinönia with their Saviour. Koinönia essentially means to participate in, to share with. John is here highlighting the omega point of Christian experience in this world. Owen picks up this thought of marital union and writes,
Now, Christ delights exceedingly in his saints: ‘As the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee’ (Isa. lxii:5) . . . His heart is glad in us without sorrow. And every day whilst we live is his wedding day . . . thoughts of communion with the saints were the joy of his heart from eternity.5
These are deeply moving words. Who can take them in? Above all they remind us that all our thinking about communion with God must start with God and not with ourselves; the initiative is God’s, and God’s alone! Perhaps the greatest defect in modern evangelicalism is its tendency (to say no more) to think ‘subjectively and anthropocentrically’, where the Scriptures would have us think first ‘objectively and theocentrically’. J. I. Packer reminds us that this theocentricity was one of the hallmarks of biblical Puritanism; grace was always to the fore and
Thus they were saved from the peril of false mysticism, which has polluted much would-be Christian devotion in recent times. The context and cause of our experienced communion with God, said the Puritans, is God’s effective life-giving communion with us; the former is always to be thought of as a consequence and, indeed, an aspect of the latter.6
Third, fellowship with the living God is held out to us as the consummating fruit and blessing of the gospel, cf.v.4. David Clarkson wrote, ‘He that hath communion with God is in heaven while he is on earth . . . this is the gate of paradise and puts us into the suburbs of heaven.’ This is surely one of the principal truths explicated in the Song of Songs cf.2:3-4; 5:10-16. When the pope tempted the Marquis of Vico, with gold and estates, to leave Calvin’s Geneva, he replied, ‘Let his money perish with him who prefers all the riches in the world before one day’s communion with Jesus Christ.’ Is this not what the Lord impressed on his wayward, self-obsessed people through Jeremiah (Jer. 9:23-24)?
Fourth, this fellowship or communion is entered into via the apostolic gospel: ‘We proclaim to you . . . so that you may have . . .’ The communion which Christians enjoy with God is grounded in and sustained by the apostolic gospel. To claim to have fellowship with God, while disbelieving the eye-witness, Spirit-inspired testimony of the apostles, is to be self-deceived, as much deceived as those who say they ‘have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness’ (1 John 1:6, cf.2:4). This is why we must never allow any disjunction to separate piety from theology. True piety is grounded in God’s infallible self-revelation in his Word, and has communion with the One who therein reveals himself – not with an imagined God, but with the God of Scripture!
We should not miss here that the ‘communion of the saints’ is not only deeply personal and experiential, it is also demarcated by the apostolic gospel, the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Visible unity has indeed at its heart a common communion with God; but no less does it have a common submission to the gospel of God!
Fifth, not only is communion with God founded upon and shaped by the apostolic gospel, it is appropriated by faith. This is clearly implied in what John writes. Faith ‘is, in fact, the fellowship itself in essence; in germ, embryo, or seed. For if I grasp Christ, or rather if he grasps me, in a close indissoluble union, I am to the Father, in a manner, what he is; and the Father is to me what he is to him.’7 Robert Candlish’s point is not simply that faith is the door to communion, which of course it is. More than that, our communion with God is carried on in faith; faith is the appropriating means of communion with God. This is the truth so vividly symbolised for us in the Lord’s Supper cf. l Corinthians 10:16: faith ‘sees’ the Saviour; faith ‘loves’ the Saviour; faith ‘feeds’ on the Saviour.
Sixth, this fellowship is experienced supremely in corporate, covenant fellowship with the Church: ‘We proclaim . . . with us. And our fellowship . . .’ This does not mean that communion with God is not deeply personal, even individual. It absolutely and undeniably is. But our communion with God transcends the individual and reaches its ordained heights as the church, together, draws near to the Lord on his Day, through his Son, under his Word, and by his Spirit. This is not saying that communion with God is reserved for the Lord’s Day. It is saying that, contrary to the atomistic, incipiently selfish mind-set that has seeped its way into the church in the last 300 years, communion with God is at its richest and most profound when it is engaged in ‘with all the saints’. This, in part at least, is what Paul is telling us in Ephesians 3:18-19: it is only ‘together with all the saints (that we) grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ . . .’ In other words, communion with God is a corporate and covenantal communion. This is what Paul impresses on the Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16-17). Many in the church in Corinth had become infected with a self-willed spirit that was causing great hurt in the church. Paul is really saying, ‘Do you not know that the church is one body?’ This is surely one of the great purposes of the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath, to give visible expression to that corporate, covenantal communion which is the church. The kind of piety that reserves its best energies for ‘closet communion’, and sees Lord’s Day worship as a ‘top-up’ to that communion, will never rise to the choicest communion that God has ordained for his people.
Seventh, communion with God, and this is one of John Owen’s most insightful emphases, is communion with each Person of the Trinity, individually if not exclusively. John says as much in our text. Paul writes of ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship (communion) of the Holy Spirit’ (2 Cor. 13:14), and in 1 Corinthians 1:9 he tells us that God has called us ‘into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord’. Owen is quick to explain himself. He is well aware of the theological axiom opera ad extra trinitatis indivisa sunt (that the external works of the Trinity cannot be divided), so he says,
When I assign any thing as peculiar wherein we distinctly hold communion with any person, I do not exclude the other persons from communion with the soul in the very same thing. Only this, I say, principally, immediately, and by the way of eminency, we have, in such a thing, or in such a way, communion with some one person; and therein with the others secondarily, and by the way of consequence on that foundation . . .’8
Owen proceeds to show in what way supremely the believer has communion with the Persons of the Godhead. It is striking that Owen devotes 23 pages to communion with the Father, 182 pages to communion with Jesus in Christ the Son, and 52 pages to communion with the Holy Ghost. This balance (or imbalance) reflects Owen’s concern to highlight the centrality of Christ’s mediatorial, saving significance in the economy of God.
First, Communion with the Father is supremely in love (cf. 1 John 4:8; 2 Cor. 13:14; Rom. 5:5. In all these and other texts, it is the Father’s love that is highlighted: so Owen writes,
Eye the Father as love; look not on him as an always lowering father, but as one most kind and tender. Let us look on him by faith, as one that hath had thoughts of kindness towards us from everlasting.9
Christians must therefore meditate on this distinguishing, free, unchangeable love. For Owen, communion with the Father in love required two things: that we ‘receive’ his love and that we ‘make suitable returns unto him’.10 The Father’s love is received ‘by faith’, through Christ. ‘The soul being thus, by faith through Christ, and by him brought into the bosom of God, into a comfortable persuasion and spiritual perception and sense of his love, there reposes and rests itself.’11 But there is more. ‘God loves, that he may be beloved.’12 So, we are to make ‘returns’ of love to the Father.
Because he never ceased to think and feel as a pastor, Owen anticipates a query: ‘I cannot find my heart making returns of love unto God. Could I find my soul set upon him, I could then believe that his soul delighted in me.13 To this Owen responds,
This is the most preposterous course that possibly thy thoughts can pitch upon . . . ‘Herein is love’, saith the Holy Ghost, ‘not that we loved God, but that he loved us’ first, 1 John iv:10, 11. Now thou wouldst invert this order, and say, ‘herein is love, not that God loved me, but that I loved him first’ . . . This is a course of flesh’s finding out that will never bring glory to God, nor peace to thy own soul. Lay down then, thy reasonings; take up the love of the Father upon a pure act of believing, and that will open thy soul to let it out unto the Lord in the communion of love.14
Owen was deeply concerned that many Christians failed to grasp the grace of the Father’s love in Christ:
How few of the saints are experimentally acquainted with this privilege of holding immediate communion with the Father in love! With what anxious, doubtful thoughts do they look upon him! What fears, what questionings are there, of his good-will and kindness! At the best, many think there is no sweetness at all in him towards us, but what is purchased at the high price of the blood of Jesus.15
Owen never wearies of impressing on us that the Father’s love ‘ought to be looked on as the fountain from whence all other sweetnesses flow’.16
It might surprise many faithful ministers of the gospel to discover how many of their congregations think just like this. We need the greatest care not to suggest in our preaching that the cross in any way merited the Father’s love for sinners. It was because the Father ‘so loved the world’ that he gave his one and only Son!
Second, communion with the Son is supremely in grace. We have communion with Christ as ‘Mediator’17, and as Mediator he meets us ‘in GRACE’.18 Owen highlights a number of biblical texts to make his point: John 1:14, 16, 17; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Corinthians 13:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:17-18; Song of Solomon 5:10. So he writes, ‘This, then, is that which we are peculiarly to eye in the Lord Jesus, to receive it from him, even grace, gospel-grace.’19
Owen considers communion with Christ to focus on his ‘personal grace’ and his ‘purchased grace’.
a) Christ’s personal grace. For Owen, Christ’s personal grace is nowhere better described than in the Song of Songs. Owen’s exposition is deeply, even exclusively, Christological.20 Christ is the believer’s husband, so responding to this personal grace involves,
The liking of Christ for his excellency, grace and suitableness, far above all other beloveds whatever, preferring him in the judgment and mind above them all, and accepting Christ by the will, as its only husband, Lord and Saviour. This is called ‘receiving’ of Christ, John i:12; and is not intended only for that solemn act whereby at first entrance we close with him, but also for the constant frame of the soul in abiding with him and owning him as such.21
So Owen characteristically continues,
Let believers exercise their hearts abundantly unto this thing. This is choice communion with the Son Jesus Christ. Let us receive him in all his excellencies, as he bestows himself upon us; – be frequent in thoughts of faith, comparing him with other beloveds, sin, world, legal righteousness; and preferring him before them, counting them all loss and dung in comparison of him. Let us tell him that we will be for him, and not for another: let him know it from us; he delights to hear it, yea he says, ‘Sweet is our voice, and our countenance is comely’; and we shall not fail in the issue of sweet refreshment with him.22
b) Christ’s purchased grace.23 Owen explains what he means by ‘purchased grace’:
By purchased grace, I understand all that righteousness and grace which Christ hath procured, or wrought out for us, or doth by any means make us partakers of, or bestows on us for our benefit, by anything that he hath done or suffered, or by any thing he continueth to do as mediator.24
How are we to enjoy communion with our Saviour in this grace?25
First, we do so by approving and embracing the divine way of salvation. In the gospel we see our utter depravity, spiritual poverty and just condemnation; but we also see, by God’s grace, that Christ is our ‘wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption’. So, in the gospel we find peace for our souls and glory to Christ.
Secondly, the Christian enjoys fellowship with Christ in holiness.26 On Christ’ s part this involves interceding with his Father ‘by virtue of his oblation . . . that he would bestow his Holy Spirit on them.’ The Spirit comes as the Spirit of holiness, who is ‘the efficient cause of all holiness and sanctification, – quickening, enlightening, purifying the souls of his saints’.27 Thus, because of our union with Christ, we receive Christ’s own holiness. On our part, the believer receives by faith, the gracious blessings of Christ, who ‘as the great Joseph . . . hath the disposal of all the granaries of the kingdom of heaven committed unto him.’28
Thirdly, we have communion with Christ in ‘the grace of privilege before God’, the highest of which is adoption.29 Says Owen,
The privileges we enjoy by Christ are great and innumerable; to insist on them in particular were the work for a man’s whole life, not a design to be wrapped up in a few sheets. I shall take a view of them only in the head, the spring and fountain whence they all arise and flow – this is our adoption.30
Third, communion with the Holy Spirit is supremely in comfort. It is the special ministry of the Spirit to bring to us the great and gracious promises and blessings of the gospel, to shed abroad God’s love in our hearts and to glorify Christ. Says Owen, ‘The soul is never more raised with the love of God than when by the Spirit taken into intimate communion with him in the discharge of this duty.’31 He continues, the Spirit’s ministry as the Comforter focuses on
his bringing the promises of Christ to remembrance, glorifying him in our hearts, shedding abroad the love of God in us, witnessing with us as to our spiritual estate and condition, sealing us to the day of redemption . . . confirming our adoption, and being present with us in our supplications. Here is the wisdom of faith, – to find out and meet with the Comforter in all these things; not to lose their sweetness, by lying in the dark [as] to their author, nor coming short of the returns which are required of us.32
What should our response then be to this ‘communion of the Spirit’? Owen tells us first that we must not ‘grieve him, in respect to his person dwelling in us’ (cf. Eph. 4:30); secondly, we must not ‘quench the Spirit’ (1 Thess. 5:19); thirdly, we must not be like the Jews who ‘resisted the Holy Ghost’ in the ministry of Stephen (Acts 7:51-52). ‘Now, the Holy Ghost is said to be resisted in the contempt of the preaching of the word, because the gift of preaching of it is from him.33 More positively, we are to respond to the communion of the Spirit in ‘faith’ – ‘faith closeth with him in the truth revealed . . . worships him, serves him, waits for him, prayeth to him, praiseth him’.34 Owen urges every Christian who knows the comfort of the Spirit to say,
This is from the Holy Ghost, he is the Comforter, the God of all consolation . . . that he might give me this consolation, he hath willingly condescended to this office of a comforter . . . he is sent by the Father and Son for that end and purpose . . . What price now, shall I set upon his love! how shall I value the mercy that I have received!35
Unceasing praise to the Spirit should be the hallmark of the believer’s communion with him.
Eighth, communion with God is experienced in a special way in the Lord’s Supper.36 In his Sacramental Discourses, Owen wrote that there is,
in the ordinance of the Lords supper, an especial and peculiar communion with Christ, in his body and blood, to be obtained . . . We have this special communion upon the account of the special object that faith is exercised upon in this ordinance, and the special acts that it puts forth in reference to that or those objects . . .37
The special and peculiar object of faith that Owen is referring to is ‘The human nature of Christ, as the subject wherein mediation and redemption was wrought.’38 Owen, in keeping with almost all the Puritans, and particularly Calvin, did not see the Supper as purely commemorative. It was commemorative, but it was also ‘eucharistical’ and ‘federal’, ‘in that God confirms his covenant (he has no need to renew it) and believers renew themselves in covenant obligations.39 What then is the communion the believer enjoys, supremely with Christ, in the Supper? It
becomes a matter of acknowledging his presence in the power of his reconciling sacrifice and of observing the ordinance with reverent confidence that in it Christ comes to pledge his saving love to each one personally, so that we sit down at God’s table as those who are the Lords friends . . . there being now no difference [contention] between him and us.40
So, in our sacramental communion with Christ, we come to the Supper in a spirit of meditation, self-examination, supplication and expectation,41 that God will surely ‘meet us according to the desire of our hearts. We should look to meet God, because he hath promised to meet us there, and we go upon his promise of grace . . . He hath placed his name upon his ordinances, and there he is.’42
Ninth, communion with God brings you into conformity to the likeness of our Saviour Jesus Christ, cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18. At its heart, fellowship/communion is participation. The fellowship which believers enjoy with God is a fellowship of union. His purpose in bringing us into his fellowship is to conform us and transform us into the likeness of his dear Son, that he might be ‘the first born among many brothers’. Peter unfathomably speaks of believers ‘participating, communing in the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4)! Calvin remarkably comments here, ‘it is the purpose of the gospel to make us sooner or later like God; indeed it is, so to speak, a kind of deification’. He is not saying we become God; we are, and always will be, God’s creatures. But, breathtakingly, through union and communion, we become ‘partakers of the divine nature’, we become like God, his creaturely analogues, his restored and renewed image. Alexander Nisbet, one of Scotland’s Puritan divines, explains Peter thus:
The receiving of these promises by faith makes a wonderful change upon sinners: for so soon as a sinner gets grace to believe and apply the free promises of the Covenant, as soon does the Lord begin to make out upon his heart the things promised, so stamping it with His own image, that the sinner receiving these promises begins presently to look like God His Father, and in some weak measure to resemble Him in heavenly wisdom, holiness, uprightness, and other of His communicable properties, especially in humility, self-denial, love and pity toward other miserable sinners, zeal for the Lord’s honour, and such other perfections as were eminent in the man Christ; and this is to partake of the divine nature.43
This is why communion with God cannot be separated from the means of grace. It is as we embrace the ordained means of grace, and especially the ministry of the Word, and by faith feed upon God’s ‘exceeding great and precious promises’, that our souls receive our covenant King’s grace and love, and respond with ‘returns of love’.
Such, in brief, is the believer’s communion with God. It is, as it has often been said, ‘better felt than telt’! Let Thomas Goodwin have the last word. In Volume 7 of his Collected Works, Goodwin considers the love of Christ, who died to make us his friends, though ‘he could have created new ones cheaper’.44 He continues,
Mutual communion is the soul of all true friendship . . . (and) friendship is most maintained and kept up by visits; and these, the more free and less occasioned by urgent business . . . the more friendly they are . . . we use to check our friends with his upbraiding, You still come when you have some business, but when will you come to see me? . . . The very sight of a friend rejoiceth a man. Personal communion with God is the end of our graces . . . And as for duties, the journey’s end of them is fellowship with God.45
May the Lord bring us all into a truer, deeper, more heart-engaging communion with him, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
- See The Works of John Owen, Volume 1: The Glory of Christ (Banner of Truth, 1965), from page 273. Also available in abridged form as The Glory of Christ, in the Trust’s Puritan Paperbacks series.
- The Works of John Owen, Volume 2: Communion with God (Banner of Truth, 1965), p.40. Owen’s treatise is also available in abridged form as Communion with God, in the Trust’s Puritan Paperbacks series.
- Owen, pp.8-9.
- Owen, p.9.
- Owen, p.118.
- J. I. Packer, Among God’s Giants (Kingsway, 1991), p.267.
- Robert Candlish, 1 John (Banner of Truth ed. 1973), p.13.
- Owen, p.l8.
- Owen, p.32.
- Owen, p.22.
- Owen, p.23.
- Owen, p.24.
- Owen, p.37.
- Owen, p.32.
- Owen, p.22.
- Owen, p.40.
- Owen, p.47.
- ibid. See the most helpful exposition of this in S. B. Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life (Banner of Truth, 1987), pp.77ff.
- You do not need to agree with Owen’s exclusively Christological exposition of The Song to appreciate the great biblical truths he finds in the text. The modern (though it is actually not so modern) interpretation of The Song as a prose-poem exclusively celebrating the creation ordinance of marriage, fails to take account of the NT’s linking of the marriage relationship to the relationship of Christ with his Church (Eph. 5:25ff) and the distinct echoes of The Song’s evocative language in such passages as Revelation 3:20.
- Owen, p.58
- Owen, p.59.
- See Ferguson, pp.56ff.
- Owen, p.l54.
- See Ferguson, pp.88ff.
- Owen, pp.l97ff.
- Owen, p.199.
- Owen, p.203.
- Owen, p.207.
- Owen, p.249.
- Quoted in Packer, pp.271-272.
- Owen, p.267.
- Owen, p.270.
- Owen, p.271.
- See again Sinclair Ferguson’s excellent summary of Owen’s teaching, pp.220ff.
- The Works of John Owen, Volume 9: Sermons to the Church (Banner of Truth, 1965), p.523.
- Owen, Vol.9, p.524.
- Ferguson, p.221.
- Quoted in Packer, p.281.
- Owen, Vol.9, pp.558-563.
- Owen, Vol.9, p.562.
- Alexander Nisbet, An Exposition of 1 & 2 Peter (1st. ed. 1658, Banner of Truth, this ed. 1982), pp.225-226.
- Thomas Goodwin, Works (James Nicol, 1863), 7.193, quoted in Packer, p.273.
- Thomas Goodwin, Works (James Nicol, 1863), 7.197ff.
Taken with permission from the Reformed Theological Journal, November 2013 (links added). These addresses were originally given to the students of the Reformed Theological College in Belfast. The author has intentionally kept the oral style of the addresses to preserve the informality of the occasion.
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