One of the things that I’ve been thinking about, talking about, and trying to read about in the last couple of years is the idea of a “personal relationship” with God. It seems that in evangelistic outreaches, that what is often offered to our prospective new believers is a Personal Relationship with God, an outcome of the forgiveness of sins of course. We say things like, “Would you like to have a personal relationship with God?” And then we say nothing more about it to our unsuspecting hearers. I call them unsuspecting because they would probably never guess that we have never really thought about what we mean by the phrase “personal relationship.” To the unsuspecting, it sounds as if I can say something to God and hear something back from Him, maybe audibly…maybe existentially, but isn’t that how personal relationships work. If you tack “personal” on the front of it, it connotes the idea of a red phone in your office with a direct line to heaven. Is that what we mean by personal relationship with God? Do you have that with God? I know some believers would say that the above description is pretty close to their personal experience, but I think most would stutter to find their next response…I know I would.
So, I don’t really like that phrase – “personal relationship,” because I think it’s misleading. I like to just leave it at relationship. I prefer to leave out all adjectives, including “intimate.” I do so, not because I don’t think that you can grow in your relationship with God, but because relationships are always in flux, we are always growing (hopefully), but as soon as we attach these adjectives, and others, to the word relationship, we give folks expectations that may or may not be Biblical. As an aside, a more Biblical adjective might be “mediated.” But it doesn’t sound as good: “Would you like to have a mediated relationship with God?” Those last few sentences really deserve a lot more fleshing out, but then I would never get to the point of this post, though I do hope folks with interact with the idea of what the Bible says about our relationship with God.
So, what does this have to do with John Owen? Partly, my above rant was for myself. I needed to get on my soapbox and share that and see what responses come; however, relationships naturally are strong or weak, are waxing or waning, are intimate or distant/cold/shallow. What I do believe we are exhorted in Scripture to do is to seek a deepening relationship with God, and what I think Owen has done for me is to give me 2 categories with which to think about my relationship with God, particularly in how I grow in my relationship with God. On the one hand, there is nothing I can do to deepen God’s love for me. I can’t earn something that He hasn’t already freely given! On the other hand, men and women of the faith continue to tell me the secrets to a deeper life in Christ. For years, I bowed under the weight of the hours of prayer, bible study, witness, and fellowship that I owed to God in order to gain a deepening relationship. These things weren’t always communicated as a way of earning God’s nearness, presence, intimacy, though sometimes they were. Even when they weren’t presented this way, that’s how I heard them. If you spend 3 hours in prayer a day, God can’t help but speak to you, answer your prayers, etc. That’s the least He could do for the time you’ve put in for Him. So, which is right? That my relationship with God doesn’t depend on anything I do, or that I need to work for a stronger relationship? Owen answers, “YES” (though not in the “God owes you” sense with regard to our seeking Him).
Owen makes the crucial distinction between our UNION with God and our COMMUNION with God. Union with God happens when He adopts us into His family through Christ’s atoning work on the cross when He shed His blood for our sin and we place our faith in that finished work. This never changes. Our relationship, our UNION with God, is set, secure, finalized. Communion with God is different than union. While union never changes, communion fluctuates. My wife and I have been married for almost 7 years now. In all that time, our union has not changed, but our communion has been all over the map. Similarly is our communion with God, and like any relationship, this communion depends on time, quality of time, work, fellowship, giving and taking. This is the responsibility of the believer who wants to grow in their relationship with God, to seek communion with Him. Our works in this don’t earn God’s favor, but puts us into fellowship with Him. Prayer, the Word, solitude, and other spiritual disciples don’t merit God’s favor (His love for us and union with us never fluctuates, remember…He has already set His favor upon us), but our relationship, our COMMUNION depends directly on how much communing we are actually doing.
For me, this distinction has been crucial. I’ve been set free from 2 problems. One is thinking that I needed to please God with my spiritual disciplines. The other is thinking that I don’t need to do anything in order to grow in my relationship with God. On the one hand, I was overwhelmed by man made expectations about what relationship required and looked like. On the other, I didn’t know how to cultivate a deepening relationship. Kelly Kapic, in his intro to Owen’s Communion with God, does a great job of synthesizing what Owen has to say about this distinction. You can buy a copy of the whole work, edited by Kapic and Justin Taylor here. Or you can find an older published form on CCEL here.