A name you’ve seen repeated throughout this book is John Owen (1616–1683), and that’s because he’s one of the writers who has thought best and most about communion with God. In his book Communion with God, Owen makes a distinction between union with Christ and communion with God that remains so helpful for us today.
On the one hand, our union with Christ is fixed and unalterable. It does not rise and fall with our faith or the quality of our lives, with what we’ve done or failed to do. Our union with Christ is as certain as Christ’s irrevocable love, which does not wax or wane. It is as sure as Christ’s grip on our lives, and his promise that nothing can snatch us from his hand (John 10:28).
On the other hand, our communion with God does change and vary. It is affected by our faith and what we choose to do or not do. To be clear, the love of God for us does not change, but our experience of it does. Jesus says, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (John 14:21).
Jesus is saying that the way we respond to God will affect our experience of him. If we trust God and obey him, then Jesus promises he will “manifest” himself to us. He will make himself more apparent. Jesus couldn’t be clearer that we will know God better by obeying him more.
Our response to God is not the root of his love; it is the fruit. But the fruit is where the nourishment drawn from the root manifests in sweetness and beauty. And the presence of fruit will give us greater assurance that our lives are rooted in him: “By this we know that we have come to know him, if you obey his commands” (1 John 2:3–6).
Now why is this distinction between union and communion so important for us? Because we naturally fall into the trap of assessing the security of our union (Does God really love me?) on the strength of our communion (How am I feeling? How am I doing?). And we get seduced into thinking it’s up to us to keep it up.
Abiding then becomes a chore, a box to check, a bar to clear—“Read your Bible!” comes across like, “Clean your room!” “Pray more” sounds like “Do more.” It then becomes easy to feel frustrated and think, “But I’m not getting anything out of this. So why bother?”
Don’t you see how this is like standing up in your sailboat and blowing on your own sail? Not only will you never move forward this way, not only will you exhaust yourself, but how could you ever rest? How could you ever have any assurance that God loves you if the ground of your confidence is your own frantic blowing?
Thank God that the basis of our acceptance is found outside of us in our union with Christ! Christ is always faithful, even when we are not (2 Tim. 2:13). We change, but he never does. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:5). One of the Puritan writers put it memorably, “Your heart is not the compass Christ saileth by.”
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