COMMUNION WITH GOD*
John J. Murray
As he lay on his death-bed Dr. John Owen was asked whether he would have some of his friends sent to keep him company. He replied, “My fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ; and he that is not satisfied with that company does not deserve it”.
Preacher to Parliament, chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, vice chancellor of Oxford University, scholar and theologian, author of over seventy published works, John Owen stands in the front rank of Puritan divines, but the great reality to him in the face of death, as in life, was communion with God.
In this confession he was revealing the fundamental concern of Puritan Christianity. The strength of the Puritan movement in 17th century England lay in the fact that it touched all strata of society, and the lives of the plough-boy and the tradesman were dominated by the same characteristics as those of the politician and the Doctor of Divinity. Therefore, when we consider the Puritan doctrine of communion with God we are not looking at something which was only formulated in the minds of theologians.
The Centre of Puritan Religion
If we wish to have the Puritan teaching on this subject in a systematic form, then Owen’s great work entitled Of Communion with God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, each person distinctly in love, grace and consolation is the best textbook. But we have only to
glance down the contents pages of the works of the Puritans to see the place they gave to this matter. One theme constantly recurring is “walking with God”. That was their favourite expressionÂ—and it is a scriptural oneÂ—to denote a life of communion with God. Moreover if we take the trouble to study some of their diaries and autobiographies we get a practical demonstration of the centrality of this doctrine in their lives.
Fellowship with God, walking with God, waiting upon God, continually seeking the face of GodÂ—call it what you willÂ—that was the heart and centre of Puritan religion and it was that which gave depth and breadth and manliness to their Christianity. Perhaps this is something we tend to under-value today, and therefore a study of the Puritan concept of communion with God may help to enrich our own Christian lives. Let us consider some of the main aspects of it.
In the first place, it is clear that the Puritans had a much broader idea of communion with God than we have today. We tend to regard fellowship with God as something to be experienced and enjoyed during our “quiet time”. In other words, we limit it to our conscious communing with God in prayer. This is mainly due to the fact that in this 20th century, even in the Christian Church, we are pre-occupied with man and his need, with ourselves and our experience. The Puritans were more God-centred in their thinking and living. They began with God and that is the primary reason for their wider concept of fellowship with God.
The Greek word which is translated “fellowship” and “communion” in our Bibles, denotes joint participation in something by two or more parties. “Communion”, says John Owen, “consists in giving and receiving”. The partiesÂ—in this case God and the sinnerÂ—give to and receive from each other. God communicates to us life, love, mercy and peace; we receive them and respond to Him with repentance, faith, love and new obedience which He graciously accepts through the merits of Christ. This mutual interchange is what constitutes communion with God.
The Puritans laid emphasis on the Godward side of this relationship because they believed that unless God communicates Himself to us we cannot have communion with Him. By their sin our first parents lost that fellowship both for themselves and for their posterity. As we are by nature, we know nothing of communion with God. But the whole purpose of the Gospel is to bring man back into fellowship with God. This actually takes place when the Holy Spirit regenerates the heart and the man who was before at enmity with God is brought into a state of reconciliation and friendship.
God communicates spiritual life to us and this, which the Puritans described as the “life of God in the soul of man”, seeks communion with its divine Author. The Puritans stressed the activity of God in
thus restoring men to His fellowship. They never ceased to marvel at the fact that sinful creatures can have communion with the Holy One. Perhaps in Evangelism today we have lost something of this high sense of privilege.
Communion with God as friendship
But the Puritans did not rest merely with this restored fellowship;
they went on to say that communion with God is a relation of friendship between God and man. Friendship implies that we do not merely go to God when we require something of Him; we go because we delight in His fellowship. Thomas Goodwin strikingly remarks: “We used to check our friends with this upbraiding: You always come when you have some business but when will you come to see me How true it is that often it is not God we seek but the benefits He bestows!
We must remember that God’s delight is with His people and He seeks fellowship with us. “God has something to say to us as a friend every day” comments Matthew Henry, “by the written Word in which we must hear His voice; by His providences, and by our own consciences: and He hearkens and hears whether we have anything to say to Him by way of reply, and we are very unfriendly if we have not”.
Communion with God is not only to be enjoyed in our actual approaches to Him in prayer; it is something we should maintain all the time. A favourite Puritan text was “On thee do I wait all the day” (Psalm 25:5). To quote Matthew Henry again: “Even when we are not making actual addresses to God, we must have habitual inclinations towards Him”.
In prayer, Bible reading and meditation we deliberately set ourselves to seek the Lord and therefore experience more conscious communion with Him than at other times. But the entire Christian life is one of “walking with God”; obedience in every detail ought to be our response to God’s communication of Himself to us.
In order that this “walk with God” might be maintained the Puritan preachers constantly exhorted their flocks to the duties of prayer, meditation and Bible reading. These are the great means of fanning the flame of our devotion to God. It requires diligence and effort to keep up this communion. Because there are many things that can mar fellowship, we must discipline our lives. The duties of self-examination (2 Corinthians 13:5) and mortification (Romans 5:13) occupied an important place in Puritan Christianity. They were concerned to watch as well as to pray, or rather to “watch unto prayer” (1 Peter 4:7) knowing that, without watching, prayer would be hindered. J. C. Ryle, a nineteenth century author who knew the value of Puritan divinity, put this clearly: “Mark well the places, and
society and companions that unhinge your heart from communion with God and make your prayers drive heavily. There be on your guard”.
The effect of Communion with God
The Puritans saw clearly the relation of prayer to the effectiveness of the Christian life. “This duty is a main pillar to uphold the whole frame of our spiritual building”, says William Gurnall. “Cease your secret communion and you undermine your house”. The same author sums up this aspect of the truth by saying “The praying Christian is the thriving Christian”. If we neglect communion with God our spiritual life weakens and our Christian graces wither. The way to a holy, happy, useful life is fellowship with God. In the words of John Milne, “True strength and true power come only from much living communion with the Lord”. Another writes, “A single word coming fresh from the lips that have been kindled into heavenly warmth by near fellowship with God, will avail more than a thousand others”.
The more we consider the subject the more we can appreciate why this was the fundamental concern of Puritan Christianity. If fellowship with God has ceased to have the central place in our Christian life we need not seek further for the cause of our ineffectiveness. Let us give our whole heart to the seeking of God and we shall be able to say with the Apostle “truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ”.
* First published in The Christian February 28th 1964.