Motivation for Pastors to Embrace the Challenge of Reading ‚Communion with God‘ by John Owen
Some years ago, I was preparing a reading list for an upcoming sabbatical. I didn’t have any pressing projects that required study, so I was at liberty to choose whatever books seemed like they would be most helpful and enjoyable. As I scanned the volumes in my office, my eyes fell upon an as-yet unread copy of John Owen’s Communion with God on a shelf. Contemplating the title, I thought that this book probably had something I needed. After all, being a pastor meant spending a lot of time in God’s Word and talking to people about the Lord, but it wasn’t always conducive to communion with God. And when it boiled down to it, I wasn’t 100 percent sure that I actually knew what “communion with God” meant.
So I read Owen’s book that summer, or more accurately—I devoured it. Owen can be a tough read; he never says something in ten words that can be explained in a hundred. And he definitely could have benefitted from an editor wrangling some order into the chaos of his syntax and outline (though the 2007 edition edited by Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic has gone a long way towards giving the reader a fighting chance). But the juice was more than worth the squeeze. I don’t know of any book (except the Bible, obviously) that has impacted my daily life and thinking about God more. As a result, I’ve probably re-read Communion with God three or four times in the past few years. I’ve even written a book trying to make Owen’s insights accessible and available to the wider Christian community.
While I think that Communion with God is a book that will benefit any believer that reads it, it strikes me that there are a few ways it can particularly benefit pastors. Let me suggest four:
1. Communion with God clarifies what it means to have a relationship with God.
Some evangelicals are fond of framing Christianity as “having a relationship with God,” and that is true (as far as it goes). But while we may have some idea how to carry on a relationship with a friend, a spouse, or a neighbor, it’s not always clear how we are supposed to relate to God. Owen’s book is a trusty field guide to the Bible’s practical teachings about having a relationship with God.
2. Communion with God reminds us that our relationship with God is carried out with all three persons of the Trinity.
One of the distinctive features of Owen’s book is that it encourages believers to carry on distinct communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is a fine line to be walked here, and Owen does it masterfully. He shows how we carry on a relationship with the Father in his love, the Son in his grace, and the Spirit in his comfort, while also insisting that to have a relationship with any one person is to have a relationship with the one God. As a preacher, I regularly find Owen’s thinking and vocabulary creeping into my sermon manuscripts.
3. Communion with God reminds us just how wonderful our salvation is.
Christians are incredibly blessed. In Christ, we have been blessed with every blessing in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:3). But if we’re being honest, we don’t always live like it; the difficulties of life in a fallen world often seem to sap us of our sense of joy and spiritual vitality. This is not the product of Internet-fueled discontent or the pressures of modern life, for Owen wrote that many believers in his day “go heavily, when we might rejoice; and (are) weak, where we might be strong in the Lord” (93).
For Owen, the cause of these struggles was clear. He wrote, “Unacquaintedness with our mercies, our privileges, is our sin as well as our trouble” (123). Our problem is that believers do not understand the depth and breadth of the mercies and privileges we have by virtue of our relationship with God. If we grasped the liberty, boldness, and love that God gives to his children, we would live our day-to-day lives with far more joy and hope. Owen’s work is a wonderful and instructive example of a pastor using Scripture to spark the imagination and affections of his congregation for Christ.
4. Communion with God is brilliant in its discussion of the work of the Holy Spirit.
Owen is known as one of the church’s great theologians of the Holy Spirit, and Communion with God contains some of his most practical and accessible thoughts on the third person of the Trinity. For example, there is no shortage of back-and-forth these days about the way we should expect the Holy Spirit to be active in a congregation or in an individual believer. But Owen cuts through the noise and gives us biblical ways we can “test the spirits” to know whether the spirit at work is indeed the Holy Spirit:
- He reminds believers that the Spirit always brings freedom to his people, not bondage and slavery. If a supposed movement of the Spirit doesn’t leave the believer resting in Christ with a greater sense of God’s love and a greater desire to obey him, then it isn’t likely to be the work of the Holy Spirit.
- He also demonstrates that the Spirit doesn’t undermine creation but affirms and upholds it. The Spirit works through our minds, bodies, and wills, so we should reject anything that makes people bark like a dog, babble incoherently, or lose control of their faculties. The Spirit’s work doesn’t make us less human, but more.
- The Spirit points believers to the beauty of Christ, shows them the necessity of holiness, and convinces them of the love that God the Father has for them. If something seems man-centered or focused on something other than the glory of Christ, you can be sure that it is not the work of the Holy Spirit.
I have found that Owen’s meditation on our communion with God the Holy Spirit has been enormously influential on my teaching and counseling. I am now able to see and speak to the Spirit’s work in my life and the lives of others more clearly.
There are many great books for pastors, and I benefit from the work of numerous contemporary authors and thinkers. But there is also much gold to be mined from works that have stood the test of time and helped Christians for centuries. For that reason, I would urge pastors to read Communion with God (or, at least a helpful reworking) to benefit both their own souls and their teaching.