Call it finally reading every book I’ve read on Kindle, but I’ve recently started John Owen’s Communion with the Triune God despite my waning interest in Purtian theology. I will always remain interested in Trinitarian theology, so I thought that I would return to theology I am intimately familiar with in order to restart my Trinitarian studies.
Vanhoozer’s Foreword captures the central message of John Owen’s Communion with the Triune God: that of communion with God. This communion is not one-way, from which we solely benefit from God or that God benefits from our obedience. Rather, it is a two-way obedience, one in which we are both active in obedience to God and passive in our growth in the Spirit. In Works 2.22, Owen says that true communion is achieved through “giving and receiving”.
Owen distinguishes between union with God and communion with God. Union with God is something that can never be lost: once you are sealed by the Holy Spirit, you cannot be separated from God. Communion, on the other hand, can go in and out as the believer walks in the Spirit. “This is an important theological and experiential distinction, for it protects the biblical truth that we are saved by radical and free divine grace. Furthermore, this protects the biblical truth that the children of God have a relationship with their Lord, and that there are things that they can do to help or hinder it.” (Vanhoozer, Kindle Location 229) Vanhoozer points out that if a believer becomes dulled by sin, their affections for the Lord will wane (though God’s love is unflinching toward the believer and will not cease due to sin). Spiritual disciplines, then, are not the means by which God loves us or tools used to make God love us more, but the means by which we open ourselves up to having more affection for the Lord. For Owen, spiritual disciplines were never the grounds for union with God, but the outpouring of it. When we wane in our spiritual disciplines, we do not lose our connection to God, who is the merciful God who forgives sin.
Vanhoozer discusses the two phrases by which Owen describes the work of the Spirit: sanctification and consolation. Sanctification is the passive means by which the believer is crafted into the image of the Lord, and consolation is the means by which the Spirit is applied to our lives to comfort and guide us. Consolation is not a passive sort of interaction with the Spirit, and Vanhoozer identifies three broad categories from Owen in which we seek consolation: we seek his comfort by relying on God’s promises in the Spirit; we call out to the Spirit to seek consolation; and attend to the Spirit’s motions which bring us to the Father and to the Son. In this, the Spirit can always offer us consolation, but it may be contigent on us to act upon it. The work of the Spirit is never based on our actions, but our response to the Spirit is necessary sometimes for application. Ultimately, for Owen, we work because God works in us.
For Owen, our connection to the Trinity can never be lost; the God who is Spirit is eternally calling us in sweetness to respond to his prompting, but is acting in power to bring us into salvation. This unity with God is never threatened by our reactions, whether good or bad, but it is an eternal one based on the eternal promises of God. Our feeling of love toward the Father is contingent on our faithful obedience to his Law, but even that response is one tempered and powered by the Spirit. It is ultimately the love of Christ which compels us to act; our obedience flows out of faithful obedience to Christ.