Category Archives: Communion with God
Puritan John Owen (1616-1683) is an esteemed and prolific Christian author. His complete works of 24 volumes rightly remain in print today. On topics like the identification and mortification of remaining sin in the believer’s heart, or the glory of Christ, or communion with God in His Triunity, Owen is a giant in Church history. Likewise, Owen’s defense of justification by faith alone and particular atonement are classics that remain in print in various forms.
Over the past several years, John Owen has become a small publishing industry unto himself. Just in 2007 we’ve seen Kelly Kapic’s Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen (Baker Academic) and Carl Trueman’s John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man (Ashgate). Reformation Heritage Books reprinted The Doctrine of Justification by Faith by John Owen with an intro essay by Trueman (this edition is not retypeset). And this Fall, two publishers released retypeset and edited (though unabridged) versions of Owen’s classic, Communion with God including Communion with God (Christian Focus) and Communion with the Triune God (Crossway).
That’s quite a lot of volumes published in one year about, or by, a Puritan born nearly 400 years ago!
This year I’ve received a lot of emails from readers asking me to compare and contrast the two editions of Communion with God and that’s my intention today.
But first, let me say I am grateful to publishers like the Banner of Truth, Christian Focus, and Crossway for continuing to publish Owen’s older works and abridgments (Banner and CF) and for those retypsetting and editing Owen’s works for a new generation (CF and Crossway). These are hardly endeavors that will land big publishing profits, and the editors can tell you how tough and time-consuming a project Owen proves to be. So from TSS we thank each of you for your diligent work!
Now, let’s compare the two volumes strictly by the numbers (notice the volumes are ordered different than the above photo):
Both volumes are relatively close in size, price and construction quality. In both volumes the text has been edited and updated very well, and they read very similarly. Both works are the product of laborious editing.
Christian Focus edition
In the Christian focus edition, there are a few omissions (listed above) and one obvious weakness — Owen should never be dressed in pink and purple! Apart from that, there are some rather strong features to the Christian Focus edition. Especially noteworthy are the frequent headings and subheadings that break up the long text and help the reader along, making the text more visually appealing. And the Christian Focus edition has chosen to keep the Greek and Hebrew fonts whereas the Crossway edition has transliterated all the Greek and Hebrew (depending upon your view, this may be a strength or weakness). Albeit stripped of some features we see in the other volume, Christian Focus has produced a nice, high quality and very readable edition of Communion.
But in a straight comparison, the Crossway volume impresses on many levels. The long introduction by Kelly Kapic is exceptional. The extensive (33 page!) outline is very helpful to browse Owen’s arguments and digressions. The footnotes provide helpful clarifications throughout, as does the glossary of terms in the back. But what really separates the two volumes are the indexes at the end. Crossway has made certain to include a detailed Scriptural index and lengthy topical index, making Owen’s classic more accessible than ever before. As a bonus, if you buy through Crossway they include a free electronic PDF version of the book that can be searched on your computer. Never has John Owen been more accessible and searchable.
Following in the footsteps of last year’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation (2006) Crossway is setting new standards for excellence in the publishing of John Owen works — making their books easier to navigate, useful for busy pastors, and exceptionally well outlined to help readers trace Owen’s arguments. Other publishers of Puritan works should make special note their priority on Scriptural and topical indexes. But where Crossway has not ventured, the Christian Focus works remain the best unabridged, retypeset editions of Owen available (these volumes include The Glory of Christ and The Holy Spirit). Both publishers are to be commended for their work, but we hope in the future their efforts will not be so unfortunately duplicated.
Related: Read our full review of Communion with the Triune God (Crossway: 2007).
Related: Read our interview with Derek Thomas on the topic of John Owen and Communion with God.
Related: It’s not just Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic! Another excellent Puritan reprint will be found in James Durham’s classic, Christ Crucified, recently reprinted by Naphtali. More info here.
This morning I noticed that hard copies of Owen’s Communion with the Triune God are now being shipped from Crossway. I had planned to take time and highlight some of Owen’s strengths but then TSS took to the road and time passed so quickly. I noticed another blogger was doing essentially the same thing I had in mind. So if you want more about Owen’s classic, I will point you towards Adrian Warnock’s blog. He has done an excellent job in pointing to the highlights.
John Owen and Communion with the Triune God
Interview with Dr. Derek Thomas
What comes to mind when you think of communion? Bread, wine, and religious ordinance? The following interview is for fellow 21st century pilgrims unfamiliar with the term ‘communion’ and specifically ‘communion’ with God.
October 12th is the scheduled release date of Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic’s newest volume in the writings of Puritan John Owen, Communion with the Triune God (Crossway: 2007). Communion was first published in 1657. The original edition is in the public domain, has been printed in various shapes and sizes, and is available for free online. In the past 50 years this work has been known as the second volume of The Works of John Owen (Banner of Truth).
The 2007 Crossway edition includes several enhancements like helpful indexing, introductions, extensive outline and glossary. Owen’s work has never been more accessible for readers (see our review here).
Dr. Thomas is from Wales and currently serves as John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. After pastoring for 17 years in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Dr. Thomas returned to the United States in 1996 and also serves as the Minister of Teaching at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson. He has lectured extensively on Owen (listen to his lectures on Owen here).
TSS: Dr. Thomas, it is always an honor to have you join us here on The Shepherd’s Scrapbook! Being a scholar of John Owen and well-acquainted with his works, what are your initial thoughts of this classic, Communion with the Triune God?
DT: Thank you, Tony. It is a great honor for me to join you here at The Shepherd’s Scrapbook. It is one of my favorite sites to visit.
I am also delighted to speak about John Owen. Along with John Calvin, he has been the most influential theologian in my life (at least, among dead ones!). I think I “commune” with him most days about something. That’s the great value of books. The authors may have died, but their writings live on.
I’m as excited as you about the forthcoming publication of Communion with the Triune God, after the splendid job they did with Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Crossway, 2006).
What comes to mind about Owen’s volume, Communion with the Triune God, is its essential Trinitarianism. Owen does a number of things that are important for us to see.
First, he is thoroughly indebted to Calvin and the Fathers in his Trinitarian theology. In an age when the church would find it difficult to expound the Trinity in any meaningful way, Owen assumes a line of theological continuity from the early centuries to his own day (thereby removing the charge made by Rome that Protestantism was ‘new’ and therefore suspect). He cites, for example, the classic formula of Augustine that the external acts of the Trinity cannot be divided (opera ad extra Trinitatis indivisa sunt) without any embarrassment! And, if my memory serves me correctly, we’re only a few pages into the volume!
The second thing about this volume is not only its catholicity (linking with the Fathers), but its centrality. In focusing on the believer’s fellowship with God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), Owen is picking up what Calvin had insisted lay at the heart of the all theology – union with Christ. Owen is doing so in a more overtly Trinitarian fashion than perhaps Calvin did; but he is bringing to surface what is at the heart of God’s covenant relationship with redeemed sinners. In doing so, of course, Owen can’t help but be experiential in his theology. In that sense, Owen is a perfect example of the puritan oeuvre.
TSS: At first glance of the title people may confuse this book as a long work on prayer or the spiritual disciplines. Or it may be shelved in bookstores with purely subjective books on how to experience some divine warm-fuzzy. Communion with the Triune God is very unique. What does Owen mean when he talks about “communion”?
DT: This is a really good question! And if the publication of this volume can do something to displace these unhelpful books to which you refer, then all the better for it!
Why is the reformed church so confused about reformed spirituality? This is where a volume like Owen’s Communion with the Triune God is so valuable at this present time.
Owen has a fairly complicated view of what communion in this context means. It begins with the idea of what “communion” or “fellowship” in Greek (koinia) means: to share in common with. This raises some important theological (and practical) distinctions: union and communion are not synonyms for Owen. Our union with Christ, brought about by God’s initiative and covenant. It introduces into a status from which flows (as fruit) communion with God. Kelly Kapic summarizes it this way:
- God communicates of himself to us.
- Union with Christ establishes our relationship with God.
- The resulting overflow of union is our returning unto God what is both required and accepted by him (i.e. communion). [endnote 1]
The union with Christ is brought about unilaterally; the communion on the other hand is a bi-lateral issue. Our communion with God can be affected by our sin, unresponsiveness, and especially neglect of the ordinary means of grace.
It is Owen’s Trinitarian emphasis, based to be sure on a disputed text (1 John 5:7), that enables him to expound a multi-faceted dimension to communion. Communing with the Father helps us appreciate the nature of love and reciprocate it; fellowshipping with the Son helps us appreciate and reciprocate grace; fellowshipping with the Holy Spirit encourages assurance as he draws us back to the embrace of Jesus Christ offered to us in the gospel of the Father’s love.
TSS: Communion with the Triune God is rightly hailed as a masterpiece on the Triunity of God. Why is this Triune distinction important in Owen’s understanding of communion?
DT: I have preempted this question somewhat already. But allow me to narrow the focus a little.
The obvious place to begin is to state that for Owen God is Trinitarian in nature. The only fellowship with God that is possible is with the entirety of the Godhead and therefore with each Person that constitutes the One God. If the place of any of the three persons is misconceived or denied, the gospel falls. Thus Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or liberal Protestants who deny the Trinity as empty verbiage can never state the gospel properly because their view of God is all wrong.
The gospel in both its accomplishment and application involves a salvation planned, an atonement made and a salvation applied and none of these are possible apart from the work of all three Persons. For Owen, then, communion with all three keeps the gospel straight and the Christian life in good shape. From it flowed all manner of issues relating to the assurance of salvation – too often argued subjectively without recourse to the nature of salvation itself.
TSS: I’ve watched enough YouTube videos to notice that a large segment of professing Christianity in America dogmatically assert that Christianity is a relationship whereas theology is peripheral. For Owen, experiencing God personally and knowing God accurately are inseparable. Can you explain further how this is revealed in Owen’s thought and why this is important for us to grasp today?
DT: I’ll have to take your word about YouTube, but it is time for us to announce a Declaration of War against the creeping influence of Schleiermacher on modern evangelicalism.
I draw your attention to an essay by Carl Trueman called “John Owen as a Theologian” in a volume of essays on Owen, John Owen: The Man and His Theology (P&R and EP, 2002). These were lectures delivered at a conference on Owen in 2000. It says everything that needs to be said, first of all, about Owen’s distinctive theological emphases, and secondly why theology must be in the service of the experiential and not vice versa.
Owen was no different here than his Calvinstic predecessors, or for that matter, John Calvin himself. From Calvin’s opening sentence of the Institutes, which declared that nearly all the wisdom we possess consists in knowing God and knowing ourselves, comes the distinction that knowledge of God is more than knowing about God. There is a difference between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance.
I had a student in my office recently who obviously loves Sinclair Ferguson. He had listened to what sounded like hundreds of Ferguson’s taped messages. I listened with interest and then (half anticipating the reaction), I said with cool detachment, “I’ve known Sinclair for 30 years and he’s a close, personal friend.” There was an awed silence! “Really!”
Well, Owen would say, Christians brought into a saving relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ can say, “I know God – personally.” True, the descriptive “personally” is a modern one and not one the seventeenth century would have employed in quite the same way, but the intent is precisely the same.
For Owen, as for Calvin, there is no sense in trying to talk about knowing God by experience if we don’t know how to articulate who God is! The only God there is has revealed himself to us in creation and providence, but supremely in the Scriptures and in his Son’s incarnation. But to have those things clear in our minds and be able to articulate them is not yet to know God. To know God, cognitio Dei is relational knowledge, knowledge that comes to us, in the relationship of faith.
TSS: You mention the “personal” aspects of a relationship with God would have been stated differently by Owen and the Puritans. Explain this further. How is this differently stated? Why?
DT: Well, forgive me, but I think we tend to use the word “personally” in some quasi-therapeutic sense, often at some disparagement to anything cerebral or structured. The puritans adopted (on the whole) a very definite faculty-psychology in which the mind must govern the will and the affections. Personal knowledge of God comes through the integration of this faculty psychology and through some back door to the heart.
TSS: This is very helpful in light of earlier questions. Thank you! … Owen seems to balance well an understanding of our Father who remains transcendent, majestic and holy but for the saint is also their loving, adoptive Father who “from eternity … laid in his own bosom a design for our happiness.” Owen calls us to “rejoice before him with trembling” and of course says if we don’t understand the deep love of the Father we will not draw to Him in communion. Owen writes, “So much as we see of the love of God, so much shall we delight in him, and no more. Every other discovery of God, without this, will but make the soul fly from him; but if the heart be once much taken up with this the eminency of the Father’s love, it cannot choose but be overpowered, conquered, and endeared unto him” (p. 128). How does Owen excel in this theme of communion with the Father?
DT: Of course, ravishing as this language is, it should be recalled that Owen is expounding the Father’s love for us employing the Song of Solomon (Canticles) as background. This was typical of the puritans as a whole to view the Song as an allegory of salvation.
Owen is dealing with a surprisingly modern problem at this point: that in communing with Jesus it is all too possible to draw the conclusion that whereas the Son loves us, the Father is angry with us. From such a distorted view emerges a misshaped view of the gospel, of course. Jesus has no need to make the Father love us because his coming into the world is evidence of it. The Father is the “fountain” or “source” of love.
“Though there be no light for us but in the beams, yet we may by beams see the sun, which is the fountain of it. Though all our refreshments actually lie in the streams, yet by them we are led up unto the fountain. Jesus Christ, in respect of the love of the Father, is but the beam, the stream; wherein though actually all our light, our refreshment lies, yet by him we are led to the fountain, the sun of eternal love itself. … (Communion with the Father) begins in the love of God, and ends in our love to him” (2:23-24).
TSS: That’s a helpful quote that captures Owen well. Thank you! … A year ago I interviewed Kris Lundgaard, an author who has taken John Owen and rewritten his books for contemporary audiences. He said he was surprised that sales of his book on overcoming sin (The Enemy Within) far outsold his book on the beauty of Christ (Through the Looking Glass). This was to him a surprise because seeing the glory of Christ is critical in the fight against sin (2 Cor. 3:18)! It’s likely that the overtly practical Overcoming Sin and Temptation from last year will outsell Communion with the Triune God (or any other Owen titles for that matter). What are the practical implications of Communion with the Triune God to the mortification of sin and the pursuit of holiness?
DT: Well, there’s no way I can come up to Kris standard, but I along with others am so grateful for his love for Owen and his publication. He manages to make Owen appear user-friendly to those who might otherwise be intimated.
I think I can understand why a volume on mortifying sin and dealing with temptation outsells because we all feel the need for help in this area. But perhaps this is a reflection of what another theologian-preacher once called, “sanctification by vinegar,” meaning we are sometimes forced into a set of behavioral responses by the fear of being caught or the being punished rather than because we have a desire to do it.
Only by a grasp of the true nature of God and the delights of communing with him can we really respond in the way we should. Owen, as all good theologians of Paul, observed what we might call gospel grammar. The imperative must follow the indicative. Holiness follows from what grace has reckoned us to be in Christ. What this volume does is tell us who we are. It solves the identity crises which sin can so easily bring. The volumes ought to be read in that order – Communion with the Triune God followed by Overcoming Sin and Temptation. It would be the Bible’s way.
TSS: Dr. Thomas, I love this: “What this volume does is tell us who we are”! This is a helpful observation on the importance of Communion with the Triune God. … Again, thank you for joining on TSS. You are a valued friend in our ministry. Blessings to you!
Related: Read our full review of Communion with the Triune God.
[endnote 1] Kelly Kapic, Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen [Baker Academic, 2007], 157.
Communion with the Triune God
by John Owen
edited by Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic
Puritan John Owen (1616-1683) is an important Christian author. But he makes me angry!
It’s happened several times. I’ve got Owen cornered and caught. After weeks of study I’ve traced his footsteps, mapped his argument, and now I’ve got him within range! I pat myself on the back. I’ve followed his complex thoughts, written out comprehensive notes, and it’s all finally coming together. With the smug grin of a hunter when the game walks close, I think to myself, ‘Owen is not so tough.’
Just when I’m satisfied I have Owen apprehended and comprehended, he throws out some new subpoint, some new unforeseen argument, and darts past and escapes. Now I’m back after him, chasing off in a forest of subpoints heavily wooded by a thicket of complex 17th century prose. After coming so close after weeks of careful study, I take off in chase, refusing to concede my victory. But soon I realize he’s gone, disappearing out of range, deep into digressions. It will take several hours to track and corner him again. I kick the dirt, raise the flag of surrender, and order abridgements.
If this is your experience in reading unabridged versions of John Owen, pull up a seat. There’s room for you in the Elmer Fudd club.
We are told Owen is great. But Owen is hard. Everyone who has tried to capture Owen knows this. The solution is to find a travel guide who has mastered Owen, knows his movements, and spots his trails.
Last year, travel guides Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic successfully edited and published the first Owen volume, Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Crossway: 2006). This work is perhaps the most valuable book on battling indwelling sin. The newest Owen volume, Communion with the Triune God (Crossway: 2007), is due out October 12th. It, too, is a masterpiece of Christian literature.
So what is communion? Are we talking wafers and wine?
The full original title is revealing: “Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Each Person Distinctly, in Love, Grace and Consolation.” By grace alone, reconciled sinners are invited to enjoy communion with God, sharing personal communion individually with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We enjoy the Father’s love, the Son’s grace, and the Spirit’s consolation. This is a book about knowing God better.
Let’s move in closer for a few highlights.
A. Mutual affections. Owen gets interesting because communion is a relationship of shared (or mutual) affection. Kapic writes, “To experience communion there needs to be fellowship and communication — e.g., shared affections, response, delight, and satisfaction. In other words, when Owen speaks of our communion with God, he really means active communion, and not merely a state of passivity. ‘Communion consists in giving and receiving’” (p. 21).
It is no stretch to say Owen’s work is a classic work on the Triunity of God. But Owen focuses on an applied Triunity presented within the context of experiencing shared affections, responses, delights and satisfaction. The only way we can experience God is to know God! By expounding the believer’s specific relationship with each Person of the Trinity and dissecting these relationships, we get to know and enjoy God. It’s here Owen’s work finds great relevance today.
B. Loving Father. If I may speak to personal benefits, this work has most helped me comprehend the love of the Father. Even after my conversion eight years ago, it was common for me to think the Father was always simmering on the brink of anger towards me. This false theology (rooted in self-righteous legalism) is dismantled by Owen in Communion. The Father loves His children deeply! But until we grasp the love of the Father, Owen argues, we will never experience communion with Him.
In a favorite quote, Owen calls us remember the wrath of God has been appeased in Christ. We can now come and drink and delight in the fountain of the Father’s love! After writing, “Flesh and blood is apt to have very hard thoughts of him — to think he is always angry, yea, implacable; that it is not for poor creatures to draw nigh to him” (p. 126), Owen writes:
“Many saints have no greater burden in their lives than that their hearts do not come clearly and fully up, constantly to delight and rejoice in God [the Father] — that there is still an indisposedness [unwillingness] of spirit unto close walking with him. What is at the bottom of this distemper? Is it not their unskillfulness in or neglect of this duty, even of holding communion with the Father in love? So much as we see of the love of God, so much shall we delight in him, and no more. Every other discovery of God, without this, will but make the soul fly from him; but if the heart be once much taken up with this the eminency of the Father’s love, it cannot choose but be overpowered, conquered, and endeared unto him. This, if anything, will work upon us to make our abode with him. If the love of a father will not make a child delight in him, what will? Put, then, this to the venture: exercise your thoughts upon this very thing, the eternal, free, and fruitful love of the Father, and see if your hearts be not wrought upon to delight in him. I dare boldly say: believers will find it as thriving a course as ever they pitched on in their lives. Sit down a little at the fountain, and you will quickly have a further discovery of the sweetness of the streams. You who have run from him, will not be able, after a while, to keep at a distance for a moment” (p. 128).
To be sure, the Cross brings a radical change. God the Father as holy wrath-bearer becomes God the Father, my adoptive Father! Leave it to a 17th century Puritan to bring me to my knees in conviction, praise and delight.
C. The theology of relational theology. For Owen, until our theology is straight, our communion with God will be stunted. Far from being a cheap ‘how-to experience warm divine fuzziness,’ Owen pursues the experience of God within serious theological study. He has really given us a detailed “relational theology.” In the introduction, Kevin Vanhooser writes, “Owen’s Communion with the Triune God is indispensable reading for all those who want to go deeper into the meaning of relationality than one typically goes in the pop-theology boats that float only on the psychological surface of the matter” (p. 12). Well said.
D. The language of relational theology. The robust language of Owen is beautiful. For example, in our communion with God the Son, Owen frequently employs words like sweetness, delight, honor, safety, comfort, tenderness, purity, glory, beauty, and rejoicing (see p. 36, note 80). These words glimpse into the language of Owen’s relational theology.
And when Owen speaks of communion, he says things like: “the saints are sweetly wrapped up in the bosom of their Father’s love” (p. 131); and “having at length come once more to an enjoyment of sweet communion with Christ, the soul lays fast hold on him by faith, refuses to part with him any more … and so uses all means for the confirming of the mutual love between Christ and her: all the expressions, all the allusions used, evidencing delight to the utmost capacity of the soul” (p. 244). Our justification before God is no legal fiction!
E. Discovered self-identity. As a further benefit, if we understand God in His Triunity — and our communion with this Triune God — we begin to understand our identities as children of God. Seeing ourselves in relation with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit we learn who we are. And from this self-identity we have a basis for pursuing holiness and living the Christian life well. (The Derek Thomas interview unfolds this further).
Communion with the Triune God is securely positioned as a great Christian masterpiece. There are many other highlights, and we invite you to join TSS in our month-long study of them.
Features of 2007 edition
Those familiar with Overcoming Sin will notice a similar size (almost exactly the same pages in length), the same fonts and familiar layout. Here are some of the more important features.
1. Introductions. The helpful forward by Kevin Vanhoozer is an apologetic on why the Church needs to hear from Owen on this subject. This is followed by an excellent essay, “Worshiping the Triune God: The Shape of John Owen’s Trinitarian Spirituality” by Kelly Kapic. Kapic is the author of the book Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen (Baker Academic: 2007). This essay is an excellent overview, a topographical map of the terrain covered by Owen.
2. Updated text. The text has been completely retypeset, and is clean and sharp. Only minor editorial changes like archaic spellings (‘hath’ to ‘have’ and ‘thou’ to ‘you’) have been made. Hacking out some of the unnecessary obstructions makes our view of Owen a bit clearer.
3. Complex outline. The most useful character of these edited volumes are the detailed outlines that track Owen’s every footstep. Let’s call it a GPS system for Owen. No matter how deep in digression you find yourself (and you may be surprised how lost you get), a simple check of the clear outline will locate where you stand in the overall argument of Owen. The present volume contains a 32-page outline! One noticeable improvement from Overcoming Sin to Communion is the placement. In last year’s edition the outline was placed at the end of the volume, but in Communion the outline is placed early and before Owen’s text. This is an improvement, because an outline of Owen is essential preparation for the journey.
4. Glossary. Once again the difficult words are defined in footnotes and cumulated in a glossary at the end of the book. I use this glossary frequently when reading other Puritans like Bunyan and Goodwin.
5. Indexes. I’m a stickler for indexes. With the rise in Puritan literature has been a rise in retypeset editions, which make the original indexes useless. These retypeset editions are often being printed without topical or Scriptural indexes of their own, and this is most unhelpful. (Publishers, please remember a retypeset book needs a fresh index.) The excellent topical index in the Crossway volume is a detailed and priceless tool for the reader and preacher. Also helpful is the editors’ care to mark every Scriptural reference in the text and provide a comprehensive Scriptural text index in the back (most helpful for expositors). Combined, the detailed topical and Scriptural indexes make Owen more accessible and useful than ever.
In Communion with the Triune God, Taylor and Kapic have given the Church a resource to help us and future generations track and catch that wascally wabbit, John Owen. And being positioned to capture John Owen, we will better capture the preciousness of Christ’s blood, to better enjoy the throbbing love of our Heavenly Father and experience the empowering comfort of the Holy Spirit. And in our search to understand God’s manifold expressions of love, we learn to delight and commune with Him and better discover our self-identity as His children. One of the great publishing highlights of 2007.
Related: Read our interview with Dr. Derek Thomas about Communion with the Triune God here.
Title: Communion with the Triune God
Primary author: John Owen (1616-1683)
Secondary authors: Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Kelly M. Kapic
Editors: Kelly M. Kapic, Justin Taylor
Reading level: 3.5/5.0 > heavy but manageable because of excellent editing
Dust jacket: no
Paper: white and clean
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect type, re-typeset
Price USD: $22.00 from Crossway (w/ free PDF edition)
The Inner Sanctum of Puritan Piety: John Flavel’s Doctrine of Mystical Union with Christ
by J. Stephen Yuille
At the very heart of Puritanism is the saints’ mystical union with Christ. We are in Christ! He is our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption. From this union to Christ we experience all the blessings and delights of communion with God and find spiritual vitality for obedience, prayer, ministry and sacrificial love. This powerful union is mystical because we cannot see it with our eyes. It is a spiritually-revealed truth.
Puritan John Flavel is certainly one of the most valuable (and perhaps one of the more overlooked) of the Puritans. The theme of mystical union with Christ is threaded throughout his entire ministry. A study of Flavel on this theme has become one of my favorite books of the year: The Inner Sanctum of Puritan Piety: John Flavel’s Doctrine of Mystical Union with Christ by J. Stephen Yuille (Reformation Heritage, 2007).
John Flavel (1628-1691) had an eventful life on the run as a nonconformist preacher (see Beeke’s bio of Flavel here). He is remembered for his books The Mystery of Providence, The Method of Grace, Christ Knocking at the Door of the Heart, The Fountain of Life, and Keeping the Heart. His complete works are still in print and available from the Banner of Truth in six volumes. These works remain strikingly valuable for contemporary readers. Almost a year ago I wrote this review.
Back to our specific theme. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “If you have got hold of this idea [i.e., mystical union with Christ] you will have discovered the most glorious truth you will ever know in your life.” It is glorious because it reminds us that in all things, at all times, Christ is central to our lives. All of our spiritual vitality and life comes through Christ. Christ is the “Head” from whom the whole Body is nourished, knit together and grows (Col. 2:19). Paul’s phrase for Christ is simply “who is your life” (3:4) and says our lives are hidden in Christ (3:3). This glorious truth of being united to Christ is at the core of the Christian life.
And Flavel “got hold” of this idea. It became central to his ministry and from this center flowed his understanding of pursuing obedience, prayer and communion with God. Now, Yuille has taken the highlights of Flavel’s teaching on this theme and systematized them into one short volume (128 pages).
Yuille covers the full spectrum of the doctrine in this book. I have taken the index and provided it to the right (click for larger image). The comprehensiveness of this volume does not make it unreadable or overly academic. Yuille is a professor at Toronto Baptist Seminary, but he is also a pastor and this book shows the intellectual awareness of a scholar and the experiential sensitivities of a pastor.
Whether this is your introduction to the full scope of the mystical union with Christ, or your introduction to John Flavel (or both!) this short work will richly bless your soul. Yuille has well-captured the precious truth of our union with Christ through the ministry of a first-rate Puritan. The result is a contender for the 2007 TSS book of the year award.
Title: The Inner Sanctum of Puritan Piety: John Flavel’s Doctrine of Mystical Union with Christ
Author: J. Stephen Yuille (forward by Michael A. G. Haykin)
Table of Contents: scanned and posted online by TSS [click here]
Reading level: 2.75/5.0 > moderate
Dust jacket: no
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: no
Text: perfect type
Publisher: Reformation Heritage Books
Price USD: $12.00/$9.00 from RHB
I like to think, inquire and pursue answers to pressing questions. Theologically, there is no end to the potential questions and so inquiries begin compiling. On occasion I need to take a few days to search after specific answers. This is my intention over the next week.
For the past several months I’ve had a number of questions floating around that I thought were disconnected. But the more I have thought about these questions, the most closely related they have become. The questions include: What assurances do we have and pursue to give us confidence that we are truly children of God? How does this laboring after assurance intrude or enhance the Cross-centered life? Are the trials and triumphs of the Psalmist a reflection of the normative Christian life, or an ancient pre-Cross lifestyle that we can avoid? Why is the intense internal life of the Puritans foreign to my own personal experience? Were they overly introspective and legalistic, or do they leave a discernable pattern for the Christian life today?
Like I said, these questions appear on the surface to all be unrelated. However, I’ve come to see them all overlapping into one large question that I want to explore in a short series called “Laboring after Assurance” (words of Puritan John Owen). It is impossible to understand the Puritans until we understand what it meant for them to “labor after assurance.” In fact, if we are to understand the Puritans at all we must understand how they understood assurance of salvation. As Joel Beeke puts it, “assurance was the most critical issue of the post-Reformation” (Quest, 275).
To begin formulating an answer to these questions I turn to several passages in the Psalms, 1 John, and Peter, along with some excerpts I’ve come across in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, John Owen’s long exposition of Psalm 130 (Works, 6:323-648), The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification by Puritan Walter Marshall (RHB: 1999 ed.), Joel Beeke’s Ph.D. dissertation, The Quest for Full Assurance: The legacy of Calvin and his successors (Banner of Truth: 1999) along with Derek Thomas’ final message at the Banner of Truth Conference.
Tomorrow we will begin a journey of sorts to see what Owen meant when he wrote, “It is the duty of every believer to labor after an assurance of a personal interest in forgiveness, and to be diligent in the cherishing and preservation of it when it is attained” (6:413). To find out what Owen means here, I think, will help us make sense of the Psalmist and the reflective lives of the Puritans.
Sweet Communion by Arie de Reuver
So I was all ready to wind down a bit this weekend, and not push to get another post up. That was all disrupted Saturday when a bubble mailer arrived in my mailbox from Baker Academic. I simply could not wait until next week to announce their new release. The book is Sweet Communion: Trajectories of Spirituality from the Middle Ages through the Further Reformation by Arie de Reuver. The book was published in Dutch in 2002 and translated into English by James A. De Jong.
To explain the importance of this book, I need to give some background.
We are familiar with the English Puritans (men like John Owen, Richard Sibbes, John Bunyan, Thomas Brooks, etc.) primarily because their original works were written in English, and easily reprinted over the centuries with little editing necessary. However, in the Netherlands another “Puritan” movement was taking place. Like their English counterparts, men like Willem Teellinck, Herman Witsius and Thodorus and Wilhelmus à Brakel were producing valuable theological and spiritual works in Dutch. But until only recently has the work of Dr. Joel R. Beeke and the Dutch Reformed Translation Committee made these works more accessible. In fact, one of the great highlights of Beeke’s Meet the Puritans is a section entirely devoted to the Dutchmen of the “Further Reformation” (see pages 739-824). Books of the Dutch “Further Reformation” authors (like the recently translated The Path of True Godliness by Willem Teellinck) bear all the marks of brilliance we see in the English Puritans.
One of the most noticeable strengths of these “Dutch Puritans” (as I call them) is their emphasis on Reformed spirituality and their enjoyment of sweet communion with Christ. Theirs was a deep and sincere devotion to Christ where their union with Christ was the means of experiencing vibrant communion with Christ. They defended the doctrines of grace and simultaneously enjoyed a joyful and warm spirituality.
This beautiful Reformed spirituality can be seen in the works of Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711).
Wilhelmus à Brakel is most noted for his four-volume work, The Christian’s Reasonable Service (Reformation Heritage Books; 1993; 4 vols.). While it looks like another Reformed systematic theology it is actually more practical in nature and intended to provide content for small group discussions as Christians gather to encourage one another in the Christian life. It is one of the beautiful works of the “Dutch Puritans.”
I have noticed in the past the “sweet communion” of the believer with Christ is a theme that sparkles from this work. After emphasizing the marriage union between the Groom (Christ) and His Bride (the Church), à Brakel explains the believer’s communion with Christ within this marital union. Once this union between the sinner and his Savior has taken place in conversion “Jesus Himself delights in having communion with you” (2:93). Read that incredible sentence again! This communion produces a “sweetness and overflowing delight … Here they (Christians) find balm for their sick souls, light to clear up their darkness, life for their deadness, food and drink for their hunger and thirst, peace for their troubled heart, blood to atone for their sins, the Spirit for their sanctification, counsel when they are at their wit’s end, strength for their weakness, and a fullness of all for their manifold deficiencies” (2:93,94).
Of this marital union and the communion that follows, à Brakel writes,
“A temporal believer concerns himself only with the benefits and has no interest in Christ Himself. Believers, however, have communion with the Person of Jesus Christ, but many neither meditate upon nor closely heed their exercises concerning Christ Himself. They err in this, which is detrimental to the strength of their faith and impedes its growth. Therefore we wish to exhort them to be more exercised concerning the truth of belonging to each other, and the union and communion with Jesus Himself. They will then better perceive the unsearchable grace and goodness of God that such wretched and sinful men may be so intimately united with the Son of God. Such reflection will most wondrously set the heart aflame with love. It will strengthen their resolve to put their trust in Jesus without fear. It will give them strength and liberty to obtain everything from Him to fulfill the desires of their soul, causing them to grow in Him, which in turn will generate more light and joy. Therefore, faith, hope, and love are mentioned in reference to the Person of Christ. Scripture speaks of receiving Him, believing in Him, trusting in Him, living in Him, loving Him, and hoping in Him” (2:91).
This beautiful passage points the believer back to the Person of Christ to find her joy and strength in the beauty of Jesus Christ. This light and joy is the byproduct of communion with Him and this communion goes back to the believer’s union with Christ in justification.
Later, à Brakel explains that since our union with Christ is absolute, our communion with Christ does not shift with circumstances or emotions. “By faith, hold fast to the fact that you are reconciled to and are a partaker of Him and His benefits, even if you do not perceive and feel this. This belonging to Him is not based on feeling. If the souls may truly believe this and be exercised therewith, this will lead the soul toward communion with Him” (2:96). Communion can never be separated from our union and our union is described by our justification by faith alone and in our election in the Son. So à Brakel and the “Dutch Puritans” remind us that our sweet communion with Christ is inseparably bound to our understanding of our union with Christ in the gospel!
In his conclusion on the teachings of Wilhelmus à Brakel, de Reuver writes that his “spirituality is one that is rooted in Christ through the word believed, even in its most intimate and mystical moments. This foundation protects his mysticism from spiritualism” (258).
Many today are drawn towards Roman Catholic mysticism or a non-theological spirituality by thinking a deep spiritual experience of Christ can be separated from a genuine understanding of the gospel. This, as à Brakel displays, is not the case. Neither does Reformed theology favor a cold orthodoxy. Following the best intentions of the Medieval theologians, the Reformed “Dutch Puritans” always believed that rich biblical doctrine is the vein for the warm blood of spiritual experience of the Son in communion.
So here is the importance of Sweet Communion by de Reuver: The rich spirituality we have received from the “Dutch Puritans” is a spiritual legacy following the spiritual traditions of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and Thomas à Kempis (1379-1471) but is firmly rooted in the precious theology of the Reformation. The final conclusion of de Reuver is that the all-controlling center of the Dutch Further Reformation spirituality rested in the Reformed theology. This is a beautiful and timely book to further dismantle the idea that Reformed theology is cold and stiff intellectualism. Our rich theology actually leads us deeper into true “mysticism” of direct communion with Christ.
Title: Sweet Communion: Trajectories of Spirituality from the Middle Ages through the Further Reformation.
Series: Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought
Author: Arie de Reuver (Dutch)
Translator: James A. De Jong (English)
Reading level: 4.5/5.0 > academic and some untranslated Dutch quotations
Dust jacket: no
Topical index: no
Scriptural index: no
Text: perfect type
Publisher: Baker Academic
Price USD: $29.99/23.99 from Baker
ISBNs: 0801031222, 9780801031229
Related: Communion with God by Kelly Kapic. Another gem from Baker this year on communion with God. Kapic studies English Puritan John Owen’s understanding that communion with God takes place within a balanced Triunity of the Father, Son and Spirit. Highly recommended.
Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen
“I remember a time when a stereotype of the English Puritans as crude religious bigots held sway, and academic analysis and appreciation of their thought was virtually nonexistent. Accurate understanding of the magisterial Reformers was similarly at a discount, and the English translation of Calvin’s Institutes was out of print. But pendulums swing, and today the study of Reformation theology and of Lutheran and Calvinist scholasticism and of early European pietism and of the many-sided Puritan legacy has become a sizable cottage industry in academia’s larger world. Lecture courses, doctoral theses, journal articles, and printed books on the Puritans now abound, and the flow increases. Reissues of Puritan material constantly appear, and it is clear that more and more
Christians are coming to value this heritage. Some of us find that a very hopeful sign.
A cultural development in the West that has triggered some of this renewed interest in Puritan Christianity is our latter-day focus on experience, our longing for good experiences, and our awareness that experiences spawned by our sophisticated hedonism are mostly unsatisfying, not to say bad. Out of this has blossomed a fixation on personal spirituality, meaning a quest for self-discovery and self-transcendence, and this has led some to a fresh exploration of Christian spirituality―the theological, pastoral, communal, ethical, ascetic, doxological reality of communion with God in and through Jesus Christ in faith and hope and love. As a result, there is dawning a new appreciation of the supreme excellence in this field of Puritans such as John Bunyan, Richard Baxter, Jonathan Edwards, and John Owen.
Long regarded as Puritanism’s theological Everest, Owen was forgotten in the twentieth century until about twenty years ago. As Dr. Kapic’s bibliography shows, there have been some voyages around him, and some soundings of his thought on specifics, in recent years. None of these, however, come as close to Owen’s heart as Dr. Kapic himself does. For understanding, enjoying, and communicating communion with God was what Owen understood his life and ministry to be all about. His writings reveal him as not only an evangelical confessor and controversialist in the Reformed mainstream, but also as a Calvinist catechist, weaving in applicatory pastoral rhetoric at every point. Dr. Kapic coins the word anthroposensitive to characterize this aspect of his expository
method. It fits.
This is a landmark book in modern Puritan study, and it is a joy to commend it.”
- J.I. Packer, Forward to Kelly M. Kapic, Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen (©2007 Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group).
Terminating the Gospel on God
by Tony Reinke
Lord willing, if the 16-inches of snow expected in the Twin Cities holds off until tonight, I’ll be headed to the North Woods with some dear Christian brothers. It will be a weekend of fires, food, hiking, snowmobiles and (hopefully) millions of stars and the Northern lights. So a short post before I pack my hatchet, matches and camera.
Even coming into 2007, I eagerly anticipated that God would teach me many new things about communion with Himself. I cannot wait to finally get a copy of Kelly Kapic’s soon-to-be released, Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen (Baker). And later this Winter Justin Taylor and Kapic will release Owen’s Communion with God in the same format as Overcoming Sin and Temptation last year (Crossway). Folks like myself are being stretched to capture the Puritan idea that our union with God drives our communion with Him. Discovering many contours of communion with God is my anticipation for 2007.
In The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer explained the danger of terminating on justification and thinking that union with God is the end of all things. Tozer writes, “We have been snared in the coils of a spurious logic which insists that if we have found Him, we need no more seek Him” (16). And earlier, “To have found God and still to pursue Him is the Soul’s paradox of love, scorned indeed by the too easily satisfied religionist, but justified in happy experience by the children of the burning heart” (14).
Recently another very helpful contour in this discovery came a quote from John Piper last Sunday at the Resolved conference in California. Here is the excerpt that grabbed my attention:
“I want God. Forgiveness just gets stuff out of the way between me and God. Forgiveness has value for one reason – it brings me to God reconciled. That’s what I want pastors to get to. I don’t want you to stop at justification. I don’t want you to stop at forgiveness. I don’t want you to stop at eternal life. I want you to push though all of those because the Bible does … ‘We rejoice in God through Jesus Christ, through whom we have received reconciliation’ (Rom. 5:11). But the point is we finally have gotten to the end and ‘we rejoice in God.’ Reconciliation is a means to the end of making God the Gospel! … We get out of the way everything that is an obstacle to enjoying God when we are forgiven. Take justification: ‘Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God’ (Rom. 5:1-2). That’s the point of justification. Who cares if we’re righteous? Do you want to be God? Is that why you want to be righteous? You want to boast in your righteousness? Why do you want to be righteous? … Because when you get righteousness you get God! You don’t get put in hell — you get God! … All the things we usually terminate on when we preach the Gospel we terminate one step early. We need in America a great awakening of radical God-centeredness … We need millions and millions of believers that are so oriented on ‘God as the Gospel’ they break through forgiveness to God, and through justification to God, and through reconciliation to God, and through eternal life to God.”
- John Piper, “God is the Gospel”, sermon (2007.02.18) 39:53-43:25
The warning that Piper and Tozer sound is a warning not to be a “too easily satisfied religionist.” We need to see that God, not justification, is the heart of the Gospel. I love books, and I love doctrine, and I love Calvinism, and I love the message of a God who covers sinners with His Own righteousness. I love these things! But all doctrines are intended to push us deeper into a relationship with Himself. Tozer was right when he wrote, “God waits to be wanted. Too bad that with many of us He waits so long, so very long, in vain” (17).
But reading books, biographies and diaries of men who followed hard after God is not communion. Spurgeon’s words challenge me here:
“My soul – never be satisfied with a shadowy Christ. … I cannot know Christ through another person’s brains. I cannot love him with another man’s heart, and I cannot see him with another man’s eyes. … I am so afraid of living in a second-hand religion. God forbid that I should get a biographical experience. Lord save us from having borrowed communion. No, I must know him myself. O God, let me not be deceived in this. I must know him without fancy or proxy; I must know him on my own account.”
To personally rejoice in God is the goal of the Gospel. Owen, Tozer, Piper and Spurgeon remind us that our spiritual vision is too small. We seek 15-minutes of prayer time when we should be asking to see more of God’s glory (Ex. 33:18), panting for more of Him (Ps. 42:1-2) and clinging tightly to Him (Ps. 63:8). That is communion.
So let the Gospel and Calvinism and all bible study and theology terminate in personal communion with Him. If we do, we’ll begin to understand what the Gospel is really all about.