I remember being a brand new Christian and knowing absolutely nothing about the Bible. Each time I opened the Bible it was like I made a brand new rich theological discovery. Every word seemed fresh and filled with wonder. There was a constant stream of pure joy and refreshment for my soul as I gained a new understanding of these biblical words and the doctrine contained in them.
One such biblical phrase that captured my newly regenerated heart and mind was, “eternal life.” What does that mean? Is it simply a matter of not dying and going to hell, but rather, living on forever in a place called heaven? What joy was mine when one day I read in John 17:3,
“And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
What is eternal life? It is to know God! It’s not merely about going to a place, but knowing a person. Knowing God is the very essence of what it means to have eternal life. When we speak of communion with God, we are talking about the living and vital experience of what it means to know God. In giving the Puritan perspective on communion with God, J.I. Packer writes,
“Thus, to the Puritans, communion between God and man is the end to which both creation and redemption are the means; it is the goal to which both theology and preaching must ever point; it is the essence of true religion; it is, indeed, the definition of Christianity.”
If communion with God is the essence of true religion; if it is the definition of Christianity; if it is the goal of theology and preaching; and if it is God’s own chief end in both creation and redemption—why are we so unaccustomed to having such conversations and experiences today?
The Puritans vs. Modern Evangelicals
On the difference between us and the Puritans, J.I. Packer writes,
“First, we cannot but conclude that whereas to the Puritans communion with God was a great thing, to evangelicals today it is a comparatively small thing. The Puritans were concerned about communion with God in a way that we are not. The measure of our unconcern is the little that we say about it. When Christians meet, they talk to each other about their Christian work and Christian interests, their Christian acquaintances, the state of the churches, and the problems of theology—but rarely of their daily experience of God. Modern Christian books and magazines contain much about Christian doctrine, Christian standards, problems of Christian conduct, techniques of Christian service—but little about the inner realities of fellowship with God. Our sermons contain much sound doctrine—but little relating to the converse between the soul and the Saviour. We do not spend much time, alone or together, in dwelling on the wonder of the fact that God and sinners have communion at all; no, we just take that for granted, and give our minds to other matters. Thus we make it plain that communion with God is a small thing to us. But how different were the Puritans! The whole aim of their ‘practical and experimental’ preaching and writing was to explore the reaches of the doctrine and practice of man’s communion with God. In private they talked freely of their experiences of God, for they had deep experiences to talk about, like the ‘three or four poor women sitting at a door in the sun’ whom Bunyan met at Bedford:
Their talk was about a new birth, the work of God on their hearts, also how they were convinced of their miserable state by nature; they talked how God had visited their souls with his love in the Lord Jesus, and with what words and promises they had been refreshed, comforted, and supported against the temptations of the devil. Moreover, they reasoned of the suggestions and temptations of Satan in particular; and told each other by which they had been afflicted, and how they were borne up under his assaults.… And methought they spake as if joy did make them speak.…
And the Puritans never ceased to feel a sense of awe and wonder that access to God in peace and friendship was possible for them at all. ‘Truly for sinners to have fellowship with God, the infinitely holy God, is an astonishing dispensation,’ wrote Owen, and Puritan hearts thrilled again and again at the wonder of God’s ‘astonishing’ grace. To them it was the most marvelous thing in the world. Yet we in our day, much as we love to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ (I suppose, because we like the tune), are not inwardly amazed by grace as the Puritans were; it does not startle us that the holy Creator should receive sinners into his company; rather, we take it for granted! ‘God will forgive; that’s his job’ was the final scoff with which the French cynic went to meet his Maker. ‘God will receive; that his job’ seems to be our bland assumption today. Surely something is wrong here.”
The Puritans were not perfect men. They had issues and sins of their own. Yet, here they give us an example worthy of imitation, perhaps above and beyond all else they taught us. Communion with God is an end in itself, and yet all of the good fruit of the Christian life springs forth from this living and vital union with the triune God. We see this in 2 Peter 1:3 where Peter writes,
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.”
How do we grow in godliness? By knowing God! A neglect of communion with God is why we have so much prevailing sin, spiritual weakness, and worldliness in the church. J.I. Packer explains the effect that regular “experimental” communion with God had on the Puritans when he wrote,
“Anyone who knows anything at all about Puritan Christianity knows that at its best it had a vigour, a manliness, and a depth which modern evangelical piety largely lacks. This is because Puritanism was essentially an experimental faith, a religion of ‘heart-work’, a sustained practice of seeking the face of God, in a way that our own Christianity too often is not. The Puritans were manlier Christians just because they were godlier Christians.”
The Puritans knew God, they communed with God, and they become more godly and more manly as a result. This God-centered vigor compelled them to lives that looked quite different then ours do today. Yet for them, it was not primarily about communing with God as a means toward some other practical end. God was the end! They were “inwardly amazed by grace.” They were delightfully startled “that the holy Creator should receive sinners into his company.” Their joy was in the triune God, and therefore they desired to know him more, but in knowing God, everything about their lives was changed.
If there is one thing that Reformed Evangelicals need to remember today, it is the fact that true Christianity is more than merely confessing orthodox doctrine. Henry Scougal writes,
“I cannot speak of religion, but I must lament, that among so many pretenders to it, so few understand what it means; some placing it in the understanding, in orthodox notions and opinions; and all the account they can give of their religion is, that they are of this or the other persuasion, and have joined themselves to one of those many sects whereinto Christendom is most unhappily divided.”
This, I believe, is the vast difference between the Reformed camp today and the Reformed camp in the days of the Puritans. We place all our stock in our creeds and confessions, our “orthodox notions and opinions.” The Puritans, on the contrary, were men who simply sought the face of God as he had revealed himself in sacred Scripture, and all of the excellent historic Confessions of Faith seemed to arise out of this pursuit of knowing and worshiping God according to the teaching of Scripture alone. Henry Scougal continues,
“But certainly religion is quite another thing, and they who are acquainted with it will entertain far different thoughts, and disdain all those shadows and false imitations of it. They know by experience that true religion is a union of the soul with God, a real participation of the Divine nature, the very image of God drawn upon the soul, or, in the apostle’s phrase, ‘it is Christ formed within us.’”
It is easy to recite facts, doctrines, and catechism questions. Any dead sinner can do that. It is also easy enough to discipline yourself to take up certain external “Christian” practices. Almost every false religion has some external form of regulated worship and strict morality. But it is quite another thing to know by experience something of this vital union with the living God.
A.W. Tozer also saw this problem among modern Evangelicals when he wrote his classic book, “The Knowledge of the Holy.” He said,
“The Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshipping men. This she has done not deliberately, but little by little and without her knowledge; and her very unawareness only makes her situation all the more tragic.
The low view of God entertained almost universally among Christians is the cause of a hundred lesser evils everywhere among us. A whole new philosophy of the Christian life has resulted from this one basic error in our religious thinking.
With our loss of the sense of majesty has come the further loss of religious awe and consciousness of the divine Presence. We have lost our spirit of worship and our ability to withdraw inwardly to meet God in adoring silence. Modern Christianity is simply not producing the kind of Christian who can appreciate or experience the life in the Spirit. The words, ‘Be still, and know that I am God,’ mean next to nothing to the self-confident, bustling worshiper in this middle period of the twentieth century.
This loss of the concept of majesty has come just when the forces of religion are making dramatic gains and the churches are more prosperous than at any time within the past several hundred years. But the alarming thing is that our gains are mostly external and our losses wholly internal; and since it is the quality of our religion that is affected by internal conditions, it may be that our supposed gains are but losses spread over a wider field.”
It was this lofty view of God that caused they Puritans to dwell “on the wonder of the fact that God and sinners have communion at all.” If we have a low view of God, then there is nothing great about him to be feared, and subsequently, the grace of God revealed in the cross of Christ appears less than truly amazing to us. When we don’t delight ourselves simply in knowing this thrice holy God who is also full of mercy and of grace, worldly things will appear to be more worthy of our thoughts and affections. It is only when we truly behold something of the transcendent glory of God in the immanent face of Jesus Christ that communion with God becomes our greatest delight, the very essence and joy of our lives.
One All-Consuming Passion
However, while this vital communion is a reality in believers, we should be careful not to overstate our experiences of the true knowledge of God. There is much more to be had of God in heaven when we put off this corruptible flesh and are raised in glory. Nevertheless, while there is infinitely more to behold of the glory of God in heaven, John Owen perfectly expresses the heart of every true believer when he writes,
“Howbeit, that real view which we may have of Christ and his glory in this world by faith,—however weak and obscure that knowledge which we may attain of them by divine revelation,—is inexpressibly to be preferred above all other wisdom, understanding, or knowledge whatever.”
That is the mark of the one who has experienced the life of God dwelling in his own soul! It is not that we have seen all of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Yet, whatever small glimpse we have had of it, we prefer that to all of the knowledge and pleasure that could be gained from this world. John Owen can therefore speak with such passion on beholding the glory of Christ saying,
“Herein would I live;—herein would I live;—hereon would I dwell in my thoughts and affections, to the withering and consumption of all the painted beauties of this world, unto the crucifying all things here below, until they become unto me a dead and deformed thing, no way meet for affectionate embraces.”
These are the words of a man who truly knew God, and he knew God in the midst of much suffering. Among other things, John Owen outlived his wife and all eleven of his children. What sustained this man through such unspeakable suffering? A lifetime of communing with God as he beheld the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
A Never Ending Quest
Although we give our most serious thoughts and affections to the contemplation of God, at the end of it all we must confess together with Owen,
“But, alas! after our utmost and most diligent inquiries, we must say, How little a portion is it of him that we can understand! His glory is incomprehensible, and his praises are unutterable. Some things an illuminated mind may conceive of it; but what we can express in comparison of what it is in itself, is even less than nothing.”
Communion with God is more than a life long pursuit. It is an eternal pursuit. Every day in heaven we will have new revelations of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. As our knowledge of the glory of God increases day-by-day, our hearts will be expanded to have ever-increasing, never-ending fullness of joy in his infinitely glorious presence. If such is our eternal hope, then let us begin our quest after the inexhaustible riches of knowing God now.