John Owen shows that a Christian has communion with each person of the Triune God. The article also draws lessons for the Christian today.

Source: Lux Mundi, 2014. 5 pages.

John Owen: Communion with the Triune God


John Owen, and before him John Calvin, and before Calvin the Cappadocian Fathers, applied their Spirit-renewed minds and hearts to exploring the immensities and infinities of the Holy Trinity. Modern evangelical, and even modern Reformed writing (with a few honourable exceptions), give little thought to a doctrine that is the first and foundational truth of the Christian religion.

How far we are from the almost breathless wonder of Calvin when he quotes a passage in Gregory Nazianzen that, he says, vastly delights me: “No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendour of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any one of the three I think of him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me” (1.13.17) (see Gregory Nazianzen, Baptismal Orations 40.41).

In the Bible, fellowship with God, living, personal, mind-engaging, heart-affecting fellowship, is held out to us as the consummating fruit of the gospel. It is this intimate fellowship that is mirrored in the risen Lord`s words to the church in Laodicea: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev.3:20). Owen comments on this verse in his treatise on Communion With God: “Certainly this is fellowship, or I know not what is. Christ will sup with believers: he refreshes himself with his won graces to them, by his Spirit bestowed on them. The Lord Christ is exceedingly delighted in tasting of the sweet fruits of the Spirit in the saints.”1

John Owen gives us this definition of communion with God: “Our communion ... with God consisteth in his communication of himself unto us, with our returnal unto him of that which he requireth and accepteth, flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him.”2

Owen’s great contribution to experiential Christianity lies in his teaching on the believer’s communion with God being with the various Persons of the Trinity, not exclusively but distinctly. John says as much in 1 John 1:3. Paul writes of “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship (communion) of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14), and in 1 Cor. 1:9 he tells us that God has called us into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Owen is quick to explain himself. He is well aware of the theological axiom opera ad extra trinitatis indivisa sunt (that the external works of the Trinity cannot be divided), so he says,

When I assign anything as peculiar wherein we distinctly hold communion with any person, I do not exclude the other persons from communion with the soul in the very same thing. Only this, I say, principally, immediately, and by the way of eminency, we have, in such a thing, or in such a way, communion with some one person; and therein with the others secondarily, and by the way of consequence on that foundation...3

Here Owen follows the theological axiom of appropriations whereby particular actions are attributable to one or other person of the trinity but, since the works of the trinity are indivisible, all three persons are in some way or other involved. Thus, says Owen, there is “no act of divine worship yielded unto him . . . but they are distinctly directed unto Father, Son, and Spirit” (2:15).

Owen proceeds to show in what way supremely the believer has communion with the Persons of the Godhead. It is striking that Owen devotes 23 pages to Communion with the Father, 182 pages to Communion with Jesus Christ the Son, and 52 pages to Communion with the Holy Spirit. This balance (or imbalance) reflects Owen’s concern to highlight the centrality of Christ’s mediatorial, saving significance in the economy of God.

John Owen

First, Communion with the Father is Supremely in Love🔗

In 1 John 4:8, 2 Cor. 13:14, and Romans 5:5 and other texts, it is the Father’s love that is highlighted: so Owen writes, “Eye the Father as love; look not on him as an always lowering father, but as one most kind and tender. Let us look on him by faith, as one that hath had thoughts of kindness towards us from everlasting.”4 Christians must, therefore meditate on this distinguishing, free, unchangeable love.

For Owen communion with the Father in love required two things: that we ‘receive’ his love and that we ‘make suitable returns unto him’.5 The Father’s love is received by faith, through Christ.

The soul being thus, by faith through Christ, and by him brought into the bosom of God, into a comfortable persuasion and spiritual perception and sense of his love, there reposes and rests itself.6

But there is more. “God loves, that he may be beloved.”7 So, we are to make ‘returns’ of love to the Father.

Owen was deeply concerned that many Christians failed to grasp the grace of the Father’s love in Christ: “How few of the saints are experimentally acquainted with this privilege of holding immediate communion with the Father in love! With what anxious, doubtful thoughts do they look upon him! What fears, what questionings are there, of his good-will and kindness! At the best, many think there is no sweetness at all in him towards us, but what is purchased at the high price of the blood of Jesus.”8 Owen never wearies of impressing on us that the Father’s love “ought to be looked on as the fountain from whence all other sweetnesses flow.”9

Second, Communion with the Son is Supremely in Grace🔗

We have communion with Christ as Mediator,10 and as Mediator he meets us in GRACE.11 Owen highlights a number of biblical texts to make his point: John.1:14, 16, 17; 1 Cor. 1:9; 2 Thess. 3:17-18; Song of Solomon 5:10. So he writes, “This, then, is that which we are peculiarly to eye in the Lord Jesus, to receive it from him, even grace, gospel-grace...”12

Owen considers communion with Christ to focus on his ‘personal grace’ and his ‘purchased grace’:

  1. Christ’s personal grace. For Owen, reflecting on the language of the Song of Solomon, Christ is the believer’s husband, so responding to this personal grace involves, “The liking of Christ for his excellency, grace and suitableness, far above all other beloveds whatever, preferring him in the judgment and mind above them all,” and accepting Christ by the will, as its only husband, Lord and Saviour. This is called ‘receiving’ of Christ, John 1:12; and is not intended only for that solemn act whereby at first entrance we close with him, but also for the constant frame of the soul in abiding with him and owning him as such.”13 So Owen characteristically continues, “Let believers exercise their hearts abundantly unto this thing. This is choice communion with the Son Jesus Christ. Let us receive him in all his excellencies, as he bestows himself upon us – be frequent in thoughts of faith, comparing him with other beloveds, sin, world, legal righteousness; and preferring him before them, counting them all loss and dung in comparison of him ... Let us tell him that we will be for him, and not for another: let him know it from us; he delights to hear it, yea he says, ‘Sweet is our voice, and our countenance is comely’; and we shall not fail in the issue of sweet refreshment with him.”14
  2. Christ’s purchased grace.15 Owen explains what he means by purchased grace: “By purchased grace, I understand all that righteousness and grace which Christ hath procured, or wrought out for us, or doth by any means make us partakers of, or bestows on us for our benefit, by anything that he hath done or suffered, or by anything he continueth to do as mediator.”16 How are we to enjoy communion with our Saviour in this grace?17 First, we do so by approving and embracing the divine way of salvation. In the gospel we see our utter depravity, spiritual poverty and just condemnation; but we also see, by God’s grace, that Christ is our “wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption.” So, in the gospel we find peace for our souls and glory to Christ.

    Secondly, the Christian enjoys fellowship with Christ in holiness.18 On Christ`s part this involves interceding with his Father “by virtue of his oblation ... that he would bestow his Holy Spirit on them.” The Spirit comes as the Spirit of holiness, who is “the efficient cause of all holiness and sanctification – quickening, enlightening, purifying the souls of his saints”.19 Thus, because of our union with Christ, we receive Christ’s own holiness. On our part, the believer receives by faith, the gracious blessings of Christ, who “as the great Joseph ... hath the disposal of all the granaries of the kingdom of heaven committed unto him...”20

    Thirdly, we have communion with Christ in “the grace of privilege before God”, the highest of which is adoption.21 Says Owen, “The privileges we enjoy by Christ are great and innumerable; to insist on them in particular were the work for a man’s whole life, not a design to be wrapped up in a few sheets. I shall take a view of them only in the head, the spring and fountain whence they all arise and flow – this is our adoption.”22


Third, Communion with the Holy Spirit is Supremely in Comfort🔗

It is the special ministry of the Spirit to bring to us the great and gracious promises and blessings of the gospel, to shed abroad God’s love in our hearts and to glorify Christ. Says Owen, “The soul is never more raised with the love of God than when by the Spirit taken into intimate communion with him in the discharge of this duty.”23 He continues, the Spirit’s ministry as the Comforter focuses on “his bringing the promises of Christ to remembrance, glorifying him in our hearts, shedding abroad the love of God in us, witnessing with us as to our spiritual estate and condition, sealing us to the day of redemption ... confirming our adoption, and being present with us in our supplications. Here is the wisdom of faith – to find out and meet with the Comforter in all these things; not to lose their sweetness, by lying in the dark (as) to their author, nor coming short of the returns which are required of us.”24

What should our response then be to this “communion of the Spirit”? Owen tells us first that we must not “grieve him, in respect to his person dwelling in us” (see Eph. 4:30); secondly, we must not “quench the Spirit” (1 Thess.5:19); thirdly, we must not be like the Jews who “resisted the Holy Ghost” in the ministry of Stephen (Acts 7:51-52); “Now, the Holy Ghost is said to be resisted in the contempt of the preaching of the word, because the gift of preaching of it is from him”.25 More positively, we are to respond to the communion of the Spirit in “faith” – “faith closeth with him in the truth revealed ... worships him, serves him, waits for him, prayeth to him, praiseth him”.26 Owen urges every Christian who knows the comfort of the Spirit to say,

This is from the Holy Ghost, he is the Comforter, the God of all consolation ... that he might give me this consolation, he hath willingly condescended to this office of a comforter...he is sent by the Father and Son for that end and purpose ... What price now, shall I set upon his love! How shall I value the mercy that I have received!27

Unceasing praise to the Spirit should be the hallmark of the believer’s communion with him.

Fourth, Communion with God is experienced in a Special way in the Lord’s Supper28🔗

In his Sacramental Discourses, Owen wrote that there is, “in the ordinance of the Lord’s supper, an especial and peculiar communion with Christ, in his body and blood, to be obtained.... We have this special communion upon the account of the special object that faith is exercised upon in this ordinance, and the special acts that it puts forth in reference to that or those objects...”29 The special and peculiar object of faith that Owen is referring to is “The human nature of Christ, as the subject wherein mediation and redemption was wrought.”30


Owen, in keeping with almost all the Puritans, and particularly Calvin, did not see the Supper as purely commemorative. It was commemorative, but it was also “eucharistical” and “federal,” “in that God confirms his covenant (he has no need to renew it) and believers renew themselves in covenant obligations.”31 What then is the communion the believer enjoys, supremely with Christ, in the Supper? It “becomes a matter of acknowledging his presence in the power of his reconciling sacrifice and of observing the ordinance with reverent confidence that in it Christ comes to pledge his saving love to each one personally, so that we sit down at God`s table as those who are the Lord`s friends ... there being now no difference (contention) between him and us.”32 So, in our sacramental communion with Christ, we come to the Supper in a spirit of meditation, self-examination, supplication and expectation,33 that God will surely “meet us according to the desire of our hearts. We should look to meet God, because he hath promised to meet us there, and we go upon his promise of grace ... He hath placed his name upon his ordinances, and there he is”34 Such, in brief, is the believer’s communion with God. It is, as it has often been said, “better felt than telt”!

Lessons for the Church today from Owen’s on the Holy Trinity🔗

John Owen’s study of communion with the triune God is significant and contemporary, for at least three reasons (Kevin Vanhoozer).

1. Owen Wonderfully balances God’s Oneness and Threeness🔗

Much has been made in recent times concerning the ‘renaissance’ of Trinitarian theology that began with Karl Barth. One of the most important present-day litmus tests for theologians pertains to how far one accepts (or understands!) Rahner’s Rule: “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and vice versa.” Read against the backdrop of the current discussion, Owen’s approach to the doctrine of the Trinity is impressive. Owen walks a fine line that balances the oneness and the threeness, emphasizing our communion “with each person distinctly” while at the same time insisting that to commune with each person is to commune with the one God. Perhaps one advantage of Owen’s approach over more than a few contemporary approaches is that he is able to preserve the distinctness of the Father’s love while simultaneously focusing on Christ as the one alone who makes it known.

2. Owen helps us Connect Union and Communion with God🔗

Christianity, it has been said, is not a religion but a personal relation. Owen agrees that theology is relational, but his account of our relation with God bears little resemblance either to the casual way in which it sometimes gets played out in dumbed-down theology and worship or to the reductionistic way it gets worked out in wised-up theology that defines persons as ‘nothing but’ relations and which views the God-humanity relation in terms of a flattened out mutuality. 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.

The gospel is the good news that in Christ there is union and communion with God. According to Owen, communion involves ‘mutual relations’ between God and humankind – a giving and receiving – but it does not follow that God and humankind are equal partners. Only God can bring about the union that establishes and enables the subsequent communion. Humans enjoy fellowship with God, therefore, only by actively participating in what God has unilaterally done for them in Christ through the Spirit. Owen may here have something to teach contemporary theology concerning the nature of human participation in God’s triune life, namely, that participation, like communion itself, is neither a legal fiction nor idle piety but rather the meat and drink of the Christian life. We appropriate the friendship God offers through the workings of his Word and Spirit in and through our natural human faculties.

Bible reading and prayer

3. Owen sees that Theology is Crucial for Worship and Living🔗

The third significant feature is Owen’s emphasis on theology for right worship and faithful practice. Here too, 21st century theology is playing catch-up with the Puritans as it seeks ways of coordinating theory and practice, both informally, in everyday life, and formally, in theological education. Owen’s work provides just the right balance, tempering spiritual experience with biblical exegesis, and argumentative rigor with pastoral application.

I pray God with all my heart that I may be weary of everything else but converse and communion with him.letter to Sir John Hartopp


  1. ^ The Works of John Owen (Banner of Truth Trust, 1966), Vol. 2. 40
  2. ^ Owen 2.8-9
  3. ^ Owen 2.18
  4. ^ Owen 32
  5. ^ Owen 22
  6. ^ Owen 23
  7. ^ Owen 24
  8. ^ Owen 2.32
  9. ^ Owen 22
  10. ^ Owen 40
  11. ^ Owen 47
  12. ^ Owen 47. See the most helpful exposition of this in S.B.Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life (Banner of Truth,1987), pp77ff
  13. ^ Ibid, 58
  14. ^ Ibid, 59
  15. ^ See Ferguson pp.86ff
  16. ^ Owen 2.154
  17. ^ See Ferguson p.88ff
  18. ^ Owen 2.197ff
  19. ^ Owen 2.199
  20. ^ Owen 2.203
  21. ^ Owen 2.207
  22. ^ Owen 2.207
  23. ^ Owen 2.249
  24. ^ Quoted in Packer 271-272
  25. ^ Owen.2,267
  26. ^ Owen 2.270
  27. ^ Owen 271
  28. ^ See again Sinclair Ferguson’s excellent summary of Owen’s teaching,220ff
  29. ^ Owen 9.523
  30. ^ Owen 9.524
  31. ^ Ferguson 221
  32. ^ Quoted in Packer 281
  33. ^ Owen 2.558-563
  34. ^ Owen 2.562

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