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Bryan Chapell, in Holiness by Grace: Delighting in the Joy That Is Our Strength (Crossway, 2001), 196, has a helpful chart looking at what does and does not change in the relationship between God and his children (lightly adapted below):

What Can Change What Cannot Change
our fellowship our sonship
our experience of God’s blessing God’s desire for our welfare
our assurance of God’s love God’s actual affection for us
God’s delight in our actions God’s love for us
God’s discipline our destiny
our sense of guilt our security

(HT: Dane Ortlund)

These truths were wonderfully explored by the great Puritan theologian John Owen, who distinguished between our unchanging union with God and our changing communion with God. Kelly Kapic summarizes:

It is important to note that Owen maintains an essential distinction between union and communion.

Believers are united to Christ in God by the Spirit. This union is a unilateral action by God, in which those who were dead are made alive, those who lived in darkness begin to see the light, and those who were enslaved to sin are set free to be loved and to love. When one speaks of “union,” it must be clear that the human person is merely receptive, being the object of God’s gracious action. This is the state and condition of all true saints.

Communion with God, however, is distinct from union. Those who are united to Christ are called to respond to God’s loving embrace. While union with Christ is something that does not ebb and flow, one’s experience of communion with Christ can fluctuate.

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 distinction also protects the biblical truth that the children of God have a relationship with their Lord, and as a relationship, there are things that can either help or hinder it. When a believer grows comfortable with sin (whether sins of commission or sins of omission) this invariably affects the level of intimacy this person feels with God. It is not that the Father’s love grows and diminishes for his children in accordance with their actions, for his love is unflinching. It is not that God runs from us, but we run from him. Sin tends to isolate the believer, making him feel distant from God. Then come the accusations—both from Satan and self—which can make the believer worry he is under God’s wrath. In truth, however, saints stand not under wrath, but in the safe shadow of the cross.

While a saint’s consistency in prayer, corporate worship, and biblical meditation are not things that make God love him more or less, such activities tend to foster the beautiful experience of communion with God. Temptations and neglect threaten the communion, but not the union [Works, 2:126]. And it is this union which encourages the believer to turn from sin to the God who is quick to forgive, abounding in compassion, and faithful in his unending love.

Let there be no misunderstanding—for Owen, Christian obedience was of utmost importance, but it was always understood to flow out of this union, and never seen as the ground for it. In harmony with Bunyan and other Dissenters like him, Owen “insisted upon a very personal and emotional experience of union with Christ and the Holy Spirit,” and out of this union naturally flowed active communion.

Kelly M. Kapic, “Worshiping the Triune God: Insights from John Owen,” introduction to John Owen, Communion with the Triune God, ed. Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor; foreword by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), pp. 21-22.

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10 thoughts on “What Can and Cannot Change in Our Relationship with God”

  1. Marc says:

    Thank you for this! The table is a good view of what changes and what doesn’t. It would be good though to have explanations for each but I know that would be a long discussion. Again, thanks!

  2. Wesley says:

    Great summary JT. Can’t help but feel this may be your own response and jump into the fray going on between Tuvijian and Murray. Very helpful and clarifying for me (your post). many thanks.

  3. Luma says:

    Justin, I wish I had understood this distinction all those years that I lived being convinced theologically that God will love me more if I obeyed—indeed that his love was dependent upon my obedience. There is much I can say about this point in particular and I am contemplating whether I should write about it or not. At any rate, I do discuss it in “Gospel Amnesia” (due to be released Jan. 15th). The Lord is gracious and wise in his providence, as always.

    I am very grateful for the table above, this post and the book recommendation.

    Thank you, Justin.

  4. zee says:

    Very interesting post. Thank You!

  5. Inchristus says:

    A helpful taxonomy for sure and one that I hold to.
    However, how might one avoid judging others whose communion is clearly out of sync with their union? Granted obedience is the outworking of our union and so our communion gradually becomes evident to us and to others, the often sharp turns up/down the scale (obedience/disobedience) can lead many to conclude there is no union at all. Given God’s unilateral move to regenerate is real, this conclusion would be an erroneous. In other words, this taxonomy may in fact be mis-applied.

  6. Jeff Baxter says:

    Thank you for posting. This is a good list.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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