Communion with the Triune God
A. Craig Troxel
Despite its obvious distortions and regrettable omissions, Peter Jackson's cinematic spectacle could not successfully suppress or alter every motif in the text of J. R. R. Tolkien's trilogy, The Lord of the Ringslike "the unbreakable ties of friendship and sacrifice." In these books, the theme of close fellowship swells and recedes throughout the story like the tide of the ocean.
The plot finds its moorings in long-standing friendships among hobbits and a wizard. Then, as it sets loose from the Shire, it broadens to include new companions of Middle-earth with the forming of "the fellowship of the ring." Soon into their quest, the individuals of the fellowship shoulder burdens and experience joys in solidarity. Risks and rewards are shared by everyone in the group. Battles, trials, dangers, sacrifices, laughter, fear, and longings all serve to test the deepening bonds of their company. After every challenge is endured and all evil is overcome against all hope, their brotherhood proves faithful, united, and strong. At the story's end, each must go his own way, and yet we sense that they are inseparably joined in heart, memory, and even love.
This is the stuff of communion. And it doesn't just happen in fantasy. The fellowship of close friends in a common purpose embodies one of the most precious privileges that we cherish and long for in this lifewhether in a strong Christian marriage, or with that friend who sticks "closer than a brother" (Prov. 18:24), or, ultimately, in our union and communion with God.
Communion with God
Communion with God is an intimate, mutual, covenantal bond between God and his people. The biblical word for "communion" (koinonia) refers to participation in a fellowship or association in which one shares or enjoys things in common with others. It conjures up such ideas as intimacy, familiarity, or closely walking with someone else in a close and trusted alliance. So, with respect to God, communion or fellowship suggests that we walk with God as friends, truly knowing him. This is not merely knowing things about God or knowing what the Bible teaches concerning him, but knowing God as a person. And, as in any friendship, this means listening and speaking, loving and longing, and striving and drawing closer together.
Of course, such communion is impossible between God and sinful humankind. Our race has fallen from the original innocent state in which we were created and is now marked by sin and misery. How can a sinful people commune with a holy God? "What fellowship has light with darkness?" (2 Cor. 6:14). The Bible teaches that in this state people cannot worship God aright, have no regard for what God says, and do not seek after God or his intimate friendship. Rather, fallen creatures seek to distance themselves from God in a relationship of enmity and conflict (Rom. 8:7; Eph. 2:3). The breach between humankind and its Creator is so wide that it cannot be bridgedat least not by us.
But, by God's grace, what is impossible for man is possible with God. God has powerfully summoned us by the Holy Spirit, regenerated us, and enabled us to embrace Jesus Christ by faith as our Savior. Through our union with Christ in his death and resurrection, we stand before God in peace and in right relationship. Every barrier that once stood between God and us is now cast down by Christ. He has taken those who were covenant enemies and made them covenant friends. He has taken those who were far away and brought them near.
More than this, God invites us to draw ever nearer to him through Christ by the Holy Spirit and the means of grace (prayer, the Word of God, and the sacraments). And as we draw closer to him we are increasingly molded and renewed after the image of God in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, so that we mirror our God more and more, love what God loves, hate what God hates, and pursue what he commends.
Yet now that we see how this communion has been made possible, how is it lived out in actuality? What does it mean to have communion with God in three persons?
Communion with the Triune God
All areas of our covenant relationship to God are triune. Our justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification are triunely planned, purchased, and applied. Our access to God is through Christ, by the Spirit, and to the Father (Eph. 2:18). The gifts of the Spirit are won by Christ and offered to the Father (1 Cor. 12:4-6). Our worship is through the mediation of Christ, by the Spirit, and presented to the Father. Our prayers are in the name of Christ, by the Spirit, and addressed to the Father. All that we have from God and enjoy with him is triune.
Our communion with God is uniquely related to each distinct person of the Godhead. Nevertheless, it is never exclusive to the individual persons or separate from the other persons in the triune counsel. In other words, even though we have unique expectations with respect to each member of the Godhead, we can never isolate our relationship with one member of the Trinity from our relationship with the other persons.
For example, our adoption into the family of God particularly describes our relationship with our heavenly Father and the love that he has lavished on us (1 John 3:1). Yet it is the Holy Spirit"the Spirit of adoption"who testifies to our sonship (Rom. 8:15-16). And it is Christ, our "elder brother," who won this grace for his "brothers" who will become his fellow heirs (Heb. 2:11-12; Rom. 8:17).
The same could be said of the work of creation, our redemption, our effectual calling, and so on. Scripture may attribute that work first or more particularly to one member of the Trinity, but it will never exclude the other members of the Trinity from that work. Every communication of grace from God is given to us triunelydistinctly but jointly, uniquely but unitedly. Our communion with God is communion with the entirety of the Trinity, and there is no communion with God that is not. We relate, then, to one divine counsel of three. And yet we relate intimately and uniquely with each person of the Trinity.
In the months ahead, we will look at how to understand our intimate and mutual covenantal bond with each person of the Godhead. We will consider how our communion with God the Father is distinguished by love, how our communion with God the Son is typified by grace, and how our communion with the Spirit is characterized by comfort. That is, we relate to the Father, from whom the gospel of love originates (1 John 4:9), to the Son, from whose fullness of merited grace we receive grace upon grace (John 1:16), and to the Spirit, who is the chief agent of our comfort (John 14:26). Again, although our communion with each member of the Trinity is unique, that does not mean that the other members of the Trinity do not share in the communications of love, grace, and comfort. It simply means that we look to each member of the Trinity for certain things.
How Important Is This?
God is one God in three "persons." He is not three entities or forces. We need to take seriously God's threefold personage, and learn to relate to him appropriately and practically with this in mind. We may be tempted to ask, "Is this really important?" "Is this just a theological detail that makes no real practical difference?" "Will this actually change the way I walk as a Christian or how I pray or how I think about God?" These are important questions. And the answer is that thinking about communion with our triune God is important, and that it can and should make a real difference in how we relate to God.
More specifically, it ought to make a profound and practical difference in our ability to enter into a closer walk with God. First of all, anything that is biblical should be practical, because the Word of God is useful for teaching us, rebuking us, correcting us, and training us in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). If this teaching on communion with the triune God is faithful to Scripture, then it ought to help us to obey and to enjoy more fully the fruit of God's command: "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you" (Jas. 4:8).
Secondly, we must be careful not to fall into error when we seek to relate to God. On the one hand, we must not focus too narrowly on one person of the Trinity at the expense of the others. One group of Christiansthe "Jesus Only" or "Oneness" movementso stresses Jesus, as the summation and apex of the revelation of God, that he is to be adored above the other members of the Trinity. Some liberal branches of the church ignore the Son of God and focus on the loving Father of humankind. And some churches so severely understate the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit that he ends up being characterized as nothing more than a force. These are three examples of anti-Trinitarian thought or practice. Yet there are orthodox Christians who avoid God the Father out of fear, or bypass the mediating role of Christ in prayer, or avoid speaking of the Holy Spirit for fear of sounding like a charismatic. Christians can so neglect the distinct members of the Trinity that they become Unitarians in practice, even though such an idea would utterly repulse them in principle.
On the other hand, we must not think about our communion with God too abstractly or broadly. It is possible to consider our communion with God so theoretically, so abstracted from life, that it becomes merely an exercise in mystical contemplation. Our practice should conform to our preaching, and our life must reflect our faith in the triune God.
Perhaps it is helpful to think practically of communion with God in terms of how we as parents relate to our children. My children look to my wife and me as their parents, but they often look to her specifically as their mother or to me specifically as their father. In most matters, my wife and I present a "unified front." But there are those moments when my children need their mother or their father for what we uniquely represent, or for what we individually can give by way of affection, instruction, or emotional support, or for how we in particular can listen and talk to them. Summer camps exist for these special relationships, recognizing what every parent knows: some conversations are more ideally suited to the father as a father or to the mother as a mother.
The same is true for our relationship with God. We relate to the living and true God, who is one and who is also in three persons. We are right to look uniquely to the Father as his children in some matters, even as we look particularly to Christ for sympathy as the one who partook of our nature, and just as we look to the Spirit especially as the agent of comfort.
Understanding our relationship to God in this manner should bear the fruit of a closer walk with God. It should be a relationship in which we share in the sufferings and risks of knowing Christ. It should be a communion in which we grow in our desire for God. A friendship that is marked by mutual listening and speaking, loving and longing, and striving and drawing closer together. A fellowship that is typified by deepening solidarityour standing for Christ and his standing with us. A walk that know the sorrows, joys, and rewards of an intimate bond with God and proves faithful and strong enough to endure every trial, battle, or illness. A bond of such goodness that it endures every challenge and overcomes every evil, against all human hope. A communion in which we enjoy "the unbreakable ties of friendship and sacrifice," inseparably joined to God in love for all eternity.
 Ralph C. Wood, "Hungry Eye: The Two Towers and the Seductiveness of Spectacle," Books and Culture, March-April 2003, p. 16. According to Wood, "Aristotle regarded spectacle as the last and least of drama's essential elementsa crowd-pleasing device that mustn't overwhelm the play's central moral and spiritual conflict" (p. 16).
 The basic insight of this section comes from John Owen's classic work Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (1657).
For Further Reading:
Sinclair Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life (Banner of Truth, 1987), pp. 74-98.
Kelly M. Kapic, "Communion with God by John Owen (1616-1683)," in The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics, edited by Randall C. Gleason and Kelly M. Kapic (IVP, 2004), pp. 167-82.
Robert W. Oliver, ed., John Owen: The Man and His Theology (P&R, 2002).
John Owen, Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in The Works of John Owen, edited by William H. Goold (Banner of Truth, 1980), vol. 2, pp. 1-274.
Carl Trueman, The Claims of Truth: John Owen's Trinitarian Theology (Paternoster, 1998).
The author is pastor of Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pa. This is the first article in a four-part series. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2006.