The following is a lightly edited transcript.
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors?
Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
That’s an amazing statement about the word of God. I feel real auspicious about the next fifty years for you — that patterns of life would be built in in terms of meditating on the word of God, praying over the word of God, fasting for all the flows of God through the word.
Life Is Spontaneous and Disciplined
I want you to look back, when you’re my age, with great satisfaction upon your walk with Jesus, that it had been vital. My assumption in this class is that the key to a joyful, powerful Christian walk is continual communion with the living God through his word by his Spirit. Or you could use the word fellowship — avital living, authentic, feel-able fellowship with God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Out of that hourly walk and communion flows your power as a Christian — your ability to fight sin, your ability to love people, your ability to endure suffering, your ability to stay married, and parent wayward children, and do good to those who hate you.
I regard this seminar as very foundational to everything. It’s not like, “Oh, Calvinism is the real thing.” And, “Christian Hedonism is the real thing.” “Those other seminars that he does, that’s the real thing. This is the icing.” That’s not the case. It’s just the reverse. You won’t think right about anything, you won’t do right about anything, you won’t know God, you won’t enjoy God if this seminar doesn’t get some traction in your life.
“Nobody stays married out of romance. Nobody stays with God out of romance.”
The younger generation of the emerging gospel-lovers are wired to react quickly and negatively to anything that feels legalistic, which is good and dangerous because being young, you may not have the best sniffer for what is legalistic. You may throw some babies out as you try to throw out the bath water of legalism, and I don’t know what I can say except to just plead with you. Don’t assume you’ve got that figured out. Don’t assume that in your twenties or whatever that you know how to divide up legalism and freedom. You don’t probably.
Life is complex — really complex and relationships are complex, including the one with God. Nobody stays married out of romance. Nobody stays with God out of romance. There are some days when you stay because you made a promise and then the romance can be born again and so it is with God. And in those days of obedience, if anybody calls you a legalist, just quietly walk the other way.
I speak of what I know. I want you to enjoy him at age 66 — enjoy him freely and you won’t get there without discipline. I promise you. You won’t get there. Life is beautifully spontaneous when it’s at its best, and it’s ruggedly disciplined as necessary. And all in all, it’s a good life.
John Paton’s Example
John G. Paton was a missionary to the New Hebrides — Vanuatu today, in the South Seas. He was born in Scotland 1824 and experienced a joy in God in the most dangerous and discouraging circumstances. Where did your joy come from? Where did this deep repose that he had in these life-threatening situations come from?
The answer is it’s rested most deeply in the experience of personal communion with Jesus Christ mediated through the promises of God in the written word of the Bible. Most central to his communion with God seems to have been the promise, “Lo, I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). What I hope God does for you is so work in your heart that when you read something so familiar as this last phrase of the book of Matthew, “Behold, I am with you always,” you will get to the point where that is a personal address of the risen, living, Christ to you as though he were standing at your side because that’s the way Paton experienced it as you’ll see, and he experienced it that way in some very raw, raw circumstances.
This promise had been given precisely in the context of the Great Commission. “Go and make disciples of all nations. Lo, I am with you always” (Matthew 28:19–20). More than any other promise, this one mediated the presence of Jesus to John Paton in all his dangers. After the measles epidemic that killed thousands on the islands and for which the missionaries were blamed, he said this:
During the crisis, I felt generally calm and firm of soul, standing erect with my whole weight on the promise, “Lo I am with you always.” Precious promise! How often I adore Jesus for it and rejoice in it. Blessed be his name.
Without that abiding consciousness of the presence and power of my dear Lord and Savior, nothing else in all the world could have preserved me from losing my reason and perishing miserably. In his words, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world,” became to me so real that it would not have startled me to behold him as Stephen did gazing down upon the scene.
That’s your goal in appropriating the promises of God, that they are spoken to you through the Bible and are so real that it would not surprise you if you looked up like Stephen and saw the one speaking the words. When the Holy Spirit takes the Bible and applies it to your heart, the bookishness of it, the academicness of it, the skill in reading it, the black and white marks on the page, they all fade away and the connection between persons happens. That’s what this seminar is about: fellowship with God, communion with God through words like this. This was the central one for John Paton.
I felt his supporting power. It is the sober truth and it comes back to me sweetly after twenty years, that I had my nearest and dearest glimpses of the face and smiles of my blessed Lord in those dread moments when musket, club, or spear was being leveled at my life. Oh, the bliss of living and enduring as seeing him who is invisible.
The Christian life is lived in steady-state gazing at what you cannot see, and seeing it through the word by the Spirit. You look at him and he’s not there and he’s there. You see him with the eyes of the heart, that is you know by the Spirit that that promise is being fulfilled in this room right now.
One of the most powerful paragraphs in his autobiography and I recommend it to you. The autobiography of John Paton describes his experience hiding in a tree. You have to get this. This is terrifying. He’s hiding in a tree at the mercy of an unreliable chief as hundreds of angry natives hunt him for his life. Here are his words:
Being entirely at the mercy of such doubtful and vacillating friends, I, though perplexed felt it best to obey.”
In other words, go up in the tree and I’ll take them that way. He didn’t even know if that’s going to be true.
I climbed into the tree and was left there alone in the bush. The hours I spent there live all before me as if it were but yesterday. I heard the frequent discharging of muskets and the yells of the savages. Yet, I sat there among the branches as safe in the arms of Jesus. Never in all my sorrows did my Lord draw nearer to me and speak more soothingly to my soul than when the moonlight flickered among the chestnut leaves and the night air played on my throbbing brow as I told all my heart to Jesus.
Now, when I speak with communion with Christ or communion with God, this is what I mean. He’s telling all his heart to Jesus. That’s what you do to friends, right? Jesus speaks back, “Lo, I am with you to the end.” They have this communion. That’s what it is. All his heart being poured out to his Jesus, and Jesus speaking the infallible word which the Holy Spirit makes feel-ably true and real. Jesus is in the tree. That’s what he felt. Believe, knew was real. He says,
Alone yet not alone! If it be to glorify my God, I will not grudge to spend many nights alone in such a tree, to feel again my Savior’s spiritual presence to enjoy his consoling fellowship. If thus thrown back upon your own soul, alone, all alone, in the midnight, in the bush, in the very embrace of death itself have you a Friend that will not fail you then?
That’s the question at the beginning of this seminar: Have you a Friend who, alone, all alone in the bush, in the grip of death, a Friend who will never fail you? Oh, the sweetness of fellowship with Jesus, the sweetness of walking with the living Christ. Everybody else in your life is fickle. Are they not? Pick your favorite person, your wife, your husband, they’re all fickle. They are. They may love you to death, and they don’t come through for you the way you like them to. Jesus is never that way ever. Oh my, what a privilege to be a Christian.
John Newton’s Example
John Newton is even better. I think he was a better person. Paton was probably not easy to get along with. You don’t survive muskets pointed in your face without being a certain hard guy. Newton was this tender — even though he’s a slave dealer, and God just broke him in half. He wrote “Amazing Grace,” you know the story, but he has a few things to teach us here by way of introduction to the nature of communion with God.
“Oh, the sweetness of fellowship with Jesus, the sweetness of walking with the living Christ.”
Okay, let’s watch him get saved and then let’s watch him discover what communion with God is, which didn’t happen at the same time interestingly enough. John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” was awakened from the spiritual blindness and folly of his utter destitution and wretchedness on March 21, 1748 on board the ship Greyhound during a violent storm at sea.
God scared the hell out of him literally. He describes how he was only partially converted though because he did not yet know what communion with God was. Here’s what he said,
Though I cannot doubt that this change, so far as it prevailed was wrought by the spirit and power of God, yet still I was greatly deficient in many respects.
This is just so true of many who gets saved, right? Many true of many in this room. You’ve met Jesus, you’ve put your faith in Jesus, and God led you to this seminar because you know you’re deficient. In fact, if I had you raise your hand, you’d all raise your hand. Me too. Deficient in prayer, deficient in meditation, deficient in fasting. Newton just felt very deficient as many, many of us still do.
I was in some degree affected with the sense of my enormous sins, but I was little aware of the innate evils of my heart.
Now, here’s a growth point for Newton. When he met Christ on the boat, he knew he sinned. He was a slave dealer, he was a lecher. Name the sin and he did it. But when he ran to Jesus, he knew very little about corruption — where it all came from. He just knew he sinned and he felt horrible. That’s a good place to start, but he had to learn sins come from somewhere. Sins come from innate corruption, fallenness. He just didn’t know about that.
I had no apprehension of the spirituality and the extent of the law of God or the hidden life of a Christian as it consists in communion with God by Jesus Christ.
There was this transaction that he was thinking about, and the whole dimension of walking with God and communion with God was foreign to him at this stage. Notice how he describes this.
A continual dependence on him for hourly supplies of wisdom, strength, comfort was a mystery that I had yet no knowledge.
He’s thinking of communion with God as hourly supplies of wisdom, strength, comfort. He’s walking through his day — he became a pastor — but he’s walking through his day and hourly, he’s looking away to his living Lord for, “I need wisdom right now, I need strength right now, I need comfort right now, as I walk into this next conversation, as I make this next phone call, as I write this next note. I need you, I need you, I need you.”
There’s this constant reliance upon the outpouring of the Spirit by the word for strength and comfort and wisdom, anything you need. “My God will supply all your needs according to his riches and glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19), hourly. Let him who serves, serve in the strength that God supplies hourly, so that hourly God may get the glory. That’s the way Christians live.
I acknowledge the Lord's mercy in pardoning what was past, but depended chiefly upon my own resolution to do better for the time to come. I cannot consider myself to have been a believer (in the full sense of the word) till a considerable time afterwards.”
You may be in that situation. You may say, “I do believe help my unbelief.” That’s a biblical thing to say, isn’t it? Well, that’s where we all are. Nobody’s the perfect believer. Sometime between 1752 and 1756 on a morning in April he wrote,
Prayed over a part of the eighth of Romans in a way of paraphrase with some readiness. I greatly fail in the duty of meditation and am forced to use some artifice with myself to do it at all.
Now, here we start moving toward Newton’s sense that given his own recalcitrance, his own disinclination to the word of God, he needed something that he called artifice.
Thus sometimes I turn them into a prayer form.
He reads the Bible and he turns it into a prayer. He called that an artifice. I don’t know anybody can pray longer than three minutes without doing that because Satan and your flesh and a thousand distractions are trying to keep you from praying. But if you have the word in front of you, and you keep turning it into prayer, then you can go for as long as the Bible is long.
Sometimes I suppose myself in imaginary conversation, sometimes that I am called upon to speak on a point.
He’s reading Romans eight and he imagines himself, “Give a little talk on that verse right now.” He gives a little talk to himself. Isn’t that remarkable. This is John Newton. If John Newton needs help, what hope is there for the rest of us. Well, the same hope that he had.
Without something of this sort, I’m not able to engage myself, to attend with any fixedness of thought.
Does that comfort you at all? His mind was all over the place. It just ran here and there. It wasn’t fixed on the word. It jumped out of the Bible, it jumped on to the temperature of the room, and jumped on to the dust on the window sill, and jumped on to the sound of the bus going by outside, and it jumped on the smell of bacon from downstairs. It’s jumping every which way except in the Bible. That’s the way the human brain works.
And with it, alas, how seldom I would remember to pray for grace and direction in this matter, that my delight may be in the law of God to meditate therein day and night.
Well, bless you John Newton for your struggle. It bore a good fruit and we are thankful.
The Trinitarian Structure of Communion
Now we’re going to go to another man whom we’re going to let teach us about this. Communion with the Triune God edited by Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor is a good modern formatting of John Owen’s work. It’s probably the most important book on communion with God there is outside the Bible — though I certainly haven’t read all of them.
“Walking in the light is walking in the light of grace, in the light of the gospel.”
The reason I say it is because nobody that I know of tackled it quite like this. Owen tackled the issue of fellowship with God, communion with God, by asking the question, “What’s unique about the way we relate to the Father in fellowship, the way we relate to the Son in fellowship and the way we relate to the Spirit in fellowship because each of them has a unique way of relating to us, and we perhaps, should make some returns that are especially suited for the way they have loved us.”
John Owen has written what may be the most thorough treatment of communion with God as an experience the saints enjoy distinctly with each of the three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit. The title of the book published in 1657 was this: Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Each Person Distinctly, In Love, Grace and Consolation; or The Saints’ Fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost Unfolded. The titles of books in the 1600s and 1700s just took the place of tables of contents. Here’s Owen’s definition of communion with God.
Our communion, then, with God consists in his communication of himself unto us with our returnal unto him of that which requireth and accepteth, flowing from that union which in Christ Jesus we have with him.
What are these returns that we make to God and in communion with him? He says,
The way and means, then, on the part of the saints whereby in Christ they enjoy communion with God are all the spiritual and holy actings and outgoings of their souls in those graces, and by those ways, wherein the moral and instituted worship of God doth consist.
Faith, love, trust joy, etc., are the natural or moral worship of God, whereby those in whom they are, have communion with him. Now these are either immediately acted on God, and not tied to any ways or means outwardly manifesting themselves; or else they are farther drawn out in solemn prayer and praises according unto that way which he hath appointed.
Simply, he’s saying the returns that we make to God are the inward immediate actings of the soul, faith, love, joy, gratitude, hope to God, crying out and further drawn out in corporate acts of worship where prayers are appointed, songs are appointed, confessions are appointed and so on. That would be an extension further out.
Why, we may ask Owen, communion with each person of the Trinity? My guess is that for many of you in this room, this has never occurred to you. The idea of communing with God, fellowship with God, not an unfamiliar thought and a desire of your soul. But the thought of uniquely fellowshipping with the Spirit, and uniquely fellowshipping with the Son, and uniquely fellowshipping with the Father might be new for many. It was for me for sure when I read that book.
There being such a distinct communication of grace from the several persons of the Deity, the saints must needs have distinct communion with them.
The Father relates in such a distinct way, the Son in a distinct way, the Spirit in a distinct way, it would be strange not to have any personal response to the person of the Spirit and person of the Son and person of the Father if the Father as done things for me that is distinct from the Son and so on. We just haven’t thought very much about it.
It remaineth only to intimate, in a word, wherein this distinction lies, and what is the ground thereof. Now, this is, that the Father doth by way of original authority; the Son by way of communicating from a purchased treasury; and the Holy Spirit by way of immediate efficacy.
Here are some Bible passages that unpack what Owen is getting at. First, some Bible verses about the presence of the Father, the Son and then some verses about how we fellowship with each of the distinct members of the Trinity.
The Promise That the Father Will Be with Us
Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have, for he himself has said, “I will never leave you nor will I ever forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5–6.
This is the Father talking in the Old Testament. When we think of God as our Father and the Father of the Godhead, we have a word spoken to us that as Father in the Trinity, this is a pledge he makes to us.
What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (2 Corinthians 6:16)
That’s spoken to the church and God does it as the Father. Or another one:
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
There is no promise in all the Bible that I have used more often in more difficult situations than that one. It is the sound of the gears in my brain when they’re in neutral, ready to be engaged at any moment when I’m in need. If I cannot think of a promise for my morning devotions to apply to a situation of need, this is the one that kicks in. It’s ready to go, anytime. Just push the button and the gears come together and it goes, and it has served me gloriously.
I love this promise. It is given by my Father to me. “I’ll be with you.”
The Promise That the Son Will Be with Us
Now, here are some words from the Son:
Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)
For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matthew 18:20)
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:20)
This is a word from the risen Christ to the church in Revelation. This is not a text mainly for unbelievers. You can apply it that way without ruining it, but it’s mainly a church that is not enjoying the fullness of the fellowship of Jesus.
And Jesus is knocking at the door of my church or maybe at the door of your family. Perhaps you as a family aren’t even praying together and I come into the midst of two or three uniquely. “I’m always here. I’m always there in one sense, but I show up in a manifest and special way where two or three people, like a mom a dad and a daughter, a family are bowing over the word of God in the morning and the evening. “And I’m knocking on your door because you’re not doing that. I come in and I eat with you.”
This is what you do with the friends you really enjoy being with, right? You sit at the table, you’re so relaxed, you have good food, you have a good friend. Things just flow because you can relax with each other. That’s what Jesus wants to do.
We shut him out. He has to knock. That’s the Son offering himself. We should have a sweet, personal relationship with the Son in the Trinity, who is knocking on our door and saying, “I’d like to have a kind of relationship with you, which you haven’t been enjoying with me recently because you paid no attention to fellowship.”
The Promise That the Holy Spirit Will Be with Us
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:16–17)
He promises that the Holy Spirit will be in his people. You should read that, and the Spirit would apply this to you and say, “That is amazing. The Spirit of the living God is in me?” How could you not then say, “Thank you, Holy Spirit. I love you. You have been willing in this dirty, sinful, always half-hearted person. You’ve pledged to be in me. You’re amazing. You are amazing, Holy Spirit, that in this unholy frame, you would deign to come and work on me.”
Those are texts about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, making promises to us about their presence with us and their availability for fellowship uniquely.
How We Respond to God
Now, here are some about our returning. What would the fellowship look like in these cases?
That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:3–7)
I think in that “one another” there, that’s John and God and you. We have John describing walking in the light, enjoying fellowship with the Father while the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin. First John is one of the scariest books in the testament and one of the most encouraging.
“We are called into a fellowship with the Son. That’s what it means to be saved.”
It’s scary because it puts up all these tests to see whether you’re really a Christian and you read some of them and you say, “I’m not doing real well this week.” Right at the front-end of the book, he says following this, “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” Because he knows he’s going to say some things that make it sound like you might be sinless.” Over in 1 John 3:9, he says, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning.” Does that rule all of us out? You know he doesn’t mean perfection because back in chapter 1 he said that if you say you have no sin, you deceive yourself and the truth is not in you.”
Walking in the light cannot mean sinlessness. If you read, you might say, “Well, I can never have fellowship because sometimes I am stumbling around in the dark.” But walking in the light in John’s chapter doesn’t mean walking without sin. It means walking with sufficient light that when you see sin, you hate it, fight it and renounce it, and move on. If we say we have no sin, we’re just liars, we’re deceiving ourselves.
Walking in the light is walking in the light of grace, in the light of the gospel, in the light of all that God is for us in Jesus, so that when — just very practically — you’re walking through the morning, and your friend says something to you that wounds, you respond by not returning good for evil, but evil for evil and twenty seconds later, you know that was wrong.
Now, does that mean that morning you were not walking in the light? It does not mean that. Whether you were walking in the light or not, it’s going to depend on what you do twenty seconds later in your heart and in your mind. If you say, “No big deal. I’m done with that stuff anyway. Not going to try to keep doing that legalistic stuff. Can’t do it anyway” — I’ve seen people walk away from God that way. But if you say, “God, I hate that about me. I’m sorry,” that means that whole thing was in the light. Jesus had not left you. You had not left him. Fellowship with one another that is vertical and horizontal is possible because the blood of Jesus cleanses from such sin.
Fellowship with the Son
God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:9)
Becoming a Christian, Paul says, is being called into a fellowship, into a communion, into a relationship. This is why when evangelicals over against certain liturgical traditions insist on asking their mom or sister, “But do you have a personal relationship with him?”
I’ve stood beside the bed of men who are dying, who visited our church regularly because their wives were here and they had grown up in another tradition, very liturgical, very formal, never used that kind of language at all, and they didn’t know what I’m talking about.
Now, I don’t really care about the names you put on these things very much, but the reality is all-important. We are called into a fellowship with the Son. That’s what it means to be saved. That’s what it means to be converted, to be a Christian.
Whatever language you can find to help people discern if that’s real for them, then do it. I’m just trying to get this verse into language so that we can enjoy him together in a relationship like this, a fellowship where there are personal expressions going to him as a person.
I remember when I first came to Bethlehem, there were 24 deacons, and only one of them ever referred to Jesus as Jesus. The rest had very formal language. I didn’t assume they weren’t believers. I was just taking note: “What is it about this man that spoke of Jesus as his friend?”
As a young pastor, I looked at that old man, and I just admired him so much. But he spoke of the Son, he spoke of Jesus, he manifestly walked with the Son of God. That’s what attracted me. This was real for him.
Fellowship with the Spirit
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
One of the things that was foundational for this unity in the church was an enjoyment of fellowship with the Spirit. One of the things I hope the Lord does for you through this seminar is first awaken you to the awareness that this is possible, and then awaken in your heart the real sense that this is doable — that you would henceforth in your life have a personal relationship with the Father, and a personal relationship with the Son, and a personal relationship with the Spirit.
How Communion Happens
Now, we’re at pursuing communion with God through meditation on God’s word.
Before communion with God, there must be spiritual life. This life comes by the word. If we’re going to say that the word of God has a connection with communion with God or fellowship with God, the first way that comes to my mind is you can’t commune with God if you’re dead, which everybody is apart from the awakening, quickening work called regeneration — new birth. Communion with God is only possible by regeneration, having life.
How does that happen? Now I’m arguing that it happens by the word. There’s no communion with God without the word because there’s no life without the word.
You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.
How does the Spirit bring about life in an unspiritual and dead heart? He does it through the living and abiding, the living and enduring word of God. If you want to commune with God, you want life, and if you want life, you have the word do it.
Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (James 1:18)
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
The words of Jesus become life. They penetrate and they create life.
It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (John 6:63)
Again and again in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit, the seed, the imperishable seed by the living and abiding word penetrate the heart and give it life — create life — and a new creature is born. You can’t ever separate these. Word and Spirit come together. The Holy Spirit doesn’t awaken people without the word. The word does not create life without the Spirit. It’s the Spirit using the word. The Spirit has a sword, the sword of the Spirit is the word and the sword penetrates. Or like a scalpel, it cuts away all the dead callous stuff and takes out the heart of stone and puts in the heart of flesh. That’s the way he does it. We are given life through the gospel.
The Word Nourishes
This life-giving word awakens and sustains faith, which is the crucial means of meeting God in his word. Faith is the means by which we commune with the unseen God.
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)
These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)
Where does life come from out of which you can relate as a living person to the living God? It comes from believing. Where does believing come from? It comes from the written word.
John’s Gospel is written so that believer and unbeliever would read it and their faith would be awakened. It’s amazing what God has done through that Gospel through the centuries. Both for believers and for unbelievers by making it the means of new birth. Here’s another example of how the word awakens faith.
Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7–8)
Why does trust make the tree green? Because it’s planted by the water of the truth and the word and the grace of God. It’s sinking its roots down. No matter how hot and desert-like this wind is up here in the circumstances of life, the roots of your life are sunk — by faith, by trust — down into God and his word, so that the sap of grace and the sap of wisdom and comfort and joy and hope are coming up on those limbs that are being battered by all these hot winds and the leaves are green.
The people around you who are all drying up with bitterness and anger and rage because of the circumstances they’re in will look at your tree perhaps and say, “How come your leaves are green? Why aren’t you drying up with anger and drying up with rage and drying up with bitterness?” Your answer is going to be: “Because I trust in the Lord and my roots are sunk somewhere else other than in the circumstances of life.”
Now, Jeremiah doesn’t say anything directly about the word of God, but notice the parallel with Psalm 1.
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:1–3)
My way of putting those together is to say that what we trust is the word of God. It’s the word that begets faith. Faith comes by hearing, hearing by the word. When we meditate on the word, day and night — which is one of the great reasons by the way to memorize Scripture.
“There’s no communion with God without the word because there’s no life without the word.”
Admittedly, having smartphones reduces the need for that, but not entirely. This phone is my alarm clock. It starts buzzing and I’m scrambling to turn it off quick so Noël won’t be awakened, and my finger never works. When I finally get it turned off, what’s the first button I push? The first button I push is that red one right there for fighter verses. So I’m lying in bed, barely awake, and I’m working on Scripture memory.
These things, tablets and phones, are devilish in their temptation. We all know how you could become a really lecherous, wicked person in what you do with this. They are gold if your heart is gold. They just can feed your soul so amazingly, so readily. Form the habit of defaulting to Bible apps — not social media or worse.
The point in Jeremiah 17 and Psalm 1 is that faith or trust in the Lord gives you life —green life — in the midst of drought, and it happens because you’re meditating on the law of the Lord day and night, and that’s how faith is nourished and how faith expresses itself. Here’s some more text on the word as life-giving:
Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your heart to my knowledge, for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you, if all of them are ready on your lips. That your trust may be in the Lord, I have made them known to you today, even to you. (Proverbs 22:17–19)
How does trust stay strong in the Lord so that you can say in the midst of a hurricane, “I trust you.”
He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments. (Psalm 78:5–7).
Where does hope come from? How does the heart rise to hope instead of getting angry at God? The answer is here because somebody passed on to us a testimony and commandments. We want our kids to have hope in God, and we want ourselves to have hope in God, so we appropriate his word.
Faith Is the Means of Communion
Faith in turn is the means of living in communion with God. The word produces life; it produces life by awakening faith and faith becomes now the means of living in communion with God. When I was twenty years old, a sophomore, this verse became precious to me. I wrote it in the front of my King James Bible, and have used it for my steadying over and over again, my orienting of life.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
The picture here is that I live a certain way. I’m in the body with all of its brokenness and weakness and inclinations that drag me this way and that, but I am walking in that body — I’m living by faith in the Son of God, and the reason I’m trusting him is that he loved me and he gave himself for me.
Faith is reaching out and receiving the love of Jesus. “I receive your love Jesus. You love me. And the way you showed you love me is by giving yourself for me.” Which means that very, very central and ever present to your mind concerning how you relate to Jesus is his death. Always be asking, “Jesus, please. Don’t ever let me lose my grip on your cross. Don’t ever let me fail to see how massive the suffering was, how great was your sacrifice, which shows how much you love me.”
This person is getting up on Monday morning by faith in the Son of God who loves him. He’s eating breakfast by faith in the Son of God love him. He’s getting in the car and turning on the radio — or not — by faith, and he’s going to work, and he’s dealing with all the stuff that he has to deal with by faith in the Son of God who loves him.
He’s just saying to himself and enjoying Jesus saying to him, “I love you. I love you. I love you.” Don’t forget that right now as you’re starting to get angry at the person who did something harmful to you. “Remember how much harm was done to me for you.” This changes everything. That’s what it would mean by faith to walk in communion with the Son, day by day, hour by hour.
Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? (Galatians 3:5)
Does God provide you this gift of the Spirit your earning it by works of the law? No. He does it by your hearing his word with faith. You present yourself with the word of God before you get out of bed and you say, “I trust you. I believe you. I will look to the things that are unseen now. I will believe you that this is all working a weight of glory for me today, with all the perplexing things I’ve got. It’s going to work for me a weight of glory. I trust you with that.” Throw the covers off, go brush your teeth.
In that confidence and when that happens, the Spirit is being poured in your life. You’re not doing that. That’s very unnatural. That’s the Holy Spirit at work in your life. He’s flowing through the word. He’s flowing through faith, creating it as he goes.
Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:5)
What happens in the heart when the Holy Spirit is supplied? The answer is: the love of God is poured out through the Holy Spirit, who is given to us. God’s love for you is felt by the work of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is moving through faith. This faith here in Galatians 3:5 is the conscious key to the experience of the Spirit’s moving and embodying the love of God in you. In fact, if we would push on this from a Trinitarian standpoint, I would argue that the Holy Spirit is the love of God in person.
“Spiritually dead people do not trust God. They do not treasure God, they do not enjoy God.”
The Father is loving the Son, and the Son is loving the Father from all eternity, and this joy and delight and satisfaction and infinite energy of love is carrying so much of the Son and his fullness to the Father, and so much of the Father in his fullness to the Son, that it — no longer an it — becomes a person, namely the Spirit of the Trinity.
When the Spirit is poured in, he is pouring in the love of God because that’s who he is. When you have the Spirit in you, you have the Father loving the Son, the Son loving the Father, and you experience, by his presence, love for the Father, love for the Son, with the very love that they have for each other. That comes, according to Galatians 3:5, by faith — hearing with faith. Let me read Romans 5:5 again and relate it to Psalm 143.
Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love, for in you I trust. (Psalm 143:8)
Trusting in God would be the avenue or the vehicle or the means by which the love that God has for the psalmist flows into his life, becomes manifest and discernible in his heart. Faith, in turn, is the means of living in communion with God.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (Romans 5:6)
He’s giving some kind of support for this present experience of the love of God being poured out. It’s being poured out right now by the Holy Spirit in me for and then he talks about history. While we were still helpless at the right time, Christ died. That’s 2,000 years ago.
For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
God has ordained that we experience his love presently, by the Spirit, through being made aware and reminded of a historical event 2,000 years ago. This is not a logical inference. This is an experience of the Holy Spirit being poured out. Yet, the logic of it is here. I conclude from this that the way the Spirit works is that the story is told again. The old, old story is told again of the rugged cross from 2,000 years ago, and the Holy Spirit takes the word of God, and through faith, pours the love of God, by the Spirit into my heart, so that it becomes joyfully experienced and lifts me up out of my moroseness and my self-pity and my discouragement.
It’s a miracle when that happens, but that’s the way we want to live. We have to look to the story over and over again. I commend to you to think about the logic of those verses often. The love of God has been poured out in your hearts, by the Spirit, and the ground of your knowing it, the ground of your experiencing it, is to be told that he demonstrates his love for you by reminding you of a 2,000-year-old action. And the only way you can do that is by his word. The word sustains faith, which is the bridge or the channel of the Spirit, which makes for communion with him.
Commune by the Word
This Communion with God by faith is through his word.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1–3)
The connection between the historical Jesus and you is our authoritative, inspired, proclamation. And why do we give you that proclamation? So that you too may have fellowship with us. It’s just amazing.
You can’t do an end-run around that proclamation and expect to know Jesus, expect to fellowship with Jesus, expect to have a personal relationship. And this is bothersome to some people who are less word-oriented, and more experience-oriented, and they want to get to the experience quick. I don’t blame anybody for that, but you know what? This is a book. God decided to give us a book as a means of experiencing Jesus, which means you got to learn how to read, to enjoy it’s in its fullness. Or if you don’t learn how to read, learn how to hear and make sense out of oral language.
You can’t escape word. The reason is because God has a plan for this proclamation to produce fellowship. The way you come into fellowship with the living Christ is by hearing the proclamation about the historical Jesus and the living Christ comes to you.
Here’s the 2,000-year-old historical Jesus dying for you and rising again, and here he is in heaven today, eager to knock on your door, ready to commune with you and fellowship with you. You must hear this to enjoy this. He comes with this word. I don’t meet him any other way. If I try or if people try to meet Jesus any other way than the authority of the book, do you know what happens? Mormonism happens. Jehovah’s Witnesses happens. Spiritism happens. Oprah Winfrey happens.
When you pull yourself out from under, this authoritative word and say, “I want the experience another way,” you’ll get experiences and they can be very powerful, but they won’t be fellowship with the real Jesus, who is the Jesus of the book, who comes to us in a living way. I have a lot of sympathy for people who get impatient with excessive bookishness or academic efforts or doctrinal wrangling when they want Jesus. But I’m the chancellor of a college and seminary, and it’s not by accident.
All my enjoyment of Jesus has been heightened the better I’ve known the book. My experience for the sixty years I’ve been a Christian has not been the harder I work on the book, the more I miss Jesus, the person. This has not been my experience, and therefore I teach the seminar the way I do it: text after text instead of me just telling you stories about my experience or whatever because I think this is the reliable thing, I’m not reliable; the Bible is reliable; this is where the Holy Spirit will work.
What is the testimony of the Holy Spirit so that you can enjoy that the Spirit is witnessing in you? What is that?
If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:9–13)
Believers have the testimony and what is the testimony? This is the testimony, that God has given you eternal life. You would not be a believer if he hadn’t given you life. Life is the opposite of spiritual deadness. Spiritually dead people do not trust God. They do not treasure God, they do not enjoy God, they find God mythological or boring or a harsh master and try to impress him.
When you get life through faith, you know him for who he is, and that’s the witness within you. The witness within you is that you love him. You cry out, “Father.”
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. (Romans 8:15–16)
It is the Spirit witnessing with our spirit, we are the children of God, we’re alive as children of God. How do you know? Because your spirit is saying, “Father.” You’re relating to him as Father, you’re trusting him as Father, you’re submitting to him as Father, you’re counting on his care as your Father. That’s the witness in you that you’re alive. Unbelievers don’t do that. Natural people don’t do that. They don’t relate to God that way. It says also in 1 Corinthians 12:3,
Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.
That’s the Holy Spirit of life in you and a testimony from God Almighty: “You’re mine.” I’m not talking about vain language that a computer can do. I’m talking about a heart that says, “My Father.” And a heart that says, “My Lord, my owner, my master,” and means it. If you find your heart doing those two things, guess what’s happening? God Almighty, by his Spirit is in you, and he’s bearing witness that you have life. The life is in you. You’re alive.
Dead people don’t say, “Jesus is Lord,” and dead people don’t say, “God is my father,” and mean it. That happens by the word. That’s the point of this section: communing with God by faith is through his word. This testimony, which is life was spoken to me: “This is my Son, hear him, believe him.” And it awakened life.
The Word Sustains Communion
David’s testimony to the way the word sustains communion with God:
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. (Psalm 19:7–8)
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalm 19:10–11)
Law here is Torah. Sometimes it’s used for legal code, but even more often for instruction. The Torah was a tasty, sweet honey-like thing. When you meditate on the instruction of the Lord, your soul is restored. And isn’t that encouraging that the soul must be re - stored? It’s like the Lord’s prayer, right after saying, “Give us this day our daily bread,” it says, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Which you probably have to do every day. That means you have to be re - stored.
“Don’t have a perfectionistic notion of the Christian life. It will kill you.”
Don’t have a perfectionistic notion of the Christian life. It will kill you. It will drive you away from the faith. But if you have a robust understanding of grace and a sweet experience of regular repentance, then this kind of language will make sense.
The law of the Lord is perfect, and one of its perfections is that it has the power to revivify or restore your life. It makes you wise. It makes the simple wise. Not the academic and complicated. Isn’t that encouraging? You don’t have to go to seminary to experience this. In fact, heady people often miss it, and simple people often get it.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart. This rejoicing is not rejoicing in stuff; it’s rejoicing in God. The precepts of the Lord incline us to rejoice in God, and that’s one of the returns we make in fellowship. The Lord speaks to us a precept, and we respond back to say, “That’s good. That is so good. It makes me glad you told me not to commit adultery. It makes my marriage so much better. Thank you.”
“Thank you for telling me not to steal. If I had ripped of the IRS year after year by age 66, I would just be so depressed, so discouraged, so defeated and you’ve spared me. You’ve spared me by teaching me not to love money and telling me, ‘Don’t steal. Don’t steal.’ That’s a good precept. I just am so happy that you told me that.”
The command of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.” Paul prays that in Ephesians 1 that the eyes of our heart would be enlightened that we may know the hope for which we’re called and the inheritance that’s so great and the power at work in those who believe. And that comes by attending to the commandments of God, and all of his other ways of speaking to us.
Thus, they become gold to us, better than gold, more desirable than gold, and they become sweeter than honey and drippings from the honeycomb, and they become wonderful protections against foolish choices that destroy our lives. The word of God has these effects of intensifying and sweetening and rewarding our communion with God.
The Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord. (1 Samuel 3:21)
The reason all this stuff is true about the word enabling communion is that this happens through the word. God reveals himself at Shiloh by the word of the Lord. When I go to my Bible every morning, I don’t open it primarily looking for doctrinal clarification. That will happen, but it’s down a priority or two. I go looking for Jesus. I go looking for the Father. I go looking for the Spirit. I want to have fellowship. I want to meet them because it’s the friendship, it’s the relationship that gives life and is the meaning of existence.
The head construing of sentences and doctrines is a means. Theology is a means to doxology. It’s not the other way around. Everything is terminating on a relationship. Everything is terminating on this: The Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord. If there were another way to have Jesus, I would take it, but there isn’t. He has ordained that he’d be known and enjoyed and fellowshipped with by the word.
Thinking Never Replaces Grace
Thinking hard about the word does not replace the illuminating work of God’s grace.
Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything
I’m arguing here that thinking about what the Bible says does not replace God’s sovereign, communication of himself and the understanding that we need to get the word. It doesn’t seem you won’t need the Lord if you think. And it doesn’t say you don’t need to think if you have the Lord. It says, “Think over what I say because that’s the way.”
When you open your Bible, don’t let your mind be passive. Think about these sentences with a prayer, “Oh God, fulfill 2 Timothy 2:7 this morning as I think about your word.”
The Spirit Bears Witness
Now, a testimony from John Owen on how fellowship with the Holy Spirit is experienced through the promises of God. I wrote a whole book on this called Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God. Future grace is just another way to say promises — the promises of God.
That book is an effort to explain that great old hymn: “standing on the promises I cannot fail.” I said, “Okay, let’s write a book about that.”
The life and the soul of all our comforts lie treasured up in the promises of Christ. They are the breasts of all our consolation who knows not how powerless they are in the bare letter, even when improved to the uttermost by our considerations of them and meditation on them as also how unexpectedly they sometimes break upon the soul with a conquering, endearing life and vigor? Here faith deals peculiarly with the Holy Ghost. It considers the promises themselves; looks up to him, waits for him, considers his appearances in the word depended on — owns him in his work and efficacy. No sooner doth the soul begin to feel the life of a promise warming his heart, relieving, cherishing, supporting, delivering from fear, entanglements or troubles, but it may, it ought, to know that the Holy Spirit is there which will add to his joy and lead him into fellowship with him.
Here’s what he’s saying: You read a promise. “I will help you. I will strengthen you.” Every time I’m sitting on the front pew at Bethlehem, “I’ll do this tomorrow night just before I get up to preach.” My head is bowed, I’m not reading the text, I’m praying. And I’m generally praying my little A.P.T.A.T., but especially the T in A.P.T.A.T.
Admit you can do nothing, pray for help, trust a promise, act, give him thanks that he helped you. But right here at this T is where I am. I’m laying hold on a promise. “I will help you again. I have not left you. I won’t leave you. I will put words in your mouth. Trust me.”
“Theology is a means to doxology. It’s not the other way around.”
I’m waiting for him. It’s just thirty seconds before I preach. The word takes on a, “Yes, I mean this John Piper. Feel this.” Frankly, sometimes I feel this way more than others. That’s life, right? Sometimes you go in with a huge sense that God has addressed me. God has spoken to me through the word. Other times you just say, “I believe it. It’s true. I’m not feeling a lot right now, but I’m going because you told me to go. It’s my job. It’s what you want me to do.”
No sooner does the soul begin to feel the life of a promise, warming the heart, leaving the fear, the anxiety, cherishing us, supporting, delivering from fear, delivering from entanglements or troubles — as the promise begins to do that, then you ought to know that the Holy Spirit is there. You need to learn how to read the presence of the Holy Spirit. I mean, how would you know? How would you know if you were not told by God how his Holy Spirit is experienced?
He’s telling you when the word of God in promise starts to feel like life, warming the heart, relieving you, cherishing you, supporting you, delivering you from fear, entanglements are starting to fall away, troubles are not dragging you down anymore, God is present. The Holy Spirit is at work in your life and it leads you into fellowship with him.
You pause right there, or as I walk to the pulpit, I whisper, “Thank you, Holy Spirit. Now, hold on to me for these next 45 minutes or so. Thank you. I love you. I lean on you. Thank you for being obedient to the Father and coming to help me.”
Think of All These Things
John Owen’s call to give ourselves to contemplating the revelations:
What poor, low perishing things do we spend our contemplations on. Were we to have no advantage by this astonishing dispensation, yet, its excellency, glory, beauty, depths, deserve the flower of our inquiries, the vigor of our spirits, the substance of our time, but when, withal, our life, our peace, our joy, our inheritance, our eternity, our all, lies herein, shall not the thoughts of it always dwell in our hearts, always refresh and delight our souls?
One of the effects I hope that you leave with this evening is an awakened sense of “Lord, I really do spend a lot of my contemplations on low things. Not evil things, just things that don’t compare to what you have offered me in your word by your Spirit.