Can you improve your relationship with God? People are often unsure how to respond. The promises of grace suggest one answer; the experience of life often suggest another. In the confusion, we often do nothing. We stagnate.
But there is a way forward. Can you improve your relationship with God? Yes. Let’s turn for help to the seventeenth-century Puritan John Owen. In his classic book Communion with God, Owen says,
Our communion with God consists in his communication of himself to us, with our return to him of that which he requires and accepts, flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him. (Works, Vol. 2, 8–9, modernized)
Note how Owen makes a distinction between “union” and “communion.” In the gospel, through faith, we have union with God in Christ. From start to finish this union is God’s gracious work toward us. But this union leads to communion with God — a genuine, two-way relationship of give-and-take in which our involvement matters.
This provides us with a great incentive and a great assurance:
The great incentive is this: If we respond to the circumstances of our lives with faith, if we resist the lies of temptation, if we make use of the means of grace, then we will have greater joy in Christ — our communion with God will improve.
The great assurance is this: Whenever we sin and fail, we can fall back on divine grace. If we have true union with God, it is not affected by the ebbs and flows of our battle with sin. The union forms the great foundation of our lives.
You Can’t Improve the Union
This simple distinction between union and communion helps us resolve a common problem. When we want to stress God’s grace to us in Christ, we often say that nothing can make our relationship with God stronger or weaker than it is. We cannot make God love us any more than he does already. After all, God first loved us when we were deep in sin (Romans 5:8). He didn’t love us because of any beauty or goodness within us. Can you improve your relationship with God? In this sense — the union sense — the answer must surely be no. For we are loved in the Son (Ephesians 1:4–6), and we cannot be more loved than the Son. God’s love is not contingent on our actions.
One of the tests we sometimes use to check whether a person has really grasped the grace of God is to pose two scenarios.
Scenario One: One day a person has a great morning devotional time in the word. By midday they have shared their faith with three unbelievers. In the evening they go to the church prayer meeting.
Scenario Two: Another day, the same person gets up late and misses their morning devotions. At work they join in ungodly banter and duck opportunities to share their faith along the way. They feel too tired to attend the evening prayer meeting at church, yet manage to summon up the energy to have a blazing argument with their spouse. At night they turn to God in prayer.
Test question: Is God more likely to hear their prayer in scenario one? Is he less likely to receive them and accept them in scenario two?
The correct answer, of course, is, no. For we do not draw near to God in prayer on the basis of our works. We draw near to the throne of grace through the blood of God’s Son. And the blood of Christ does not require our good works in order to work more effectively for us. The person in scenario two has just as much access to God as the person in scenario one. They can come with as much confidence, if they come in Christ’s name.
Can you improve your union with God through Christ? No.
You Can Improve Communion
But we know by experience — and the Bible — that what we do does make a difference in our relationship with God. If I spend devotional time with him in the morning, then I typically find I’m less susceptible to temptation and more aware of God’s presence. It’s not an exact correlation, but there seems to be a cause-and-effect connection. In the same kind of way, I know from experience that when I sin, prayer seems harder, church involvement more of a burden, joy in Christ more remote. The apostle Peter does say that what we do and say can hinder our prayers (1 Peter 3:7). Does what I do affect my relationship with God? The answer seems to be yes.
Owen’s distinction between union and communion makes all the difference. Owen says we do have a genuine two-way relationship with God: He spends much of his book Communion with God explaining ways God relates (or “communicates”) to us and how we respond (or “return”) to him. There is a real giving and receiving. There is loving and being loved. There is delighting and being delighted in. God gives real and specific life, hope, freedom, and forgiveness, and we respond with real faith, love, and worship.
Can you improve your communion-based relationship with God? Yes.
Saved to Enjoy God
Salvation is not just about having our sins forgiven and escaping God’s judgment. God doesn’t simply save us from sin and death; he saves us forsomething. Owen says Christ’s “great undertaking in his life, death, resurrection, ascension, being a mediator between God and us . . . [is] to bring us an enjoyment of God” (Works, Vol. 2, 78). Our relationship with God is not simply an objective fact. It is also a subjective experience. Faith in Christ brings us into a real, two-way relationship of joy with the triune God.
What we do makes a real difference in our experience of this relationship. We can enjoy the relationship, or neglect it. We can pursue God, or avoid him. We can find joy in God, or look for joy in the empty treasures of this world. Our actions make a difference.
But as Owen helps us understand, our communion with God flows “from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him.” Our union with God was initiated by the Father in election, secured by the Son at Calvary, and is applied by the Spirit in regeneration. It is all of grace. We don’t create this relationship, we can’t improve it, and we can’t break it. It rests on God’s electing love and the finished work of Christ. We are secure in him.
If today you feel far from God, do not despair. Like a swimmer in the waves of the sea, reach down by faith and feel the solid ground of your union with God beneath your feet. It will always be there. And then redouble your efforts to pursue the joy of communion with God.