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EPISODE 68: Friendship with God

 

It’s one thing to have a right standing before God. That’s what Jesus purchased for us at the cross. But it’s another thing to enjoy that new relationship. Experiencing a kind of connection with God that could be described as friendship may seem too good to be true. But that’s how amazing the gospel is and it’s the topic of this podcast featuring special guest Mike McKinley.

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Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute, where we seek to pursue discipleship of the heart and mind. I'm Randy Newman, your host, and I'm delighted that today my conversation partner is Mike McKinley. Mike is the senior pastor of Sterling Park Baptist Church. He's written a number of books. We've had Mike on before, discussing his book Am I Really a Christian? Today, we're going to talk about his newest, most recent book, Friendship with God. Mike, welcome back to Questions That Matter.

Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Well, Mike, you've written a book that, at several points as I was reading it, I just loved it. I've been wanting to get into John Owen's book Communion with the Triune God for many years. Several people have recommended it. You’ve told me that it's one of the most important books that you've read in your life. And so I've just been wanting to and have been daunted and intimidated by the book. I've made it all the way to page 17 few times and have stopped. Soon I will continue, but your book is helping people like me get into Owen, and you've titled it Friendship with God. And it was really very, very helpful for me, and I really wanted to let people know about it. So how did you get into John Owen? And what was it that led you to write this book?

Yeah. I would say, for some decades of my life, I was a collector of John Owen books rather than a reader of them, because it was one of the things where, if I was in a bookstore, used Christian books, that kind of thing, I would see a copy of Owen, and I'd be like, “I know that's really good,” and I would grab it, and I would put it on the shelf, but it was like you said. You used the word daunting, and that's, I think, a good word. Owen can be hard to read.

And so probably about seven, eight, nine years ago, I was getting ready to go off on a sabbatical that my church had graciously given me, and I was standing in front of my bookshelves, trying to figure out, “Okay, given that I have time to read and reflect and think, what is it that would be most profitable to read?” and my eyes lit on Owen's Communion with God. And I thought, as a pastor, I spend a lot of time talking about the Bible, telling people about Jesus, thinking about Jesus, praying and things like that, but you can you can do all of those things in a way that somehow bypasses communion with God.

And as I thought about it, I was like, “I'm not even sure I know exactly what communion with God means.” It’s definitely a religious sounding word, and it's kind of thing a pastor should know. But I was like, “I'm not even sure what that exactly is pointing at.” And so I took Owen's book, and I forced myself to work through it, and it really was life changing for me, the insights, the beauty of it. And so that's how I got into it. I've read the book several times since then. It's become—outside the Bible—probably the most influential book that I've read in terms of shaping my relationship with God.

Man! And I remember you're telling me this, with those kinds of superlatives, and I thought, “I've got to try it.” And I do hope to. But I have a feeling I may need what you said was an extended period of time where, “Okay, I’m going to focus on this.” And am I correct that you chipped away at it small chunks at a time? Is that…? Or I'm jumping ahead to advice you would give to anybody listening who says, “Okay, I want to read this book.”

Yeah. Yeah. I think so. I mean it rewards a slow read with a pencil in hand. I mean, it's not impossible to read. It's not written in Latin or something like that, where you have no shot unless you know the language. But it is dense, digressive. I think at one point I said something like, “Owen, he never explains anything in ten words if he can use a hundred.”

Yeah.

He's not super concerned with following a distinguishable outline or even where chapters break and things like that. And so it is a little bit like being along for like a glorious ride in John Owen's brain. So yeah. But I think it rewards a slow and careful read. And you do get better at it. I found, even working on this book, I felt like I spent a lot of time with Owen. And by the end, I was pretty comfortable with how he writes and what his language sounds like. So it does get better, but realistically it's not something most people are going to pick up and jump into.

Yeah, nice! And I'll have a link in the show notes to a new edition, fairly new edition. Crossway published it, and Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor have helped us with just I think updating a few of the obscure vocabulary, and so that's the edition to go for. All right. So let's talk about the content of it. You say early on in the book that you're making a distinction about this concept of friendship with God. And you said, “We are talking about something different from that new status that we have in Christ. We're talking instead about our daily awareness, experience, and enjoyment of that new status.” And that was helpful for me. There’s so many wonderful—and you rehearsed them well—of what our new status is, what our new identity is, what our standing with God that is fixed and firm because of the finished work of the cross. But then there's the daily experience and enjoyment of it. So that flowed all the way through your book of, “This is what we're talking about.” But say more about that. How did how did you start seeing the distinction there?

Yeah. I think it's a really helpful distinction. Owen makes it early on in his book, between the union we have with God and the communion we have.

Ah, good.

And so, if you're in Christ, you are in Christ. You are united to Him. All that all that He has is yours. You are sanctified. You are adopted, justified. All of that is the one-sided work of God done in your life, and you can't change it. You can't lose it. You can't mess it up. You don't contribute anything to it. And so that's sort of the big piece you have to be put in place. I think where Christians sometimes get confused is they think, “Okay, so my communion with God, my friendship with God, my relationship with God is like that. I just need to sit back passively. And if I try to do anything, that's presumptuous, and that's works-based religion.” What Owen I think so helpfully points out is that, yes, that union that we have with God is His one-sided work that we don't contribute to at all. But our communion with God, our daily experience, our friendship is actually something God invites us to participate in and to experience. And we can actually feel that strengthen and weaken, based on how we how we respond.

There are times when I'm communing with God, I'm experiencing friendship with God, less because of perhaps sin in my life or neglect of certain responsibilities. There may be times in God's grace, and I think most Christians would attest to this, where you feel like that relationship with God is extremely close and intense and full of joy. And so that has to be distinguished. Your status as God's child has never changed. But there are different…. There are different seasons of our relationship with God and feeling and enjoying that status. And that's really what the book is about, how does the Bible describe that we're meant to carry out that sort of direct relationship, particularly, and I think you mentioned, with the triune God. And that's really the genius of Owen's book, is that he's pointing out what that relationship that we have looks like directly with the Father, directly with God the Son, and directly with God the Holy Spirit.

Yeah. Well, let's dive into that, because your book is structured that way, because Owen’s book is structured that way, and that is the reality of the God that we love and serve. He is one God, but He is a triune God. And so you, well, following Owen, you're saying there's different emphases in the way we relate to the Father versus the Son versus the Holy Spirit. And I think you do a very good job of saying, “These are not these watertight compartments, and, ‘This is the only way,’” but given what Scripture does seem to emphasize, there's a… and you use the word—and maybe it's Owen's word. There’s a medium through which we connect to the Father. There's a medium through which with the Son and then with the Holy Spirit. Tell us what you mean, or what Owen meant, or what both of you mean. We're going to stop doing that. We're just going to talk…. Okay. About the medium. How do we think about that before we then talk about the three different mediums?

Yeah, that's a really helpful insight, I think, that Owen draws out, is he's pointing out that—this idea of a medium—is that our relationship, with God the Father, with God the Son, with God the Spirit, is based in a certain subject or a certain emphasis. So the example I use is a medium is basically the thing around which your relationship is centered. So if you go to the dentist, the medium of your relationship with your dentist is your teeth, right? If you go to the mechanic, it's your car. You might talk about other things, but basically you're there because of your teeth. You're there because of your car. That's the thing that's sort of going on between you two. That's the that's the basis of your interaction. And so Owen is trying to draw out of scripture the fact that there seem to be these emphases in the way that the Father wants to relate to us and wants us to relate to Him. There seem to be this sort of emphasis in how the Lord Jesus has said to relate to us and we relate to Him, and also with the Holy Spirit.

And so, when it comes to our relationship with God the Father, that medium is His love. So God the Father particularly seems… the Bible tells us wants to relate to us in love. But when it comes to the Lord Jesus, the medium of our relationship is His grace. And then, with the Holy Spirit, it's His comfort. So it's certainly true those aren't the only things. And as you kind of pointed out, there's overlap. We can't think about the Father’s love without thinking about the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But Owen’s saying that these are kind of the main thrusts. And when we learn to see those things and relate to God, the triune God, according to those things, we see our relationship with Him strengthened.

When you first read that in Owen, was that revolutionary for you? Because reading it in your book was revolutionary for me.

Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. I think just that idea that I'm meant to have a relationship with each Person of the Trinity directly. I think I probably would have said that was true, but I don't think I really knew what it looked like to actually experience that and carry that out really directly, beyond maybe just sort of praying to each Person of the Trinity. So yeah. It was hugely helpful to me to begin to identify, “Oh, in this moment where I'm experiencing comfort, I'm communing with, I'm having friendship, I'm experiencing my relationship with the Holy Spirit.” And when I'm able to trust God's love for me, or when I'm overwhelmed by the grace of Christ to me, those are those are ways I'm experiencing that relationship with each Person of the Trinity. So, yeah, to answer your question, it was hugely helpful to me.

Are you interested in learning more about our triune God? The C.S. Lewis Institute award-winning website has some excellent resources that can help you with that. So go to www.cslewisinstitute.org—sorry for all those letters—and type in triune God in the search bar. You'll find articles there by Tom Schwanda, Kevin Vanhoozer, Andy Bannister, Stephen Eyre, and others that can help you deepen your understanding of our great and magnificent triune God.

Several times while reading your book, I kept reflecting on that last verse of 2 Corinthians, the benediction we hear at the end of many, many church worship services. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” And sadly, for me and I think for many people, that becomes almost like just this cliche or, “Yeah. This is what we say at the end,” and it’s, “Okay, the service is coming to an end.”

Yeah. Time’s up.

But to reflect on each of those phrases, and again, that's what Owen does, spelling it out with hundreds and hundreds of words. And again, because these are emphasized and repeated in scripture, I’m finding that to be something that's helping me grow in that intimacy. I didn't know where you were going to go—or where Owen went—with the Holy Spirit. So it was like I read this section about the love. “Okay. Yep. Got it.” The Son, grace. “Okay. Where is he going to go with the Holy Spirit?” And you didn't quite spell it out in the first paragraph. I thought, “Ooh! Good device by the writer, sustaining my attention.” And I was trying to guess. I was like, “Where does he go? Is it about the power of the Holy Spirit? Is it the indwelling?” And yes, all of those are biblical themes for sure. But where you went, where Owen goes, is the comfort, borne out of that name He’s given of the other Comforter. And I also felt like that was slightly revolutionary for me, because I think, if I'm honest, I've always thought of the Holy Spirit mostly as a power source. And, okay, there's basis for that. Acts 1:8, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit goes upon you.” Sure. But it was a very impersonal thing. It was almost like, I don't know, a jet pack that I put on my back or something. Or something I plugged into, an energy. And so comfort is a very personal experience and perspective. And again that was very, very helpful. Can you can you say more about that? And how has that worked out in your own life? The comfort of the Holy Spirit?

Yeah, yeah. I think you put your finger on something amazing there. And Owen is perhaps the great theologian of the Holy Spirit in the English language. He’s written volumes dedicated to it. And in fact, in Communion with God, he even says, “Look, I'm going to be brief here when it comes to the Holy Spirit because I've written so much in other places on this.” And then he's not really all that brief.

But, like any good preacher…. My congregation jokes that I have, like, seven conclusions to every sermon. But he makes the point, he says, “Look, the Holy Spirit is described as having many activities in our lives,” so you mentioned power, sanctification, conviction of sin, regeneration, right? We see the Spirit active in a lot of ways. But Owen insists throughout the book that those things are valuable and they're delightful, but they're not the way we actually carry out our friendship with the Holy Spirit. It's it's in His role as our comforter, because, as you mentioned, praise God for the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, but that's not how we relate to Him now. We relate to Him as regenerated people, but we're not constantly going back and being regenerated over and over again.

Ah! Good, good.

Instead, the way we experience the Spirit and His friendship with us and the way we return that friendship to Him is in His comfort. And in John's gospel, right before the crucifixion, Jesus tells His disciples, “Look, in this world you're going to have all sorts of trouble,” like they're going to…. Basically, anybody who kills you thinks they're going to be doing God a favor, and, “You’re going to be persecuted and handed over to the authorities. And by the way, I'm leaving.” And you can just imagine. The disciples are like, “Wait, what?” because basically, up until this point in the narrative, Jesus has been the solution to every one of their problems, right? “Boat’s sinking? Jesus has got it.” “We're out of wine? Jesus has it.” “We don't have any food. Jesus has it.” Right? And so, at every point, things are bad? Jesus has it. And now Jesus is like, “Look, things are going to get really bad, and I'm going away.” And you can imagine the disciples are just like, “What are you talking about?” But He says, “It’s actually better that I go because if I don't go, I can't send you the Comforter.” And so Jesus, if we take Him at face value, He’s not being falsely modest there, being like, “Guys, I know it's great. But you're going to love the Holy Spirit.”

He's saying actually, “No. I have to go, and it's better for you,” because having the Holy Spirit, having the sort of indwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ to comfort you, is actually better, Jesus is saying, than having the physical presence of Christ on Earth. And so, if we take that seriously, we see, “Oh, actually, the Spirit’s ministry of comfort to us, particularly in times of trouble and difficulty, of which this life is full, is a beautiful gift to us and is the sort of medium, to use Owen's language, of our relationship with Him.

Now, the beauty of a recorded interview is that, if I ask you a question that you really don't want to answer, you could say, “No, let's not do that,” and then we'll edit it out, and people will never know. So so what I just said may never make it. But I am going to put you on the spot: How have you seen this working out in your life, this friendship with God? I mean, you've told us about reading the book and re-reading the book. But where have you seen either the love of God the Father, or the grace of the Son, or the comfort of the Spirit in a daily experience? And I'm going to push it a little further, so not just during a time of worship you really felt closer to God. Okay. But have you seen it working itself out in some very practical ways?

Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. And I think that's the other half of the equation, for lack of a better term. So we've talked a lot about what God has done for us, or God's love, God's grace, God's comfort. Owen describes communion, and so I've grabbed that word. So the way that I wrote the book was to try to make it as accessible as possible by as many people as possible. So I found that I was using these insights from Owen in my ministry a lot and just thought it'd be so great if we could have a simplified, clear version. So I'm aiming to make it as accessible to any Christian as possible. So I thought, “The word communion sounds sort of daunting and mysterious, but really what Owen's talking about is a relationship and a friendship.” And I thought, “Okay, we all have friends or at least understand the concept of friendship.”

And so Owen makes this really helpful definition, where he defines what communion is. And he says it's basically God communicating Himself to us, so the Father showing us His love, the Son showing us His grace, the Spirit bringing us His comfort. So that's one half of the equation. And then Owen says, “And it's in our making suitable returns to Him of that which He accepts and approves.” And that's again where it's different than our union with God, right? Union, God does unilaterally, and I'm just a passive actor, or a non actor. When it comes to my friendship with God, my communion with God, I actually am called on to receive what God's given me and then make a return to Him.

And so, to answer your question, how have I seen this in my life? It's been really helpful to see, “Okay, what’s my role and my responsibility in returning to God that which He accepts and approves?” to use Owen's language. And a lot of things… no surprise. You mentioned worship service. We're not inventing some new religion here. It's the things you probably already… if you've walked with Christ at all, you've probably already figured these things out. It's reading His word, right? Because that's how God speaks to us. It's praying to Him, right? Speaking back to Him. It’s worship and delight. It’s obedience, even. It’s service. Those kinds of things. Certainly participating in the life of the church, right? If the church is the body of Christ, if it's the temple of the Holy Spirit, then I'm expecting that a lot of my relationship with God the Son and God the Spirit is going to be in the context of His people, loving them, being loved by them, serving them. It's coming to the Lord’s Supper, right? And having…. We call it communion for a reason, right? Fellowshipping with Christ by faith. Hearing God's word preached and understanding, “Okay, this is God speaking to me.” Right?

And so, just like in any friendship…. Randy, you and I have been friends for a while, and as I think about our friendship, I think of the times we sat across a table from each other and you told me what was going on in your life, and I told you what was going on in my life. And you gave me really great advice that has helped me. And I prayed for you because of whatever was happening. And so Owen is saying actually that's what our friendship with God looks like. He communicates of Himself to us. He tells us here's Who I am. Here's what pleases Me. Here's what I've done for you. Here's what I want you to do. And then we return to him, and we thank him, we love him, we praise him. We open our hearts to him. And so, in essence, it's not that different than… it's definitely different in that it's God. It's not another human being you're relating to, but God's given us human friendship, so that we have a pattern. We have a sense of what this ought to look like.

And so, for me, I guess a long answer to a short question, I think beginning to identify some of those things I was already doing as, “Oh, this is the way God wants me to return His love to Him and to live out my…. I'm not just coming to the Lord's Supper because that's what Christians do. I'm coming because this is one of the ways God's given me to express my love and my friendship towards Him. And particularly with the Holy Spirit, I begin to identify moments in my life that I don't know that I would have been able to say, “Oh, this is the Holy Spirit bringing me comfort, bringing me peace in this moment,” and so I'm able to pray and delight in the Holy Spirit and be grateful for his work. And so yeah, the book was really helpful for me, both in giving me some ways to think about friendship with God, but also identifying ways that I probably was already doing it and just didn't know that's what was happening.

I'm very excited to tell you about a new resource we’re working on at the C.S. Lewis Institute. It's going to be a series of relatively short articles that answer challenging questions to the Christian faith, so less than a thousand words, which is like the front and back of one piece of paper, maybe even less than that. Of questions like, “Why does a good God allow evil and suffering?” and, “Isn’t Jesus just like all the other religious people?” and, “Aren’t all religions the same?” and the questions that people are likely to ask us if we get into some really good, deep conversations with them. And it's going to be a growing resource. There'll be a new topic and piece of paper, basically, for you to read and share with nonbelievers. So check it out. If it's not already, it will be at cslewisinstitute.org/resources-category /challengingquestions. Or, if that's just crazy, go to cslewisinstitute.org and search for questions. I sure hope that'll help. Thanks.

You know, I thought several times and have kind of brought this into my daily experience of…. You mentioned a number of places of the way we return back to God our friendship, our communion, is through obedience. And several places you say that God gives us commandments out of His love for us because He knows what is best for us, and violating His commandments, or being disobedient, is harmful to us. It's bad for us as individuals, as people connected to other people. You have one place where you talk about the doctrine of grace and how sometimes people see that as, “Oh, well, hey! I can do anything I want.” And you write, “The doctrine of grace may be turned into wantonness, unrestrained sin, but the principle cannot.” The doctrine of grace might be, but the principle cannot. That is to say, and now you're translating for us, “While some people can twist the idea of God’s love into an excuse for sin, the real experience of God’s love makes us want to please Him rather than indulge our sinful desires.” That's very, very helpful. And I've had that echoing at moments of temptation. “Well, yeah, I could do that. And, yeah, I'll be forgiven, but no. There’s a reason God tells me not to go in this direction of anger or lust or jealousy or whatever.” It's, “No. That would be bad for me.” Not just bad for my communion with God. It’s bad for me as a person, as a man, as an individual. So again, Owen spells that out. You've helped us grasp it. Are there any other—I don't know—practical, tangible things you think we can be doing as our part of the friendship?

Yeah, yeah. And I think you put your finger on something really helpful. I think as we think about a relationship with God or a friendship with God, we might be tempted to pit that over and against things like obedience and service and think, “Well, those things are kind of opposed to a relationship of love.” But I actually think, if you look at your own relationships, you probably see pretty clearly that it's not. So as I think about my wife. I love my wife. And I do things to try and please her all the time, right? Like I bring her flowers occasionally. I cut my hair the way she likes it, not because she wouldn't love me if I didn't, but because I love her and want to please her, right? And so I don't feel this sort of heavy burden to do things that please her, but I actually want to please her. I want to make her happy because I love her.

And so, in the same way, as I get to know my Heavenly Father better, I learn the things that please Him, right? Which you've pointed out… what pleases Him also happens to be what's best for me. So there's some happy self interest there. But I love him, and He loves me, and so why would I intentionally do something that displeases Him? And I think also another… kind of in the same vein is the idea of service. Owen has this great phrase, and I won't get it exactly right on the spot, but he's describing how now, as God's adopted children, we serve Him as sons and not as slaves. He says slaves take delight in basically freedom from service, whereas sons take delight in service.

Ah! Very good!

And so, if you kidnapped me, and I don't know why you would do this, but just as a hypothetical, if you kidnapped me and you forced me to chop wood all day, I would be miserable. I would just be looking for a way to escape. I would hate that, right? But one of my favorite things to do on a Saturday at my house is to chop wood all day. So my wife again, to please her. She loves having a fire in the winter. She will keep that fire in the fireplace burning 24/7, as much as possible… you know, Christmas before the fire. It delights her, right? And so I love chopping wood. I'll go out in the backyard and chop wood all day, knowing this is for my family. We will have these memories around the fireplace together. My wife is so grateful when we have a fire in the winter. And so the same action, chopping wood, done as a slave versus done as a family member, right? And so I think, when we really have received the grace of the Lord Jesus, and we've really believed that God the Father loves us, then the service that we do to Him isn't drudgery. It's a delight. And so those things have been really helpful, I think, for me practically, thinking through, like you said, fighting temptation or sometimes being called to serve in ways that aren't necessarily easy.

Yeah. That's great. That's great. Yeah. I love that illustration, the chopping wood illustration, so very, very, very good. Well, we need to kind of bring this to a close, and I was thinking it would certainly be appropriate, I think, if we let John Owen have some of the last words, not the last words. But you've got a good chunk of a quote toward the end of the book that I think pulls together a lot of the themes in the larger book. And I wonder if you'd read that to us, that quote. I'm thinking it's towards the end of Owen's book, it’s towards the end of your book, but I wonder if you'd be willing to read that paragraph for us.

Yeah, I’d be happy to. Here Owen is talking about what it's like to experience the comfort of the Holy Spirit, and so he imagines the way that a Christian who's been comforted by the Spirit might talk to himself, and he says this: “The world hates me, but my Father loves me. Men despise me as a hypocrite, but my Father loves me as a child. I am poor in this world, but I have a rich inheritance in the love of my Father. I'm straightened—we would say deprived. I'm straightened in all things, but there is bread enough in my Father’s house. I mourn in secret under the power of my lusts and sin where no eye sees me, but the Father sees me and is full of compassion. With a sense of His kindness which is better than life, I rejoice in tribulation, glory in affliction, triumph as a conqueror. Though I'm killed all the day long, all my sorrows have a bottom that may be fathomed, my trials bounds that may be compassed, but the breadth and the depth and the height of the love of the Father, who can express?”

Amen. Amen. Well, Mike, thanks for the time. Thanks for serving the body of Christ by helping make this book of John Owen’s more accessible. You really have accomplished it, I think, of making it very accessible. And—this is amazing to me. You not only made it accessible, but you also have motivated me, at least, of, “Oh. I think I can tackle this big book now. I've got a road map that's really helped me.” And when I get really stuck, I'll just call you, any time of day, and…. No, I probably won't do that. I shouldn’t do that. And the listeners to this podcast shouldn't do that. No. But I really am grateful. I'm very grateful for Owen's work and your work in helping making that accessible. So thanks so much for all your hard work on that.

Oh, praise God. It was really a joy for me, and thanks for having me.

Great. Well, listeners, thanks again for the time of listening to this podcast. On the show notes, I'll have a link to Mike's book and also to this new edition from Crossway of Owen's book. And lots and lots and lots of resources on our cslewisinstitute.org website. Please check it out. And may the Lord use all these resources to help you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.

Brought to you by the C.S. Lewis Institute and the Questions That Matter Podcast with Randy Newman

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