For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39)
How does sin affect our fellowship with the Lord? Does it affect it at all since we are saved by grace and not by works? To answer these questions and avoid thinking wrongly about our relationship with the Triune God, we need to understand the distinction between union and communion.
Union refers to a believer’s state of being united with Christ in God by the Spirit. Union is a unilateral act of God whereby dead sinners are made alive and are joined to the Lord Jesus in a relationship akin to marriage. Just as a husband and wife become one flesh and share all things with one another, so also Christ and the church become one, and the church enjoys all the blessings that rightfully belong to Christ. When we say that this union is unilateral, we mean that it is initiated by God alone. The sinner does not approach God, for he can’t - he is dead in his trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1). God, because of His great love and mercy, not because of any merit in us, made us alive together with Christ and gave us all the blessings in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3-14; 2:4-6). There is nothing that man can do to initiate this union or destroy it. In our union with Christ, we are purely receptive, that is, we receive God’s gracious action.
Communion, on the other hand, is enjoyment of fellowship with God. It is a result of our union with Him, but it is distinct from our union with Him. It is essential that we understand the difference between the two. While in our union with Christ, we merely receive, communion includes giving and receiving. And while our union with Christ never changes, our experience of communion does have highs and lows.
We can use the analogy of marriage again to understand this distinction. The legal union of a husband and wife is not affected when they have a conflict. When they are at odds with one another, they are just as married as when they are head-over-heels for one another. Rises and falls in affection, communication, giving/receiving, and delight do nothing to affect their legal union. On the other hand, rises and falls in these things do affect their experience of intimacy with one another (communion). When a husband sins against his wife, the state of his legal connection (union) to her is unchanged, but his (and her) enjoyment of the relationship (communion) is changed until he seeks reconciliation by confessing, repenting, and asking to be forgiven.
Similarly, there is nothing that the believer can do to jeopardize his union with Christ. But when he sins, it will affect the intimacy of his communion with the Lord (Psa 51, 66:18; 1 Pet 3:7). It is not that God’s love grows and wains according to the changing actions of His people; His love never changes. He doesn’t move away from us; we move away from Him. Our sin causes us to be distant from God, and it is this distance that affects our communion, that is, our enjoyment of fellowship with Him. As soon as we repent and seek forgiveness, we are able to resume the enjoyment of the relationship.
So while we can’t do anything to affect our union with God, we can do things that affect our communion with God. Prayer, time in the Word, fellowship with the saints, and participation in corporate worship all serve to build our sense of communion with the Lord. Conversely, toleration of sin and neglect of personal devotions can cause us to feel distant from Him.
Yet, our union with Him is never in danger. And it is the certainty of our union with Him that should cause us to be quick to repent and return to the Father who is quick to forgive. To say it another way, our communion with God flows from our union with God, not the other way around.
So when your communion (enjoyment of fellowship) with God is suffering, it does not mean that you are no longer saved or that God doesn’t love you the way He used to or that you need to do something to earn His favor again. Simply repent of any sin you’ve tolerated in your life, seek His forgiveness, and once again begin to do those things that foster deep communion with Him (Rev 2:4-5). And be thankful that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus!