“Union with Christ” review

Several weeks ago I read through Tony Reinke’s Desiring God article: Top 16 Books of 2016; number 2 on the list is Rankin Wilbourne’s Union With Christ: The way to Know and Enjoy God. Wilbourne was not an author I was familiar with, but as it was so highly rated by Reinke as well as by Tim Keller, I decided to give it a try and read the book over the Christmas break.
One of Wilbourne’s main points is that the doctrine of our union with Christ has fallen to the wayside in recent years and is no longer widely preached or taught about even though it has been historically understood to be a central theme of the Biblical teaching of salvation. He quotes Puritan Thomas Goodwin as saying, “Being in Christ, and united to him, is the fundamental constitution of the Christian” (107), and John Murray, a twentieth century professor of systematic theology as saying, “Nothing is more central or basic than union and communion with Christ. Union with Christ is really the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation…” (108). In short Wilbourne is in agreement with Kevin DeYoung’s assertion in his book, The Hole in Our Holiness, that, “Union with Christ may be the most important doctrine you’ve never heard of.”
The doctrine of our union with Christ refers to our relationship with Christ. A couple pictures used to describe it are the image of a vine and the branches in John 15, a husband and wife in Ephesians 3, and a head and the body in Colossians 1. Paul refers to it many times throughout his epistles with the phrase “in Christ” or “in him.” There are two aspects to our union with Christ. The first is, as already stated, that we are in Christ. Because we are in Christ, means that Christ represents us and all that he has done for us is applied for us. Because we are in Christ, his righteousness is counted as ours (Rom 4), we are counted adopted sons of God, and coheirs with Christ (Rom 8), and we made partakers of the triune community (John 17). Because Christ is in us, we are guaranteed that we can and will change, that the completion of our sanctification is inevitable, that we can resist temptation with the power of Christ, and that we can love the unlovable. In short because we are in Christ and Christ is in us, has, “become to us wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption…” (1 Cor 1:30).
Possibly the most helpful chapter for me was chapter 3, entitled Why we need it: Two Songs Playing in Our Head. When I first read the chapter title, I assumed the two songs would be something along the lines of the song of God, which calls us to faith, love, and obedience, and the song of the world, which calls us to trust and live for the things of this world instead of God. Wilbourne did not go in that direction, however, and I am so glad he did not, because the direction he took it helped address conflict that I have had but have never been able to put words to. The two songs Wilbourne describes are the song of “believe the gospel…more” and the song of “obey Jesus…more.” In short we can see two streams of thought running parallel through the Bible that we can struggle to reconcile to one another. On the one hand, the song of grace calls us to embrace the reality that we have been and are loved and saved by God. As in the parable of the prodigal sons, God the Father has seen us from far off and has seen us, had compassion on us, and run and embraced us even though we have done nothing to deserve such treatment.
On the other hand, Jesus clearly commands us to a radical, uncompromising obedience to himself, saying “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). There is a great deal of tension between the two: on the one hand in light of the freely given grace of God, I should rest in what God has done for me, recognizing that nothing I can do can make me righteous before God for I already am righteous in his sight. Yet, the commands of Jesus make clear that I cannot rest but must be giving more and more of my life over to him. That he is owed my complete obedience, my absolute surrender, and that, “no one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
How are these two “songs” reconciled? In our union with Christ. Because we are in Christ, we can rest in the knowledge that we are secure in Christ and that nothing can separate us from his love, and because Christ is in us we can live with his single-minded, God glorifying obedience. As Wilbourne says, “undiluted grace and uncompromising obedience meet in the person of Christ. He is always full of both…Because of your union with Christ, the songs of ‘Extravagant Grace’ and ‘Radical Discipleship’ can no more be separated in your life than Christ himself can be torn in two” (p71).
I almost wish that he had written a whole book addressing this topic which he spends the chapter addressing, as like I said he put words on conflict that I have been feeling for sometime but did not know how to express, however instead he moves on to show how our union with Christ helps us to answer four key questions that ultimately all of us must answer. Who am I? Where am I headed? What am I here for? What can I hope for? From there he moves on to discuss what our union with Christ looks like on a day to day basis. Over the course of a couple chapters he shows how the spiritual disciplines and suffering are means by which we experience our union with Christ, i.e. how we commune with Jesus. And then just to really frustrate me, in the last chapter, over the course of a page or two each, he brings up several other things that flow from our union with Christ (all of which could have easily had a chapter devoted to each, if not whole books), and to summarize the entire chapter in a sentence: “union with Christ means that we are part of a larger family, a broader mission, a longer story, a bigger world, and a deeper love” (p264).


If you would like to learn more about our union with Christ you can check out Desiring God’s 2014 Conference for Pastors where the are several sermons on the topic. I would probably start out with one of Sinclair Ferguson’s messages, here or here.