Every now and then I have a pleasure of reading a book I consider to be transformational and life-changing. Union with Christ by Rankin Wilbourne is one of those books, and I wanted to take a few moments this week to tell you about it.
[A side note: This is the first book review on my blog, but will not be the last. In fact I currently have three I am reading solely for the purpose of reviewing. I plan for each review to follow the same general format, but I’m open to suggestions. I’d like to know what information you feel would best help you to decide if purchasing a book I’ve reviewed would be beneficial.]
The author, Rankin Wilbourne, believes that something once foundational to the Christian doctrine of salvation has been all but lost in popular (and even academic) circles: Union with Christ.
Best characterized by the frequent use of the words “in Christ” by the Apostle Paul, this doctrine teaches that the salvific process involves Christ uniting himself to us through the Holy Spirit. Thus, we are in a direct relationship with God for eternity.
The author concludes that this doctrine resolves the superficial tension often thought to exist between “undiluted grace” and “uncompromising obedience,” culminating in the daily “abiding” practice of faith (belief) and repentance.
I thought the author really struck a nerve with this book. Throughout, he highlights the emphasis that the biblical authors placed on union with Christ–even devoting a whole chapter to just the biblical data.
He ably shows that, even though academic literature has been able to maintain the theological importance surrounding this aspect of our faith, the popular understanding and application of it is almost nonexistent. Saddest of all about this is how many “problems” it solves!
In fact, Wilbourne is able to essentially wipe out theological tension (such as that between faith and repentance) with a simple appeal to union with Christ! His use of imagery and illustration is masterful, and frankly, he has served to revolutionize my personal understanding of what it means to be “united” to the God of creation.
The material is easy to read and understand, and the author makes frequent use of helpful footnotes denoting authors and resources for further study of specific themes. Truly, the Christian faith is about more than suffering through this life in order to arrive at the next–it’s about the eternal relationship we enter into with our Heavenly Father.
What we will experience for an eternity, we can lay hold to right now. Rankin demonstrates this beautifully and invites the reader to begin thinking in those terms.
We should not fear the “mystical” elements of Union with Christ; as the author takes note of, even the Bible must use extended metaphors and analogies (such as that of a wedding) in order to make this concept understandable. While we’ll never fully grasp this concept in our time on earth, by using our imagination, we can get the correct sense of union with Christ as described in the Bible.
Union with Christ gives our lives significance. Each part of Christ’s life has significance for us, then, not just his death and resurrection. Thus, “we share in his life and obedience, his death and his resurrection, even his ascension,” according to Wilbourne.
This mystical union gives us a new identity–one in which we can rest. There is no longer the tiresome, grueling expectation to “make something of yourself” or to “be somebody.” Because of union with Christ, we are somebody! And not only that, but we are free from the judgment of God: “When God looks at you, he sees you hidden in Christ. This is freedom. This is confidence. This is good, good news.”
The same Jesus who lived in perfect, unwavering obedience lives inside of you and me today: “Extravagant grace and radical discipleship meet in the person of Jesus himself.”
We can never understand who we were created to be, nor can we become that person, apart from union with Christ. Our soul’s marriage to him affords us the ability to become “fully human”; that is, to realize Christ’s true purpose for our lives and live inside of that. The author maintains that true human happiness is therefore inseparable from God’s glory. One cannot exist without the other, since they are “one and the same.”
“You no longer work for approval; you work from approval”; that is, we must understand the mindset shift. Every world religion involves one working his way to God. The Christian worldview teaches that God has done all of the work, and invites us to rest in that. From there, we work not for the acceptance of God, and not because we owe him, but because of gratitude for the grace and freedom he has declared on us.
Because your life is now “hidden in Christ,” you no longer make decisions based on what is best for yourself. You have what the author calls a “constant conversation partner.” Instead of “I, I, I,” you need to think in terms of “we.” You should “converse with Christ about what you see, what you hear and read, about what is happening and what you’re afraid of.”
The concept of sin denotes “missing the mark.” At the heart of sin is doing anything that stands in misalignment with God’s will and purpose. To that effect, the author notes that “sin is abiding in something other than Jesus to give us significance and joy.”
Restoration from the sinful condition of humanity is at the heart of union with Christ. The author beautifully summarizes: “The Christian doctrine of sin proves to be a remarkable resource in helping us understand ourselves, but it’s intelligible only against the background of a profound Christian optimism about the created potential of humanity. The caricatures of Christianity paint it as pessimistic and life-denying. But in fact, Christianity is the true humanism. We are royal masterpieces, yet we are marred. The glorious image of God in us needs to be restored, and it is worth the effort of restoration.”
Every day, ordinary life is exciting because we are in pursuit of Christ being formed in us.
We abide in Christ with prayer much like we abide in marriage through communication. Bible reading becomes exciting because the living Christ dwells in us and speaks to us through his Word.
When we are saved, God forgives us of our sin. He declares us legally “just.” Therefore, what grieves God the most is not necessarily our sin, but failing to recognize how very badly he desires for us to believe in his kindness and to remain in communication with him.
Union with Christ resolves the apparent tension between shallow emotionalism and arid intellectualism. According to the author, it brings together the “highest theology and the deepest spirituality,” so that we can maintain balance in our understanding of who God is and how he relates to us in our daily experience.
Although there are many, and I’d invite you to read and discover your own, here are a few suggested takeaways that this book will enable you to apply to your own life:
You must resist thinking of communication with God as esoteric and mundane. Union with Christ teaches that God is not distant, but rather, that he lives inside of each of us!
You must make decisions with a deeper understanding of how God’s purposes are directly related to your own life. Union with Christ gives practical understanding to Galatians 2:20: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith.”
You must learn to use your imagination more and allow yourself to be in awe of who God is. It is easy for intellectual study to remove the wonder of God and dampen your personal experience of him. Union with Christ says that while you may never intellectually understand him, you can personally experience him.
In sum, I wholeheartedly endorse and recommend this book. There are various points of disagreement throughout. The author is a fairly well-known Calvinist pastor, for example, and I myself hold to the Molinist position on soteriology (the ROSES model).
Also, the author frequently cites authors like John Walton who have a radically different view of the Old Testament than my own.
These caveats aside, this is quite a responsible treatment of a highly illustrative and abstract theological concept, which the author does a great job bringing down to practical experience “on a regular Wednesday at 4pm.” You will not be disappointed.
Questions? Feel free to comment below and start the discussion, or click the blue button on the right (desktop only) to ask a question with a voicemail. We will do our best to answer in an upcoming post. Thanks!
P.S. Would you prayerfully consider becoming a Partner of our ministry?