Rankin Wilbourne was a commercial banker; now he’s a pastor (Pacific Crossroads Church in Los Angeles). In both roles he has tried to connect what we believe with how we live. His first book, Union with Christ(David C. Cook, 2016), argues that “nothing is more central or basic than union with Christ”; yet “if it’s talked about at all, [it’s] reduced to some vague or optional aspect of Christian living.” Christianity Today’s executive director, Kevin Miller, interviewed Wilbourne to find out more.
In his foreword to your book, John Ortberg points out that in the New Testament, “the word Christian is found only three times. However, the New Testament letters associated with the apostle Paul use the phrase in Christ around 165 times.” Why so few books about being in Christ, then?
There are not a lot of books on the subject because union with Christ is hard to talk about. The writers of Scripture, even Jesus himself, resort to word pictures, similes, and metaphors to capture the mystery of union with Christ. The fact that the language of poetry must be used tells us there is no way to get at this truth directly. “You’re in Christ, and Christ is in you”: Your imagination must be engaged for you to lay hold of that.
Don’t take this the wrong way, but I didn’t expect someone trained in Reformed theology to call us to use our imagination.
We have to rehabilitate this word imagination. It’s not imagination versus reality. Imagination is simply the God-given capacity to image what is real but is not visible. You use your imagination all of the time. For example, when Ephesians 2 says “you are seated with Christ in the heavenly realms”—to lay hold of what that could possibly mean, you have to use your imagination.
All I’m doing is recovering the heart of what is best in the Reformed tradition. You can trace union with Christ from John Owen to John Calvin, to Bernard, Augustine, Paul. In the Protestant evangelical tradition, we have tended to focus on the work of Christ—even the mechanics of the work of Christ—apart from the person of Christ. But when the work of Christ gets abstracted from the person of Christ, there’s no wonder that we get a gap in our experience. Union with Christ is a better lens for looking at the gospel.
So in a theology guided by union with Christ, what is the gospel?
I am in Christ, and Christ is in me. That’s not simply an abstract concept; that’s a reality I abide in.
What is that reality and how do we abide in it?
I think in terms of metaphors. To be regenerate means that the Holy Spirit enters your life; you become a new entity. In fact, as Paul says, “you are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19). You are in Christ. He is the Sun. From that vital connection flow light and heat, or, in biblical and theological terms, the double grace of justification and sanctification. Our understanding of the mechanics of how it all “works” is irrelevant to the efficacy of our union with Christ. What is primary is what Jesus has done, not our limited understanding of what he has done. Christ is always greater than our experience of Christ. Here’s another metaphor that might help: Union with Christ is the necklace, and there are jewels on the necklace like justification, sanctification, forgiveness, mercy, etc. But the thread that holds those jewels together is union with Christ. Our indivisible connection to him makes those things possible.
So this union is more than simply an intimate association?
Exactly, it’s an ontological union. There is a difference of being that happens when we are united with Jesus. It changes everything about who we are beyond simply our subjective experience. Union with Christ has both an objective and a subjective component to it. But, there’s a tendency for Christians today to make union with Christ to be purely experiential and to place it under the rubric of sanctification. This ignores the objective component of union with Christ. It is not a part of sanctification, rather union with Christ is the very basis upon which our sanctification, justification, and communion with God is even possible. Union with Christ is the fountainhead from which flows all the blessings of God. Therefore Paul’s words in Galatians 2:20 are not an abstract idea or subjective new viewpoint, they are an objective, ontological reality for Christians: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
What does abiding in this reality look like?
The art of abiding in this reality is something like learning a musical instrument; it is something you must practice and rehearse. It is not simply remembering. It is also regular prayer, engaging in a worshipping community, sacrificing for the church. These are means that God has provided to practice abiding. It’s like sailing. When you are sailing, you are completely dependent on an external power—the wind. And even though that power is completely outside your control, it is still your responsibility as a sailor to catch the wind. And catching it is an art that requires dedication, cultivation, and practice. To use a word from Christian tradition, it is a discipline.
You can only understand yourself in communion with God and others. This is a very foreign and counter-cultural concept in our contemporary individualistic understanding of identity. We don’t form our own identities. We find them and receive them in Christ. Lose your life, find your life. This displaces us from the center of our lives. It refocuses our faith on Christ and away from us. And helps us understand the Word of God in Scripture.
If I read the Bible through this lens, what would I see?
Union with Christ helps us navigate seeming contradictions, or false choices that we know are false choices. Suppose I read in Romans 4, “It’s not up to him who works…” and then I read in Matthew 7, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my father in heaven.” How do I put those two together? How do I unite extravagant grace with radical discipleship?