The Missing Heart of Our Gospel: Union with Christ

Pastor and author Rankin Wilbourne explains why this biblical doctrine is so important for every Christian.
The Missing Heart of Our Gospel: Union with Christ

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?

We are tempted to de-emphasize one in favor of the other, so we read James through Galatians or the Sermon on the Mount through Romans. But union with Christ gives us a way to hear different biblical voices, each full volume.

False choices have bedeviled the church. Take, for example, the question, “What is the mission of the church? Is it primarily a declaration community or demonstration community?” If you read the Bible through the lens of union with Christ, you answer, “Both. We must be both declaring and demonstrating, because Christ did both, and we’re united with him.”

Suppose someone came to you with a troubled marriage. How would a lively experience of union with Christ help you help them?

Every Christian who offers care knows “I am not the Christ,” yet sometimes we slip into thinking we need to be the healer or savior: I wonder what brilliant thing I need to remember from the Tim Keller book I read?

Union with Christ offers instead a posture of pointing yourself and others to the presence of Jesus. “Jesus, you are the healer and savior of this marriage; you care more about this marriage than I do. Direct our eyes: Jesus, where do we need to see you in this?”

When we minimize union with Christ in our lives, what happens?

The loss of union with Christ has real, lasting pastoral consequences. For one thing, you get a low ecclesiology. To be saved means to be united with the Savior. That’s why Jesus says to Paul, “Why are you persecuting me?” Jesus is so united with his church that persecuting one is persecuting the other. (In fact, I’m inclined to think that the whole idea of Union with Christ came to the apostle Paul from his experience on the road to Damascus.)

But when salvation gets reduced to the mechanics of the Atonement or your definition of justification, is there any surprise that many evangelicals would think, “Jesus yes, church no”?

Your book claims that union with Christ solves major pastoral problems, what problems do you have in mind?

Union with Christ holds together the grace of the gospel and the demands of discipleship in a way that enhances both and cancels neither.

Both of the themes of “come and rest” and “come and die” are in the Bible, and the church has wrestled with how to hold these together. The church desperately needs to hear both of these themes and we can’t afford to diminish or privilege either one. Union with Christ allows us to hear both of these two themes at full volume. I am in Christ, I am accepted, Christ is for me, I can rest. But because we are in Christ, we also are obedient as he is, we die with him, and we are raised with him. Union with Christ is how you frame the gospel without falling into either a theology of cheap grace or of legalism.

Our full and complete obedience is made possible through union with Christ. Christ has already accomplished our sanctification in himself in full and unity with him allows us to participate in this reality. Sanctification becomes not a concept that I think about and aspire to, but an accomplished reality in which I participate. Holiness becomes something beautiful and possible rather than dreaded and impossible. Again, to quote Paul, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”

If these are some problems union with Christ solves, what problems does it create?

Good spiritual teaching is provocative. I think the nature of the flesh is that we don’t like to be provoked. Union with Christ is an enchanted reality that displaces us from the center of our own lives. We’re inclined, especially in our hyper-utilitarian ethos, to define the gospel mainly in terms of the benefits it brings to us. Those benefits are inestimably precious, but let’s not neglect the necklace that holds all the jewels together. Every gift that Christ gives you is subordinate to that first and greatest gift—union with the Father through being united with his Son. So, union with Christ challenges some of our most cherished convictions.

Such as?

Take the phrase, “Jesus loves you so much that if you were the only person in the world, he would have died just for you.” There’s a sense in which that is precious and true, yet union with Christ says in a much bigger way, “It’s more not about you than you ever imagined.” It puts you in a place subordinate to Jesus, alongside other brothers and sisters.

Of the many themes you could have chosen for your first book, why did you choose union with Christ?

I wish I had started with something a lot less ambitious. But, I wrote the book to change the conversation because most of us agree there is something that the church desperately needs today. There are a lot of good true and biblical answers out there, but union with Christ seems to have been forgotten, or perhaps never understood, by most Christians. I think it’s the heart of the gospel, and I think reframing how we talk about the Good News in terms of union with Christ may be the answer the church needs right now.

As a pastor, I was looking for answers for a church in need. As I found those answers in union with Christ, it became apparent that other pastors were looking for those same answers, so I wrote this book to share what I’d found. As a pastor, I wondered for myself and my people, “How can we connect the grand, high promises of God to the gritty details of our daily lives? How can we get the beautiful truths we hear on Sunday to sustain us on Wednesday afternoon?”

The answer is this great biblical theme of union with Christ.

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The Missing Heart of Our Gospel: Union with Christ