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Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God

Rankin Wilbourne. Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2016. 370 pp. $19.99, hardcover

What does the phrase “union with Christ” mean to you? For many of us, the phrase may not be something completely new, but these are not words that we have spent much time studying. We know what Christ has done for us, but we struggle to explain the truth of Christ in us. Rankin Wilbourne seeks to close that gap with his new book Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God.
Wilbourne points out that the phrase “in Christ” and other similar phrases are found “over 160 times in the letters attributed to [Paul]” (87). The truth of union with Christ is precious to the child of God. It left John Calvin “overwhelmed by the depth of (the) mystery” (43).
There were many times when reading this book when I was struck by the power and beauty of this doctrine and its application to my life. What child of God hasn’t struggled with anxieties in this life full of traps, pitfalls, temptations, and fears? What is the answer? Where should we turn to find assurance and peace with God? Should we look inward? Wilbourne finds the answer in union with Christ and writes, “[E]very benefit of the gospel comes to us through and only through our union with [Christ]” (106). What about the intense, soul-burning struggles the believer experiences when he faces his sin and the cry of David becomes his own, “How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?” (Ps. 13:1). Wilbourne turns our attention off ourselves: “When I base my Christian life on my Christian experience, I become locked in the labyrinth of my own experience. I am only as sure of God as my current emotions and obedience allow. My eyes are fixed on myself. The gospel, the good news, is the way the Holy Spirit turns our eyes away from ourselves and onto Christ” (55). This is good news for the troubled believer! “Your faith is absolutely necessary, but it is the object of your faith, not the strength of it, that matters most” (201). Elsewhere he quotes Samuel Rutherford, who wrote, “Your heart is not the compass Christ saileth by” (247).
To the person who is “discouraged by [their] lack of spiritual progress and exhausted by [their] efforts” (29), study the truth of your union with Christ. To the weary believer who continues to make “frantic attempts to find or craft an acceptable identity” or who has worked tirelessly to “manage [their] own reputation,” stop. “You can rest. In Christ” (48). To the complacent believer who thinks of “discipleship as optional extra-credit work for spiritual overachievers” (14), recognize that you know little of what it means to belong to Christ. For the suffering child of God who feels as though their life has been cut out from under them, who experiences pain, sorrow, and disappointment seemingly on a daily basis, embrace union with “the man of sorrows” (Isa. 53:3). “But if you know that you are ‘in Christ,’ and all the wonder that little phrase entails—that you are completely atoned for by Christ, covered by Christ, forgiven in Christ, washed clean in Christ—then you can be sure and certain that God loves you even though you may not know why he is allowing this suffering or what it will mean” (255).
But what about the times that you do not feel the presence of God and your conscience convicts you it is because you have not been living with your parents or family the way you should, you have not been diligent in the word, and have not been living a life of self-denial and discipleship? While it is true that we do not experience fellowship with God (the presence of God) while walking in the way of stubborn impenitence, all of this working is not the means or instrument by which we experience peace with God. “Our response to God is not the root of his love; it is the fruit” (246). Too often we allow ourselves to become “seduced” into thinking the basis of our acceptance with God is due to us and our working (246–247). “We assume that God must be pleased with us if things are going well or that God must be disappointed in us when bad things happen. But this only shows that we think we approach God on our own merit in the first place. It shows that we do not understand the gospel. We don’t know that Jesus is seated, he is enthroned, and he is our high priest” (201).
This book spurred my interest in studying more about what it means to be united to Christ, and I read much I could agree with.
And yet there was much that gave me pause.
The book is written in the “pop-culture” style that describes so much theological writing today. Why is it necessary for so many authors today to try to force truth into so many of the godless and in many cases, profane products of a wicked world (books and movies)?
Bones that the spiritually mature and discerning reader will spit out include the reference to “the grace Christ offers” (40), Wilbourne’s explanation of the kingdom of God (90), his description of the image of God (155), and his statement that “the image of God in us has not been completely lost or erased, but it has been marred and disfigured” (158).
There is a more significant error, however. A bone that lodges in the throat and causes the reader to choke. Orthodox statements and quotes notwithstanding, he gives a place to our works (obedience) that undermines and corrupts his entire message.
There is a simple test that can be administered every time the subject of salvation comes up. The test is simple, but not easy. The level of difficulty can be determined by how many fail. If the subject matter is salvation, and specifically any benefit that derives from salvation, including adoption, repentance, justification, sanctification, assurance, your own personal experience of peace with God, and so many others, the question is simple: “From whence does this benefit derive?” The answer must be Jesus Christ. At one point Wilbourne writes that “every benefit of the gospel comes to us through and only through our union with [Christ]” (106) and “The person of Christ is our salvation” (106). Ominously, however, he also writes “Union with Christ says that the one who made heaven and earth dwells within you. He not only holds the lever of change, but he also promises that when you abide in him, through faith and obedience, [that] his living water will flow out of your life” (emphasis his) (72).
This teaching that abiding in Christ is both faith and works (thereby joining together what God has put asunder, namely law and gospel) is writ large in his chapter titled “The Art of Abiding.” “We must labor to be brought near” (215) and “God’s grace invites, even requires, your participation” (213). Our participation? Shall we stand at the foot of the cross, and just before Christ cries out, “It is finished!” say, “Wait, Lord, I must participate! Look at the good works I have done!” The response will be immediate, and eternal. “Depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matt. 7:23).
What makes this book dangerous is that this false doctrine is surrounded by such orthodox language!
But seeing this clearly brings some other troubling aspects of the book into clear relief. Why is it that he so often favorably quotes Mother Teresa, the Roman Catholic nun, whose theology demands that works are joined with grace in salvation? Wilbourne also quotes N.T. Wright and Richard Gaffin and indeed thanks Gaffin for helping with the manuscript. N.T Wright and Richard Gaffin have corrupted the heart of the gospel, justification by faith alone, and should not be allowed to get anywhere near a book on union with Christ.
Reading this book and discussing it with friends made me again thankful for the decision of Synod 2018. Here is a careful decision that explains the correct role of works as it relates to one benefit of the gospel, namely, fellowship with God. “We experience fellowship with God through faith (instrument), on the basis of what Christ has done (ground), and in the way of our obedience (way of conduct or manner of living).”
We do not abide in Christ through faith and obedience. It is through faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone. Synod 2018 gave us an additional lens through which we can read a book like this, a lens that allows us to identify the pernicious errors that constantly creep up in the church of Christ and that, with thanksgiving to God, allows us to reject them as the compromise of the precious gospel of grace they represent. We rejoice in God’s faithfulness through that synod, which now allows us together to joyfully confess a gospel that glorifies God and assures and comforts troubled souls.
Young reader, do not be deceived. It is either Christ alone, or it’s not. If Christ is moved even ever so slightly from being central, the gospel has been compromised and heresy is at the door.
Put bluntly: It’s either the gospel, or it’s not.