Union with Christ

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

Protestant theologians have been hard at work retrieving the doctrine of union with Christ in recent years. Near the end of his Redemption: Accomplished and Applied (1955), John Murray makes the signal statement that “[n]othing is more central or basic than union and communion with Christ… it underlies every step of the application of redemption.” Following his lead, theologians have produced a number of monographs confirming and advancing Murray’s claim (among others, Lewis Smedes (1971), Richard Gaffin (1987), William Evans (2008), Todd Billings (2011), Robert Letham (2011), Constantine Campbell (2012), Marcus Peter Johnson (2013), Robert Peterson (2014)). Like hoisting a granite capstone back to its central and elevated place, the work of retrieving union with Christ has required heavy lifting. But the results are proving the effort’s worth. A number of tensions in the Reformed tradition – between soteriology and eschatology, ordo salutis and historia salutis, British Puritan and Dutch Reformed accents – have realized their inherent symmetry when set in relation to union with Christ. Among theologians, pastors, and theological bookworms, union with Christ is “back”.

But for the average person in the pew, the retrieval of union with Christ has been carried out as if behind curtains and scaffolding. The scholarly monographs mentioned above are written for fellow theological laborers, not for the average churchgoer. They press questions of exegesis (Gaffin, Campbell, Peterson), historical and systematic theology (Evans, Letham, Johnson), and ecclesiological praxis (Billings). They do not press the question posed by Walker Percy on behalf of the average man: “He still has to get through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon…. What does this man do with the rest of the day?” In something of an irony, a doctrine hailed as “central”, “fundamental”, “basic” to the Christian life, has precious few messengers speaking to the church’s rank-and-file.

Rankin Wilbourne has set out to change that. In his book, Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God (2016), Wilbourne pulls back the scaffolding and the screens and let’s us all see what the theologians have done, and what it all means for who we are, why we’re here, how to get through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon. If you’ve been looking for a book that your whole church could read on the doctrine of union with Christ – accessible enough for a high school reader, rich enough for your staff and elders to study together – this is that book.

The book’s strengths are threefold. First, Wilbourne has done his homework. He’s carefully poured over and appropriated the theological work of past generations on this doctrine. Readers will be introduced, in a fashion not the least overwhelming, to the names of Augustine, Bernard, Calvin, Owen, and Edwards, in order to show “that many formative voices of church history saw union with Christ as integral to the understanding of why the gospel is good news” (113). He then traces how this essential doctrine was lost, identifying four culprits: the Enlightenment program of “disenchantment” (problematic because “[u]nion with Christ is an enchanted reality,” 119); the stubborn self-centeredness of sinful pride (antagonistic to a doctrine that “displaces us from the center of our own lives, where we naturally love to be,” 121); the church’s neglect of the doctrine of the Spirit (leaving us ill-equipped to appreciate that “the Spirit is the means by which Jesus unites us to himself,” 122); and the intellectually impatient spirit of our sound-bite age (“Union with Christ is not a fact we can put in our pocket, but rather a key to open a door into a whole new reality,” 127). Wilbourne warns that as long as we remain unaware of our captivities to these thought-shrinking patterns, union with Christ will remain “the most important doctrine you’ve never heard of” (127, quoting Kevin DeYoung). In these chapters, as throughout the whole book, Wilbourne does not set the table for a meat-and-three, but for a veritable feast.

Second, Wilbourne has done his pastoral work. Before becoming a pastor, he experienced the struggle to sustain his glorious Sunday morning identity in Christ through a crushing corporate Monday which reduced him to a performance ranking (28). The tensions of Sunday vs. Monday and “head-knowledge vs. heart-knowledge” plagued him, as most any reader can relate. Now a pastor, he has continued to press these questions on behalf of his people. So when Wilbourne states on p. 43 that “union with Christ means that you are in Christ and Christ is in you,” he’s just getting started. In chapters 7-10, he shows how union with Christ frames the answers to our deepest questions about identity (ch. 7), destiny (ch. 8), purpose (ch. 9), and hope (ch. 10). In ch. 11, he takes up the language of “abiding” in Christ and draws out its implications for the relationship between grace and effort in the Christian life so that we avoid the prominent error of pitting them one against the other. “Life with God is not like a motorboat, where we are in control of the power and direction. But neither is it like a raft, where we just sit back and are carried along. It’s like sailing. While we can’t control the most important thing – the wind that makes us move – that doesn’t mean there is nothing left for us to do” (215). Wilbourne has wrestled with the existential questions in and before his pastoral ministry. He articulates a human being’s deepest longings, and presses them at the feet of this precious doctrine until it yields its answers.

Third, Wilbourne simply shines as a writer. I am not referring simply to his crisp prose and gift for making things simple. In that regard, Elyse Fitzpatrick in her Found in Him: The Joy of our Incarnation and Our Union with Christ (2013), also excels. But Wilbourne (whose own journey from unbelief to faith in Christ began with a prod from Dante) gleans from fields beyond theology and biblical studies. He weaves in threads from Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Oscar Wilde. He draws on cultural and sociological observations from David Brooks, Christopher Lasch, and Barry Schwartz. And he supplies illustrations from “American Idol” and Frozen that will be repeated in the sermons of every pastor who reads this book. By conversing fluently with the world in which we live, Wilbourne helps readers connect union with Christ to “Wednesday afternoon”, and makes the read a sheer delight.

The book is not without its weaknesses. First, Wilbourne heavily privileges questions of personal identity, such that the very individualism he deplores (263) nonetheless frames the bulk of his application. In a fast-paced work of 288 pages, the church does not appear until p. 233. The cosmic dimensions of Christ’s victory over invisible powers appear on p. 275. These corporate and cosmic dimensions, so robust in Paul’s doctrine of union with Christ (think of Ephesians), function more as add-ons than first things. To his credit, Wilbourne fully recognizes this: “One of the regrets I have for this book is that I’ve not given more attention to the body of Christ, the church” (264). Perhaps this admission signals a follow-up volume, in which Wilbourne employs his considerable gifts to open these wider vistas of union with Christ for all to see? This reader certainly hopes so.

Second, Wilbourne’s description of the conduct of the man or woman “in Christ” is sometimes vague and eschews critical help from the Reformed tradition. Chapter 9, “A New Purpose: What Am I Here For?” outlines the connection between union with Christ and personal holiness. Wilbourne emphatically presents holiness as “the great end underlying everything God has done for us in Christ” (175) and points us to union with Christ as “the engine of holiness” (180). But apart from defining holiness as being “set apart to reflect God’s character in all our ways—his goodness and love, his kindness and compassion, his concern for justice and the poor” (174), Wilbourne leaves holiness too much to guesswork. Noticeably absent in this book is a substantial aspect of Scripture that functions to light the way of the holy walk: the Law. In fact, this reader was surprised to find the word “law” completely absent in Wilbourne’s treatment of the believer’s life of holiness in Christ. In this respect, Wilbourne’s work would be strengthened by recourse to Herman Bavinck’s linking of union with Christ and personal holiness to the law. “In a life of fellowship with God in Christ, what do we turn to for practical, concrete guidance in shaping our conduct?” asks John Bolt, presenting Bavinck’s approach. He answers: “Bavinck stands firmly within the Reformed tradition when he answers this question by turning to the law of God” (Bolt, Bavinck on the Christian Life (2015), 55). The nonappearance of the law in Wilbourne’s treatment of holiness would have troubled Horatius Bonar, who was concerned that the Christian’s imitation of Christ not take on a life of its own apart from the third use of the law—“how can we imitate him whose life was one great law-fulfilling, without keeping the law?” (Bonar, God’s Way of Holiness, (1999[1864]), 80-81). Wilbourne is to be commended for granting priority to union with Christ in his exhortation to a holy life. Union with Christ is, as Wilbourne aptly pictures it, “the anchor of holiness” and “the engine of holiness” (179-183). Attention to the third use of the law would ensure holiness has a compass as well.

Third, Wilbourne’s emphasis on union and communion with Christ majors on our relationship with the Son, but has little of substance to say about our relationship with the Father (even the name of the Father is mentioned only a handful of times in the book). He is not to be overly faulted here, insofar as he is mirroring the lingering weakness of much of the theological retrieval of union with Christ to date (for instance, Letham’s Union with Christ (2011) devotes just under one page to our sharing of Christ’s relationship with the Father). The Scriptures, however, present union with Christ not as a cul-de-sac, but as a grand corridor opening up into communion with His Father who is “greater than all” (Eph 2:18, Jn 10:29). Jesus emphasizes that through Him we come “to the Father” (Jn 14:6) and are “loved by my Father” (14:21). The love of Christ that indwells us, unites us, and constrains us, situates us specifically in the Son’s relationship with the Father—“that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us” (John 17:21). The Protestant church is waiting at the moment for the retrieval of union with Christ to take that next step of advancing upon the legal privileges of the doctrine of adoption to the deep joys of sharing in the Son’s relationship with the Father. At least a pair of voices – Don Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity (2009) and Marcus Peter Johnson, One with Christ (2013) – are issuing this challenge and pointing the way. In the meantime, as we are learning again to say “I am in Christ and Christ is in me” (as Wilbourne helps us to say with joy and understanding), we should recognize that these are not the final words we are privileged to speak, but rather the precious words that make possible a subsequent cry: “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15, Gal 4:6).

Notwithstanding these weaknesses, Wilbourne has provided the church something she sorely needed: a rich and accessible introduction to the doctrine of union with Christ that could be read by the whole congregation. With theological acumen, pastoral sensitivity, and a pen with some true panache, he successfully shows that union with Christ is “a key to open a door into a whole new reality” (127).


Matthew S. Miller
Greenville Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Greenville, SC