Book Review: Union with Christ by Rankin Wilbourne

“Everything that happens to us, good and bad, and everything we strive for, can now be interpreted through this new prism—the image of God being restored in you.” Rankin Wilbourne, Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God

I read the preceding quote, taken from Chapter Eight of Wilbourne’s new book from publisher David C. Cook, with great joy. It came just under the heading “Rejoicing in Your Suffering,” itself a provocative statement in a church age known more for its so-called “prosperity gospel” than its willingness to follow Christ to the cross.

As a biblical counselor, the viewpoint from which this review is written, Wilbourne’s observation was important because, as much of the book’s previous chapters had already shown, the theological implications of the doctrine of union with Christ and its consequences hold life-changing power for counselees experiencing life’s most dominating circumstances.

At the counseling table, hurting people want to know that there’s hope, and Wilbourne’s book extends hope to them through a fresh look at one of Scripture’s most precious doctrines: union with Christ.

Mind the Gap

The majority of counselees I work with are professing Christians. They come in with a variety of struggles that have taken over their lives. They now seek help in learning how to apply the Gospel they say they believe in, yet from which they feel bitterly disconnected. They may not use Wilbourne’s exact words, but they feel the gap between their faith and their struggle.

Wilbourne addresses this gap in Chapter One, bringing the pressure of this common sense of discontentment felt by many believers, whether they seek counseling or not. This opening salvo is part of what makes the book so tangible. He doesn’t just explain what has been described as a “cold doctrine,” he helps the reader from the very beginning feel the heat of our lack of understanding and appreciation for what it means to be united with the risen Christ.

Wilbourne, himself a Presbyterian pastor, wrote in a tone that conveys pastoral care and concern. He’s concerned not only that his audience rediscover this grand truth of union with Christ, but that they see how integral it is to their discipleship and spiritual maturity.

Across 288 pages or so of text, he lays out nuggets of truth related to the doctrine, makes consistent appeals to Scripture, and brings in wisdom from famous poets, authors, and theologians. In this way, Wilbourne holds the reader’s attention, and keeps them looking forward to the next point of instruction and application.

Sound Doctrine Made Practical

Wilbourne’s book is helpfully broken down into four engaging parts, each with a subheading of three to four smaller chapters:

1. Union with Christ: What is it and why do we need it?

2. Union with Christ: Where did it come from? Where did it go?

3. Union with Christ: What problems does it solve?

4. Union with Christ Day by Day

I would recommend that pastors and counselors make use of Wilbourne’s book by having counselees read individual parts, followed by a debriefing or session of discussion, asking questions, and application.

I’m not familiar with a study guide at this time, so it would certainly be necessary that the pastor-counselor be familiar with the book and the doctrine of union with Christ. Counselees who struggle with hope in suffering, enslavement to besetting sin, or identity would be strong candidates for a read of this book.

One area of concern, or perhaps where I might have appreciated some clarification from Wilbourne comes in Chapter Three, “Why We Need It: Two songs playing in our heads.” 

In this chapter, Wilbourne is addressing what he calls the “two dominant voices” of discipleship in our day (p.61). One voice he identifies as, “just believe,” and the other, “just obey.” The former he says is marked by “extravagant grace,” and the latter, “radical discipleship.”

Wilbourne is concerned here to help the reader see how union with Christ produces change in the heart. At some level, there is a discussion occurring related to law and Gospel that two aforementioned voices tend to miss altogether.

I would have appreciated more clarity on the role of good works as the product or fruit of our union with Christ according to the related doctrines of justification and sanctification by grace alone. The threat of Neonomianism in our day, I would propose, demands that we hold tightly to sola fide and sola gratia.

Three Favorite Quotes

This minor concern notwithstanding, Wilbourne’s book is one that I will gladly be recommending to my counselees, and will look forward to referencing for personal encouragement from time to time.

The doctrine of union with Christ is, as Wilbourne described, “… not a dusty relic of history or ivory tower pursuit” (p.36). It is central to the Gospel. His book will help us recover this great truth in the church today, “… the one place it most needs to be.”

While you wait for your copy to arrive in the mail, here are three of my favorite quotes from Wilbourne:

“To be found in Christ means you don’t have to prove yourself anymore … When God looks at you, he sees you hidden in Christ.” (p.48)

“Nothing is more personally helpful, theologically significant, or pastorally needed than a recovery of union with Christ.” (p.113)

“The only way it can be ‘well with your soul’ in the midst of agonizing personal trauma is if you know and are assured that you are covered ‘in Christ.’” (p.257)

For more information about Rankin Wilbourne and his book “Union with Christ,” visit Litfuse Publicity.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my fair and impartial review.

On Weeping with Those Who Weep

We risk obscuring biblical wisdom and discernment when we turn biblical principles into new laws.

This is one way of describing my conclusion upon reading and interacting with a powerful quote recently shared by a fairly well-known evangelical pastor. 

Who the pastor is doesn't matter. Let's remove personality from the equation.

My aim was and is to wrestle with an important assertion he was widely quoted as having said concerning how Christians are to relate with those who weep. 

As a biblical counselor, this is well within my lane, so when someone says something about how we're to walk in obedience to God's word and minister to the hurting, I try to listen.

The quote went something like this:

The Bible exhorts us to weep with those who weep. It doesn't tell us to judge whether they should be weeping.

In a church age in which the so-called "Gospel of Nice" reigns supreme, this was a popular quote that made it's way all over the internet, and even onto the meme generator of a well-known Christian blogger.

Who was I to give the slightest bit of pushback? Well, being the contrarian that I am at times, I was happy to say, "Hold it right there!."

You see, the quote had me at "Weep with those who weep." But it lost me at, "Exercise no judgment" [my translation]. 

I'm a biblical counselor. I make what I hope are wise judgments about people, their sin, and their suffering all day long. Is it a true assertion then, that Christians are to exercise no discernment about why a person weeps when ministering to them?

In other words, does the Bible in fact call upon me and you to care nothing about the motivations of the heart when consoling a person who weeps?

Let's consider the text briefly. 

The quote appears to come straight out of Romans 12:15. In the broader passage, Paul is giving his audience, Christians at Rome, a variety of commands and principles concerning Christian ethics, that is, how they are to live in light of the Gospel.

The case seems fairly closed on whether Christians are to love one another, showing grace, mercy, and compassion to their neighbor along the journey of life. As we have freely received,  so we are to give (Matt. 10:8).

In the verse, Paul calls upon Christians to "Rejoice with those who rejoice," and to, "Weep with those who weep." This seems fairly straightforward, does it not?

The rub, for me, came when I considered the variety of life circumstances I counsel. 

On the one hand, was the man who came to me after having lost his wife to cancer. His suffering was real, but came at no particular doing of his own.

On the other hand, was the man who lost his wife because of an extra-martial affair. He was not mourning the loss of his wife, but the loss of his mistress.

Were these two men "weeping" as it were? Yes. Were both of them weeping for equally legitimate matters? Not in the slightest. This is a judgment that any reasonably mature Christian would make, and one that influences the course of counseling on a daily basis.

In the former case, one might respond with silence and words of encouragement. In the latter case, one might respond by calling the man to repent of his sin.

In the former case, the man bore no responsibility for his suffering. In the latter case, the man was solely responsible for his suffering as a direct result of his sin.

In both cases, the truth should be spoken in love (Eph. 4:15). 

But in the latter case, there is a risk of assuaging the guilty man's sin by weeping with him indiscriminately apart from wisdom, discernment, and, yes, a type of judgment. 

The risk in weeping apart from judgment is the inadvertent stifling of God's providential discipline in a wayward man's life.

The conclusion, therefore, is this: 

We do well to exercise judgment in weeping with those who weep, taking care to not become a stumbling block ourselves to those who are living or even thinking outside of God's will.

Romans 12:15 is not a verse that can be isolated from all the other passages of Scripture that teach us how to minister to those who hurt. 

For example, how does Romans 12:15 interact with 1 Thessalonians 5:14, where we're instructed to warn or admonish the idle? 

What if the idle person who needs warning is also weeping?

Finally, the interpretation applied in the pastoral quote at issue here, when applied to the first half of Romans 12:15, begins to wobble within the same verse. 

After all, would we indiscriminately and without judgment rejoice with those who rejoice?

Consider the man who rejoices over his sexual conquests.

Shall we rejoice with him apart from judgment?

Romans 12:15 gives us no specific instruction.


An Open Letter to a Suffering Saint

What follows is a lengthy post on an admittedly difficult topic. As a biblical counseling ministry, we regularly work with those who suffer in some of the most profound ways. Sometimes, we're pressed to give unfiltered, theological answers to life's hardest questions. We don't resolve the problem of evil with this post, but we attempt to provide a faithful witness to the hope of the Gospel in the form of a letter. We pray it blesses and extends hope, even as it speaks frankly to the issue of suffering.

An Open Letter to a Suffering Saint

Dear Friend,

This letter is my response to the questions you sent me. The trial you currently face led you to search the Scriptures in hope of understanding why God does or doesn’t work in and through your suffering. You’re searching for meaning, purpose, and value in suffering, begging God that it wouldn’t be in vain. I believe God will honor that search, at least in part, because He’s promised to draw near to us as we draw near to Him (Jm. 4:8).

You’ve recently come to the conclusion that somehow and in some way, God is involved in your ordeal. Your instincts are correct, I do believe, but you should know that they’re in contradiction to much of today’s Christian teaching which seeks to vindicate God’s holiness by dampening His providence and sovereignty. Now, you’ve asked me to weigh in.

What follows is my humble attempt at answering some of your questions according to Scripture and, secondarily, through an appeal to what the church has taught since at least the time of the Reformation. That is, until the most recent doctrinal downgrade in American evangelicalism.

I should preface all I’m about to say by acknowledging that it’s not in any way exhaustive, and I own the possibility of error. But, I will strive to honor the Lord and your request. I’ll try to neither sweeten God’s providence where it’s bitter, or embitter it where it’s graciously sweet. My sincere desire is to speak the truth in love to your immense pain (Eph. 4:15).

Your Suffering is Real

My dear friend, I’m deeply saddened by your trial. I can only imagine the heartache of what you’re experiencing. I can understand why you’ve been tempted to consider that God has abandoned you to these dreadful circumstances. The underlying notion of the counsel you’ve already received from some within the church led you to conclude that this trial was beyond the scope of God’s control.

If God is impotent, what kind of God have we? Or did He, in His omniscience, know your suffering but refuse to act, like a father who looks out of his window and passively watches as his child plays in the highway? I can’t understand why we imprison a man for this sort of thing, while charging God with this very form of neglectful parenting, thinking that we’re shielding Him from somehow being the author of sin.

Perhaps God is not truly omniscient. Maybe there was a time in eternity when He had to look down through a supposed “tunnel of time” in order to learn that which He didn’t previously know. This is the assertion made by open theists. If they’re correct, how can we know that God now knows all that’s needed to address your suffering? If God ever learned anything, what was His source and what do we know about its fidelity to the truth?

The underlying assumptions involved in these questions leave us in grave doubt. Many well intended Christians are advancing them as matters of fact, wrongly thinking that they’ve resolved the theological dilemma of the problem of evil. Fortunately, these ideas don’t express the heart of biblical Christianity or 2,000 years of orthodox Church history. While our theology won’t always provide the immediate comfort our hearts naturally desire, rightly dividing the word of God promises to deliver a hope that transcends our hopeless circumstances.

Friend, I do believe I understand something of your fears. You fear that God isn’t involved in your suffering. You fear that He’s “asleep at the wheel,” or disinterested in your life, or incapable of fulfilling His promises. Or else you fear that He’s a malevolent God who perniciously or randomly selects us to suffer for no reason other than His own good pleasure.

Doubts about His character have crept in, and at least some of this is owing to the downgrade in robust biblical truth throughout the church. Walls of theological plaster have been erected in people’s lives, but those walls prove to be porous to the driving winds and rain of tribulation which all of us should expect (Jn. 16:33; Acts 14:22).

Desperately needed in the church today, and in our hearts when we suffer is the firm foundation of sound doctrine (Titus 2:1). Sadly, it’s been woefully neglected, and I regret that you’ve been forced to undertake this search for truth now that your hour of suffering has come. Still, God doesn’t require that we possess all truth in order to suffer well and in hope. Even when we’re deficient, and we’re all deficient in more ways than we can count, God is for His children (Rom. 8:31).

I can’t even begin to fully know the countless purposes of God in your suffering, but this I do know: Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases (Ps. 115:3).

God is Love in Suffering

By now, you may be feeling the trajectory of what I’m suggesting. I’ve just asserted that your suffering is, somehow and in some way, a matter of God’s will for you. This is a hard thing. Perhaps, the hardest of all. Haven’t we been taught that God is love (1 Jn. 4:8)? If you’re now suffering, and that at the hand of God, do we then conclude that the Bible is in error because God has been shown to be less than love? In the words of Paul, “By no means!” (Rom. 6:2).

What I share next will not tidy up all the loose ends of your good questions. Still, I want to encourage you by an appeal to what great theologians of church history said about our loving Father and His providence, according to their study of His word. Now, I know that you’re a Presbyterian and I’m a Baptist, but nevertheless, I’m going to make a direct reference to what the authors of the 1689 London Baptist Confession concluded, in agreement with the earlier Westminster Confession of Faith.

While these confessions are not “inspired Scripture,” they are great documents that summarize God’s word and what the Protestant church has historically believed. You’ll surely be faced with new questions as you read, but I hope you’ll be equally encouraged in your faith that God is with you, and that He’ll not allow you, as His adopted child, to be “cast headlong” (Ps. 37:24).

Read for yourself then the words of the 1689 LBC 5.4, which correspond with the WCF 5.4:

The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in His providence, that His determinate counsel extends itself even to the first fall, and all other sinful actions both of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, which also He most wisely and powerfully bounds, and otherwise orders and governs, in a manifold dispensation to His most holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness of their acts proceeds only from the creatures, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.

These are humbling words about the will of our God who is indeed love and declares about Himself clearly and without hesitation, “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things” (Is. 45:7). I’m compelled to sit quietly after reading them myself. It’s hard to not feel the weight of God’s glory, yet Jesus calls us to Himself for the spiritual rest we desperately need, telling us that His “burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).

God is good and He’s good to us, even when our hearts tempt us to believe otherwise.

My friend, you’ve asked hard questions. Some in the church have provided you with answers that are contrary to the great tradition of our faith. In attempting to inoculate God from the appearance of sin, they’ve inadvertently obscured the fact that God, as the first cause of all things, does not sin (1689 LBC 5.2). Not now. Not ever. Fallen angels and evil men, as the secondary causes of suffering, corrupt (but do not finally thwart) the good purposes of God.

They are, indeed we all are, the progenitors of sinfulness in God’s creation.

Joy in Sorrow

For these and other reasons, I consider that God’s character is offended when men assert that He, with a “bare permission,” passively allows His children to suffer. Our God is too high, too wise, too holy, and too powerful for this to be the case. It doesn’t follow that He would simply permit Job to suffer while at the same time sanctify Job through that same suffering. Satan and his wicked schemes were tools in the hand of God for His glory and Job’s ultimate joy.

In the same way, these deep truths were what allowed Joseph to say with certainty to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). These weighty matters of doctrine were what allowed Paul to write, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Ours is not a fatalistic faith, but one in which the God of the universe is actively involved in all things, even if those ways are not perceptible to our finite senses (1689 LBC 5.2).

Do you love God? Are you called according to His purpose? Yes, I know you are, and therefore I have it on good authority that God will somehow work out your current trial for your good and His glory. The agents of evil in this world do not have the luxury of the last word or even the final act. Your trial is designed for you by our Creator God, who is in many ways more gloriously sovereign and providential than we dare imagine. The source of your pain intended it for your harm, but God has super-intended it for your sanctification (Phil.1:6).

These things express in part why I’m hopeful for you in this difficult time.

Friend, although I don’t know specific details of what’s ahead, I’m trusting in Him for your healing and restoration, whether here or in eternity. I’m interceding for you, praying in earnest to the God who “works everything according to the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). Nothing can separate you from His love, not even the powers of hell (Rom. 8:38).

Your brother in Christ,