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.

Union with Christ and Our Hope for Change

Union with Christ is certainly eschatological, but it also has present and active benefits. 

It changes how we think, relate, and for what we long. 

The doctrine of union with Christ, of necessity, alters how we care and how we counsel in the church.

These are just a few loose thoughts I have as I complete my reading of Rankin Wilbourne's new book, "Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God." 

While I may have said something differently here, or clarified a point there, I enjoyed it very much and was challenged by Wilbourne's work. I recommend it and will certainly make use of it in counseling.

Healing Our Humanity

While perhaps not the most evocative quote in the book, Wilbourne wrote that, "God in Christ assumed our full humanity to heal our full humanity" (45). As a biblical counselor, this quote is of great interest to me, because it asserts what I believe to be true about the Gospel's effects.

Union with Christ must, over time, bring healing to our souls, hearts, and minds as the Spirit working through it conforms us further into the image of Christ (i.e. progressive sanctification). 

Joined together with Him, Paul informed us that we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). While our life dominating circumstances may sometimes have their roots in our biology, I'm convinced that more often, they find their home in our hearts. 

I suspect that, among other things, this is why God warns us to "guard our hearts" (Prov. 4:23). The well-springs of life flow from out of its depths. From here, our mouths speak (Lk. 6:45).

Our failure to change, most often then, is not a failure of the Gospel, but our failure to appropriate it. And not just to appropriate it, but to journey with it through sin and suffering.

Fortunately, God is patient, long-suffering, and does not depart from us, even if we are prone to wander away from Him (2 Pt. 3:9).

True Care for Our Souls

In Christ, we have the world's greatest and truest hope for the restoration of our minds, the reconciliation of our relationships, the sanctification of our sexuality and our suffering, the washing away of our sin, and the redemption of our once broken hopes, dreams, and desires.

Union with Christ is true psychology, the care of souls. Anything else is vanity and the mere modification of behavior. It is the self-righteous heart that says, "I am the physician. I will heal myself."

To attempt soul care then, apart from union with Christ, is a repudiation of the Gospel, which, according to Luther, teaches us that our problems are intrinsic to us, while hope is extrinsic, that is, found in Christ alone (solus Christus).

The wisdom of man denies these biblical truths, positing that our problems come from outside of us, and that hope for change is found within the power of our own will, as we harvest and apply knowledge. 

In man's wisdom, we are the agents of change. 

This is no Gospel.

Christ Has Overcome the World

Reading Wilbourne's thoughts on union with Christ and brushing up on Luther's doctrine of imputed righteousness and justification by faith alone, I concluded that within the church we have largely come to see the work of Christ in us as mostly "not yet," with only a very little "already."

This has everything to do with psychology and how we counsel. It influences what we expect from our union with Christ. When people struggle with enslaving sin or languish in suffering, we demand change post haste

We have been conditioned by the secular world to believe that suffering of any kind is not for us. Not even suffering along the road of sanctification.

While Jesus Christ himself promised that suffering would come, while we profess that sanctification is progressive and thereby imply that sinners may change ever so slowly, we have no stomach for either (Jn. 16:33; Acts 14:22). 

Instead, we conclude that the Gospel doesn't work, and demand that the world provide us a way of escape. Rather than trust in the power of God's word and the wisdom of His timing, we scheme and plot our own way out.

Sufficient for Today

The enormity of these issues cannot be overstated, and certainly cannot be captured in the space of a blog post. But, hopefully we can see to it that God would rekindle our desire to think freshly about what it means to be united to Christ.

The full benefits of this we can scarcely imagine, and we will not see until glory. And yet, even now, in Him we have hope for our sadness, our addictions, our broken homes, our sickness, and every other imaginable result of life in a Genesis 3 world.

Union with Christ is not only or uniquely a matter to take up in glory. It is the power of God unto salvation today (Rom. 1:16). By grace alone through faith alone we put on Christ alone for the healing of our full humanity.

Our union with Christ inaugurates and guarantees the consequences of our justification. This extends not only into our hope of joining Him in the resurrection, but has implications for how we live now.

Union with Christ has everything to do with how we counsel and how we care.


Join the Discussion

If union with Christ is a present spiritual reality, what effect do you expect it to have on your life?

If union with Christ, the true and perfect human, is a reality, why would you trust in any scheme of man to alter and change your heart, your soul, or your mind?