“Union with Christ means that you are in Christ and Christ is in you.” — Rankin Wilbourne
Union with Christ is a doctrine some call the heartbeat of Christianity. Rankin Wilbourne defines as, “You are in Christ and Christ is in you”—two truths that radically shape our identities and lives.
Union with Christ says that through the finished work of Christ, we have access to the all-powerful God we were once separated from, and that abiding in Jesus Christ means we let Christ live through us, directing our lives. If this sounds crazy, consider Galatians 2:20:
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
The only problem is, many modern evangelicals have never heard of this doctrine and have no clue what it means. Why not?
Rankin Wilbourne shares several reasons in a chapter of Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God called “Whatever Happened to Union with Christ.” What follows is a summary of his thoughts.
1. Union with Christ is hard to talk about…and we like clear explanations.
Scripture mainly gives us pictures to communicate union with Christ:
- It’s like marriage (Ephesians 5)
- It’s like the relationship of a human body to its head (1 Cor. 12)
- Or stones to a building (1 Pet. 2)
- Even Jesus uses an extended metaphor of vines and branches to describe our union with him (John 15)
“The number of metaphors tell us how important this is; the variety tells us how far reaching. But the fact that metaphors must be used at all tells us there is no way to describe or explain union with Christ directly.”
2. Union with Christ is an enchanted reality…and we live in a disenchanted world.
Our world is not as ‘enchanted’ as it used to be; i.e. many have abandoned belief in spiritual realities (like God) and mythical creatures (like fairies and elves) in favor of the more observable and measurable.
“In our disenchanted world, the buffered self no longer needs to look beyond itself for meaning. It only needs to look within…As an odd sort of proof that no amount of scientific or technological advance can eradicate our sense of the supernatural, look at the number of movies and television shows today that contain supernatural or spiritual themes… Union with Christ is an enchanted reality. It tells us that the most important things about our lives cannot be seen or touched with our senses.”
3. Union with Christ displaces us from the center of our lives…and we live in a self-centered world.
“What was once seen as the deadliest of sins—pride—is now embraced and cherished as essential to human flourishing: embrace yourself, express yourself, promote yourself.”
- In the 1950s, 12 percent of teens agreed with the statement “I am an important person.”
- In the 1980s…80 percent of teens agreed with the same statement.
“Union with Christ…displaces us from the center of our own lives, where we naturally love to be. It tells us that the most important part of our identity comes from outside ourselves and that, therefore, our posture needs to be one of dependence and vulnerability, of waiting and trust. To an age that embraces self-promotion as fervently as our own, union with Christ will come across not only as bizarre and strange but even distasteful and offensive.”
4. Union with Christ depends on the Holy Spirit…and the Spirit remains anonymous, unknown, and underappreciated.
“If the Spirit is the means by which Jesus unites us to himself, then it is essential for the Spirit to be known and celebrated in order for union with Christ to be appreciated and embraced.”
We usually underappreciate the Holy Spirit in two ways. Some overemphasize one part of the Spirit’s work like those who emphasize gifts given to the individual at the expense of the Spirit’s primary role: to highlight the person and work of Christ (John 16:14).
Others seek to protect their church against abuses of the Spirit but “often overcorrect by downplaying or even ignoring the importance of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing presence and power in the Christian life. Richard Lovelace says that all too often the Christian’s relationship to the Holy Spirit is ‘like that between the husband and wife in a bad marriage. They live under the same roof, and the husband makes constant use of his wife’s services, but he fails to communicate with her, recognize her presence and celebrate their relationship with her.'”
“…The end result is that both Pentecostals and Presbyterians downplay union with Christ for entirely different reasons.”
5. Union with Christ is irreducibly mysterious…and we live in a sound-bite culture that prefers simplistic answers.
“[Our] loss of mystery reveals itself in our pragmatically driven churches. See our tendency to want every sermon to ‘make it practical,’ to give us action steps or things to do. See our prayer lives, too often narrowed to to-do lists for God. See the rise of church shopping, church hopping, worship wars, and other evidences of the language of commerce and ownership invading our spiritual lives.”
The church desperately needs to recover the crucial doctrine of union with Christ because knowing our glorious status of being “in Christ” and the amazing power of “Christ in us” will transform every aspect of our lives. It will lead to a deeper communion with God knowing the cosmic Christ dwells within, a deeper experience of God working through us, and allow us to better live in a sinful world.
Wilbourne concludes, “Union with Christ is strong precisely in those places where we in our secular age tend to be weak. It gives us an ability to speak into the void created by our disenchanted, self-centered world, which has only narrowed our vision and caused us to forget who we are.”