Editor’s Note: The interview first appeared in byFaith Magazine in the Fall 2016 issue.
In the introduction to his new book, Rankin Wilbourne says, “Nothing is more basic or more central to the Christian life than union with Christ.” Yet too many believers, he says, have only a vague notion of what that means. For too many the concept is neither essential nor vital. And that brings consequences. A diminished view of union with Christ, brings a diminished view of salvation: We may know what Christ saved us from, “but we lost sight of what God has saved us for.”
To recapture this key concept, we need a revitalized sense of imagination, Wilbourne says. How else can we relate to the true God “whom no one has ever seen or can see?” (1 Timothy 6:16).
We started our conversation there.
You open the book by explaining that we need imagination to know and enjoy God. Why is that? Imagination is one of those words we need to rehabilitate or, at least, redefine. “What do you mean by imagination?”
It’s an important question. I can understand why some are hesitant to use this word in association with the life of faith because it might suggest something unreal or fanciful, made-up or make-believe. But as I explain in the book, I’m using the word to capture that God-given, uniquely human capacity to imagine what is real but not immediately visible to our eyes. Defined in this way, the Bible calls to our imagination from beginning to end. When we are called to fix our eyes on things unseen or set our minds on things above, these are calls to the imagination.
One of the core arguments of my book is that union with Christ is central to the Gospel, that it comprises the very essence of why the Gospel is good news, that it is biblically central and has been historically crucial. And yet, over the last couple of centuries, union with Christ has receded into the background of our understanding of the Gospel, to the point that it seems vague and shadowy to many of us. “I think I know what that means,” you might say, but when pressed, it might be difficult to articulate, or more importantly, to apply to your day-to-day life.
There are many reasons union with Christ has been lost as a controlling category for us. (For students of culture, I dedicate a chapter of the book to some of these contributing factors.) But one reason is that our image-saturated culture has failed to exercise our imaginative muscle to the point that it has atrophied.
I start the book by talking about imagination because you will need yours to lay hold of your union with Christ. It is revealing that Jesus and the biblical authors use similes and metaphors when they talk about union — it’s like a vine and branches, like stones in a temple, members of a body; it’s like marriage, that most intimate of human relationships. The variety of metaphors employed tells you how expansive this union is. The number of metaphors tells you how important. But the fact that metaphors must be used at all, the language of poetry, tells you there is no way to get at this directly. To lay hold of your union with Christ, you must use your imagination, the eyes of your heart, to grasp the depth of Christ’s presence with you and love for you.
Union with Christ not only means you are “in Christ.” It also means “Christ is in you” (Colossians 1:24). And He is even closer to you than you could imagine. “Do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2 Corinthians 13:5).
You talk about how believers often sense a gap between what the Gospel says — that we’re forgiven, accepted, and secure — and what we actually experience. Before we can appreciate our union with Christ, you tell us that we must understand this gap.
I think this gap, if we are the least bit self-aware or honest with ourselves, is one of the most painful parts of human experience. We know the gap is real. The question is what is to be done about it. If you think of the Good News as meaning you no longer need to strive for holiness, if you think grace means that costly discipleship is reserved only for the most dedicated, then this gap won’t bother you. But in the book I argue that being troubled by this gap is actually a sign of soul health.
I think that, in the main, there are two dominant answers on offer today. One we can call the Way of Extravagant Grace: Just believe the Gospel, come and rest. The other we can call the Way of Radical Discipleship: Just be more intentional to follow Christ in all of life, try harder, come and die.
Which is it? What is the way forward to navigate this gap? Both answers are biblical. Both answers are sorely needed. We know it’s not an either/or. We know it’s a false choice, and yet often we lack a way to hold these voices together in a way that enhances both without diminishing either.
I think the reality of our union with Christ uniquely helps in holding justification and sanctification (to use the biblical words) together without compromising either as integral to the life of faith in Christ.
You explain that union with Christ means that we are in Christ, which means He represents us. How so?
One of the things I’m trying to rescue union with Christ from is being only a subjective, experiential, squishy idea. It has an objective, legal, declarative force to it. More than 160 times, the Apostle Paul says that you are “in Christ.” We tend to read over that, but it’s impossible to overstate the importance of this little phrase for Paul. Every spiritual blessing of the Gospel is ours, and is only ours, in Christ (Ephesians 1:3-11). Every gift Christ gives us — forgiveness, reconciliation, adoption, holiness, heaven, etc. — flows out of what is first and primary: our union with Him.
If we are in Christ, we have everything worth having. But as long as He remains outside of us and we are separated from Him, “all that He has done for us,” John Calvin says, “remains useless and of no value to us.”
Christ represents us in the same way that David represented Israel in his battle with Goliath. One shepherd from Bethlehem fought that day and defeated his enemy in a most unlikely fashion. His victory was credited, or imputed, to all of Israel. Even though they themselves were passive, standing on the sidelines, watching their champion fight on their behalf, all Israel was “in David.” He represented them, vicariously.
In the same way, Christ, not only in His death but also in His entire life, His resurrection, and His ascension, represents us fully and entirely.
Some traditions of the Christian church have done a better job of emphasizing Christ being with us. The Reformed tradition has done a great job at emphasizing Christ being for us. But the best of our tradition, union with Christ, holds these together and says that Christ is with us and Christ is for us. You are united to the one who this very moment sits at the right hand of God. He represents you as your champion and as your advocate. That should give us unrivaled confidence. We are so secure. We are never alone. We always have an advocate.
You go on to say that union with Christ also means that He is in us. I’ll ask the same question you pose in the book: How can a person who lived 2,000 years ago live inside another person now?
I took a course in seminary called “The Holy Spirit in the Reformed Tradition.” The first day the professor handed out a syllabus. It was blank. He was making a joke, but it landed. Even though a robust appreciation of the Holy Spirit has been a hallmark of the Reformed tradition (B.B. Warfield called John Calvin “the theologian of the Holy Spirit,” and John Owen wrote as deeply and expansively on the person and work of the Holy Spirit as anyone ever has), yet it’s fair to say that the Holy Spirit remains, if not forgotten, at least unknown or unappreciated by many of us.
Sinclair Ferguson says that having the Holy Spirit means nothing less than having the incarnate, obedient, crucified, resurrected, ascended, and reigning Lord within you, wherever you are. Yet, even among those most prone to speak of “Jesus in your heart,” I don’t think many of us walk through our daily life with a sense of the indwelling presence of the reigning Lord. How different my life would be if I did!
The Holy Spirit is the bond who connects the living Christ to us. The Apostle Paul goes so far as to say that the very definition of one who belongs to Christ is having the Spirit of Christ dwelling within you (Romans 8:9).
Union with Christ not only means you are “in Christ.” It also means “Christ is in you” (Colossians 1:24). And He is even closer to you than you could imagine. “Do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2 Corinthians 13:5). I am suggesting that no, many of us do not realize this about ourselves.
In light of these realities, you describe union with Christ as “an enchanted reality.” How so?
Union with Christ is an enchanted reality that displaces us from the center of our lives, but we live in a disenchanted, self-centered world. By “enchanted” I don’t mean anything too different than what J.R.R. Tolkien was getting at in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” Tolkien wonders why these stories continue to have such a hold over us, even in our increasingly secular and supposedly sophisticated age. (Today, we could ask, “Why is Harry Potter so popular?”)
Tolkien suggests that we love these stories because they point to an underlying invisible reality, “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world,” that we feel in our bones must be true, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. We love these stories because they are hints and echoes of the one true story we were made to hear: the Gospel, the most magical story of all.
Where, once upon a time, the King of the universe disguised Himself as a baby. He grew up and did wonderful, beautiful things: fed thousands of people from one small lunchbox, calmed a storm by speaking to it, made sick and broken people well, and brought the dead back to life. Then, in an act of heroic self-sacrifice, He let Himself be killed. He died a gruesome death on a cross.
The Gospel is an enchanted story — hence our need for imagination. But it’s not just a story. We love redemption stories because we were created to inhabit such a story. It is enchanted, but it is real, this story Jesus is writing as He makes all things new and invites us to see the world with new eyes (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).
When you talk about abiding in Christ, you make the point that we aren’t passive; there are specific things we must do. You quote “an old Oxford preacher” who said, “Labour to be brought near.” Help us understand what that means.
One of the great things that has happened in the last few decades is a recovery of the Gospel over and against moralism. Our hearts are so prone to fall into a performance mentality that we can’t hear enough that the Gospel is not about what we do or what we have done, but it’s about Jesus and what He has done.
Our standing with God is complete and secure, anchored in Christ’s finished work and not dependent upon the shifting sands of our own performance, fickle faith, or fragile obedience.
But perhaps the pendulum has swung too far. Our efforts to say what is true (that we can do nothing to earn our righteousness) have sometimes led to a conclusion that is false (that there is then nothing left for us to do). To the point that, in some circles, any call to strenuous moral exertion, or to pursue holiness as a way of life, comes across as moralistic. Piety has almost become a bad word rather than the mark of living faith.
“Labour to be brought near” captures the dynamic of spiritual formation. On the one hand, it captures a posture of dependence. We must be brought near, like the paralytic was by his friends, to the only One who can help and heal us. We are utterly dependent upon Another to heal us. Apart from Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).
On the other hand, this utter dependence does not absolve us from the duty to strive, to make every effort, to die daily.
How does one abide in Christ, day by day? I dedicated the fourth section of my book to this most important, practical question. The short answer is, “Labour to be brought near.” Christ gives us the permission to rest (Matthew 11:28). “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:11).
At the end of the book you cite Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14-19, explaining that Paul is praying for us to know — and fully comprehend — that Christ dwells in us. “He is praying,” you say, “that we would know what we know.” What does that phrase mean?
This prayer for the Ephesians is well-loved, so much so that it can be easy to miss what is so unusual about it. Paul prays, “that Christ may dwell in your hearts” (3:16). And yet, the letter to the Ephesians is addressed to those who already know Christ (Ephesians 1:1). So why would he ask for Christ to dwell in their hearts? Why does Paul pray for what must already be the case?
Ephesians 3 is a prayer for what Martyn Lloyd-Jones once called “experiential knowledge.” Because it’s one thing to know the truth, but it’s another thing altogether for this truth to capture your imagination and change your life.
This is a prayer that acknowledges there is a gap between the inheritance we’ve been given and our present experience of how we see ourselves. This is a prayer for that gap to be closed, that we may know the riches of our glorious inheritance.
Do we know the riches of our inheritance? Imagine you inherited a bank account with $100 million, bequeathed to you by someone who loved you dearly. You are aware of this treasure. You have been given a deposit guaranteeing your inheritance (Ephesians 1:14). But suppose you have never drawn down on this fortune and choose instead to remain in dire poverty. From one point of view you are exceedingly wealthy, but insofar as how you live, you remain a pauper. You know you are wealthy beyond imagining, but you don’t really know your wealth.
Does this not describe how so many of us are living? And so the Apostle Paul prays for us, that we may know “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”
Paul isn’t praying for Christ to be present with you. If you are in Christ, Christ already is. He is praying for you to know of yourself, “I am one in whom Christ Jesus dwells.” He is praying for your awareness of your union with Christ. He is praying that you would know what you know — until the day when faith becomes sight and we see Him, face to face, who has always been with us.
Until that day, how can we possibly participate in these heavenly realities even as we walk around in our mundane lives of grocery shopping, bill paying, traffic jams, and CAT scans? That’s the driving question of my book.
Rankin Wilbourne grew up in Louisiana and was educated at the University of Mississippi and Princeton Theological Seminary. He is now the senior pastor of Pacific Crossroads Church in Los Angeles. Rankin and his wife, Morgen, reside in Los Angeles with their three children.
Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith magazine.