I’m trying to remember the last time I was more excited about a new book or a new author.
Rankin Wilbourne brings a remarkable flair for writing, and a great breadth and depth of learning, and a passionate heart, to the most important subject in the world: What is the true and sufficient destiny for human life?
Those of us who call ourselves Christians know that the answer to this question, somehow, is wrapped up in the gospel. But the word gospel itself has become fuzzy and debated and truncated and partially buried under the distortions and misreadings that are an inevitable part of human history.
One clue to recovering the gospel lies in comparing the way we describe ourselves with the language of the New Testament itself. The word Christian is found only three times. However, the New Testament letters associated with the apostle Paul use the phrase in Christ around 165 times.
Perhaps one of the greatest barriers to faith is not the things we don’t know but the things we think we know yet we’re wrong about. We think of heaven as the pleasure factory rather than life with God. We think of salvation as being able to avoid pain rather than being made right. We think of the gospel as the minimal entrance requirements for getting into heaven rather than the announcement that life with God is now possible on earth through Jesus. We think of faith as what we’re supposed to believe rather than the mental map about how things are that we carry with us and inevitably live from. We think of Christians as people who have got the heaven job done, while we think of discipleship as optional extra-credit work for spiritual overachievers.
All of this is what Rankin addresses so clearly and compellingly in this book. He combines a rich knowledge and appreciation of historical theology with a penetrating analysis of how God brings about transformation in embodied and largely habit-driven creatures. He does this by unearthing a notion that was central to the early followers of Jesus but has become largely lost in our day: union with Christ.
Life consists in the ability to connect with and draw nourishment from its surroundings. A seed is planted in the ground and would otherwise die except that something whispers to the seed to put out roots and give birth to a stalk, and life happens. A branch is alive only when it is united to a vine.
Human beings were created to live in what Dallas Willard called “reciprocal rootedness.” We are made to be alive spiritually. This is evident to any objective observer regardless of what they think about God or religion. But it means we require a transcendent connection through which the inner unseen person—mind and will—can be nourished and sustained. Apart from this we wither. With this we flourish.
And this is Christ.
This is union with Christ.
It is our salvation. Salvation is not mostly a matter of relocation; it is a matter of transformation. It does not consist primarily of ending up in the right place, but being made into the right person. And this happens when we are immersed in Jesus the way a dolphin is immersed in the ocean, when we are united to Jesus (though more deeply and more profoundly) like a bride is united to her groom.
With this understanding of union with Christ, discipleship suddenly takes its proper place. It’s not extra-credit work to earn something. It’s the means by which we experience union with Christ more fully and deeply. If we want Christ, we will want to be disciples. If we don’t want discipleship, then we might desire to avoid pain, but that’s not the same object as desiring Christ.
All of this unfolds with clarity and grace in the pages to follow. Rankin does a masterful job of articulating what union with Christ consists of, how central it was to the writers of Scripture and to great thinkers through the centuries, why it has been lost in our day, and most importantly how to pursue it as a concrete reality in daily life for ordinary people.
So that’s why I’m excited for you to meet Rankin and enter a new world. Enough overture. Time to get to the good stuff.
Rankin Wilbourne and John Ortberg, Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2016).