Union with Christ is certainly eschatological, but it also has present and active benefits. It changes how we think, relate, and long for. The doctrine of union with Christ, of necessity, alters how we care and how we counsel in the church.
These are just a few thoughts I had after reading 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” (p. 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, brings healing to our hearts and minds as the Spirit working through them conforms us further to 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 issues in life 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 too appropriate it, but to journey with it through experiences with 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. 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.
The wisdom of man denies these biblical truths, often 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 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 to 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 often 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 provides 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 ask God to 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 sicknesses, and every other imaginable defect 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, body, and soul, whether in this life or the life to come.
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, then, is not just a matter for scholars to discuss. Instead, it has everything to do with how we counsel and how we care. Apart from Him, we can do nothing (Jn 15:5).
Wilbourne, Rankin. Union with Christ: the Way to Know and Enjoy God. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2016.
Joshua Waulk is the Founder and Executive Director of Baylight Counseling, a nonprofit biblical counseling ministry in Clearwater, Florida. He is married with four children, three of whom are adopted. Josh earned the MABC and is now pursuing the D.Min. in biblical counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is ACBC certified.