Radical, Ordinary, and United

One of the very best books of 2016 is a much needed new book on union with Christ, written by pastor Rankin Wilbourne. It’s titled, Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God (David C. Cook). Tim Keller calls it “simply the best book” for lay readers on the topic. I agree.

Here’s one excerpt.

415cZtr6i2LThe call to be radical can make you exhausted, but the call to be ordinary can make you apathetic.

No one wants to pit these songs against each other, but how do we hold them together? Balance may not be the best word because it might suggest a 50/50 split; what we need is 100 percent of both. How can we hear both of these songs without compromising either? How can we sing both of these melodies full volume, in harmony, so that the resulting song is not a cacophony of competing strains, but a rich symphony?

This became my overriding question, both as a pastor and as a follower of Jesus. I knew both knobs needed to be turned all the way up, but I wasn’t sure how to do that. (69–70)

He found the answer in union.

Union with Christ is the song we need to recover and hear today as the heart of the gospel. The song of grace without union with Christ becomes impersonal, a cold calculus that can leave you cynical. The song of discipleship without union with Christ becomes joyless duty, a never-ending hill that can leave you exhausted. . . .

Union with Christ holds together what so many of us are struggling to hold together. It allows us to sing of a grace that asks nothing of us to love us — amazing grace — but at the same time, demands everything from us — my soul, my life, my all. (78)

The Work of Union with Christ

Here’s one quote from what I think will end up proving to be one of the very best books published in 2014, Michael Reeves, Christ Our Life (Paternoster; September 1):

When Christians define themselves by something other than Christ, they poison the air all round. When they crave power and popularity and they get it, they become pompous, patronizing, or simply bullies. And when they don’t get it they become bitter, apathetic or prickly. Whether flushed by success or burnt by lack of it, both have cared too much for the wrong thing. Defining themselves by something other than Christ, they become like something other than Christ. Ugly.

Our union with Christ thus has deep plough-work to do in our hearts. It automatically and immediately gives us a new status, but for that status and identity to be felt to be the deepest truth about ourselves is radical, ongoing business. That is the primary identity of the believer, though, and the only foundation for truly Christian living. For our health, our joy and fellowship, then, we must take up arms against the insidious idea that we have any identity — background, ability or status — more basic than that of sharing the Son’s own life together before the Father.

Vital Union with Christ and Sanctification in Jonathan Edwards

One of the interesting connections Edwards makes on the topic of sanctification is found in his sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:8 delivered at David Brainerd’s funeral on October 12, 1747. There, in one section, Edwards connects sanctification within his broad (and glorious) worldview. Edwards makes the following points:

  • Sanctification is the progressive emerging of Christ’s holiness in our lives through (a) our vision of Christ’s glory, and (b) our union with Christ by the Spirit.
  • We see Christ’s glory partially now, therefore our transformation can only be incomplete in this life.
  • We experience vital union with Christ partially now, therefore our holiness will never fully emerge in this life.
  • In death we behold Christ’s full glory (beatific vision), and there our sanctification is complete (glorification).
  • In death all hindrances to experiencing vital union with Christ are removed, and there our sanctification is complete (glorification).

It’s interesting how Edwards merges here two key themes of sanctification: (1) vital union with Christ in progressive sanctification, and (2) our sight of Christ’s glory in progressive sanctification. Those two realities are really one reality for Edwards. To see Christ’s glory is to experience unhindered union with Him. The beatific vision of Christ perfects our vital union with Christ. And it’s at that point his holiness will then flow unhindered in our lives, to our delight and to God’s glory.

All that may be a little more than we would wish to hear at a funeral sermon, but nevertheless it’s here in Edwards, and here it is in his own words (Works, 25:230–232):

III. The souls of true saints, when absent from the body, go to be with Jesus Christ, as they are brought into a most perfect conformity to, and union with him. Their spiritual conformity is begun while they are in the body; here beholding as in a glass, the glory of the Lord, they are changed into the same image: but when they come to see him as he is, in heaven, then they become like him, in another manner. That perfect right will abolish all remains of deformity, disagreement and sinful unlikeness; as all darkness is abolished before the full blaze of the sun’s meridian light: it is impossible that the least degree of obscurity should remain before such light. So it is impossible the least degree of sin and spiritual deformity should remain, in such a view of the spiritual beauty and glory of Christ, as the saints enjoy in heaven when they see that Sun of righteousness without a cloud; they themselves shine forth as the sun, and shall be as little suns, without a spot.

For then is come the time when Christ presents his saints to himself, in glorious beauty; “not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; and having holiness without a blemish” [Ephesians 5:27]. And then the saints’ union with Christ is perfected. This also is begun in this world. The relative union is both begun and perfected at once, when the soul first closes with Christ by faith: the real union, consisting in the union of hearts and affections, and in the vital union, is begun in this world, and perfected in the next. The union of the heart of a believer to Christ is begun when his heart is drawn to Christ, by the first discovery of divine excellency, at conversion; and consequent on this drawing and closing of his heart with Christ, is established a vital union with Christ; whereby the believer becomes a living branch of the true vine, living by a communication of the sap and vital juice of the stock and root; and a member of Christ’s mystical body, living by a communication of spiritual and vital influences from the head, and by a kind of participation of Christ’s own life.

But while the saints are in the body, there is much remaining distance between Christ and them: there are remainders of alienation, and the vital union is very imperfect; and so consequently, are the communication of spiritual life and vital influences: there is much between Christ and believers to keep them asunder, much indwelling sin, much temptation, an heavy-molded frail body, and a world of carnal objects, to keep off the soul from Christ, and hinder a perfect coalescence. But when the soul leaves the body, all these clogs and hindrances shall be removed, every separating wall shall be broken down, and every impediment taken out of the way, and all distance shall cease; the heart shall be wholly and perfectly drawn, and most firmly and forever attached and bound to him, by a perfect view of his glory. And the vital union shall then be brought to perfection: the soul shall live perfectly in and upon Christ, being perfectly filled with his Spirit, and animated by his vital influences; living as it were only by Christ’s life, without any remainder of spiritual death, or carnal life.

I look forward to that day!!