“Many books need to be put on a diet. Others are poison at any length!” (Benjamin J. Cheever)
I came across that quote recently, and it made me chuckle. Sadly, what Cheever says rings true. So often, books are spoilt by being too verbose. Worse, however, is that many just shouldn’t have been written—much less published—in the first place. Reading such books will harm you.
Today (sadly) it’s easier than ever to publish a book, which makes the reader’s discernment all the more essential. If you’re anything like me, then reading takes time, effort, and energy. Therefore, when it comes to choosing what to read, you need to exercise wisdom. J. C. Ryle once said: “Value all books in proportion as they are agreeable to Scripture. Those that are nearest to it are the best, and those that are farthest from it, the worse.”
By those standards, Union with Christ—by Rankin Wilbourne—is one of the best. It’s been out for a few years now, but it remains a bit of an unheard-of-gem. I’ll read a book more than once for two reasons: (1) I forget I read it in the first place or (2) it’s that good, and I want to go back to it.
So, having just read this book for a second time, here’s why it’s so good, followed by a little precis of the book to encourage you to read it (for the first or second time!).
- For a first-time author, this is very well-written. Wilbourne doesn’t waste words.
- It’s soaked in Scripture, church history, and quotes from those who’ve gone before. Not bolted on, but woven in beautifully.
- Wilbourne pitches it at a wonderfully accessible level—manageable for the layman, but stimulating for seasoned ministers.
- The author clearly knows the gritty reality of day-to-day life. He takes us on a path from needed head knowledge to experiencing the reality. His real-life application of the doctrine of union with Christ is one of the book’s strongest attributes.
Beautiful, Practical Doctrine
There are four parts to the book, with the first part exploring what union with Christ is and why we need it. This is the section I’d normally try to ‘grin and bear’, anticipating the coming practical section. However, even as he’s setting out the doctrine before us, Wilbourne challenges us to feel the reality of union with Christ, not just know about its possibility.
If feeling makes your nervous, Wilbourne provides a helpful challenge, highlighting how often Jesus used story and metaphors to teach truth. As the author says: “When the work of Christ for us becomes abstracted from the person of Christ within us, is it any wonder there is a chasm between our heads and our hearts or between our beliefs and our experiences?”
In part two, Wilbourne sets out a road map through both the Bible and church history, helping us to see how union with Christ is at the centre of it all. It’s such a key doctrine. It’s perplexing, therefore, that many Christians today are so unfamiliar with it. Wilbourne closes the section by outlining the reasons as to why this is the case, and also highlights the impact it’s having. (Again, the temptation is to skip—and give the man some credit, he even says: “If you’re already convinced, skip this part and get on to the next section of applying it to your life!”)
Where to Look
This brings us to the final two sections, where we’re treated to a master-class on how this wonderful doctrine ought to change our lives. Wilbourne identifies four ways:
- Identity—Who am I?
- Destiny—Where am I headed?
- Purpose—What should I be doing?
- Hope—What can I hope for along the way?
The world would, at this point, tee you up to look deep within yourself to achieve. “Be who you want to be. Try your best, and you can be whatever or whoever you want!”
The refreshing thing about this book is that its pages point us not to ourselves, but to Christ. “Union with Christ gives us a new self-understanding,” says Wilbourne, “found outside of yourself in Christ.” We know this, don’t we? But how quickly we forget. This is why the simple reminder that we discover who we truly are when we look not to ourselves, but to Christ is so crucial. As we look to Him, what we see is wonderful. We behold a great High Priest who intercedes for us.
The final chapter of this section shows us what we have to come, because we’re in Christ now (the chapter is so good, I have most of it marked or highlighted). Through our union with Christ, our hope for tomorrow is secure. So today, we can walk the narrow path in the strength He supplies. The journey we’re on is not over, but the work is gloriously finished (John 19:30).
The book closes with section four, where Wilbourne shows the daily outworking of our union with Christ. Because “Christ is real, our union with Him needs to make a real difference.” Every time we consider Christ—by reading His Word, reading a book, or hearing a sermon—we should be asking: How will this change me? As John Calvin said, “Let us labor more, to feel Christ living in us.’
Union with Christ is fundamental to our faith, and we need to grapple with its truth and let it impact our life. For sure, “while it is beyond our understanding, it is not beyond our possessing.”
I rate this as one of the best books around: it’s rich, deep, stimulating, well-written, challenging, encouraging . . . and it doesn’t even need to go on a diet! I just have one gripe: I wish it were half the price. Is it worth the money? Yes. But would more people read it if it were cheaper? Yes. Still, don’t miss out on this gem.