The Missing Heart of our Gospel: Union with Christ


We all want to see lives changed for Christ. But what message does the church most need to hear for that to happen? I’d like to suggest there are two dominant “songs” being sung in the church today.

One you could call the song of Extravagant Grace. It says God loves you unconditionally, just as you are, and not as you should be. And because we are relentless in trying to justify our lives by the work of our own hands, we need to hear this song of grace at full volume: Believe the Gospel. Come and rest.

Another song we hear today we could call the way of Radical Discipleship. It gives a different diagnosis of what is most needed in our churches today. It says that what ails us is not a lack of familiarity, but rather an overfamiliarity with a sort of grace that offers forgiveness without requiring repentance. And because we are addicted to comfort and lured by prosperity, we need to hear this song of demand at full volume: Follow Jesus. Come and die.

Come and Rest or Come and Die?

No one wants to pit these voices against one another. We know it’s not an either/or. We know that’s a false choice. Amazing Grace and Radical Discipleship – both songs are thoroughly biblical and sorely needed. We know either by itself is dangerous. The call to be radical can make you exhausted, but the call to be ordinary can make you apathetic.

But how can we sing both songs in harmony without compromising or minimizing one or the other? I’d like to suggest that only when union with Christ is our lens for understanding the gospel can we hear, or sing, these songs together in harmony.

The 20th century theologian John Murray once said, “Nothing is more central or more basic than union with Christ…it is the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.” If that’s true, then it’s fair to ask, why then is union with Christ neither central nor basic to so many of us?

Union with Christ is the highest privilege of the Christian life—because greater than any benefit God gives us, the greatest gift God gives us is Himself. 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 suffered and done for the salvation of the human race,” one writer puts it, “remains useless and of no value to us.”

You probably know that union with Christ is a hot topic in academic circles today. But one place we aren’t talking much about it is in the local church. The Apostle Paul never uses the word Christian to describe his readers, rather his preferred descriptor is that we are “in Christ.” He uses this phrase (or some derivation) over 160x and it would be impossible to overstate the importance of this little phrase for him. Every spiritual blessing is ours, and is only ours “in Christ” (Eph. 1:3).

But union with Christ is simply not how many believers think about life with God. And this oversight has real consequences for the men and women we are charged to care for.

Union with Christ means you are in Christ.

When I was in Jr. High School, I played football on an organized team for the first time. And my size gave our team a distinct advantage. I was the smallest player on the field. I was so small, in fact, that when I had the ball, the opposing team had a difficult time tackling me because they could hardly see me.

In crucial situations, when we had to have the yards, our go-to play was called “Refrigerator Right” (in honor of Chicago Bears defensive lineman-turned-running back, William “Refrigerator” Perry). Coach Junior set Andrew, the biggest guy on our team, in front of me as a blocker, and the quarterback would hand me the ball. With Andrew leading the way, one man made a way for another. I was completely obscured by his strength and powerful work, but running to freedom. Everything that was supposed to hit me, hit Andrew. He blazed a path for me against hostile forces. He made a way to glory. I was hidden in him.

The Bible says that those who belong to Christ are so intertwined with his life that when he died, we died with him. “For you have died,” the Apostle Paul writes to his very living audience, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). Everything that was supposed to hit us, even the judgment of God for our sins, hit Jesus. Jesus was condemned in our place. Yet, he could not be kept down. He blazed a path against hostile forces, seen and unseen. He made a way to glory where he represents us, as our high priest, at the right hand of God (Heb. 8:1).

So thoroughly does Christ represent those who come to be his that we are said to have been “crucified with him” (Gal. 2:20), “buried with him” (Romans 6:4), and “raised with him” (Col. 3:1). And even now we are “seated with him in the heavenly places” (Eph. 2:6). This touches upon the deepest question of our identity. Who am I? You are not your own. Your real self is, in a sense, waiting to be “found in him,” (Phil. 3:9).

Union with Christ also means Christ is in you

To belong to Christ means to have the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9). He is called the Holy Spirit because he is none other than the presence of Christ himself within us.

Having the Holy Spirit means nothing less than having the incarnate, obedient, crucified, resurrected, ascended, and reigning Lord within you, wherever you are. 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!

Union with Christ not only means you are in Christ. It also means Christ in you (Col. 1:27). And he is even closer to you than you can imagine. “Do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2 Cor. 13:5). I’m suggesting that no, too many of us do not realize this about ourselves.

Christ in you and You in Christ

 I don’t think it’s preacherly hyperbole to say that these are the most wonderful things we will ever hear in our lives.

You are safe. You are completely forgiven and totally loved. You will never be alone. And from this secure platform, you can now press on, toward Christ, toward a life of holiness with unflinching honesty about far you have to go and unfettered hope about the journey home.

As preachers, we’ll be interested in the questions, “How can I preach union with Christ? And how can I help my people appropriate this new reality day by day?” I dedicate the last half of my book toward answering those questions in service of the busy pastor and the local church.

But in the remainder of this article, I want to limit myself to one problem I think union with Christ helps us address.

Union with Christ holds together the two songs we need to hear today

Amazing Grace and Radical Discipleship. Both songs are thoroughly biblical and both are sorely needed. But how can we sing both without diminishing either?

Union with Christ tells us these songs can no more be separated than Christ himself can be torn in two. These strains meet in harmony in the One in whom they always met. By living in union with him, we receive a double grace: Justification and Sanctification.

One of the best images for this dynamic was given by the Protestant Reformer John Calvin, who wrote:

“Christ, our righteousness, is the sun. Justification, its light; sanctification, its heat.

The sun is at once the sole source of both such that its light and heat are inseparable. At the same time, only light illuminates and only heat warms, not the reverse. Both are always present, without the one becoming the other.”

From the one sun come light and heat. Each is distinct and yet life is not possible without both.

If only we had a deeper experiential knowledge of this grand truth. Every benefit of the gospel is found in our union with Christ. It allows us to sing of a grace that asks nothing of us to love us – Amazing Grace – but demands everything from us – my soul, my life, my all.

rankin headshotRankin Wilbourne is senior pastor of Pacific Crossroads Church in Los Angeles. As a former commercial banker, Rankin understands the “gap” between the gospel preached on Sunday and the world people face on Monday, and he’s concerned with drawing connections between what we believe and how we live. Growing up near New Orleans, training at Princeton Theological Seminary and spending time as the Minister of Teaching and Missions at First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga, Rankin now resides with his wife, Morgen, and their three children in Los Angeles. His book, Union With Christ: The Way To Know And Enjoy God is available now wherever books are sold.

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