Sam Freney: Your new book One Forever: The transforming power of being in Christ is about ‘union with Christ’. This is a topic that theologians get excited about, but why should the rest of us care?
Rory Shiner: Yes, union with Christ has been one of those doctrines that has tended to get stuck in the upper stratosphere of theology. It has a deep, rarefied feel to it, and it often struggles to find its way down into our Bible studies and youth groups and Sunday schools. But when you look at the Bible, union with Christ is almost always a practical doctrine, addressed to ordinary Christians facing ordinary struggles. It is used, especially by Paul, to address real-life situations in the Christian life: struggling with sin, lacking assurance, insecurity and so on. The subtitle is a way of trying to signal what the Bible signals about this doctrine—that it’s not just something to think about, but something that can actually transform your life. I think we should care because the New Testament is saying to us, “Union with Christ actually makes a difference!” It’s worth the effort to understand it, because it really does help in living for Christ.
SF: Being “in” a person is a strange sort of idea, isn’t it? It’s certainly not how I talk about anyone else.
RS: Yep, I think that’s one of the challenges for people in understanding and taking on board this doctrine. As I say in the book, we know from our experience what it means to follow someone, to be inspired by someone, to be loved by someone, and so when the Bible uses that language for Christ and us, we have analogies in our experience to help us grasp it. We know what following, or inspiring, or loving looks like. But being “in” someone? That’s not as easy to comprehend: hence the book.
SF: Who did you write it for?
RS: I wrote it for two types of people.
The first is the person who has heard about ‘union with Christ’, but still struggles to get their head around what it actually means. I’m one of those people—or at least I was! I’ve heard about it many times, but if someone had asked me to explain what it actually means, in plain language, I would have struggled.
The second person I had in mind is the person who perhaps has never given much thought to the theology of union with Christ, but who has been experiencing the struggles and challenges of everyday Christian life: struggling to overcome sin; battling with temptation; lacking assurance; feeling vague and listless about the future hope. The book is my attempt to say, “Here’s somewhere you might not have looked for help before”.
SF: What did you find hardest about writing this book?
RS: The book was a pleasure to write. But I guess the thing I worked the hardest on was getting the ideas into plain, accessible language. Every time I edited or re-wrote a chapter, I asked myself, “Is this as clear and simple as it could be?” I think that’s where most of my effort went. Ironically, writing complex things in complex language is easy; it’s making it simple that’s hard.
SF: What did you find out that surprised you?
RS: For me it was how objective union with Christ is. I guess I had always thought about it as a vaguely mystical, experiential idea. Maybe even as something that mature Christians grow into. And you do grow into it, but time and time again in the New Testament, our union with Christ is presented as something objective, as something that is true for all Christians—even when we don’t feel particularly close to Christ.
SF: If the “in Christ” language is so common in the New Testament, why do you think it’s so rarely discussed and thought about by Christians?
RS: It’s hard to say. I think partly it is just a hard idea to get your head around. What does being “in” someone actually mean? And I think it has been hard in the past to find books on union with Christ that you could confidently put in the hands of ordinary Christians. Many (though not all) are rather technical and demanding.
I wonder if there is also an historical reason. Modern conservative evangelicalism has been partly shaped by the struggles with the holiness movements of the first half of the 20th century. In different guises and at different times, some people were overstating what the ordinary Christian experience of holiness and fellowship with Jesus is like in this age. Some were claiming that Christians can expect to be perfectly free of sin in this life; others talked about a second blessing or higher Christian life. It was a teaching that meant well, but it resulted in a lot of pastoral train wrecks as people were given false expectations of the Christian life, which can lead to dishonesty or despair. And in that context people like JI Packer and John Stott did an important job of bringing us back to a more biblical expectation of what normal Christian experience of growth in holiness in this age will look like.
My little theory is that, in those important battles, the doctrine of union with Christ fell a little by the wayside as something closely associated with the experiential holiness movements. (I’m talking about a general pattern here: people like Stott and Packer taught union with Christ passionately and lucidly of course.)
I’m not sure if that theory holds, or whether it’s more true in Australia than elsewhere. Others who know more about the recent history of evangelicalism will be able to put me straight on that. However, I note that union with Christ is beginning to receive more attention lately, and I think that’s a good thing.
SF: Is this union with Christ an individual thing (me and Jesus) or a corporate thing (the church and Jesus)?
RS: It’s both, of course. But I am attracted to the argument that it is fundamentally a corporate thing: not just ‘me and Jesus’ but ‘us and Jesus’. We are, after all, members of his body, the church. Belonging to a church is probably the main way we express union with Christ, and understanding that can really change the way you think about the bunch of broken misfits God has put you into fellowship with in your local church.
SF: What other key things about Jesus does this idea of union with him connect with?
RS: The thing about union with Christ is that it’s not just one of the blessings we receive in Christ, like forgiveness and hope and peace. It is the thing that encompasses the whole. It is the relationship by which all those other blessings are available to us. Union with Christ connects all that we are with all that Christ is. That’s why it’s such an important thing to grasp.
SF: In an ideal world, if the book achieved exactly what you hoped it would in a reader’s life, what would that be?
RS: I think I’d love the book to open up for people the joy and security there is in being united to Christ. Our relationship with Christ can feel so fragile: great one day, tepid the next, seemingly absent altogether on other days. I think understanding union with Christ can break that roller-coaster ride and teach us that, even on our worst days, all that we are is united with all that Christ is. I think that really does put the Christian life on a sure footing, and puts us in a place where we can deal with sin and suffering and insecurity with all that Christ has for us.