Book Review: "Union with Christ" by J. Todd Billings, 4 1/2 Stars
J. Todd Billings
ISBN: 978-0-8010-3934-8; $19.99
I’ve heard it said that most preachers have only one sermon, delivered in hundreds of different ways throughout their ministry. J. Todd Billings is a theologian with one, central theme that rings out in many of his works, and is the point of his most recent piece, “Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church.” This short 180 page paperback is the work of a skilled craftsman hammering out further applications and repercussions of his chief message - union with Christ. As Billings notes toward the close of his book, “Union with Christ is a biblical, catholic, and Reformational theme that has astonishing implications for our identity” (173). This is a great read for pastors, theologians, and other serious church leaders.
Billings opens the subject with an introduction that describes what he’s about to dish out in the book. He unashamedly announces that instead of coming to bare Scripture alone, he will be following a path of retrieval, drawing from Reformation voices along with Scripture, to make his case. By listening to the voices of the past (specifically Calvin, Bavinck and Ursinius) as we delve into Scripture’s message, it will illuminate Scripture’s strong witness “to the reality of our union with Christ, giving us insights for theology, life and ministry today” (3).
The first chapter of “Union with Christ” goes to the heart of the topic: union with Christ as adoption in Christ. In a powerful way, Billings chisels out how the biblical picture of our adoption in Christ is both legal and lived out. Using Calvin’s duplex gratia or double grace of justification and sanctification as the model, the author works out a better way to perceive our adoption in Christ. As we are adopted in Christ, which is a declarative, official action on God’s part, there is no room to dwell comfortably in our independent self-sufficiency. By our adoption in Christ God poses a threat to our autonomy (21). We are declared God’s children because of Christ and in union with Christ, and what God declares of us He makes true in us. We have a new identity in Christ that sets us on a “journey of nonconformity”, of learning to “become daughters and sons of the triune God” (27). Further, our new identity will not leave us to stagnate in the present, because it “belongs to the future and is experienced now as a foretaste of God’s future” (31). Our new identity is coming to us from the future by the Spirit applying to us the new creation Christ has inaugurated.
Billings moves into the second chapter to tackle how total depravity and total communion go hand in hand. There are loads of surprises for the reader here, surprises that clear up many misconceptions on what is meant by total depravity. The author shows how Calvin’s, and his successor’s, anthropology and soteriology are not in opposition, but beautifully flow together. As every part of our humanity is touched and marred by the fall, then every part of our humanity is sought out, healed and rescued in Christ, while we are being drawn to the future of the new heavens and new earth. In union with Christ, grace restores and transforms nature!
In a surprise turn, Billings brings out how the incomprehensible God accommodates Himself to His creatures. Chapter 3 takes the reader into a delightful discussion of revelation, showing that revelation also goes together with union, for “both Calvin and Bavinck, mystery and communion are held together, grounded in God’s initiative and loving condescension to humanity” (91). Put differently, the incomprehensible God is knowable because He wants to be knowable, and so stoops to us to draw us into communion with Himself.
The final two chapters are where much of the North American church needs to stop and dwell for a while. In chapter 4, Billings takes on the Gospel and Justice, and does so in ways that will chasten the reader, while rousing a whole new notion of what Gospel living looks like. The fifth chapter critiques the whole concept of “incarnational ministry” and supplies a helpful alternative, “participation ministry.” I have intentionally been very short in describing these two chapters, so as to not let the important cats out of the bag. These are must read chapters once you have fully occupied the first 3.
Though “Union with Christ” rings loudly with Billings’ central theme from other works, this book makes accessible much of what he has brought out in those places. But this is not simply warmed up leftovers. He has worked in and worked out other aspects of what union with Christ is, and how it affects the individual Christian and the Church. Whether you have or have not read Billings’ other works, you will find “Union with Christ” fresh, upsetting, encouraging, uncomfortable and a spur to deep, deep gratitude. I highly recommend it!
(A longer version of this was published by Worldview Church, and a modified version was submitted to Touchstone Magazine)