By its strengths in both scholarship and evangelism, Union with Christ can indeed help theologians and pastors develop further reflection and teaching on life in Christ, especially areas like sanctification, prayer, evangelism, and ecclesiology. The book’s tone is academic, and readers without experience in theological study might find its arguments (especially chapters 2 and 3) difficult to follow. Nevertheless, Union with Christ is an accessible starting point for deeper theological study on union with Christ and for applying this wonderful doctrine to encourage God’s people and proclaim His glorious grace.
The latest issue of Credo Magazine focuses on Christian Platonism. The following is one of the issue’s featured book reviews by Michaela Wingerd.
In Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church, J. Todd Billings explores the manifold grace God gives the church through uniting her to Himself in Christ. Billings draws upon the New Testament and the Reformed tradition to offer five distinct reflections on how union with Christ shapes the church’s life, hope, and service. Though diverse in their insights, Billings’ reflections are linked by a common thread: Christ’s union with human beings is the content, power, and telos of redemption.
The Gospel and Union
“Union with Christ is theological shorthand for the gospel itself,” Billings begins on page 1. Chapter one develops this by identifying the doctrine of adoption in terms of union with Christ. “[I]n adoption, we…enter into the playful, joyous world of living as children of a gracious Father, as persons united to Christ and empowered by the Spirit” (p. 25, emphasis in original). Billings contrasts this biblical view of God with the culturally caricatured God of “moralistic therapeutic deism,” who stands at a distance from His children, measuring and judging their moral progress (pp. 21-25). Rather, in light of union with Christ, the true God is He who lovingly adopts and enlivens His children by drawing them into His life (pp. 26-31).
Chapters two and three deepen the contemplation on God’s grace by showing how He draws near His people to bring them salvation. Drawing particularly from John Calvin and Augustine, Billings argues in chapter two that the Reformed doctrine of total depravity is a biblical “corollary” to union with Christ (p. 36). He grounds this thesis in Scriptures like John 15:5, Romans 6:16-18, and Colossians 2:13, illuminating how human beings are powerless to regain communion with God unless God graciously removes their sin and draws them into communion with Him—which He does through uniting them to Christ, who gives the “double grace” of His justifying righteousness and sanctifying power to remove their sin (pp. 43-50).
In chapter three, Billings responds to those who would pit God’s attributes of incomprehensibility and transcendence against His revelation and immanence (pp. 67-69). Here, Billings retrieves the patristic notion of accommodation (p. 68), as well as further insight from Calvin, Herman Bavinck, and Franciscus Junius, to show that the mysterious and infinite God can be known by human beings precisely because He is able to communicate Himself to them in a way that does not erase their humanity (p. 77). He does this through “the divine condescension in the incarnation of Jesus Christ” (p. 84).