Union With Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church

December 26, 2011 — 3 Comments


Last week, we took a look at Robert Letham’s Union with Christ, so it’s only appropriate to turn this week to J. Todd Billings book with the same title.

While they do share a title, the subtitle immediately clues you in that these authors are taking different vantage points and have different agendas when it comes to the doctrine of our union with Christ. On the one hand, Letham was more concerned to expound the doctrine itself from Scripture, theology and church history. On the other hand, Billings is focused on connecting the doctrine of union with Christ to our church practices.

In this way, Letham’s book is more heavily theoretical, while Billings book is more practical. Since theory and praxis are not mutually exclusive categories, both Billings and Letham clarify the doctrine and draw applications, but Billings is more focused on the latter than Letham is.


Though Billings is more practically minded, he is also pursuing a similar project to Letham in that he is seeking a type of retrieval theology. While Letham was more interested in tracing the doctrinal development through key Reformation figures, Billings interacts primarily with Calvin, and to a lesser extent Bavinck, and  then brings their theological reflection to the present context. As Billings summarizes:

I seek to help us hear the voices of the past in a way that illuminates Scripture’s witness to the reality of our union with Christ, giving us insights for theology, life, and ministry today (p. 3).

Once we have “listened receptively to the theologians of the past,” we are then able to “assess whether the new exegetical and theological possibilities discovered form this engagement with the past are valid or in error” (p. 5). With this in mind, Billings chooses the Reformation, and specifically Calvin, as the context to retrieve the doctrine of union with Christ because “Calvin also used his theology of justification and union with Christ to configure his account of divine and human agency, the law, and the sacrements” (p. 7).

Billings then gives two majors factors underlying the need for this book:

  1. The functional or lived theologies of salvation in the West have deficiencies in the precise areas where a Reformational theology of union with Christ has strengths.
  2. While the ecclesial left tends to identify the gospel with a certain type of ethical action (horizontal) and the ecclesial right tends to emphasize the importance of being right with God (vertical), a theology of union with Christ takes the dualism and polarities that still remain from the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and unites them into a cohesive, holistic account of the gospel (adapted from pp. 8-10)

In other words, if you’ve personally seen a divide between those Christians calling for social justice being the preeminent concern of the Christian and those calling for personal holiness being the preeminent concern, Billings book is aiming to unite those aims.

Billings attempts this project from 5 different angles. Chapter 1 begins with a revitalized account of the doctrine of adoption. The implication of this for Billings is that it can serve as an antidote to the god of “moral therapeutic deism” (MTD). As Billings points out,

In adoption, God comes closer to us than MTD allows. In adoption, our central cultural ideal of being a self-made person is put on the cross. But in adoption, we also enter into the playful, joyous world of living as children of a gracious Father, as a persons united to Christ, and empowered by the Spirit (p. 25).

Adoption does much to revitalize both the vertical dimensions of our faith (by showing us our new identity as adopted by God) but it then opens up the opportunity to live a life as a child of God, which will then overflow into the horizontal dimensions.

In chapter 2, Billings turns to retrieving not just the doctrine of total depravity, but its counterpart of total communion in Christ. While Calvinists typically do well to express our total depravity, a closer look at the strong statements of that doctrine (in John’s Gospel, Paul’s letters) shows that they appear with a corollary: union with Christ, communion with God, the saving work of the Holy Spirit. Throughout this chapter then, Billings seeks to undo ways that depravity might be overstated, and add ways in which union with Christ has been understated in contrast to depravity.

In chapter 3, Billings digs into not just Calvin, but Bavinck as well and actually achieves something of a “retrieval within a retrieval.” In looking at the church’s teaching on God’s incomprehensibility, Billings notes that for Calvin, “this theology of divine incomprehensibility is intimately tied to his notion of union and communion with God,” and that he “makes both moves simultaneously by retrieving a category from patristic theology: accommodation” (p. 68)  In sum, for Calvin, God’s accommodation to man is what holds together divine incomprehensibility and our communion with God. Bavinck, more so than other Reformed theologians got this, and deepened the doctrine by drawing “upon the patristic writings more extensively and generously than Calvin” (p. 78). This makes this chapter perhaps the most theoretical, but it provides a solid center for the vertical dimensions of our union with Christ based on gracious accommodation on God’s part in order to make communion with man possible.

In chapter 4, Billings takes perhaps the most horizontally oriented vantage points and discusses the relationship of justice and the gospel. The lens that he looks through is the racial issues in South Africa and the remedy the doctrinal remedy that was attempted through the Belhar Confession. As Billings says toward the conclusion:

My reflections above offer a Reformed way to situate a theology and practice of justice. By tying justice to the Lord’s Supper, union with Christ, and the double grace, I offer a proposal in the spirit of the Belhar Confession, supplementing article 4 in its exhortation to the church to act with justice (p. 114).

Without shortchanging the “ecclesial left” impulse to social action, Billings provides what I think is a more holistic account of justice that is grounded in our union with Christ. Because “justice is incrediblty important to the message of the gospel itself,” we need to ensure that “it is the ‘justice’ that is defined in and through Jesus Christ that is normative for Christians” (p. 115). In this way, the pursuit of justice is not what the gospel is reduced to, nor is it an “optional add-on for Christians who want extra credit after properly performing ‘essential’ Christian duties.” (Ibid.) Rather,

as word and sacrament have the same “office” of holding forth Jesus Christ by the Spirit’s power, our pursuit of justice must go hand-in-hand with seeking the renewal of the church’s worship, Bible study, and witness. (Ibid.)

Lastly, turning to chapter 5, Billings closes with a constructive critique of incarnational ministry. Early on, he presents a summary thesis:

While certain apsects of “incarnational ministry” are commendable, this chapter critiques its basic assumption: that the incarnation is a model for ministry such that Christians should imitate the act of the eternal Word becoming incarnate. (p. 124)

His solution is that “today’s church should replace its talk of ‘incarnational ministry’ with the more biblically faithful and theologically dynamic language of ministry as participation in Christ.” (Ibid.) Billings then proceeds to examine this ministry model as it appears in youth ministry, the missional church, and cross-cultural missions before doing an in depth exegetical study of Philippians 2:1-11. The result is little foundation to build an incarnational ministry upon, and I think Billings thesis above is vindicated rather easily. I am probably going to interact with this chapter in more detail at a later time, especially since it has implications for the on-going series The Ethics of Contextualization.


In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed Billings book. Though I haven’t made the complete list, this is definitely on my top 10 (or 11) books that I’ve read this past year. If you’re looking for a book that will stretch your mind theologically while still remaining down to earth and interested in practical applications in life and ministry, I think your 2012 reading list should start here. I’ll have more to say on this later in the week, but overall, Billings achieves the rare accomplishment of being deeply theological and highly accessible for most readers. His study of Calvin is illuminating and does much to revive as well as retrieve the vital doctrine of union with Christ. As a companion volume to Letham’s book or as a stand alone read, I don’t think you can do wrong using Billing’s book to grow in your knowledge of God and our union with Christ.

J. Todd Billings, Union With Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, November, 2011. 180 pp. Paperback, $20.00.

Buy itAmazon | Westminster

Read an excerpt

Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

3 responses to Union With Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church

  1. excellent points, especially about what people take away, more or less.

    I would add that apples and oranges comparisons are a little bit to blame here for the contrast you’re making: were the theologically dense hymn verses expected to be memorized? Another goal would fit in better with them: their come-back-to ability! Even if we have to re-read them! Rock of Ages, for example, does that for me, in its “be of sin the double cure” line. And, when or if something like a theologically dense (hopefully, also correct!) hymn gets memorized, all the better! The whole church can vouchsafe for memorizing, say, Romans or as much of it as we can chip away at getting memorized, and the benefit of that!

    • Larry,

      Did you mean to comment this on the post about worship music instead? I think you make a good point, if you wanna copy/paste it over there I’ll remove this one.


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