Union with Christ

Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church

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Christianity Today 2012 Book Award Winner
Named a 2011 Book of the Year, Christianbook.com's Academic Blog

"An important book on an important topic. Billings brings his expertise regarding Calvin to bear not only on misconceptions about the great Reformer but also on contemporary misconceptions of Christ and Christian ministry. He offers an accessible and rewarding study, demonstrating that the centrality of union with Christ can solve many theological problems in a way that has direct practical significance for today."--George Hunsinger, Princeton Theological Seminary
 
 
Accomplished theologian J. Todd Billings recovers the biblical theme of union with Christ for today's church, making a fresh contribution to the theological discussion with important applications for theology and ministry. Drawing on Scripture and the thought of figures such as Augustine, Calvin, Bavinck, and Barth, Billings shows how a theology of union with Christ can change the way believers approach worship, justice, mission, and the Christian life. He illuminates how union with Christ can change the theological conversation about thorny topics such as total depravity and the mystery of God. Billings also provides a critique and alternative to the widely accepted paradigm of incarnational ministry and explores a gospel-centered approach to social justice. Throughout, he offers a unique and lively exploration of what is so amazing about being united to the living Christ. 
 
Contents
Introduction
1. Salvation as Adoption in Christ: An Antidote to Today's Distant yet Convenient Deity
2. Total Depravity in Sin, Total Communion in Christ: How the Bondage of the Will Mirrors a Theology of Salvation as Communion
3. Encountering a Mystery in Union with Christ: On Communion with the Incomprehensible God
4. The Gospel and Justice: Union with Christ, the Law of Love, and the Lord's Supper
5. Ministry in Union with Christ: A Constructive Critique of Incarnational Ministry
Conclusion






Endorsements

"What does the doctrine of adoption have to say to a 'moralistic, therapeutic, deistic' teenager? How does the Reformed understanding of sin actually underscore human freedom? Are we getting too loose in our talk about 'incarnational ministry'? Can we talk about a relationship with Christ without descending into sentimentalism? How does Christ's work for us connect with his work in us by his Word and Spirit? Only after reading this book will you see just how related are all of these themes. And the integrating framework is union with Christ. In this fresh, winsome, learned yet down-to-earth exploration, Billings displays the research of a scholar and the heart of a pastor. This is one of the best books available on the heart of the gospel and its relevance for our lives."--Michael Horton, professor of theology, Westminster Seminary California

"Drawing upon the likes of Augustine, Calvin, Bavinck, and others, Todd Billings ably demonstrates why the biblical truth of union and communion with God has had such historical and theological significance. Thankfully, he doesn't leave us out of the story. Along the way he highlights why union with Christ continues to matter for our understanding of the Christian life, making insightful connections between adoption and participation, incomprehensibility and accommodation, justice and Eucharist, grace and action. Let Billings take you into a deeper appreciation of what it means to be united to Christ--you won't regret it."--Kelly M. Kapic, professor of theological studies, Covenant College

"In Union with Christ, Todd Billings expounds upon an important New Testament doctrine by exploring its contemporary ramifications in light of careful historical and exegetical reflection. This is a thought-provoking book that will ignite fresh conversations about the nature of our participation in Christ."--Trevin Wax, coauthor of Counterfeit Gospels and Holy Subversion

"J. Todd Billings has a wonderful grasp of theological reflection, old and new, brought into conversation with contemporary issues. The theological discussion in a tight space is masterful as he moves from biblical reflection to engagement with classical texts to criticism of his theological contemporaries. Especially notable is how Billings is constantly in conversation with culture, both ecclesial and secular. He brings union with Christ to bear positively in his discussion of the Belhar Confession from South Africa and critically with respect to 'moralistic therapeutic deism' and the notion of 'incarnational ministries.' Billings has written a breathtaking book that theologians and pastors will find provocative and instructive."--Andrew Purves, professor of Reformed theology, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

"Billings has been at the forefront of academic debates over the concept of union with Christ. With this book he shows all of us why union with Christ matters for our Christian lives and ministries and worship. Drawing on contexts as diverse as sixteenth-century Europe and contemporary Africa, Billings explores a theme that takes us to the heart of the gospel in a way that enriches and corrects our faith, our understanding, and our practices."--Suzanne McDonald, assistant professor of theology, Calvin College

"This meditation on union with Christ is a beautiful example of how careful study of the Bible, history, and theology work together to support faithful and vital ministry and life. Featuring both brief and lucid explanations of key concepts and provocative descriptions of the countercultural implications of this scriptural theme, this volume will be useful to beginning students of theology and ministry as well as to seasoned veterans."--John D. Witvliet, director, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship; professor of worship and congregational studies, Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary

"If Reformed theology is going to make the comeback that many of us have been praying for, this marvelous book offers the kind of careful thinking that will make it happen. Todd Billings illuminates concepts such as adoption, divine incomprehensibility, and incarnation in a way that has profound implications for ministry in the twenty-first century."--Richard J. Mouw, president and professor of Christian philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary

"J. Todd Billings observes that discovering the biblical theme of union with Christ has transformed the lives of many Christians. As one who has experienced this transformation, I hope that every Christian will read this book and through it more fully embrace their identity as children of God in Christ through the Spirit. As Billings thoughtfully articulates, living into our God-given identities in Christ enables us to more richly experience salvation, the church, and the sacraments and to more graciously live out our calls to love and justice. With a keen sense of contemporary Christianity, a deep love of Scripture, and an exceptional theological mind, Billings has written a book that retrieves the past, engages the present, and helps us to more faithfully face the future in light of the reality of our communion with Christ."--Kristen Deede Johnson, associate professor of theology and Christian formation, Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan

"This is an important book on an important topic. Billings brings his expertise regarding Calvin to bear not only on misconceptions about the great Reformer but also on contemporary misconceptions of Christ and Christian ministry. Drawing on rich personal experiences, he offers an accessible and rewarding study, demonstrating that the centrality of union with Christ can solve many theological problems in a way that has direct practical significance for today."--George Hunsinger, McCord Professor of Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary

"The beautiful, mystical, and biblical idea of Christ's union with the body of Christ--considered both ecclesially and individually--had nearly evaporated from the religious consciousness of evangelical and Reformed Christians for a while. That is no longer the case with Billings's new book. The doctrines of adoption and incarnation receive a fresh treatment in this book to open up the wide vista of application for the Christian life. Billings has done a wonderful job of weaving together a robust presentation of the heart of the gospel and the corresponding ecclesial praxis."--Paul C. H. Lim, associate professor of the history of Christianity, Vanderbilt University


The Author

  1. J. Todd Billings

    J. Todd Billings

    J. Todd Billings (ThD, Harvard University Divinity School) is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of several...

    Continue reading about J. Todd Billings

Reviews

Christianity Today 2012 Book Award Winner
Named a 2011 Book of the Year, Christianbook.com's Academic Blog

"Billings examines the doctrine of 'union with Christ' in light of careful historical and exegetical reflection. . . . Union with Christ will start fresh conversations about this important New Testament doctrine."--Trevin Wax, Christianity Today

"Preachers and teachers, don't miss what Billings claims: If union with Christ is missing from your definition of the gospel and its proclamation, you miss the heart of the Christian message. . . . Billings combines what you would hope for in a theological work--biblical passages that provide the foundation for his points, supplemental quotes and analogies that provide clarification, all expressed in a personable style that is easy to follow. . . . This book should be reckoned with, especially by those who have had limited exposure to the importance of the doctrine of union with Christ for the gospel. . . . Billings has ably carved himself a well-earned place in the ongoing discussions."--Jared Oliphint, The Gospel Coalition

"Todd Billings is one of evangelicalism's brightest up-and-coming pastor-scholars. . . . [This book is] the distillation of nearly a decade's sustained reflection on a theme that is central to the gospel: the believer's union with Christ. . . . Pick up a copy and spend a little time meditating with Billings on the gospel of our union with Christ. It's hard to beat a book that's exegetically, historically, and theologically rich, clearly written, pastorally sensitive, culturally engaged, generous in tone, practical--and short!"--Rob Price, The Good Book Blog

"A desperately needed reconstruction of the Gospel, Billings's work deserves wide readership, thorough discussion, and extensive reflection."--Matthew Miller, Christianbook.com's Academic Blog

"The author builds a strong case that, in union with Christ, grace restores and transforms nature. It will become quickly obvious that Billings has intentionally laid the groundwork in Union with Christ for reaching across the fences within the Christian community. I not only strongly recommend the book for Reformed readers, but also think that perceptive Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican readers will find it worth their time."--Michael Philliber, Touchstone

"The doctrinal theme of 'union with Christ' has enjoyed something of a revival of interest in recent times, but this important work by J. Todd Billings stands out as an especially helpful contribution. . . . This book is an enormous gift to the church today. In it, Billings does retrieval theology of the best kind: rooted in Scripture, respectfully attentive to the tradition, pointedly engaged with pressing ecclesial and social concerns. . . . This little book deserves a wide and careful reading. It is well-written, and truly it is packed with wisdom. I could hardly be more enthusiastic in recommending it to theologians, students, and pastors alike."--Thomas H. McCall, Trinity Journal

"A great place to begin the recovery [of the Reformed doctrine of Union with Christ is with J. Todd Billing's new book on just this subject. . . . This is a grand book for three reasons. First, it recovers a neglected theme in contemporary Reformed Theology. Second, in so doing, it challenges accepted caricatures thereof. And third, it shows how Reformed Theology, or traditional theology more generally, far from being ready for mothballs, continues to speak to contemporary challenges for ministry. . . . As one who tilts to the Reformed end of the theological spectrum, and does so with a very high view of the sacraments, I can only hope and pray that this book gets a wide reading from across all theological divides. It has much to offer."--Tim Perry, Texas Flood blog

"Have you ever sat in your study wondering what the theology you once learned has to do with 'real' church ministry? J. Todd Billings's recent book Union with Christ is one to put on your to-read list. In this readable yet substantive little book (just 174 pages), Billings explains the practical outcomes of an apparently mystical doctrine and models a robustly theological approach to the whole work of ministry. Union with Christ, it turns out, is not a dusty Reformation concern but has vital implications for everything from epistemology to youth ministry. Framing his work as a theology of retrieval, Billings leads the reader into charitable conversation with the past, but always seeking a fresh and faithful application to the modern world. Billings proceeds in a way that cherishes mystery and nuance but not confusion. His posture toward the past and the present is welcome in our impatient age."--Andy Nagel, Presbyterian Outlook

"This exceptionally well-written book shows the value of a theology of retrieval for the framing of ministry today. . . . Retrieving Calvin's theology of union with Christ as the central claim of the Gospel, the author provides a lens through which all ministry of the contemporary church is examined, as well as key doctrines. Any theologian who can demonstrate convincingly why the Reformed doctrine of total depravity is good news for contemporary culture deserves a wide reading by church leaders. Seriously. This is theological retrieval of the best kind that offers a coherent theological vision for ministry in union with Christ that bears visible witness in the world. . . . It is a remarkable gift to the church that holds the possibility of profound reorientation and revolution in the practice of ministry."--Roy W. Howard, Presbyterian Outlook

"Billings offers some unique contributions that make his book worthy of study. His treatment of adoption as a key element of union is stimulating. . . . Billings's emphasis upon praxis is also a welcome contribution. . . . As important as these subjects are, and they are vital, ruminating upon union as the basis of the believer's communion with the triune Lord through the means of grace is a much appreciated and needed reminder of the fount of the Christian life. Billings also offers a potent alternative to the 'religious left wing's' call to social action and the 'religious right's' view that justice for the poor and marginalized of society is merely an optional add-on for the Christian life. . . . For anyone interested in the doctrine of union with Christ, [this book] should be read as [it] investigate[s] different features of union and do[es] so in an engaging and thought-provoking way. [This book] will undoubtedly stir healthy discussions and whet appetites for further investigation into this wonderful doctrine."--J. V. Fesko, Ordained Servant Online

"[Billings] makes the audacious claim that in order to counter the idols of modernity, including those venerated in church ministry and theology, we must go back to the thinkers of the past, even to those allegedly dry, dusty Scholastics of the seventeenth century who, it used to be routinely claimed, distorted Calvin's pristine revelation of perfectly pure Christian thought. This thesis will be scandalous, mostly to those who need to hear it most. For others, disappointed with much of what modern theology has to offer, it is an overdue and refreshing corrective. . . . [Billings's] argument is powerful and, for this reviewer, persuasive and refreshing. Throughout the book, Billings deals with complicated theological issues in a way that makes them accessible, without making them simplistic--the mark of an effective teacher. . . . [Billings's study] is proof that the method of theological retrieval can produce creative and timely results. It is also proof that modern theological reflection may be able to move beyond the doctrinal dead end of so much twentieth-century thought that tended to either ignore the tradition of Christian theology or warp it to its own purpose. Billings shows great promise for continuing to contribute to a renewal of theological reflection, in dialogue with the past, to address the challenges of ministry today."--Raymond A. Blacketer, Calvin Theological Journal

"It is one of the best books of its sort and draws us deeply into the very heart of the gospel. . . . I am glad, given the lovely recent interest in contemplative spirituality, that [we have] this sort of solid resource for the theological and Biblical underpinnings of our communion with God and the implications for our daily living."--Byron Borger, Hearts & Minds Books blog

"The book's chief strength is its ability to articulate clearly the relevance of classic Reformed theological sources for contemporary theological and pastoral challenges. It will be helpful to theologians and pastors alike."--Philip W. Butin, Interpretation

"I thoroughly enjoyed Billings' book. 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, Union with Christ belongs on your reading list. 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. His critique of incarnational ministry is a valuable resource for counselors as Billings points to a better alternative. That is, rather than incarnating Christ in our counseling, we ought to invite counselees into participation with Christ. Counseling itself involves a kind of retrieval--bringing back to remembrance something that has been forgotten in daily practice. The picture that Billings paints of our union with Christ and our adoption as sons and daughters is a portrait we would do well to remind ourselves and those we minister to daily."--Nate Claiborne, Biblical Counseling Coalition

"In contrast to his former historical-theological work and other contemporary books written on union from a polemic, philosophical, or doctrinal perspective, Billings' book contributes not only to academia, but also to the church through his resolution of problems posed by contemporary Western Christianity through the application of union with Christ to these dilemmas. . . . Throughout the book, Billings demonstrates his expertise in the topic of union with Christ and historical theology. . . . While Billings does an excellent job of describing contemporary theological and cultural problems as well as expositing the various historical concepts related to union with Christ, the main value of his work does not seem to be his use of union to resolve contemporary issues. Rather, his work seems more important for its demonstration of how certain well-known theological and ministry ideas in Scripture are related to union with Christ."--Ronald M. Rothenberg, Southwestern Journal of Theology


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J. Todd Billings "Union with Christ" 1: Why Union with Christ? J. Todd Billings "Union with Christ" 2: Changing the Theological Conversation J. Todd Billings "Union with Christ" 3: Union with Christ and Total Depravity J. Todd Billings "Union with Christ" 4: "Union with Christ" vs. Incarnational Ministry?