Relating Our Union with Christ to Our Church Practices
While there have been several recent books published on our union with Christ (which is refreshing!), Billings is focused on connecting the doctrine of union with Christ to our church practices. Though Billings is more practically minded, he is seeking a type of “retrieval theology.” Billings interacts primarily with Calvin, and to a lesser extent Bavinck, and then brings their theological reflection to the present context.
As Billings explains, “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 sacraments” (p. 7).
Billings then gives two majors factors underlying the need for this book:
- 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.
- 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 to be the preeminent concern of the Christian and those calling for personal holiness to be the preeminent concern, Billings’ book is attempting to unite those aims.
A Many Splendored Approach
Billings approaches 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 begins 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, 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 is 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 incredibly 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” (p. 114).
Lastly, turning to chapter 5, Billings closes with a constructive critique of incarnational ministry. Early on, he presents a summary thesis:
“While certain aspects 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” (p. 124). 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 very little foundation to build an incarnational ministry upon, and I think Billings thesis above is vindicated rather easily.
A Rare Accomplishment
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.