Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Review: Union with Christ, by J. Todd Billings

In Union with Christ, J. Todd Billings has written an accessible, articulate and challenging book dealing with various doctrinal and practical implications of the Christian's adoption by God through the saving work of Christ and by the agency of the Spirit. While not an exhaustive exploration of the doctrine of union with Christ, this study does explore various aspects and implications of it. This is a work of theological retrieval, drawing on sometimes forgotten themes from past sources, especially Calvin , to bring something long neglected back to the foreground for the edification and strengthening of the church today.

In chapter 1, Billings examines the implications of the doctrine of union with Christ as a much needed corrective for large swaths of the modern church's (especially in North America) practice of the faith as a form of Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD) and he shows how a robust understanding of union places us in a relationship with God where we are being graciously conformed to the image of his Son rather than us morphing a detached God into an idol made in our own image and for our own convenience. In chapter 2 Billings discusses Calvin's doctrine of union and how, rightly understood, it counter balances the tendency to misunderstand the doctrine of total depravity in a number of ways by either proponents or opponents of the doctrine (which can have the effect of eroding a right doctrine of the Imageo Dei). Chapter 3 shows how the Christian's union with Christ is central to and essential for our communion with an otherwise unknowable and incomprehensible God. In Chapter 4 Billings explores how a partial recovery of the doctrine of union with Christ formed the basis for some of the steps taken in the church of South Africa helping to kick start the end of Apartheid and how systematic segregation first came about through a racial division at the Lord's Table stemming from a neglect (and therefore a functional denial) of the doctrine of union. Billings rightly sees this as a functional denial of the doctrine of the unity of the body through union with Christ at the very place which ought to be the most clear demonstration of believer's union with Christ and its implications for the unity of the church body. He goes on to show how the liberal church's focus on social justice is devoid of its power without a robust belief in union with Christ and conversely he calls the orthodox and conservative to recover this neglected aspect of its own theology in order to restore justice to both thought and way of life. Finally, chapter 5 explores the recent trend to view the incarnation as the model for missional ministry. Billings demonstrates that, while many of the proponents of incarnational ministry are working toward some truly admirable goals and reforming some erroneous practices, when they hold up the incarnation as a pattern, they are doing something that Scripture itself never does. Rather, as the author convincingly shows, it is our union with the crucified and risen and indwelling Christ (by his Spirit) that is the basis and model, as well as the power, for our gospel mission and at the heart of what it means to imitate Christ.  (For a more accessible treatment of union with Christ as a basis for missional ministry, see Tim Chester's book, Ordinary Hero.  It is an excellent resource for a study group, although the reflection questions sometimes seem weak.)

Again, there are depths that this book does not plumb, and it was not the purpose of this study to go all the way down into the doctrine of union with Christ. Those looking for a deep exegetical exploration or a systematic treatment won't find it here, although both aspects are present and certainly stand behind this work. This study is just right to reintroduce the church to this oft neglected doctrine and to give us a tantalizing taste for the rich fruit that awaits the church that recovers a right theology and reintegrates a right practice of the implications of the union of the church (and the individual Christian) to Christ. I recommend this to pastors, students, well-read laypeople and armchair theologians everywhere. 

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