The Reception of Union with Christ

The Reception of Union with Christ

by J. Todd Billings

Union with Christ was a delight to write—imagine taking one of your favorite topics, which you’ve researched for about a decade, and telling readers why it matters after it has changed the lives of many students, pastors, and others. And where else would I get to talk about John Calvin, Franciscus Junius, Christian Smith, and Sallie McFague all in the same chapter? More importantly, where else can one move seamlessly from central features of the biblical narrative, to key components of the gospel, to our approach to contextualization or cross-cultural ministry? A rich theme such as union with Christ provided a perfect avenue for that.

In many ways, union with Christ by the Spirit is a culminating theme in the biblical narrative. It gives a trinitarian, Christ-centered way to pull together Christian salvation, the Christian life, and Christian identity. But unfortunately, it is overlooked and missed by many in the contemporary Western church—evangelicals and “progressives,” denominational and nondenominational churches alike. Drawing on key biblical texts and giving a “theology of retrieval” from the Reformation, Union with Christ shows how this vision of Christian identity can counter the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism of our age (via Christian Smith) and overcome many of the predictable polarities of modernity (e.g., transcendence versus immanence).

I’m grateful that Union with Christ has received an enthusiastic response. A lot of pastors, professors, and other students of theology have caught on to the excitement expressed in the book! Here are a few particularly striking reactions:

“A great book for the classroom.”

Professors at seminaries and Christian colleges have told me that the book works just right for the classroom. Union with Christ gets to substantial theological issues in an accessible and direct way, and it relates these issues to life and ministry. All these aspects help the students engage the book and make it a useful pedagogical tool. It’s used in both systematic theology classes and classes in the Ministry Department when the professor wants to bring a strong theological lens to ministry issues.

“I preached a sermon series on union with Christ after reading the book.”

My writer’s heart has been warmed by the response among pastors and other church leaders. Unfortunately, much of what is marketed to pastors is theologically thin. But I’m convinced that if a theologically substantial book is written accessibly, with real applications to ministry, many pastors will take the dive and think with much more depth than the resources marketed to them often assume. I have received numerous notes about how Union with Christ has touched church leaders very deeply, moving and deepening their vision of the gospel and their vision for ministry.

“Reformed, but not just for the Reformed.”

As the book gives biblical exegesis and contemporary cultural analysis, it engages in “retrieval” from the Reformation and the Reformed tradition in particular. But it is a broad Reformed tradition—one that emphasizes the catholic dimensions of the faith, particularly its trinitarian and christological dynamics. Interestingly, the book is being used at schools in a variety of traditions—some broadly interdenominational, some specifically Reformed. Some of the professors belong to an Arminian tradition but still think it’s a very valuable book and useful for the classroom. As some of the blog reviews indicate, the book has found enthusiastic readers in Reformed circles (e.g., Raymond Blacketer in Calvin Theological Journal), interdenominational evangelical environments (e.g., Rob Price at Talbot), as well as in mainline contexts (e.g., Andy Nagel’s in The Presbyterian Outlook). A few days ago, it was awarded the “Best Book in Applied Theology” for the year by Byron Bolger at Hearts & Minds Bookstore. The ecclesial and institutional range of readers who enjoy Union with Christ should not be surprising for a book with endorsements from scholars from Princeton Seminary, Vanderbilt University, Westminster Seminary California, and Fuller Theological Seminary. Now, that’s a bit of variety for you!
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J. Todd Billings (ThD, Harvard University Divinity School) is associate 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 numerous articles and two award-winning books, including Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ, which received a 2009 John Templeton Award for Theological Promise.