One of the more helpful theological books I read this year is J. Todd Billings’ Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Baker Academic, 2011). After reading through it, I was happy to offer this word of recommendation:

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.”

Today, I’m honored to have Todd join us here at Kingdom People to talk about the importance of the doctrine and the reality of “union with Christ” and what it means for our salvation.

Trevin Wax: Todd, you say something bold at the beginning of your book – that the doctrine of “union with Christ” is theological shorthand for the gospel itself. Explain what you mean by this statement and why we need to see the importance of union with Christ in how we conceive of the gospel.

Todd Billings: Good question. Well, my bold statement comes from John Calvin, who claims that the “sum of the gospel” is the double grace of justification and sanctification, gifts which are inseparable yet distinct, received through the Spirit in union with Christ (Institutes 3:3:1). I think that Calvin brings us a profound insight here.

Union with Christ encompasses many, many different ways that the New Testament talks about Christian identity:

  • being “in Christ,”
  • abiding in Christ the Vine,
  • walking by the Spirit,
  • the forgiveness of sins in justification,
  • the gift of new life by the Spirit who works in and through believers in sanctification.

It’s a corporate image because the Spirit unites us not only to Christ but to Christ’s body, the church.

It’s also a covenantal image that brings together the Old Testament and the New, for to be in Christ is to be in God’s covenant of grace. We not only believe that Jesus Christ, in His life, death, and resurrection, is the culmination of God’s purposes in creation and covenant, we are united to Jesus Christ by the Spirit and thus participate in the One who is the true Prophet, Priest, and King.

It’s also eschatological as well as ethical, for we have already “died” to sin, yet we are called to “put to death” the old self (Rom. 6:6; 8:13). All of this happens through the Spirit (Rom. 8:9). I could say more, but even this short description indicates how this “sum” of the gospel is not a reduction of it — it’s an expansive vision of it compared with the many ways that Christians tend to domesticate the gospel today.

Trevin Wax: What are some of the ways we tend to reduce the gospel today?

Todd Billings: There are several common ways. On the one hand, sometimes we as Christians reduce the gospel to a conversion experience, or to “justification alone” — such that the entirety of the gospel comes to be about the forgiveness of sins. Sanctification becomes “our own work,” an optional extra for super-Christians.

On the other hand, sometimes we downplay or ignore the forensic imagery of justification, and we think that the gospel is just about our own transformation. On that side of the equation, the gospel can become reduced to our own lives, our own efforts to do good. It is no longer good news about God’s grace revealed to us in Christ.

But the gospel is more than either of those reductionistic options. The good news is nothing less than Jesus Christ, as the culmination of God’s purposes in creation and covenant, and our union with this same Christ by the Spirit. This means that we must say “both/and” to forensic (legal) and transformational images of salvation — because, in the words of Calvin, “free remission of sins cannot be separated from the Spirit of regeneration. This would be, as it were, to rend Christ asunder” (Institutes 3:16:1). The two gifts of the double-grace are distinct yet inseparable.

In the book, I explore many specific ways that this plays out, and I draw upon sociological work to illustrate exactly how some of these “reductions” of the gospel have taken place. Then I explore the quite remarkable way in which a theology of union with Christ addresses these reductions of the gospel. For example, in the first chapter I draw on the sociological work of Christian Smith to show how God is seen as conveniently distant by many Christians today. And in response I describe a biblical and Reformational theology of salvation as adoption by the Triune God in Christ as an antidote to that problematic view of the gospel.

Trevin Wax: How does a proper understanding of “union with Christ” aid us in sanctification? Or better put, how does the reality of union with Christ help us become more like Him?

Todd Billings: Our temptation is to think that we should imitate Christ from a distance, or ask, “What would Jesus do?” This can often lead to a practice of sanctification that is focused upon ourselves and our own efforts rather than upon loving God and neighbor and growing in conformity to Christ.

There are several dimensions of good news relating to union with Christ here. First, we are not just given a ticket to heaven and then told to try really hard to act like Christ. By the Spirit’s power, we are given justification and sanctification as gifts. Thus, even our new life in Christ is a gift, not an achievement.

Second, we don’t follow Christ at a distance, but by the Spirit’s power we are united to Christ in His death and resurrection – Christ isn’t just a distant model from history, Christ lives in us by the Spirit. At the same time, this union remains a differentiated one so that we don’t confuse the work of Christians with the work of Christ.

Third, in light of union with Christ, we can go beyond the sermon punchline of “try harder to do good,” the moralistic preaching that is so common today. Instead, in gospel proclamation our true identity is held before us – that we are adopted children of the Triune God, whose true identity is in Christ by the Spirit. The exhortation becomes: live into this new identity, which is your true identity. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ because you have been united to Him in His death and resurrection.

Finally, undergirding all of this, it’s important to recognize that affirming the effectual work of the Spirit in sanctification is not to say that we can be lazy in sanctification or that our identity is annihilated in sanctification. Rather, it is to affirm that the Spirit is the One who brings life to those who are dead in sin, thus activating believers to love God and to service in the world. When the Spirit effectually acts in sanctification, we (in our created goodness) are being restored, not annihilated. This short video about the book explores a bit more how union with Christ illuminates misunderstandings about “total depravity.”

Trevin Wax: How does “union with Christ” challenge the prevailing ways we go about doing theology and ministry?

Todd Billings: My book is full of surprises for many people. It explores the surprising, astonishing ways in which a theology of union with Christ can illuminate our understanding of the gospel, correct misunderstandings, and change the conversation about many areas of theology and ministry. It does this through showing how a biblical theology of union with Christ, together with insights retrieved from the Reformation, can open up new avenues, new ways of approaching biblical and theological issues that shake up our contemporary categories.

For example, as this short video about the book explores, union with Christ can move us beyond an “either/or” that polarizes divine transcendence and mystery from the Christian’s union and communion with God.

The book also explores the insights provided by a theology of union with Christ as a way to move beyond shortcomings in our contemporary talk about ministry, as this short video about the book’s critique of “incarnational ministry” shows.

Trevin Wax: Thanks for writing such a helpful book, Todd. And thanks for stopping by to talk about it here!