Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church by J. Todd BillingsI’m not the only one who’s been reading Billings. Uche Anizor has been at it, too, and he’ll soon be posting comments here on specific chapters of Billings’s book. Meanwhile, I’ll add a few of my own on Billings’s foundational first chapter on union with Christ as the ground of our adoption.

In his classic Knowing God, J.I. Packer sums up the gospel memorably as “adoption through propitiation.” And adoption is precisely what our union with Christ brings about. When we are united with Christ, we come to stand in Christ’s place of sonship. Indwelt by “the Spirit of adoption” (Rom 8:15), we call upon our heavenly Father. That is, we address the Father as only his children may. We begin to know the Father as only the perfect human Son can.

Billings’s chapter on adoption (chapter 1) sets the theological stage for the more practical chapters that follow. But even here, Billings challenges the comfortable assumptions many evangelicals have absorbed from culture. For example, “MTD” (as it’s called). If that sounds to you like a religious disease, it is: “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” It’s the default idolatry of America, and it’s all about being good (moralistic) and fixing our lives (therapeutic) so that a benevolently hands-off God (deism) will let us into heaven when we die.

The gospel of adoption, by contrast, is about a radical change of identity. Drawing on a brilliant little thought-experiment of Kierkegaard, Billings explains that this adoption is something like an emperor, suddenly and without any warning, adopting a day-laborer. Not only is the day-laborer’s legal status changed, but he also has to take on his new identity. He didn’t earn his adoption by working really hard. (It’s not moralistic.) And he certainly can’t continue working out in the cornfields. (It’s not a matter of fixing his life as it once was.) This is what Calvin called the “double grace” of our union with Christ: both change of status (justification) and personal transformation (sanctification). And it comes to us through the uncomfortably intimate embrace of a holy and loving God.