Theology and Ministry in Light of Union with Christ

In this episode, we welcome Dr. J. Todd Billings to speak about the doctrine of union with Christ and its implications for all of theology and ministry. Dr. Billings has written a new book on the subject, titled Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church, published by Baker.

Dr. J. Todd Billings is Associate Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. An ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America, he received his M.Div. from Fuller Seminary and his Th.D. from Harvard. His first book, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union With Christ (Oxford, 2007) won a 2009 Templeton Award for Theological Promise, awarded internationally for the best first books of scholars in theology and religious studies. He is also author of The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eerdmans, 2010), and Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Baker Academic, 2011), winner of an “Award of Merit in Theology and Ethics” in the Christianity Today Book Awards, 2012. Dr. Billings has published articles in a variety of journals, including Modern Theology, Harvard Theological Review, Missiology, and International Journal of Systematic Theology, as well as periodicals such as Christianity Today, The Christian Century, and Sojourners. He has lectured at seminaries and universities around the world, and has been awarded grants from the Association of Theological Schools and the Wabash Center for his research.


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Christ the Center focuses on Reformed Christian theology. In each episode a group of informed panelists discusses important issues in order to encourage critical thinking and a better understanding of Reformed doctrine with a view toward godly living. Browse more episodes from this program and learn how to subscribe.

13 Responses

  1. I would be interested in y’alls response to this but not having read the book (and I do plan on it) this sounds very Barthian/neo-Orthodox and fairly identical to the way my Professors at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (especially Andrew Purves who did most of his work under Tom Torrance) talked about Union with Christ. Which I take to be different from the way confessional Orthodox folks talk about Union with Christ.

  2. Robert A Lorzer

    Thank you so much for having Todd on. I think Todd’s book you were discussing is one of the best books I read last year. Very helpful discussion. I look forward to reading future works by your guest.

  3. James

    What you said about adoption is exactly what the Council of Trent declared and what the Catholic Church has continually taught. “Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is the favor,, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life” (CCC 1996).

    Also in total depravity there is much similarity: “This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature” (CCC 1998).

    Also many parallels in what you said about the Eucharist. I also liked what you had to say about the ‘Jesus and me spirituality.’

    If you want to do more research about union with Christ, study Thomistic moral theology!

    1. James

      Thinking more about what was said about adoption, I don’t wish to say that “what you said about adoption is exactly…” Rather, I just want to affirm that there are many significant similarities. Adoption and union with Christ is essential to understanding Catholic’s teaching on justification and sanctification. Taking the Thomistic tradition as an example, grace is a participation in the life of God. Grace imprints in the powers of the human person a participation in the perfection of God’s own self-knowledge and love, intensifying the Imago Dei in man. With St. Paul we can say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” Because grace is like an accidental form which inheres me, I can be a true principle of a super-natural act of love. I truly act with a supernatural perfection, by grace alone, meriting God to grant me. In your talk, you made a sharp divide between a forensic justification and a subsequent sanctification, which appears to me as superfluous. But, I’m not commenting here to cause divisions, just to demonstrate that I do appreciate the differences between our theologies, and maybe stimulate discussion.

      1. James,

        I don’t think we ever said that our justification comes from our adoption. In fact, we would deny that outright. Our adoption and our justification come from our union with Christ. Jesus is our righteousness. We are “counted, reckoned” righteous in Him as we have His righteous record imputed to us legally. This is what makes us very NOT Romans Catholic. We would unequivocally deny that our adoption or our sanctification affect our justification contra Rome. Furthermore, I personally believe that the Scriptures teach that justification has a logical priority to adoption in the ordo salutis. We are taken from the Law court (in justification) to the living room (in adoption). That being said, what I was seeking to emphasize is that the whole of the Christian life can be most fully enjoyed (all of the other saving blessings being associated with it) in our adoption through union with Christ. This is not the same as saying what Rome has said in the statements above. We deny a condign, as well as a congruous merit for justification contra Rome. We believe that Jesus merited all the righteousness we need for a right standing before God.

  4. Mark G

    Reformed Forum TV program 168 is on universalism, deification, divination & theosis for those interested in additional related discussion. Thomas Torrance, a student of Barth, wrote a book on theosis. Protestants have generally steered clear of it. There are some emerging guys who are into it. Some strands of it deny forenzic justification, or the creator/creature distinction, etc. Don Fairbairn has a book called “Living in the Trinity” and you can also look him up on Gospel Coalition. There are also some Roman Catholic writers along these lines.

    Although I think these guys have valid concerns it seems to me that they may be addressed within traditional reformed categories of union, sanctification, adoption and teachings such as the church as the bride of Christ, adoption, sonship, the body of Christ, etc. However, it may have value so long as one does go universalist, pantheistic (maintains creator/creature distinction), retains forensic justification, etc. Gaffin, Tipton and others seem to dealing along the same lines in their teaching on union & resurrection.

  5. To me it seems that writing a book on adoption assumes that the confessions that cover adoption are in some way lacking. For example; what is covered in the book that is not addressed in the chapter on Adoption in the Westminster Confession of Faith?

      1. Does that imply then that the WCF and the other reformed confessions are deficient in content for those said subjects? I have heard it said that the confessions expound the Scriptures and these books expound the confessions?

    1. justin andrusk,

      Hi again 🙂

      It seems to me that you are missing the point of the confessions, they are simply meant to summarize what we believe about the Christian Faith. They aren’t meant to be an exhaustive explanation of all the doctrines that they speak of. In any case, The logical implications of what you are saying would be against the use of Systematic theologies, historical theological works , biblical theological works, etc., these are the works that expound the nuances of the doctrines, presupposing Reformed Christian Theism as summarized by the confessions. Hopefully that isn’t what you mean to be doing.


      1. Hi Camden,

        No that’s not what I meant. I understand the confessions as you described them and was just looking for a qualification, which you provided. I would expect that there should be some consistent synergy between a subject covered by the confession and a work addressing that same subject. For example if the book is contradicting a position on Adoption defined by the confession that would be a problem.

        Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.

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