Monday, April 30, 2007

TF Torrance on Evangelism and How to Preach the Gospel

Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1992), 93-95.

When I first read the (rather lengthy) passage that I have included below, I knew that I would be spending a considerable amount of time studying the theology of the man who could so powerfully deconstruct and provide an alternative for how I grew up hearing the ‘gospel’ being preached. Without in any way diminishing the importance of our personal relationship with God in Christ, Torrance shows us how this has been abstracted from its proper dogmatic location. Our relationship with Christ is not the most important thing; the most important thing is Christ’s relationship with us.

I first read this material during my first year of seminary. Now, in my third and final year, with the experience of a full calendar year of church ministry behind me, this passage speaks more loudly than ever. The ramifications of this passage for pastoral care are immense, and it can provide the basis for truly powerful preaching. But, it does this only insofar as it masterfully places Christ before our eyes once again as the truly decisive thing in the relation between God and humankind.

(N.B. Our fellow-blogger Michael Pailthorpe over at Intellectus Fidei posted part of this quote with some of his own comments back in January. The Pontificator and others got involved in the comments, so be sure to check it out.)
"There is, then, an evangelical way to preach the Gospel and an unevangelical way to preach it. The Gospel is preached in an unevangelical way, as happens so often in modern evangelism, when the preach announces: This is what Jesus Christ has done for you, but you will not be saved unless you make your own personal decision for Christ as your Savior. Or: Jesus Christ loved you and gave his life for you on the Cross, but you will be saved only if you give your heart to him. In that event, what is actually coming across to people is not a Gospel of unconditional grace but some other Gospel of conditional grace which belies the essential nature and content of the Gospel as it is in Jesus. It was that subtle legalist twist to the Gospel which worried St Paul so much in his Epistle to the Galatians…To preach the Gospel in that conditional or legalist way has the effect of telling poor sinners that in the last resort the responsibility for their salvation is taken off the shoulders of the Lamb of God and placed upon them – but in that case they feel that they will never be saved. They know perfectly well in their own hearts that if the chain that binds them to God in Jesus Christ has as even one of its links their own feeble act of decision, then the whole chain is as week as that, its weakest link. They are aware that the very self who is being called upon to make such a momentous decision requires to be saved, so that the preaching of the Gospel would not really be good news unless it announced that in his unconditional love and grace Jesus Christ had put that human self, that ego of theirs, on an entirely different basis by being replaced at that crucial point by Jesus Christ himself.

How, then, is the Gospel to be preached in a genuinely evangelical way? Surely in such a way that full and central place is given to the vicarious humanity of Jesus as the all-sufficient human response to the saving love of God which he has freely and unconditionally provided for us. We preach and teach the Gospel evangelically, then, in such a way as this: God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very Being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour. From beginning to end what Jesus Christ has done for you he has done not only as God but as man. He has acted in your place in the whole range of your human life and activity, including your personal decisions, and your responses to God’s love, and even your acts of faith. He has believed for you, fulfilled your human response to God, even made your personal decision for you, so that he acknowledges you before God as one who has already responded to God in him, who has already believed in God through him, and whose personal decision is already implicated in Christ’s self-offering to the Father, in all of which he has been fully and completely accepted by the Father, so that in Jesus Christ you are already accepted by him. Therefore, renounce yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus as your Lord and Saviour.

To preach the Gospel of the unconditional grace of God in that unconditional way is to set before people the astonishingly good news of what God has freely provided for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus. To repent and believe in Jesus Christ and commit myself to him on that basis means that I do not need to look over my shoulder all the time to see whether I have really given myself personally to him, whether I really believe and trust him, whether my faith is at all adequate, for in faith it is not upon my faith, my believing or my personal commitment that I rely, but solely upon what Jesus Christ has done for me, in my place and on my behalf, and what he is and always will be as he stands in for me before the face of the Father. That means that I am completely liberated from all ulterior motives in believing or following Jesus Christ, for on the ground of his vicarious human response for me, I am free for spontaneous joyful response and worship and service as I could not otherwise be."

7 comments:

Michael J. Pailthorpe said...

I haven't read this section from Torrance since January, even though it sits on my office desk. It was good to read this part again to help change faulty thinking or language that may have crept into my mind again. A question: could it be said that Christ has redeemed our belief, however, not our unbelief in the sense of "refusal"?

WTM said...

Michael,

I don't know if "redeemed" is the right term for thinking about how Christ relates to our belief and unbelief, because this implies that we are capable of a certain though imperfect form of belief that simply needs to be supplemented. Even our best effort at belief is unbelief.

It seems to me that Torrance has recast "belief" as something like "recognition" and "acceptance". In the decisive moment, Christ has done it all on our behalf aside from our activity, even 'reception' conceive actively. Our activity comes back in with the "What will I do with this Jesus?" question.

Halden said...

Torrance's concept of Christ's vicarious humanity is truly revolutionary. Great stuff.

- kp - said...

Barth's Protestant disdain for the possibility of human fidelity is truly radical. Here it is instantiated by Torrance, and I like the notion to some degree--if anything it gets Paul right--but I have a question. If, as you say, "Even our best effort at belief is unbelief," what are we doing on Sunday when, upon being asked the question, "What do you believe?" we respond, "I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, etc., etc."? Are we telling the truth or a lie? Do we actually believe what we confess or do we not? If we do not, in fact, believe, then why do we bother going to church not to believe? On the other hand, if we do, in fact, believe, then your proposition obviously needs revision.

Please don't say "both." If you do, I will consider that a dismissal of my question in the first place.

- kp - said...

I DIG it, bro. And that response was WAY too fast. ;)

WTM said...

KP,

That's a great question with a really simple (but not simplisitic!) answer, and it doesn't require that I say 'both' and therefore dismiss your question.

What do we do when we confess belief? We are praying!

"I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9.24)

WTM said...

Oops! I deleted my first reply so I could add the Scripture reference, but it put things out of order. Mea culpa