Saturday, December 17, 2011

Iron Sharpening Iron

Scripture tells us that “as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Prov 27:17). This is exactly what is happening on Tim Brassell’s Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/#!/tjbrassell in response to my latest post on “evangelism” and the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. Tim graciously encouraged his readers to view my post and I thank him for that.

One of Tim’s readers and friends is rightly concerned with the place of individual repentance, discipleship, etc., in the light of Torrance’s doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. He used the all-too-real example of a meth-addict who shows up at church on Sunday morning. How is the community of faith to approach this suffering soul in the light of his inclusion in the Triune life of God?
Personal repentance is an important issue in Torrance’s theology. For Torrance, there is an “urgency” to the preaching of the Gospel because of the very real possibility that some may reject the love of God given for all in Jesus Christ. Because, the issue of reprobation and “hell” is real in this tradition, Torrance calls for a proclamation of repentance.
I do not know of a specific definition or description of repentance in Torrance’s writing, however (If any one does, please let me know). I am familiar with the descriptions of repentance offered by other students of Torrance, but I won’t attempt to repeat them here. For me, repentance involves both changing our thinking and behavior, changes related to the gospel proclamation that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not (as NT Wright puts it). Therefore, get on board the Jesus train and become part of what he is doing here and now.
In regard to the preaching of repentance, however, there are two very different approaches, as I mentioned in the previous post. One approach is the “turn or burn” approach, particularly characteristic of older, and some, contemporary, evangelicalism. This approach regards repentance as a condition of salvation: If you repent, you will be saved. Inevitably, other conditions are added on: if you believe, if you obey, if you receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, if you persevere, etc., you will be saved. This is the very form of “legal’ repentance which the Reformers fought against. This is NOT what I want to tell the meth-addict who comes to my church. More on him (or her) later.
In contradistinction to legal repentance is the good news proclaimed by the Reformers, what Calvin called “evangelical” repentance. “You are loved, you are chosen, you are saved: therefore, repent!” Here, repentance is a response to salvation, not a condition for it. This is what I want to tell the meth-addict.
I grew up in an alcoholic home. My parents divorced at a time when divorce was uncommon. Shame and guilt were my constant companions. A feeling of unworthiness has haunted me much of my life, especially in relation to all things “religious.” Moreover, the church has heaped enough shame, guilt, and condemnation on us poor sinners. We need some good news for a change. In this regard, Torrance’s approach to evangelism is vital and crucial.
When I was younger, if I came to your church and you told me I had better repent or God was going to send me to an eternity of hell-fire, I would have offered you the universal single-fingered gesture of contempt as I walked out the door. I’ve had enough condemnation; I don’t need any from you, thank you!
On the other, hand if you had told me:
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. (TF Torrance)
then I might have been ready to listen. I might have even listened to your suggestions about getting help for my addiction.
In this regard, I want the meth-addict to come to my church. I want to tell him that God loves him unconditionally, that God has always loved him unconditionally, and that God will always love him unconditionally, no matter what. I’m telling you, brothers, this will preach!
Yet, this is not the end of it; this is only the beginning. I want to help the meth-addict get out of hell now and start living in the freedom of Jesus Christ. The meth-addict needs to repent, and I have a responsibility to tell him so. At the very least, his repentance would include abstinence from crystal meth and participation in a recovery program. If I am to mirror God’s unconditional love to this suffering soul, then I may need to direct him to a 12-Step meeting. I may need to get him into a treatment centre. There may be many things I need to do to minister to this suffering addict and in so doing, to minister to Jesus Christ (Mt 25). I will also need to assure him that God is with him in his brokenness, and will never let him go. Even if he relapses into active addiction, God will be there to pick him up out of the dirt and begin with him again on the road to recovery. And for the record, God will be there with him even in the hell of his using, but his addiction will blind him to the spiritual presence all around him.
Returning specifically to the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, this doctrine does not negate the importance of personal faith, repentance, obedience and discipleship. To the contrary, it empowers it. As Torrance repeatedly argues, Jesus takes up our puny, feeble attempts at faith and obedience and unites them to his own, including them in his High-Priestly offering to the Father. Thus we are free to obey, knowing that our failures and shortcomings are made whole in the self-offering of Jesus Christ. Where we fall short, he hits the mark; where we stumble, he stands tall. This is good news. Now my faith and obedience can be offered in thanksgiving and gratitude to God. I can give God the gift of myself (the only thing God wants from me), not out of fear of punishment but out of loving gratitude for the riches that are mine in Christ.
To me, the difference between a “gospel” of repentance as a condition for salvation and repentance as a joyful response to salvation is immeasurable.
Thanks again to Tim Brassell and those participating in the conversation on his Facebook page. We need more of this to sharpen us all up!
Martin

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

T.F. Torrance: The Vicarious Humanity of Jesus Christ, pt. 12

Evangelism

For Torrance (1992:92, 93), Jesus Christ must take centre stage when the Gospel is proclaimed. Noting Jesus’ teaching that we must deny ourselves to follow him, and that we must lose our own lives for his sake (Mt 16:24, 25), Torrance writes:
Face to face with Christ all would-be followers find themselves called into radical question, together with their preconceptions, self-centred desires and self-will, for to have him as Lord and Saviour means that he takes their place in order to give them his place.
Giving centre place to Jesus Christ is made difficult, however, by the “unevangelical” way in which the Gospel is often preached, for the call to repentance and faith seems to turn its hearers back upon their own faith and obedience rather than that of Jesus Christ. Torrance (1992:93) continues:
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 preacher 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 Saviour. 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.
Torrance describes this “unless,” “if” form of evangelism as a doctrine of “conditional” grace which “belies the essential nature and content of the Gospel as it is in Jesus” by telling “poor sinners” that the final responsibility for their salvation is transferred from the shoulders of the Lamb of God to their own shoulders. This conditional or legalist proclamation may lead sinners to doubt their salvation, notes Torrance, for if the chain that binds them to God in Jesus Christ has for even one of its links their own weak faith, then the integrity of the entire chain is in question. Because they are aware that the very self that is being called upon to make a decision for Christ is in need of salvation, the Gospel is not really “good news” for them unless it is announced that Jesus Christ, in his unconditional love, has put the human self on an entirely different basis by replacing it with his own vicarious faith and obedience (Torrance, 1992:93).
Comment: Modern evangelicalism proclaims a conditional “gospel”: If you repent, you will be saved. To the contrary, the apostolic/Patristic kerygma (proclamation) is unconditional: You have been, are being, and will be saved by Jesus Christ; therefore, repent (2Cor 5:14-21). Repentance is not a requirement for salvation; it is a response to it. As the Apostle Paul argues, you are reconciled to God; therefore, be reconciled!
For Torrance (1992:94), the Gospel can only be preached in a genuinely evangelical way “when 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.” According to Torrance, the Gospel is preached evangelically as follows:
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.
Comment: We need to hear the above quote in many sermons!
Torrance (1992:94) goes on to assure us that Jesus Christ, “as man,” has acted in our place, even in our personal response to the love of God and our acts of faith. He continues:
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.
Comment: Jesus Christ has already made a “personal decision of faith” in place of and on behalf of every one of us. We don’t “accept the Lord” in order to be saved; he has already “accepted” us and included us in his High-Priestly self-offering to the Father. That is what the doctrine of vicarious humanity is all about. Therefore, get off the fast track and get on board the Jesus’ train! All aboard!!
To preach the Gospel in this way, notes Torrance (1992:94, 95), is “to set before the people the astonishingly good news of what God has freely provided for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.” The evangelical proclamation frees us from doubts about the adequacy of our own faith, for it is not our faith, belief, and commitment that we rely on, but rather upon what Jesus Christ has done for us, in our place and on our behalf. Thus, we are liberated from all “ulterior motives” in following Christ on the ground of his vicarious response for us, so that we are “free for spontaneous joyful response and worship and service” in a way that we could not otherwise be.
Comment: Does Jesus set us free so that we can take up the chains of bondage and live again in the dark dungeon of sin, alienated from our Father? Of course not. He acts vicariously on our behalf, offering for us the perfect response of faith and obedience, so that we are free to worship and serve God. Thus, our service and obedience arise not from dreadful fear of awful punishment but as joyful, grateful responses to the salvation that is already ours in Jesus Christ.
References
Torrance, T.F. 1992. The Mediation of Christ (rev. ed.). Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard. 126 pp.