Wednesday, April 20, 2011

T.F. Torrance: The Atonement, pt 9


Despite his rejection of a doctrine of limited atonement and his assertion of universal election in Jesus Christ, Torrance finds room for a doctrine of reprobation in his understanding of the wonderful exchange embodied in Jesus Christ.

Against a doctrine of universalism, Torrance regards the reprobate as those who, subject to the irrational and accidental nature of sin, reject God’s love as revealed in his gracious universal pardon. “Why anyone who is freely offered the unconditional love of God in the Lord Jesus should turn away from him,” writes (Torrance et. al., 1999:31), “is something quite inexplicable and baffling.” Torrance (1949:312) cites Judas Iscariot as an example of one who inexplicably rejected the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. As Torrance (1981b:136; 1993:248) notes, why some do not believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and go to hell cannot be explained, for here we have to do with something that happens “accidentally,” “irrationally,” and “inexplicably.” Rather than attempting to construe unbelief in terms of logico-causal connections, Torrance argues that if some do not believe and perish, that must be understood as “accidental” or “adventitious,” for Jesus Christ came to save sinners (1Tim 1:15), not to condemn them. It is the nature of the gospel to bring life, not death, just as it is the nature of light to illumine, rather than to bring darkness. Nevertheless, while God does not desire the death of sinners but, rather, that they turn and live and come to the knowledge of the truth (cf. 1Tim 2:4), argues Torrance (1996c:283), God does not impose the gospel upon people whether they believe or not. “Hence, while there is no divine decree of reprobation, God allows his will for the salvation of all for whom Christ died, to be frustrated, so that in view of the tears of the Redeemer for the lost, it may be said that God wills the salvation of those who perish.”

Comment: Note Torrance’s assertion that God allows his will to be “frustrated.” This is quite different from the Augustinian-Calvinist doctrine of absolute sovereignty. According to Augustine, if people are in hell, then God must will they be there, since God's will cannot be “thwarted.” From this unscriptural reasoning it is an easy step to assert that God “predestines” them to hell. Augustine's thought in this regard is rooted in a Greek (pagan) philosophical view of divine "immutability." Scripture plainly teaches, however, that God wishes none to perish, that he wants all to turn in repentance. God does NOT will that any be in hell. As Clark Pinnock, John Sanford, and others have shown, God is big enough to allow freedom and contingency in the creation. If any are in hell, it is because they choose hell rather than God. God is big enough and powerful enough to allow his will to be frustrated in the service of freedom. As Torrance notes, God does not “impose” the gospel on anyone.

In the face of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, to be reprobate is an “un-understandable mystery.” Torrance (1949:316, 317) writes:
To choose our own way in spite of God’s absolute choice of us, to listen to the voice of His infinite love and to know that we are already apprehended by that love in the death of Jesus, and by that very apprehension of love to be given the opportunity and capacity to respond in faith and love, and still to draw back in proud independence and selfish denial of God’s love, is an act of bottomless horror. . . . Can we imagine anything more appalling than that a man should use the very power that God gives him to choose to contradict God, should choose to depart from God, and yet be unable to depart, because in spite of all he is still grasped by God in an act of eternal love that will not let him go?
Even the man who wilfully rejects the love of God is held in the eternal embrace of Jesus Christ, in whom all things consist and move and have their being. Should Jesus Christ let him go even for an instant, he would vanish into nothingness. God’s eternal love will not let him go, however. “Even when a man has made his bed in hell God’s hand of love will continue to grasp him there.” And therein lies the “hell” of hell: it is to choose one’s own way and, yet, in that choice, still to be chosen by God. As Torrance notes, it is not God who makes hell, for hell is the contradiction of all that is of God (Torrance, 1949:316, 317). Hell is the place in which the sinner is forever imprisoned in his own refusal of God’s love, and that is, indeed, the “hell” of it. Against the hyper-Calvinist doctrine of double predestination, Torrance writes regarding those in hell: “[The reprobate’s] being in hell is not the result of God’s decision to damn him, but the result of his own decision to choose himself against the love of God and therefore of the negative decision of God’s love to oppose his refusal of God’s love just by being Love.” This “negative decision” of God’s love is what Torrance calls “the wrath of the Lamb” (Torrance, 1996d:cxv, cxvi).

Comment: The above-paragraph is worth reading and re-reading and re-reading!

Elsewhere, Torrance (2009:157, 158) writes more pointedly that if anyone goes to hell, it is by a “downright refusal” of the reconciliation that Christ has already provided to all in pure love. He continues:
Because of the blood of Christ there is no positive decision of God to reject anyone, but only the gracious decision to accept them, and that decision has once and for all been enacted in the cross and resurrection so that nothing in heaven and earth can change it or undo it or reverse it. To reverse it would be to bring Christ back to the cross again, and to deny the reality of what he has already done. That decision is not altered if man refuses it, but if someone goes to hell, they go because they dash themselves in judgement against an unalterable positive act of divine reconciliation that offers to them only divine love [emphasis in original].
In loving humanity even to the point of death on the cross, “God risked the happening of the incredible,” that man would choose to reject the love revealed at the cross. Thus, the cross unmasks “the bottomless dimension of sin in the human heart.” To be sure, the witness of scripture stands aghast at the mystery of iniquity; therefore, it refuses to betray the love of God and the agony of Jesus by a doctrine of universalism. On the other hand, scripture refuses to teach that God’s love is split in two by a doctrine of double predestination. To the contrary, God’s action towards humanity remains forever the one, indivisible act of love, and even the “dark whirlpool” of human sin, particularly as revealed at Calvary, cannot alter that fact (Torrance, 1949:317).


This is the last of my Lenten series on Torrance’s doctrine of the atonement. Thanks to all of you who have taken the time to read this wonderful material. If you have found these posts helpful, I would love to hear from you. See you again around May 15, when we begin an in-depth look at Torrance's doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. You're gonna love it!

References: See previous posts.


  1. A marvelous, illuminating series. Thanks Martin.

  2. Been away a bit, Martin, but just read number 9 - Wonderful! I'll get the others....look forward to May 15!

  3. Guess I'm going to hell.

  4. "Even the man who wilfully rejects the love of God is held in the eternal embrace of Jesus Christ, in whom all things consist and move and have their being. Should Jesus Christ let him go even for an instant, he would vanish into nothingness. God’s eternal love will not let him go, however."

    I love this passage you wrote. I have some dear friends who are very strong calvinists and who used to try and get me to see God as they do. I told them I couldn't. It didn't make sense to me who knows God is love. God wants all to come to repentance. He wants all to believe in His Son Jesus. I know this as much as I know my heart is beating right now though I can't feel it. Thank you.

  5. Thank you, Martin. I have read the 9 parts and enjoyed your analysis of Torrance's thoughts on The Atonement. It really helps a busy pastor to have others do such a work. I look forward to your next series.
    God bless you,
    Richard Kerridge

  6. Wow! Great post! Thanks so much!


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