Sunday, July 24, 2011

T.F. Torrance: The Vicarious Humanity of Jesus Christ, pt. 6

This post is intimately connected to the previous post regarding the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ as it relates to “faith.” This and the following post address the important topics of justification and sanctification. When I began studying Torrance, I could quickly see how salvation was “objectively” accomplished for all humanity in Jesus Christ. Yet it took me several years and much of the writing of a doctoral dissertation to begin to grasp the “subjective” aspects of salvation. “How does it apply to me” “What is required of me?” I now realise my thinking was constrained by a traditional view of the Protestant ordo salutis. Read on to learn more.

Torrance finds this understanding of faith (see previous post) in St. Paul’s teaching that we are “justified by faith” and that “the just shall live by faith” (cf. Rom 1:17; 3:28). For Torrance, these passages do not refer to the faith of the individual believer; rather, they refer to “the faith of God.” According to Torrance, Paul’s phrase, “the just shall live by faith,” comes from Habakkuk (cf. 2:4) and, in a commentary on the same found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, is interpreted to mean that the just live from “the faith of God,” as also understood by Athanasius, Calvin, and Barth (Torrance, 1994:31; Torrance, et. al., 1999:25). In regard to the locus of justifying faith, Torrance (1960:236) writes:
[Jesus Christ] stood in our place, taking our cause upon him, also as Believer, as the Obedient One who was himself justified before God as his beloved Son in whom he was well pleased. He offered to God . . . a perfect faith and response which we are unable to offer, and he appropriated all God’s blessings which we are unable to appropriate. Through union with him we share in his faith, in his obedience, in his trust and appropriation of the Father’s blessing; we share in his justification before God. Therefore when we are justified by faith, this does not mean that it is our faith that justifies us, far from it - It is the faith of Christ alone that justifies us, but we in faith flee from our own acts even of repentance, confession, trust and response, and take refuge in the obedience and faithfulness of Christ - “Lord I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” That is what it means to be justified by faith. (emphasis in original)
Justification is an objective reality (cf. Torrance, 1960:228, 233) appropriated for us by Jesus Christ, who rendered to the Father the perfect faith and obedience we are unable to offer. In the union with Christ wrought by “the wonderful exchange,” in which he assumed our poverty and gave us his riches, humanity is made to share in the beloved Son’s justification before God. This interpretation, however, does not denigrate the faith of the individual believer. Rather, in Torrance’s understanding of the “polar relation” of faith, the “primary pole” is God’s faith. Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, is the faithful one who lays hold of us and brings us into relationship with himself. Within that relationship, the “secondary pole” is that of the believer and his or her response of faith; yet, the human response is an act of faith “evoked by,” and “sustained by,” the faithfulness of God, so that far from being an act of worship arising from the individual believer, it is “a gift of God” (Torrance, 1994:31, 32; Torrance, et. al., 1999:25). As Torrance argues elsewhere (1992:84):
Thus the very faith with which we confess is the faith of Jesus Christ who loved us and gave himself for us in a life and death of utter trust and belief in God the Father. Our faith is altogether grounded in him who is “the author and finisher of our faith,” on whom faith depends from start to finish.
Comment: Torrance has been criticised for putting “too much” emphasis on the vicarious faith "of" Christ and, thereby, undermining the importance of the faith of the individual believer. Yet, as Torrance argues, the faith "of" Jesus Christ does NOT undermine your faith and my faith; rather, it undergirds it, establishes it, even makes it possible. Your faith and my faith is a participation in the faith "of" Jesus Christ offered by the Son to the Father on our behalf.
Following John McLeod Campbell, Torrance argues that justification is not merely the “non-imputation” of sin which we accept by “our” faith; rather, it is a “participation” in the righteousness or “actualised holiness” of Jesus Christ, who sanctified himself on our behalf so that we might be sanctified in him. Thus, “to be justified by faith is to be justified in him in whom we believe, not by an act of our own faith as such” (Torrance, 1976a:141).
As Torrance (1960:236, 237) notes, because our faith rests in, and is undergirded by, the faith of Jesus Christ, the great Reformer, John Knox (c. 1510–1572), hesitated to use the expression, “justification by faith,” for its common usage seems to transfer emphasis from Jesus Christ and his faith to our own acts of trust or believing. In later Scots theology, however, anthropocentric questions regarding faith arose because the believer’s heart turned inward to reflect upon the nature of his or her own faith, rather than taking assurance in the faith of Christ. In this regard, argues Torrance, whenever questions arise regarding “justifying faith,” we are thrown back upon ourselves and doubts are cast on assurance, for if we must rely upon our own repentance and faith, who can be sure of his or her own salvation? For both Knox and Calvin, however, questions of assurance had little place because they understood faith as grounded, not upon the believer’s faith, but upon the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Thus, as Torrance rightly asserts, when we use the expression, “justification by faith alone,” we must be “crystal clear” that by “faith alone” we mean by “the grace of Christ alone.”
Moreover, just as justification is “objectively” realised in Jesus Christ, justification is “subjectively” realised for mankind through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. As Torrance argues, what Jesus did in his human nature was not for his own sake; rather, all he did was for our sake. Throughout the whole course of his obedient life and death, he stood in our place, acting vicariously on our behalf. He is the Word of God brought to bear upon man, but he is also man hearing that Word and responding to it by faith. He is “the great Believer,” who vicariously believes for us, in our place, and in our name. Moreover, he is both the will of God enacted in human flesh and man responding perfectly to that will, bending our human will back in perfect obedience to the Father. Likewise, in regard to justification, he is both “the embodiment of God’s justifying act” and “our human appropriation of it” (Torrance, 1960:233). Torrance continues:
In that unity of the divine and the human, justification was fulfilled in Christ from both sides, from the side of the justifying God and from the side of justified man . . . Justification as objective act of the redeeming God and justification as subjective actualization of it in our estranged human existence have once and for all taken place - in Jesus.
Comment: Justification is not a “potentiality” waiting to be “actualised” by our personal decision of faith. Justification is already fully accomplished in our place and on our behalf by Jesus Christ. Jesus has not realised justification in merely an “objective” way that remains to be “subjectively” realised in you and me by something we must do, for example, making a personal decision of faith. To be sure, we are not justified by our own personal act of faith (as in modern evangelicalism); we are justified by the faith “of” Jesus Christ, the one True Believer, who offers the perfect response of faith to the Father on behalf of all. We must rid ourselves of our ingrained Pelagian notions that there must be something we have to do in order to “be saved.” To be sure, nothing remains undone; there is nothing we can add to the salvation already accomplished for us by Jesus Christ. All that is needed for our salvation, including repentance, faith, and obedience, has been accomplished on our behalf and in our place by the incarnate Son of God, the one True Believer.
As the divine Son of the Father, Jesus “embodies” the divine act of justification from the side of God; as the human son of Mary, he “appropriates” justification from the side of man, so that both the objective (i.e., Godward-manward) and subjective (i.e., manward-Godward) aspects of justification are fulfilled in his incarnate person.
Torrance (1960:236) expresses the relationship between the “objective” and “subjective” aspects of justification, and their relation to union with Christ through the Spirit, as follows:
Justification has been fulfilled subjectively as well as objectively in Jesus Christ, but that objective and subjective justification is objective to us. It is freely imputed to us by grace objectively and we through the Spirit share in it subjectively as we are united to Christ. His subjective justification becomes ours, and it is subjective in us as well as in him, but only subjective in us because it has been made subjectively real in our own human nature, in our own human flesh in Jesus, our Brother, and our Mediator.
Note that Torrance does not say justification is subjectively realised in the believer when he or she “accepts” Christ through a personal decision of faith. To the contrary, justification is subjectively realised in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, a reality in which we share through union with the Risen Christ. For Torrance, justification by faith is a “once and for all” reality that has been objectively and subjectively fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who, in the hypostatic union of God and humanity, is, at once, the embodiment of God’s justifying act and the human appropriation of that act on behalf of all humanity.
(next post, on sanctification, August 15)
Torrance, T.F. 1960. Justification: Its Radical Nature and Place in Reformed Doctrine and Life. Scottish Journal of Theology, vol 13, no 3. pp. 225-246. Also available in Torrance (1996b:150-168).
Torrance, T.F. 1976a. Theology in Reconciliation: Essays toward Evangelical and Catholic Unity in East and West. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 302 pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1992. The Mediation of Christ (rev. ed.). Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard. 126 pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 71 pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1996b. (orig. ed. 1965). Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers. 288 pp.
Torrance, T.F. et al. 1999. A Passion for Christ: The Vision That Ignites Ministry (edited by G. Dawson & J. Stein). Edinburgh: Handel Press. 150 pp.


  1. Thank you Martin, read and understood with much appreciation and humility!

  2. Very interesting! Thankyou!

    So how does Torrance understand the process by which a person becomes united with Christ?

    Clearly, in Torrance's thought, it is not an individual's 'act of faith' that unites him with Christ. Is everyone united with Christ? Or how are we to tell who is and who is not united with Christ (if we can tell at all)?


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