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!/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!

If you find this blog helpful, please consider making a small online donation to AsiAfrica Ministries, Inc. We assist pastors, evangelists, missionaries and their families and churches in east Africa and south Asia. Please visit our website at .


  1. Amen!! Participation is such a huge word when coming to understand salvation. It takes a while for the old lense of understanding to be taken off, but prayerfully one begins to grasp the true Good News that is Jesus Christ, and what He has really done to bring us into the Kingdom with His Father and Spirit. Thank you Martin for your continued dedication to sharing all that the Lord is teaching you! It is such a blessing!

  2. Seriously awesome resource, Martin. Thank you so much for sharing your theological education with us! I just discovered this site, January 2012, and am greatly enjoying your previous posts.

    Martin, take your vitamins, stay in shape, and look both ways before crossing the road because I don't want anything to stop you from sharing this theology blow with us. This is gold.

  3. Thanks, guys! Your kind comments help me to keep going!


Grace and Response: A Matter of Order

Many years ago, when I was a young man in Bible college, one of my theology professors said to the class, “When I wake up in the morning, ...