Alan Torrance earned his doctorate in theology at the University of Erlangen-Nurnberg in Germany. He is professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Dr. Torrance explains what the Incarnation means to us and how grace leads us to godly living.

Edited transcript

J. Michael Feazell: Professor Torrance, thank you for agreeing to meet with us.

Alan Torrance: It’s a pleasure to be here, Mike. Thanks for coming.

JMF: We want to begin by asking about a word that I’m sure my grandmother would not know what it means, but she knows what it’s about. Could you talk about the Incarnation, and why it’s important for Christians?

AT: The Incarnation concerns the heart of Christian faith. If I didn’t believe the Incarnation, I’d pack up my bags, resign my job, and go and do something useful. The Incarnation affirms that God is with us as the person of Jesus Christ. It’s fundamental to the knowledge of God. In the person of Christ we have God disclosing God’s own being to us. But it’s not just that in Christ God comes to us as God. God comes to us as man, and taking to himself a human-knowing of the Father.

When we affirm the Incarnation, we also immediately affirm the Trinity, because the knowledge that’s given to us in Christ is a human knowledge of the Father, and Jesus knows the Father in the Spirit. We are taken by that same Spirit to share in Jesus’ knowledge of the Father. But that’s not just a human knowledge of the Father—we’ve been taken into the knowledge of a Father that belongs to the eternal Son, in and through the incarnate Jesus.

Without the Incarnation, we don’t have anything that begins to resemble a full and final and adequate knowledge of God. But it’s not just the knowledge of God that the Incarnation’s vitally important. The doctrine of salvation is contingent, is dependent, upon the doctrine of the Incarnation.

What is the Christian doctrine of salvation? The key to understanding what salvation’s about is the Greek words that Paul uses. Paul uses the word apolutrosis, meaning redemption, and the key to that is three Hebrew concepts which that Greek word translates in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.

The first is padah, meaning God delivers us from bondage. It’s a word that is used of God’s deliverance in Israel from Egypt. In salvation, God is delivering us from bondage, the bondage of sin, the tyranny of sin, the disease that we cannot overcome in and of ourselves. God does that in the Incarnation. God comes in Christ to deliver us from bondage. That’s the first key metaphor.

The second: God comes to us and deals with the costliness of sin. There’s another Hebrew word, kipper or kofer, that is also translated by a form of the word Paul uses for redemption, and that concerns the sacrificial offerings. On the Day of Atonement, the priest would take a lamb, and he would have [the names of] all the tribes of Israel along his coat…he’d lay his hands on the lamb, declare the sin of Israel—in other words, all of Israel’s sin is being laid on that lamb. Then the life of the lamb would be taken and Israel would see the life of that lamb, the costliness of its sin being taken from them. Or, a scapegoat. He’d lay his hands on a goat and declare the sins of Israel, hit it on the backside, and all of Israel in the celebration of worship would watch the goat run off into the wilderness carrying away its sin. So, the second metaphor, in the Incarnation, God comes as human to deal with the costliness of sin and carry our sin away from us.

The third metaphor is go’el, the kinsman redeemer. This is perhaps the most important. There’s a provision under the covenant where if a family lost its father, or a woman lost her husband, then a kinsman, a relative, would come and marry that woman and restore that woman to an inheritance that she would otherwise lose. Or, if a farmer falls into debt and loses his farm, the kinsman member…perhaps that man’s brother… of that family would come and restore that person to the inheritance that was lost. Again, the Incarnation concerns God coming as a human to restore us the inheritance that was lost in Adam.

All three metaphors are intertwined. So in the Incarnation, we have God coming to deliver us from sin and from guilt, most importantly. People think of guilt as a good thing. Well, guilt oppresses. It can make us ashamed of being in the presence of God. Guilt eclipses God. It can become a barrier between us and God. In the Incarnation, God comes to deliver us from guilt, and he comes as our kinsman redeemer, blood of our blood, flesh of our flesh, to restore us to an inheritance that was lost. What was Adam’s inheritance? Communion with God.

All this takes place in the Spirit. We have not just the doctrine of the Incarnation—the doctrine of the Incarnation unfolds properly when we understand the doctrine of the Trinity, because everything Christ does is in the Spirit, bringing humanity by the Spirit, through the Spirit, into communion with the Father, to share in that eternal communion which is constitutive of the being of God, which defines the being of God. God is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That communion of love is shared with the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Sinful, alienated, diseased humanity is taken and re-created and given to participate in that eternal communion of love.

A lot of people think of God as an individual voyeur God, who sits in a rocking chair at some distance watching the world and condemning all that goes on. A lot of liberal theology is like that. That’s why liberal theology is often full of exhortations and condemnations, bullying us into social action of some kind or another. That is a pauper’s understanding of God.

The God of the heart of the Christian faith is a God whose being is eternally one of love and communion. A self-contained individual isn’t capable of love. Without the doctrine of the Trinity, it wouldn’t make sense to talk about the love of God. 1 John suggests God is love. That is required to be understood in Trinitarian terms because there’s an eternal triune communion of loving.

I mentioned knowledge of God. The Incarnation opens out knowledge of God by getting us to share in Christ’s human knowing of the Father, which at the same time is the eternal Son’s knowledge of the Father. No one knows the Father save the Son and those to whom he reveals him.

It’s also incredibly important for worship. I’m sure you’re a more holy man than I am, but some­times on Sunday morning I turn up in church and I don’t feel in the mood to worship. I ought to, but for whatever reason, maybe I’m worried about my work or family, I’ve got concerns. You go into church and you’re going to try to find the energy to pray, sing hymns, and worship. In charismatic churches, they often poof up the energy with lots of choruses and so on.

One of the great answers to this problem is to remember what worship is. Worship is the gift of participating in the incarnate Son’s eternal communion with the Father. Before we go into the church, the worship’s already going on. The Son is adoring the Father. The Priest, the sole Priest of our confession, is providing that everlasting worship in our place and on our behalf in the Spirit. When we enter into the church… (it doesn’t just happen at church, it happens at home)…when we worship, we’re not starting something that wasn’t previously going on. We’ve been taken by the Spirit to share in what is going on and to participate in the prayer that the High Priest is offering for me and for my family, concerning my work-related problems, et cetera. The praise and rejoicing that goes on in the mind of Christ I’ve been given to participate in by the Spirit.

JMF: The fact that it is in the Spirit would seem to indicate that we don’t see it. There’s not evidence to us that it’s going on, except that the word of God says so. Is that where faith comes in, to believe the word of God that it’s true, regardless of the fact that we may not see it or feel it?

AT: Precisely. Faith is a form of sight. It’s a form of healing as well. Remember when Simon made that confession about the Christ? Jesus said, “Flesh and blood hasn’t revealed that to you, but your Father who is in heaven.” Faith is about being given the eyes to see and the ears to hear, to recognize what we otherwise wouldn’t see. Sometimes I face struggles because sometimes we begin to doubt when we trust our own physical hearing and seeing. The Spirit gives us the conviction, the recognition of what’s going on.

Two years ago my wife died of cancer, and she was ill for three and a half years until she died. It was a very difficult time. I’ve got four boys; it was a difficult time for the family. During that period, sometimes it was difficult to understand and see purpose in all of this. We prayed for her to be healed, and she wasn’t healed. There were times when it was a challenge not to give up and find oneself disoriented.

Again, a return to the Incarnation, because this is so pertinent to faith. The heart of the Incarnation is the doctrine that Christ knows our weaknesses, takes our questions, our doubts to himself, (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) and identifies with us in our suffering. By the Spirit we are united with that. We don’t float free of the cares of this world. We are given to recognize the One who stands with us in the concerns of this world, who knows our weaknesses, our doubting, our blindness, who in every respect is as tempted as we are and knows our struggles. He knows even our sense of god-forsakenness at times, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

One of the most moving things that I experienced when Jane was dying in the final weeks of that awful period was the Spirit’s giving one the sense that God’s solidarity with one, was present with us in and through this grief, that God is Immanuel, God with us.

A lot of people ask the why questions. If you’re Christians, why is God not healing Jane? Even if they didn’t ask it verbally, you tended to feel that people were thinking that. But far more important than the why question is the where question. I don’t know why God allowed Jane to die of cancer, but I know the answer to the where question. Where was God in and through that process? He was right with us in that grief, sustaining myself and my family and giving us the eyes to see and recognize his presence in and through that misery.

When we’re talking about faith, we are simultaneously talking about the Spirit. It’s easy for us to make faith become a work. Suddenly Alan Torrance, in a heroic way, has faith. No, faith is about the work of the Spirit, taking Alan Torrance in all his frailty, confusion, doubting, and loneliness and suffering, and giving him the eyes to see and hear the grace of God in the context of doubt and suffering. I think that’s the answer one ought to give. Faith is a form of discernment. It’s through the hypostasis, the substance, in Hebrews 11:1, of things hoped for. It’s where we see and discern that which is the object of our hope.

JMF: Is our faith a participation in Christ’s own faith?

AT: That’s exactly what faith is. Faith is the gift of sharing by the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s human communion with the Father, his faith. There’s a big debate in New Testament circles which is incredibly important. Since Reformation times, we’ve always tended to emphasis in the Protestant churches justification by faith, as if Alan Torrance is justified by his faith. I don’t think that’s Paul’s argument. There’s a grammatical issue. Paul says we are justified, and then the question is whether he says by faith in Christ or by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. It depends whether the genitive case there is objective or subjective. There’s a strong case, when Paul says in two or three places that we are made righteous or justified through the faith of Jesus Christ, he means that we were made righteous through the faithful­ness of Jesus Christ rather than through our faith in Jesus Christ. So the point you just made couldn’t be more important. Our righteousness, our justification does not lie first and foremost in our faith—it lies in the faith and faithfulness of our incarnate Lord.

JMF: That would mean that when we’re experiencing doubt, which is not uncommon for us to be full of doubt from time to time, we don’t need to fear that God has left us because we don’t have good enough faith, because our trust really is in Christ himself to have faith for us.

AT: You couldn’t put it better. That is gospel. That is good news. It wouldn’t be good news if God comes to me and says, “Alan, if you have faith, and if you somehow manage to sustain that faith to the point you die, then you’ll go to heaven, and you’ll be saved.” I don’t have confidence in my ability to sustain that. But the good news of the gospel is that God comes and provides that faith, and that faithfulness, for us on our behalf.

The parable of the prodigal son is one of my favorites. It’s often told as a story of confession. The prodigal son comes home because he’s repented, and because he’s repented, the father accepts him home. That’s nonsense. That’s not the story. He comes home for one reason and one reason only, and it couldn’t be more plain—because of the quality of the pig food! He wants to use his father still further. The point of the story is that the father, who is a wealthy dignified nobleman, ran—that means he grabbed his robes up around his waist—humiliated himself in order to run and embrace his son—before he had heard any statement.

It’s a great parable of the love of the father. But the gospel goes further. There’s a non-parallelism between this parable of the prodigal son and the gospel. The whole time that the son was in the far county, the father was at home. In the gospel, we have the Father going (in the person of the Son) and setting up home in the far country to be with the son and to be where the son is. And, just to continue the non-parallelism, in the person of the Son, God completes all that was required of the prodigal. He offers the faith, the worship, the worth-ship… all that is required is fulfilled in him, in the place of the son. So that by the Spirit, the son might be given to recognize the meaning of grace; that, as John Calvin put it, all parts of our salvation are complete in Christ, the head of the human race. Wonderful good news. Remarkable.

JMF: Some people, upon hearing that explicated, get uncomfortable and say, if that’s true, then that would give me the freedom to behave improperly. It would give me freedom to sin and not worry because I know that God has forgiven me and loves me despite my sins, so there has to be something wrong with that, because it would promote…especially among our teenagers… if they heard something like that, they would go out and sin all the more.

AT: That’s invariably the response that one gets. Let’s think about that for a minute. Let’s think up an analogy. I was blessed with a very devoted, faithful, loving wife. There’s one period in my life when I was involved in theological conversations in Holland, in the Netherlands. I was regularly going off to Amsterdam. Lots of non-theological things go on in Amsterdam, and it’s sometimes known as sin city. (I used to pull Jane’s leg about this.) Let’s imagine that my wife had come to worry as to whether I was engaged in illegitimate activities on my travels.

Two responses she might have given. She might have said, “Alan, I want you to know that if you even contemplate involving yourself in any illicit activities while you’re away in your travels, I get the kids and I get the car and you’re going to pay for this the rest of your days.” She could have spelled out the ramifications and implications, the costliness of any sinning I got up to.

Or she might have said this: As she waved me goodbye from the front door of my house, “Alan, I just want you to know that if ever you find yourself in trouble, no matter what comes your way, I’ll always be there for you. You’ll always be welcome home. I’ll always love you, I’ll always be there for you.” That sounds a little bit Mills and Boonish. [Mills & Boon publishes romance novels in the U.K.]

But ask yourself: which is most likely to lead me to engage in un-theological activities on my trips to Amsterdam? There is no question in my mind that I’d be much more likely to go my own way in the first situation, because the first response basically said, there’s no real unconditional love between us—it’s a contractual deal. If you play the game, then I’ll play my part, etc. That’s not love.

The second was genuine, unconditional, costly love, and that is what converts us, and that’s what makes us faithful. I don’t think antinomianism (the repudiation of law) is a consequence of discovering God’s grace, seeing the extent of God’s grace for what it is. It’s the opposite. When we are brought by the Spirit, we are given the eyes to see the lengths to which God goes out of unconditional love for you as a particular person, as an individual. When you see that and are given to live in the light of that, you’re liberated from sin. It doesn’t encourage us to go and sin, thinking it’s not going to matter. It has the opposite effect.

That’s the difference between what’s called legal repentance and evangelical repentance. When we’re presented with a law, I don’t think repentance is sincere. It’s when we’re presented with the gospel, the euangelion, the unconditional love and forgiveness of God, when we see that, believe it, given our eyes to recognize it and affirm it, that sets us free from sin. It liberates us from sin. It’s an evangelical metanoia. A metanoia is the word for conversion. It means the transformation of our minds. When we’re presented with unconditional love, it transforms our minds.

The church is often trying to prop up the gospel either by dangling people over the pit or setting up conditions: if you commit this sin, you’re beyond the pale. No. We should have the courage to trust in the grace of God and the work of the Spirit getting people let in, liberating people by giving them eyes to see the meaning of the unconditional freeness of grace.

JMF: It reminds me of Paul’s letter to Titus [2:12] where he says, “For it is grace that teaches you to say no to ungodliness.”

AT: Precisely. I like that. Why did I take five minutes to say what you said in a sentence? Exactly.

JMF: When people ask that question, it doesn’t work like that. Christians who receive the grace of God don’t think like that.

AT: There’s no question: good, devout Christians sin. I don’t mean to claim that I’m a good Christian, but I sin all the time. Why do I sin? Why do I sin when I believe so strongly in unconditional freeness? I am convinced when I look at a moment that I’m sinning, it’s because for that moment, I’ve lost my faith. I’m not believing in the grace of God.

To believe in the grace of God is to believe that the risen, crucified Jesus, the sole Priest of our confession, is now saying, “Alan, there is nothing you can do that will separate you from my love,” and when I believe that, when I’m presented with that and have the eyes to see that and hear it, I’m not tempted to sin. It’s when I look away from that, that sin becomes a temptation. So the answer to sin is for the church to continue to remind people of the unconditional, costly freeness of grace in Jesus Christ. It’s when we’re living out of that reality that we’re liberated. Not just liberated from sin but, more importantly, from the desire to sin.

JMF: The gospel is not about rules and law-keeping. The gospel is about the positive relationship that we’re brought into with God and with one another. The gospel is a gospel of relationship, not behavior.

AT: Precisely. That’s not just the New Testament—that’s the heart of the Old Testament. Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments, the laws, where do they start? The first one, “I am the Lord thy God who has brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” When people talk of the Ten Commandments, they want to start with the “thou shalts” and the “thou shalt nots.” But it only makes sense in the context of that first verse, which spells out the nature of God’s unconditional covenant commitment to Israel. He loves Israel and has delivered them from bondage in that love. It should read, “I am the Lord thy God which has delivered you from Egypt…therefore, as I am unconditionally faithful to you, Have no other God’s before me. And as I am unconditionally faithful to all of Israel, so be faithful to each other. Don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t lie, don’t steal, etc.”

In other words, the Torah, the Jewish law, the commandments, are simply spelling out the structure, the logic of a relationship of love and faithfulness. The key concept in the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, is God’s hesed, God’s covenant faithfulness, or beriththat’s the word for covenant. It’s about relationship. The whole of the Pentateuch is a relational gospel. When Jesus summed up the law, in “love God and your neighbor as yourself,” he wasn’t introducing some new formula—he was being a good Jew. He was summarizing the heart of the Ten Command­ments. I couldn’t agree more with what you just said.

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Last modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2021, 1:01 PM