David Torrance, The Grace of the Finished Work of Christ
David Torrance studied in Basel, Switzerland, under Karl Barth
and Oscar Cullmann. He served in the Church of Scotland from 1955 until his retirement.
God pours out his love, granting us grace by the finished work of Christ, and our thankful response to that.
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Michael Morrison: David, it’s a pleasure to have you here.
David Torrance: Thank you. It’s a privilege to be here.
MM: I’d like to begin by finding out who you are. I associate the name Torrance with Thomas and James, and you’re the third brother?
DT: The third brother. Yes. The youngest.
MM: You have all studied theology and written on theology.
DT: My brothers have. I…rather more modestly, I’ll put it that way.
MM: You’ve helped in writing some of the books, haven’t you?
DT: Tom and I edited 12 volumes of John Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries from Latin to English. That was a big effort. That’s still in print. That was quite a while ago. Various other articles and so on in journals.
MM: But you didn’t go into an academic teaching role like your brothers did.
DT: No. I embarked on the same course at university…went through classics, honors philosophy, Bachelor of Divinity, specialized in Dogmatics and Christology, as they did. I also went on and studied on under Karl Barth and Oscar Cullman as they did. Then I began to question what I called an academic career, to the parish ministry. I thought I was called to parish ministry, and I believe that’s so. I’ve enjoyed it immensely.
The joy of parish ministry
MM: What’s been the most enjoyable part of your work?
DT: When people are converted, they discover the reality of salvation and new life in Christ—it’s a tremendous joy. It’s a tremendous privilege to be allowed to be present when someone comes to Christ, or again, when people’s faith is deepened and they come to a new sense of freedom in Christ. I don’t think there’s any job that’s more satisfying than ministry. I didn’t believe that at one time. It was quite a struggle for me to enter the ministry, but having entered it now, it was a marvelous calling.
MM: Many pastors, in the U.S. at least, drop out. There’s a high turnover rate because of the demands of the job. You’ve had a different experience as a parish minister. What’s the key to your role in leading a parish? Why do you see so much joy in it, whereas they might see a burden?
DT: The key to the ministry is to keep your eye on Jesus Christ—Jesus the Son of God, Jesus who became man, who lived, who died, who rose again, ascended. Here we are face to face with God the Father, God the mighty Creator and our Redeemer. If he is central in our ministry, then our ministry should grow more exciting and fresher as the years go by. Take your eyes off that, and we could try and carry though the responsibilities of ministry on our own strength, and people fail.
Put it a different way: I feel strongly that (I think this to myself) if you look at ministry today, probably 90 percent of all our preaching is telling people what to do. We lay tremendous burdens on the congregation. Our congregations get weary and tired, and many slip away. The ministers themselves get frustrated and leave. They’re trying to go ahead in ministry, but under their own steam, using their own efforts, their own resources.
I believe strongly that in the ministry we are called to proclaim Christ, the person of Christ. We can’t separate the person of Christ from his work and the atonement. That’s what we are here to proclaim, so that predominately, our preaching should be the person of Christ and the atonement. If we keep our eye on Christ and seek to present Christ to the world…this is something exciting, something living and alive…we see people coming face-to-face with God in Jesus Christ. That is an exciting thing. I thoroughly enjoyed the ministry. I still do.
Christ has done everything for us
MM: How would you describe what Christ has done for us? Why are people so excited about it? I could have my word for it, what’s yours?
DT: He’s done everything for us. When Christ came into the world, we read in John’s Gospel, he said, “I have come that you may have life, life more abundant, life to the absolute full.” When we come to Christ, we are coming face-to-face with God, we’re entering into the family of God, but we’re discovering life itself, and that’s a good thing.
MM: Does that mean I don’t need to do anything?
DT: No, I wouldn’t say that. God has done everything for us in Christ. Christ has come, Christ has redeemed us. When Christ on the cross said, “It is finished,” that was a triumphant call, the triumphant shout of a victor. He’s done everything for our salvation. All we can do is accept it.
Many years ago (I mentioned that I was involved in mission) when Billy Graham carried out an “All Scotland Crusade” in Edinburgh in 1955, some 2000 people went forward in his crusade in Edinburgh district. I was heavily involved in the follow-up. We had classes for them for 12 weeks. We took away 800 or 900 in three residential conferences.
I became involved in conversation with a man who was an office-bearing elder in the church, a fine man. He said, “I’ve done everything that Billy Graham has asked. I came forward, repented, prayed, asked Christ into my life.” He said, “I never seemed to have got there.” As I listened to him, I said, “You know what you’ve got to learn? Nothing at all.”
He was startled. I said, “You’ve got to learn to do absolutely nothing, because when Christ said on the cross, ‘It is finished,’ he’s done everything for your salvation, and there’s nothing left for you to do except to say thank you, and to go on and on saying thank you. Your thanksgiving is your acceptance.” I still see that man in my mind’s eye as it broke home to him. You could see his face relax, and he laughed. The whole burden had departed. He was set free to live, and to share the gospel with other people.
MM: He had been trying too hard.
DT: One of the disasters of the Christian church today…I love the church, I grew up in it…is that we tend to say, God has done his part in Jesus Christ. Christ has come, he’s died, he’s redeemed—now it’s over to us. We call on people to do their part. We say: come, repent, believe, pray, worship, read the Bible. But we’re throwing a tremendous responsibility back on the people.
MM: Do this, do that.
DT: …so that their salvation, to put it crudely, we’re saying that salvation is partly what God does and partly what you do. That’s wrong. It’s entirely of God, and all we’ve got to do is to thank him, and that must be a wholehearted thanksgiving. It’s a total letting go, a total surrender.
MM: If we realize what a gift it is, then we are thankful.
DT: Absolutely. It is a total thanksgiving where we thank God with our whole being. The Psalmist said that in Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, oh my soul, and all that is within me, bless, praise, his holy name.” It’s that thanksgiving where we’re letting go… we accept the wonder of what God has done in Christ. We’re receiving new life. In that freedom, there’s joy.
MM: If he’s done everything and he gives that to us, theologically, that’s grace. People misunderstand grace, though.
DT: Grace is a tremendous outpouring of the love of God in Jesus Christ. God, our Creator, came in incredible love to give himself to us in Jesus Christ—to give himself in his love, in his forgiveness, in his continuing redemption. If we were to stand under a waterfall, we’d be drenched, we’d be soaked. You and I stand under the waterfall, as it were, the outpouring of God’s love and grace, of his forgiveness, of his redemption. That’s grace, the outpouring of the love of God, because we don’t deserve anything.
We deserve nothing. But God, as love, comes and gives himself to us, forgives us, redeems us, gives us life, through the Holy Spirit brings us in, we are adopted into the family of God, able to call God Father. Know that we are in Christ, sons and daughters of God, heirs of the everlasting kingdom. That all is a free and abundant gift. That’s grace.
MM: You said not just that he gives forgiveness, but he gives us himself.
DT: We can never separate the grace of God from the person of Christ. One of the great, dare I say, sins of the church through the ages is to separate the person of Christ and the work of Christ and separate Christ from grace. The medieval church was tempted to believe that grace is something that the church possesses, something that the church can dispense. That’s nonsense. We can be possessed by Christ, but we can’t possess Christ. Grace is wrapped up with the person of Christ and across the work of Christ, because we can’t separate them.
The covenant of grace
MM: You talk about grace as God giving himself to us. But he also gives us forgiveness, and he gives us a promise of what he’s done, of what he will be for us. That’s kind of a covenant that he makes with us, this covenant of grace. In Reformed traditions, a covenant of grace is a key term. Maybe you could explain more about what it means.
DT: Covenant grace is exceedingly important. Ultimately God made a covenant of grace with all mankind, and that covenant embraced all creation. Within that covenant, God made an inner covenant with Israel when he called his people of Israel into partnership with himself for the redemption of the world.
In Jeremiah 13, we have this astonishing statement – God says, “As a man would bind a belt around his waist, I have taken my people Israel and bound them onto me around my waist.” He will never let them go for the working out of his salvation. In a wider sense, God has come and made a covenant of grace with all humankind in order that he might redeem humankind, in order that he might work out his salvation. That covenant of grace is where God, who is absolutely holy, comes in love in tremendous condescension and binds to himself a sinful people. Israel was a sinful people, a representative people of all of us.
In a wider sense, God has bound all of us to himself—an eternal bond of grace so that we can’t escape the grace of God. We can’t escape the embrace of God. This is a great mystery. The fact that God in all his holiness bound a sinful people to himself meant that Israel suffered, because in their sin they rebelled, and yet God in his love would not let them go, because he’s determined to strip away their sin and redeem them. In that extraordinary painful situation, Israel passed through a situation when she had shattered herself on the rock of God’s love.
Ultimately, that’s what we’re faced with on the cross because that is gathered up in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God has bound the whole world to himself so that when Jesus is a particular man, he’s a representative man linked to all creation in an everlasting bond. He’s taken hold of all humankind so that when Jesus died, we all died. It’s one of the things I’ve often pondered. In 2 Corinthians 5, when Christ died, we died. What does that mean? It means that our natural death…well, there’s no such thing as a natural death. We die because Christ died. We’re joined to Christ in his incredible bond of grace. The fact that Christ rose again means that all of us will rise again in the resurrection.
Here’s the mystery—that sin has interposed between us and God so that, as Jesus says in John 5, whereas we are all resurrected, “some will be resurrected unto righteousness, some unto condemnation.” Grace is where God comes in love giving himself to us. Not only giving himself to us, but becoming us and remaining himself holy, and yet at the same time becoming us in order to redeem us, to cleanse away our sin, and to give us new life, that we might enter into the fellowship of God in Jesus Christ.
There are many aspects of creation, of grace. For us to accept us it, it must be whole-hearted…it’s an all or nothing. It’s a letting go in thankfulness, and then we accept all that God has done, all his love, we accept life, and joy, and salvation.
The importance of forgiveness
It equally means that our lives must be transformed, if we forgive one another. If we don’t forgive one another, we’re not able to receive the grace of God. That I find important, because in the ordinary practical ministry, you meet that again and again. There are divisions in the church. Church people, Christian people, find that they cannot forgive their neighbor. That lack of forgiveness means that there is a barrier between them and God. It will hinder their faith. It’s the spirit of evil. Grace means that we receive the love, the forgiveness of God, but in receiving it, we must allow the grace of God to flow through us, and we forgive one another.
An interesting case of that: Some years ago I had a meeting in the headquarters of our church in central Edinburgh. It was a morning meeting, and I agreed to meet my wife afterwards for lunch. Our meeting ended early, and I was standing just outside the church offices waiting for my wife. I was idly dreaming, my mind was far away, and I suddenly heard a voice accosting me and saying, “Are you a holy man?”
I had never been called a holy man before, and my first inclination was to laugh. But he was a man, an Indian, looking at me, very serious. Instead of laughing, I said, “Well, I try to be a holy man.” He told me a story. He had come over to study engineering. He had come from a strong Hindu background; I think he had been Brahman. He had been converted in Scotland, and he said for a while he was full of the joy of the Lord, and in a week’s time was due to be baptized. But something had happened, and all the joy had departed. He said, “What’s wrong with me?” Quite a challenge.
I said, “Only God knows. I can make a few suggestions. You alone will know whether any of these suggestions ring a bell and are true for you. Maybe you stopped praying, maybe you stopped reading the Bible, stopped going to church, perhaps you’ve been disobedient to God and done some things wrong, perhaps you can’t forgive someone who has hurt you.”
He suddenly said, “That’s it.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “That’s it. Forgiveness.” Someone had done something or said something or hurt him badly, and he couldn’t forgive.
I didn’t ask him what the situation was, but I said, “If that’s the case, you can forgive. That has come in between you and the Lord, and you’ve got to allow God to work through you and give you the grace to forgive. Forgiveness is not a human quality. You can’t, out of your own resources, forgive someone who’s hurt you. Forgiveness is a gift of God. All you can do is to tell the Lord the situation and ask God to give you the gift to forgive. If you do that, you’ll find peace with God.”
So I said, “Shall we pray?” We stood there and prayed together, and off he went. About three days later I got a lovely letter from him. He said he’d gone off, found this person, and been reconciled. He said all the joy of the Lord was back, and that’s very important.
MM: It reminds me of the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus said if you do not forgive, you will not be forgiven.
MM: You’re saying that even though God does everything for us, our relationship with others somehow is clogging the pipeline or something or God’s gifts don’t reach us…
DT: Very much so. That is a common factor in the parish ministry. In one parish I was talking to one of the people, and she told me that she had never talked to her daughter for 12 years. I said, “You can’t say the Lord’s prayer, you know.” “Oh, but you don’t know my daughter.” (She lives in a different part of the country.) I said, “No. I don’t. But I don’t really know you, do I?”
I said, “Whatever the situation, God has forgiven us for everything, and we don’t deserve it. It’s a free gift. He loves us. He’s forgiven us. That means that he’s asking you to show that forgiveness to your daughter, whatever the situation. You’re commanded by God to go and phone your daughter and to tell her you love her and forgive her.” I said that rather frank. Two days later she called me over and told me, “I talked to my daughter the first time in 12 years, and things are put right.” Yes, it lies at the very heart of the Lord’s Prayer and is very basic… It’s a practical thing in the ministry.
The other important thing about grace, forgiveness, is that forgiveness is prior to repentance. God forgives, and we are called to receive that forgiveness, but he doesn’t forgive on condition that we repent. Conditional repentance has crept into, I suppose, all the churches. Sadly, it’s crept into my own church in Scotland.
Calvin and Knox, our Scottish reformer, followed the teaching in Scripture that God comes, and he’s forgiven us in Christ, and we are summoned to repent. We are summoned to receive. But because of sinful human nature, we have turned it around that God forgives if we repent—on condition. So in the church in Scotland we have what we call a Book of Common Order, and that is an outline of suggested services for various usages and forms of worship. We have another Book of Common Order for use in what we call the courts of the church. The minister is ordained, inducted to a parish, and so forth. In those services, say for an ordination of a minister or induction to a charge, there is what we call a preamble, a statement of what’s happening, and we have the words that “God offers forgiveness upon repentance.” Every time I hear that, I squirm. Forgiveness upon repentance. Forgiveness if you repent. It’s conditional. No.
In my own experience, I joined as a soldier in 1942, a long time ago. Before going abroad, I served for a period in England and used to join a small group, about 12 or 15 other soldiers, for friendship, Bible study, and prayer. Despite my Reformed upbringing, I was somewhat influenced at the time by this presentation of the gospel, which is conditional repentance. If you repent, God will forgive you.
That troubled me, so I found myself praying and trying to confess all the sins that I could remember, to receive forgiveness of God. In this process, my prayers got longer and longer as I tried to remember and confess all the sins. I found myself probably confessing sins I hadn’t really committed because if I don’t repent, how do I get forgiveness? Then the question came, but what about the sins you don’t remember? I tried to answer that by saying, “Lord, have mercy on me. I am a sinner.” That covers a lot.
But then the question: How do you know you’re repenting? I had no answer to that, and that really troubled me, because if I didn’t repent, I would have no forgiveness. How can I be sure? Sometime after that I was reading Romans 6 in Greek (I studied Greek in school) and it hit me powerfully. If you take verses 2-6, the aorist tense, that’s a past tense, that when Christ died, something very decisive in repentance happened: I died with him. And when he rose, I rose with him. That happened a long time ago, before I was born, 2000 years ago.
It hit me powerfully that Christ had died, he had risen, he had forgiven me before I sinned, before I was born. It was all done and completed. All I was asked to do was to receive it in thanksgiving. If I didn’t receive it, I was lost. We’re not compelled to receive it. Hell is real. But the fact that all I was called to do was the thanksgiving, was a tremendous relief to me. You are just full of joy, the assurance, and never again did I doubt it.
MM: You accepted that you had come to the point where you see in parishioners that was so exciting, whenever they come to that realization that God has done it for them, for all of us…already.
DT: Right. Last April I was preaching on the subject of grace and the fact that God has done everything for us and all we have to do is thanksgiving. I was preaching in the morning with a lay preacher, what we call a reader, taking the evening service. Shaking hands at the door after the service, this man, all he could do was laugh. He said, “I’ve been set free. I’ve been set free. I’ve been set free.” He just kept repeating it. He said, “Set free after 30 years.” He didn’t explain, there wasn’t time to explain, people were going out shaking hands with him.
We had a coffee after the service. I went into the church hall and again he said, “I’ve been set free.” He said for 30 years he had had with him the lack of assurance. He said, “I came to the point that I felt I had to give up. How could I preach? How could I try to help other people when I’m not certain myself?” But he said, “I’ve been set free.” He was full of joy. He said, “This woman, you speak to her, she’s been set free as well.” I find that moving. It’s where we in the church have failed to present Christ and the finished work of Christ. I feel it very strongly… I found it in my own life, and I try to preach it.