David Torrance studied in Basel, Switzerland, under Karl Barth and Oscar Cullmann. He served in the Church of Scotland from 1955 until his retirement.

To receive Christ means that we share in his death and his resurrection — death to our old life of sin.

Edited transcript

The faith of Christ

MM: You’ve been a parish minister for many years, and you’ve seen God’s grace being given to people in the parish, and you see how people respond to that with faith. I’d like to ask you about what faith is.

DT: Faith is very important. I hesitate to use the word, a theological term – faith is bipolar. Are we justified by Christ’s faith or by my faith? We’re not justified, I’m not justified by my faith. My faith can go up and down, and sometimes be almost nonexistent, sadly. I’m justified by Christ’s faith, the faith of Christ. My faith is important, but my faith is really a response to the faith of Christ. The primary thing is Christ’s faith.

When we look at the New Testament, Galatians 2:20, I am crucified with Christ, but the life that I now live I live by the faith of Jesus Christ…of the Son of God. I don’t know of any modern translation of Scripture that uses that translation. Every modern translation of Scripture that I know of says “faith in Christ.” That means to me that the translators have altered the Greek to make faith in Christ. If it’s “faith in Christ,” in Greek you’d have a preposition and the dative, in Christ. But the Greek is not that. It’s the genitive: of Christ. So…the life I live, I live by the faith of the Son of God.

That comes out many times in the New Testament. In Romans 3, Paul has been talking about the righteousness of God apart from the law, which is by the faith of Jesus Christ. Modern translations say faith in Jesus Christ. But am I justified by my faith in Christ? Never. I’m justified by Christ’s faith. My faith is a response to that. So if you say “the faith of Christ,” that’s the Authorized Version, we’re laying the whole weight of our salvation upon Jesus Christ.

If you think back to the Old Testament, the great lesson of the Old Testament, which Israel found hard to learn, was that salvation is entirely an act of God. God delivered Israel out of Egypt. They couldn’t deliver themselves out of Egypt. That was entirely an act of God.

Such is human sin that very shortly after that, Moses went up on Mt. Sinai, he was away for 40 days…they prevailed on Aaron to make them a golden calf. We have these words, “Here are the gods which brought you out of Egypt.” That golden calf, you might say, they were paying lip service to the fact that their deliverance was an act of God, but it was an act of their own human ingenuity and strength. That’s a great sin — that by their own strength they could deliver themselves. The great lesson they had to learn was no, they’d been saved entirely by an act of God.

When God gave his word that was revealed through Moses, he gave them the laws of worship. All those laws of worship which accompanied the word were to teach Israel they could only worship God in God’s way, and therefore these laws of worship are given meticulously. The tent, in every detail, the furniture of the building, every detail of worship, in the sacrifices and the great feasts were given to them. They could not worship in their own way, they had to worship only in God’s way because each of these forms of worship and sacrifices are symbolic, representing God breaking through to make atonement for the people.

They are given circumcision. They were a sinful people, and yet a reminder that despite their sin, God, the Holy God, had entered into a covenant of grace binding them to himself. That circumcision, that perpetual reminder that they were sinful, a perpetual reminder that despite their sin God had bound himself to them in a bond of love, was a symbol anticipating the day when God himself would come and break through to be cut off, circumcised for his people.

The great lesson all through the Old Testament was: salvation is entirely of God, not of us. That’s the great lesson that’s picked up in the New Testament, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, encapsulated, if you like, in that phrase, “The life I now live, I live by the faith of the Son of God.”

Take the two parables in Luke 15 — the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. If we ask ourselves who suffers by the loss…there’s no indication the sheep was the least bothered by being lost, and certainly the coin wasn’t bothered because it couldn’t feel a thing. It was the owner who felt the loss. It was the owner who suffered. It was the owner who took the initiative, who came in search of the lost, and who searched and went on searching until he finds, and then rejoices.

We have in those two parables a gathering up of the whole story of the gospel. It is encapsulated in those two parables. Here is God who feels the loss of this world, of humankind who are lost to God — not lost in the geographical sense, but lost in the sense that men and women are no longer living in fellowship with God. God feels that loss. He suffers. God takes initiative. God comes and searches and searches, and that search takes him to the cross and to the resurrection, and God rejoices. Those two parables set up the whole story of the gospel.

It shows that the gospel is totally different from every other religion in the world. Every other religion is concerned with man seeking to obey certain rules and regulations in order to achieve salvation. It’s what man can do, how man can work out his salvation. The gospel is entirely different. It’s a joyful announcement that God has come in Jesus Christ. God has searched, in the cross and resurrection. Here God finds and restores and God rejoices. That’s a glorious thing.

So that little phrase in Galatians 2:20 rounds out a number of passages in the New Testament. We are saved by Christ, by Christ’s faithfulness. We’ve got to respond, we’ve got to receive, and that is a wholehearted receiving. It’s a wholehearted surrender.

MM: That’s our faith that comes in?

DT: That’s our faith, but our faith is a response to his faith. Jesus’ faith is prior.

MM: But if we are saved by his faith, don’t we have to do anything, or has he done it all for us?

DT: He’s done it all for us. Absolutely everything. There’s nothing left for us to do but to accept in thanks. If you come and give me a present, a gift, what can I do? I can answer, “No, I don’t want that” and turn away, or I could say, “Thank you” and simply accept. God comes to us and offers himself to us, he offers his forgiveness, his gift of life. All we can do is accept it or reject it. As we say thank you, that’s our acceptance.

MM: Doesn’t the New Testament say that we should have faith in Christ?

DT: Indeed. We are called to believe. But what does that mean? Faith isn’t something that we produce out of ourselves out of our own resources. It’s a response to his faith, and it’s the gift of God.

MM: So I can’t take credit for it.

DT: Paul says that “by grace are you saved through faith, and that not in yourselves, it is a gift in God so that no one can boast.” As a church, and again I take this personally as a minister, we have not clearly got that across in our preaching and proclamation. Far too often we present what Christ has done. We say Christ died for you, has forgiven you, now it’s over to you to accept. You pray, you repent, you read the Bible, and so on. We’re laying a burden on people to do something. Salvation in that context is partly what God does and partly what we do. We cooperate — and that is totally wrong. We can do nothing at all except accept it in thanksgiving.

MM: If Jesus has done it all for us, would we say that he has prayed for us? Has he done our response for us?

DT: Everything for us. Absolutely. Many evangelicals limit Christ’s salvation to the death of Christ. They say that Christ died for us and that is something apart from us and because of his death, we can be forgiven and receive salvation. As my brother James used to say, that if you’re sick, a doctor can come, he can diagnose your problem, this is your illness, write out a prescription, give it to you, go away. You take that medicine, you get well. Far too often, that’s the kind of gospel that we preach. Christ has died, Christ has risen, and there you are, you get on with it.

MM: Like the forgiveness is some commodity that’s handed over to us.

DT: It’s not like that. Christ has done everything — he’s given himself, and his life for us. That’s what we’re asked to receive. We can’t separate the work of Christ, the death of Christ on the cross, from the whole ministry or the resurrection, but sadly, many Christians do. In a great deal of preaching we often do.

The life of Christ

MM: The Gospels have a lot more information in them than just a story of the death of Christ — they’ve got a lot about his life as well. What are those stories there for us? What are they showing us about Jesus’ life for us?

DT: We can’t separate the person of Christ from his teaching and from his work. The whole thing belongs together. Calvin used to use a phrase that we’re not presented with a naked Christ. He comes to us clothed in his life, death and resurrection. It’s all important. He lived out his life for us, and we’re asked to receive him in all his fullness.

Put it this way — that when God became man, we’re faced with an incredible miracle where God broke into this world. It’s a staggering fact that he came down to our level in Jesus Christ, and he took our flesh and blood. He remained God and at the same time, he became man. Not only an individual man, which he was, but a representative man, where he identified himself with each one of us — with you, with me, with all of us.

In identifying himself with us, you might say he did two things. He took our sinful life with all its faults, failings, sins and sicknesses, and he brought on the condemnation, died, and took it all away. At the same time, in becoming man, he sanctified our human life and turned our human life around, living a life of perfect obedience or righteousness. In the resur­rection, he gives us himself, he gives us that new life, his life and our life. It’s a total thing. We are totally letting go of our old life with a total receiving of this new life. There are no half measures. Paul says, “Be clothed with Christ in his righteousness.”

MM: It’s not just his life before the crucifixion and resurrection but his life afterwards as well.

DT: He rose as man, and ascended as man, and he reigns as man, and he’s our high priest as man, and that’s important. The whole of our life, it is not I, but Christ. In every situation, in every area of life, we’ve got to learn to live that out in such a way that in every situation, it’s not I but Christ.

New life in Christ

MM: Once we realize that and respond to that, how does life change for us? What difference is it going to make in our life? Can we live a rotten life until we die and just before we die say yes, I’d like to sign onto the program?

DT: Three times in the epistle to the Romans, Paul is answering questions that were put to him — can I sin that grace may abound? He says no, that’s impossible. To receive Christ means that we’ve shared in his death — death to our own life, death to all our sins, that we might share in the resurrection. We can only enter the kingdom of God through death and resurrection, and that’s a total thing. It’s a death to our old way of life, it’s a death to our sin. If we have received Christ, sadly, we’ll go on sinning, but death is no longer the power that reigns over us. We can’t go on sinning. John brings that out in his epistles, “We can’t go on sinning and yet believe in Christ,” in other words, if we go on sinning, we don’t really, in a deeper sense, believe in Christ. We’re not really followers of Christ.

MM: Is that what the Bible is talking about when it uses the word salvation — that it’s not just a ticket into heaven but it’s this entire package of taking on Christ, of dying, of rising — is all that encapsulated?

DT: Yes. It’s a receiving of a totally new life in Christ. We receive Christ once and for all, and we go on and on receiving Christ as a continuous process. It is a total thing. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. You can only serve one or the other.” If we seek to receive Christ as our Lord, he is the one we serve. There’s no half measures. As long as we are here on this earth, none of us are perfect, sadly, we go on sinning. But the Lord is our Lord and king. He is dominant. So he picks us up, cleanses us, renews us — day by day we start afresh.

MM: Some days I don’t feel very fresh or new. It feels like the old person is still there. How do these go side by side?

DT: That’s true, but we don’t go by our feelings. We go by what is real. When Christ gave himself to us, he gives himself to us. That’s something very real. We’ve got to keep looking away from ourselves to Christ. If I look inward upon myself, it’s only darkness. There’s no certainty. We’re full of doubt. It’s when I look away to Christ and say yes, he is life, he is light, he is salvation, there is joy, there is assurance. Life is a constantly looking unto Christ. As long as we look unto Christ we are able to share in the victory of the cross and the resurrection. As we look unto Christ we are able to manifest something of the real life and power of the Holy Spirit.

MM: You talked about the resurrection of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in us. Is that the way in which we are sharing in the resurrection of Jesus now?

DT: Yes, it’s through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, you might say, is Jesus’ other self, although the Holy Spirit is distinct from Jesus, and yet the Holy Spirit is Jesus’ other person. The Holy Spirit comes to live within us, to reign over us. That’s Christ living in us. As the Holy Spirit comes, he seals within us the finished work of Christ, the new life of Christ, so that Christ is there, and Paul says, “It’s not I who live, it’s Christ who lives within me.” He lives within…by God, the Holy Spirit.


MM: You say that the forgiveness that we give others, it is really the forgiveness of Jesus working through us.

DT: It has to be. If we’re not forgiving other people, then there’s a blockage. The Holy Spirit isn’t able, isn’t working, isn’t flowing through us. He demands it, to receive that love and forgiveness, that we show Christ’s forgiveness one to another and forgive one another.

I was chaplain to a fairly large hospital in my last parish, and they had one wing for people who had a nervous breakdown. Doctors and nurses used to sit with patients. I would go in and chat to them all. One day I went into the sitting room, and there was a woman, maybe about mid-30s, sitting on a couch looking at family photographs. I sat down and she showed me her photographs — son and daughter about 12 and 14.

I kept wondering why she was in the hospital, and I looked at these photographs, and I said, “You love them.” She said, “Oh, very much so,” absolutely she loved her son and daughter. She showed me a photograph of her husband, and I looked at him and said, “You love your husband.” She said, “Oh, very much. He’s a marvelous man and it’s a great privilege to be married to him.”

When we were finished, I looked at her and said, “Why are you here in hospital?” She said, “I don’t want to live.” I said, “You don’t want to live? You’ve just shown me the family photographs, your son and daughter and husband, you tell me you love them.” She said, “Yes, I do. I have a marvelous husband.” “Why don’t you want to live?” She said, “I have no idea, but I’m terrified to be alone. If I’m alone, I’m going to do something violent, and that’s why I’m here in hospital.”

I asked her the question which I often ask as a minister, “Have you had a happy childhood?” She said, “No, not at all.” She told me one of these sad, dreadful stories, that her parents were both alcoholic and separated when she was 5. Her mother had married an alcoholic who physically and sexually abused her. Out came this terrible, ghastly story, so I felt pain as this woman told me this story. I said, “I’m terribly sorry.”

I said, “Could you ever forgive your parents?” She said, “Never.” I said, “Have you ever thought that there is a relationship between the fact that you can’t forgive your parents and you don’t want to live?” She said, “No, I’ve never thought that. No one, no doctor has ever suggested it.” I said, “I’m suggesting there’s a real relationship. You’ve been sinned against. I’m pained by your story, you’ve suffered, you’ve been wronged, and what can I say? I’m horrified and sad. But God has forgiven us everything, and we deserve nothing. But to receive God’s forgiveness, it does mean that we have to share God’s forgiveness with other people and forgive them.”

Then I said, “You can’t forgive them. You’ve been sinned against, you’ve been hurt dreadfully. All you can do is to ask God to give you a gift which you haven’t got, and none of us have, but a gift to forgive these parents of yours.” So we talked away — she was a nominal member of the church in another parish. At the end I said, “Would you like to pray?” She said yes. So I prayed with her, committed her, and this sad story, to the Lord, and asked God to give her the gift that she might forgive her parents. The result was dramatic, and the hospital discharged her within the week. To forgive is healing. It allows the Holy Spirit to flow through us, giving us life, the life of Christ. That’s the important thing.

MM: Forgiveness doesn’t mean that the initial act was somehow okay.

DT: No — it was an evil thing, a ghastly thing for the parents – their behavior, the treatment of this daughter, for her to be sexually abused. It was totally wrong. But from her point of view, it was a real grace to be able to give in that situation. That’s what God demands.

MM: The gift wasn’t so much for her parents as it was for her.

DT: It had a profound effect on her, in healing. But she had to forgive her parents. Hopefully, that will bring a sense of healing to them where they might be able to turn to God.

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Last modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2021, 1:12 PM