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

How should we approach our sin, personally and in the pulpit?

Edited transcript

The Christian life

J. Michael Feazell: Reverend Torrance, it’s a joy to have you back with us. I want to ask you to draw on your many years of pastoral experience to talk about a topic that has to do with how a Christian lives in light of the fact that they are union with Christ, and how a pastor should work with a congregation in light of the sin that so easily besets us and that we’re surrounded with. How do those things work? We know that we’re complete in Christ, we know that we’re in union with Christ, we know that it’s the vicarious humanity of Christ that makes us who we are. Yet, that doesn’t mean that we can just not put any effort into serving God obediently. How does that work together?

David Torrance: That’s a searching and important question. How do we live the Christian life? How do we, as pastors, help people live the Christian life, or indeed, to receive Christ? I think that’s what you’re asking. What I feel strongly about and I would say to myself as a minister (because I am part of the church in all my faults)…

Too often we say to people, “You must live the Christian life with the help of the Lord or with the help of the Holy Spirit.” I think that’s wrong. I have a car about three years old, and if it breaks down I’m not going to take it to the garage and say, “Could you lend me some tools so I can fix my car,” or I’m not going to say, “Will you help me and give me a hand?” I hand him over the car. He fixes it. We can’t come to Christ and say, “Lord, will you help me live a good life, will you help me, guide me, in this line of activity.” He is Lord. We have to surrender and hand over everything.

That is our problem of the Christian life. How do we hand over everything? It’s vital. I always find it amazing, staggering, that the almighty God came to this earth and became a man. He became a particular man, a representative man, and yet at the same time remained God. Jesus is man and he is God. As man, he has come because in the end we can do nothing. We are helpless. We’ve been caught in sin, we are bound by sin. If you take the parable that Jesus told about the strong man, he said, “No one can enter the house of a strong man and plunder his goods without first binding that strong man, then he can take his goods.” In our natural state, we are over­come by the power of sin, which is a real power, and we are helpless. But God has lovingly come down, broken into our situation. He has, in Jesus, bound the strong man. He died on the cross and he has risen victorious.

But he has done more than that. In binding the strong man and setting us free, he has lived out on our behalf a new and a perfect life, a righteous life, and he wants to give us that life. As we come to Christ and open our lives and we ask Christ to come, he comes as our Savior, he comes as our Lord. He comes to give us that new life so that we receive forgiveness, we receive redemption, we receive reconciliation with God. It’s a marvelous thing because with Jesus ascended, we are made to ascend to the Holy Spirit. We are made to enter the presence of the Father and we are welcomed by the Father into his family.

What I always find staggering and amazing is we look at John 17…we are made to share in the fellowship of the Trinity itself, that God treats us as if we are Christ. But that’s only because in Christ we become new creatures — new men and new women. Jesus has lived our life for us in a double sense, that he took away our sin, our life…but he sanctified our life, turned it around, made it holy. So day by day, month by month, you and I, as we open our eyes to Christ, keep our eyes in Christ, are appropriating Christ in every situation in life.

I think it’s a disastrous thing to have people pray, “Lord, will you help me to do this?” Who’s in charge? If God helps me, I’m in charge. I can’t treat God as my servant or the Holy Spirit as my servant. He is the almighty God. He is Lord. I, myself, can do nothing. So every step, every day, every moment of the day has to be a looking unto Christ and surrender to Christ, but rejoicing, rejoicing that Christ is in control. Paul can say, “It’s not me, but it’s Christ who lives in me.” That’s what we’ve got to try to get over to our people. The sheer joy, freedom, release from the shackles of sin, the sheer release from all the worries, fears and anxieties is a letting go of God.

Personally, I had a happy marriage. We celebrated our 50 years. My wife was a doctor. She was, before we married, a missionary doctor in Africa. We came up to university together and …my career was broken because of the army and the war. We met when she came home on furlough. She would have gone back to Africa, but she didn’t go back. We married…had a happy time. But latter day she wasn’t well. She had Parkinson’s suddenly, and she died. People said, “What did you do?” I never thought of tomorrow. I never thought of the future. I felt we were in the hands of God. God loves her, he loves me, and we had a very happy time together.

Her illness brought us closer together. I had to do an awful lot for her. She passed away in peace. It’s hard to put into words… I remember vividly the day two and a half years ago. It was a lovely sunny day, and after lunch I asked my wife what she wanted to do. She said she would like some sunshine, so I took her out in her wheelchair and we sat in the sun. We came back a little late, at 5:00, and that night our youngest daughter came in, we had a meal… Normally she would go to bed at half past eight, but this time it’s half past nine. I helped her get ready for bed. We had prayers –we always had prayers together. I kissed her, told her I loved her, helped her to bed, and a quarter of an hour later, she was gone. She was restless. I said, “Would you like to sit up?” So I helped her sit up. She was in my arms as she passed away peacefully.

It sounds strange to say, but I had a tremendous feeling of the love of Christ and the presence of Christ that she didn’t suffer, she had no prolonged illness, didn’t have to go to hospital. She departed — it was in the hands of God. I felt the kindness of God. People would say, what about the future? I never thought about the future. We were in the hands of God. He is our Lord and master, and we day by day looked to him, thanked him that he’s our lovely, glorious Savior. He’s our Lord. He looks after tomorrow. Maybe that’s oversimplified, but I feel that’s the way I try to live so we don’t have the worries, the fears.

On one occasion, she wasn’t doing well and full of anxiety. I directed her to that passage in the Sermon of the Mount, “The birds of the air, they don’t care about tomorrow, the heavenly Father feeds them.” She told me a long time later, it was a great help and comforter, that the Lord provides. Yes, life can be difficult, it can be hard, we can face the dark and stormy days, but we know that the Lord is there. Not only is he there, but he is our mighty Redeemer and Lord who has total control over the whole situation.

In the ministry I tried always to direct people to Christ. The most disastrous thing to do would be for the church to draw attention to itself, and what the church is doing. Sadly, the church is good at doing that. But our task is to turn people away from us to Jesus Christ, and as far as possible to turn them away from their problems and throw them to Christ.

Dealing with sin in our lives

JMF: If I have a sin or a destructive habit that I’m struggling with or that’s bringing me down, or that is not the kind of behavior that reflects one who is in union with Christ, what is my role? How do I deal with that, and what is the pastor’s role? How does the pastor deal with that sort of thing in the congregation?

DT: We all have these problems, sadly, we’re all sinners, and as a pastor, I’m a sinner. How do I go about it? If there are bad habits, what do you do about those bad habits? Sadly, there’s a lot of illness in the world, and what do we do about that? We have to look to Jesus Christ. When Christ came and gave himself for us on our behalf and died for us and rose again… We have that great shout of triumph, the shout of the victor, “It is finished.” He had accomplished everything for our salvation, everything to solving all our problems and anxieties of life, perplexities… He has done everything for our complete physical healing. There’s nothing left to do. So we look to him and thank him for what he has done in the finished work of Christ, that he is the answer.

I attended a conference on prayer and healing on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of July. I responded warmly to that conference, and I’ve never witnessed so much physical healing ever before. I responded because when someone comes who is sick, he doesn’t pray, “Lord, here’s this person, he’s sick, he’s got cancer, please, take away the cancer.” He said when that person comes – this is what he does in practice – you try to help that person look away from their problem, away from their sickness, or if it’s a bad habit like drugs or whatever, look away from that problem and look to Jesus Christ and look to the cross and the fact that Christ has died and has risen, and say, “Complete victory belongs to me in the light of what Jesus has done. Complete deliverance belongs to me from this evil habit because of what Christ has done. Complete healing belongs to me because of what Christ has done, thank you Lord,” and go on and on saying thank you. As you thank the Lord, the miracle happens.

It might sound simple…it is very simple. But the gospel is very simple. It’s you and I who make it complicated with our sinful ways. Or the church makes it complicated. In that conference of prayer and healing, he had sessions on Thursday night and Friday night. Friday morning was ministers and leaders, Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, then we had a prayer. There were some marvelous healings. That’s all we did. Those who were asked to join in that prayer, and I shared in it, to help people to look at Christ, the finished work of Christ. He would say: “Now you say, ‘Because of what Christ has done, complete healing belongs to me, complete healing, because of what Christ has done, thank you.’” There were some remarkable healings. When we approach our people and they share the problems, we try to do that.

Take a common situation in a parish ministry — broken marriages. I’ve tried all my ministry to visit people whose marriages had a problem. I find that to be the most difficult side of the ministry because of hardened hearts. I’ve equally found some incredibly lovely stories of people who have been reconciled and whose marriage was healed. That has always upheld me and comforted me. I’ve had many failures at that and some lovely answers to prayer.

I’ve always said, when two people have a marriage problem, and I could see very vividly in one parish…a couple, they were in their 60s, married over 40 years, and he happily went off with another woman. I went back and forth between husband and wife for over three months, and I thought I was almost battering my head against a wall, because these are not easy situations. I tried to tell them that both had to first and foremost kneel at the foot of the cross and receive God’s forgiveness for themselves. They had to think of their partner, as a wife not to think of a husband who had gone off with another woman, but to kneel at the foot of the cross and receive God’s forgiveness for her life and receive the whole fullness of Christ, the life of Christ.

I told him he had to abandon the other woman. I said, “You’ve got to kneel before the foot of the cross and receive Christ. Only as you both die to yourselves, you’ll be raised up as one new person. And after 40 years, it means you start again from the beginning. But as you both kneel before that cross and in the light of all that God has done for you, forgiveness, he will raise you up with new life.” I went off on holiday. When I came back, they were side-by-side in church. They were there every Sunday. They were the last people to say goodbye when I left that parish.

It’s trying to help your people… We’re all sinful…I can’t look down at that, I’m in the same boat as a fellow sinner sharing as a fellow sinner with my people. But helping them to look away from ourselves, from our sins, from our problems, or from our physical illnesses to Christ, to the finished work of Christ, what Christ has done in his life, in his death, his resur­rection, ascension, absolutely everything… that finished work of Christ. When we think of the atonement, it is the entire ministry of Christ…his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost. We are reliant on Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

JMF: Is there a time for the pastor to admonish the congregation about some prevailing sin?

DT: Yes. But we have to be very conscious that we are sinners. We are not standing on a pedestal. We are fellow sinner. We’re seeking to come together and to ask God’s forgiveness.

When I entered my first parish, the ministry had gone wrong. It’s sad when the ministry goes wrong. Everything is turned around about. Office-bearers wouldn’t speak to one another, they were at loggerheads. In my first board meeting, I walked in, and they were there before me, standing in a circle… The two leading office-bearers were in the center, about to have a physical assault to one another. I had to strive into the middle and push the two apart. I wondered as a young man, what do I do now? I’ve never been taught about boxing in Christianity.

They were a bit appalled that here is a minister having seized two men, pushed them apart. I said, “Now we begin our board meeting.” This is my first board meeting in the church. It was the fastest meeting I had ever had, because no one would speak — it was over in half an hour. I was asked for a quick session meeting with the superior body, so I said to one of the elders, my session clerk, my leading elder, “What’s the problem?”

He got up, and I would say blew off. For about 20 minutes he told us all the problems, the animosities, the back-biting, and all sorts of dreadful things. I had to silence him after 20 minutes and thank him, and ask the other elder to say what was on his mind. He marvelously stood up and apologized. I looked at that, thanked him, and read the passage from the Bible, “Little children, love one another.” I didn’t know what to do. That’s all I could think about.

I said, “We have sinned against God. Here we are, office-bearers of the church, striving. It’s God’s church, and we’re quarrelling. The Lord is grieved with us! We are absolutely sinners.” I included myself. I said, “We have to pray and ask God to forgive us.” So we prayed and asked God to forgive us. Every one of us, “bring us together.” Then I shook hands, and they went away. I went home that night with a headache wondering what sort of church I had come to. For the next 18 months I preached through the Sermon on the Mount, preached on requests for forgiveness…we receive forgiveness as we give it. I said to them I would never appoint to office anyone in the church who was not at peace with God, without peace with everyone in the church, with everyone in the parish. In the end they came wonderfully together, and those two elders who fought became good friends. Another two, who hitherto wouldn’t speak, asked to share the car together in visiting their district.

You stand with them as a fellow sinner. You together ask God’s forgiveness, and you try to speak about the marvelous love of God and the fact that God is sad that we quarrel. He loves us, he’s forgiven us, he wants us to come enjoy that love and love one another. We can’t beat around the bush, but it’s not easy.

JMF: You mentioned thanksgiving as part of the repentance process. In asking for forgiveness, we already know we have forgiveness, so in one sense we are giving thanks, aren’t we, for knowing that we’re forgiven, but we’re giving thanks for the forgiveness even as we ask.

DT: In the small Bible class, one of the teenage girls, a lovely person, said, “How often must I ask for forgiveness before I receive it?” I said, our Lord says in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, our sins.” We ask, but we don’t go on asking. That would insult God — that we don’t believe that God loves us, that he’s forgiven us. Christ has forgiven us. So we come and ask, “Lord, forgive us our sins,” but as we look to Christ we thank him that he has forgiven us, forgiven us before we sinned, and before we were born. I find that a staggering thought. I always tried to say to my people, You must ask for forgiveness every day, but having asked for forgiveness, always say “thank you” that you are forgiven.

JMF: So the asking is like a participation in the fact of forgiveness.

DT: Absolutely. It’s a sharing in Christ’s finished work. Paul says, “In all things, in all times, in all circumstances give thanks to God.” We’re not good at that. But it’s important that we pray at all times with thanksgiving. If we don’t pray with thanksgiving, we have no faith. We’re not believing, we’re not accepting the marvelous love of God.

JMF: Paul gives admonition in Scripture, but he always does it from the context of “this is who you already are in Christ, this is who Christ has made you be, and therefore act like it.” He never turns it around and says, “You’re behaving badly, and if you don’t stop it then you’re lost.”

DT: Absolutely. Perhaps the severest forms of judgment we see in the gospel are out of the lips of Jesus. He was frank. When we look at the cross, we might belittle our sins. We might think it doesn’t matter. I say to people, “You look at the cross, you look at the fact that sin was so serious it took everything that God himself had got, to remove our sin and deliver us.” I think of that great cry, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” There you see the depths and the horror of sin. Sin is real, but thank God that we’re delivered from it. Our church needs to be cleansed, I pray every day that our church will be cleansed, purified. We must — but we thank God that there is complete cleansing, complete deliverance.GCS offers online master's degrees.

Last modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2021, 1:21 PM