November 25, 2016

The wonder of God's grace!

This post continues a review of James B. (JB) Torrance's book, "Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace." For additional posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 567.

[Updated 12/3/2016]

Through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, our humanity has been re-created. This stunning gift of God's grace was accomplished on our behalf, not merely through what Jesus did (though it includes that), but by and through who Jesus is---the God-man who in his vicarious humanity stands in for and represents us all. As JB likes to say, Jesus is the one and the many. In order to do for us what we could never do for ourselves, the eternal Son of God became fully human. In doing so, he assumed our fallen humanity (not some other type of human nature) so that we "might be turned back to God, in him by his sinless life in the Spirit and through him in us" (p. 53). Oh, the wonder of God's grace!

Icon of Christ illustrating his dual nature
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
To understand and appreciate who Jesus Christ is for us, as one of us, it's vital to grasp the nature of our Lord's dual mediatorial role. As God, Jesus acted on God's behalf in the God-humanward direction. As human, he acted on humanity's behalf in the human-Godward direction. Whereas Christians readily acknowledge the former, they frequently overlook (or at least minimize) the latter. Though seeing Jesus coming to us bearing God's forgiveness (justification), they fail to see Jesus responding back to God as our representative and substitute. As a result, sanctification is viewed largely our own responsibility (albiet with the Spirit's help) with our own faith, repentance and obedience being the only human-Godward movement at play. JB decries this mistaken viewpoint:
It does not do full justice to the meaning of grace, for it short-circuits the vicarious humanity of Christ. Grace does not only mean that in the coming of Jesus Christ, God gives himself in holy love to humanity. It also means the coming of God as man, to do for us as a man what we cannot do for ourselves---to present us in himself through the enternal Spirit to the Father. In other words, the human-Godward movement, in which we are given to participate (as in worship and communion), is given freely and unconditionally. Our response in faith and obedience is a response to the response already made for us by Christ to the Father's holy love, a response we are summoned to make in union with Christ.... [Calvin, in alignment with the Greek fathers, understood] that "all parts of our salvation are already complete in Christ" in virtue of [Christ's] obedience for us, and that we are summoned to a life of "union with Christ" to become in ourselves what we already are in Christ our head. (pp. 53-4, emphasis added)
JB makes an important distinction between what Calvin (following the teaching of the Greek fathers) refers to in his writings as "legal repentance" and "evangelical repentance." Whereas legal repentance says "Repent, and if you do you will be forgiven," evangelical repentance says "Christ has borne your sins on the cross; therefore receive God's forgiveness in repentance." Repentance (our response) does not condition God into being gracious---no, forgiveness precedes respentance. As the New Testament clearly shows, we repent not in order to be forgiven, but because we are forgiven (already). JB explains this priority (in time and importance) of grace by noting that the indicative ("you are forgiven") precedes the imperative ("repent"). "Repentance" says JB, "is our response to grace, not a condition of grace" (p. 54). It is the goodness (grace) of God that leads us to repentance.

Because we hear (and receive) the word of forgiveness and love already spoken by the Father (a word that, by its very nature, includes God's judgment on us as being guilty of sin), we respond in humble submission, gratefully receiving God's gift of forgiveness in Christ. Of course, our response of faith and repentance is imperfect, but what we cannot do (respond perfectly to God), Jesus, in his vicarious humanity, has done already for us (on our behalf) by perfectly submitting to the Father. JB comments:
That is the wonder of God's grace! God not only speaks the word of forgiveness to us, He also provides for us one, in Jesus Christ, who makes the perfect response of vicarious penitence. So God accepts us, not because of our repentance---we have no worthy penitence to offer---but in the person of one who has already said "amen" for us, in death, to the divine condemnation of our sin---in atonement. (p. 56)
What then is the place of our faith and repentance? They are our response to grace, not a condition of grace. This response is the Spirit's gift to us, allowing us to participate in the vicarious repentance of Christ---his self-offering to the Father on our behalf as our High Priest. As JB notes, "God's grace is unconditionally free, but it summons us to receive it unconditionally in faith and penitence, in love and obedience" (p. 57).

Though most Christians rightly undersant that it is by grace that we are forgiven (justified), many (erroneously) believe that we take it from there---we grow up in Christ (are sanctified, in that sense) through our own effort. But the gospel truth is that justification, sanctification and glorification are all by grace, which is to say that they are accomplished by, in and through Christ on our behalf. As God, Christ forgives us, and as human (through his vicarious humanity), Christ sanctifies, then glorifies us.

When we fail to understand the dual, mediatorial role of Christ (and rely upon it), we inevitably take our eyes off Jesus---off his worship and offering to God on our behalf. When that happens we are "thrown back on ourselves" (as JB likes to put it) relying upon our own feeble efforts---our own worship ("religion")---instead of relying on Christ. Decrying this unfortunate situation, JB makes this impassioned declaration:
There is no more urgent need in our churches today than to recover the trinitarian nature of grace---that it is by grace alone, through the gift of Jesus Christ in the Spirit that we can enter into and live a life of communion with God our Father. (p. 59)
Jesus, for us, as one of us, is the one true worshipper, the one faithful and obedient child of God, who alone fulfills God's righteous requirements for humanity. That being the case, it is in and through him (and only in and through him) that we may draw near to God (having been brought near to God in him). Thus worship is God's gift of grace to us in Christ. And that is why all of our acts of obedience-worship (e.g. baptism, Eucharist, prayer, etc.) must be seen as ordinances of grace. Rather than what we do to earn (or in some other way secure) God's grace, they are ways by which we celebrate and thus "live into" (receive, in gratitude) the grace of God that already is ours in Jesus Christ, by the Spirit. JB comments:
God comes to us as man in Jesus Christ to stand in for us, pray for us, teach us to pray and lead our prayers. God in grace gives us what he seeks from us---a life of prayer---in giving us Jesus Christ and the Spirit. So Christ is very God, the God to whom we pray. And he is very man, the man who prays for us and with us.... 
Grace means that God gives himself to us as God, freely and unconditionally, to be worshiped and adored. But grace also means that God comes to us in Jesus Christ as man, to do for us and in us what we cannot do. He offers a life of perfect obedience and worship and prayer to the Father, that we might be drawn by the Spirit into communion with the Father, "through Jesus Christ our Lord." (pp. 64-5)
From start to finish---justification through sanctification, all the way to glorification---our salvation is by, in and through Jesus Christ, the "one for the many." This is the truth, the stunning reality, the wonder of Gods' grace! Let us embrace it (and be embraced by it) and in doing so, find life! Amen.

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