Torrance: Christ's vicarious humanity

This post continues a series exploring T.F. Torrance in Plain English wherein Stephen D. Morrison presents nine key ideas in the Christocentric Trinitarian theology of Thomas F. Torrance. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1234, 5, 6, 8, 9.  

Last time we looked at Torrance's key idea of Christ's twofold mediation. This time we'll explore a related key idea: Christ's vicarious humanity (a doctrine that also addresses the Christian life). Morrison offers this summary:
Jesus lived as a human united to His Father, reconciling our humanity to God through His vicarious life of perfect faith, obedience, and prayer. The Christian life in all its aspects has been taken up in His life lived in our name and on our behalf. Our faith is understood rightly as an echo within His faith, sustained and made perfect in Him. We are set free from the burden of looking over our shoulders and worrying if we have "enough" faith, what little faith we have has been taken up and perfected in Christ. (p. 151)
Joy of the Lord by Greg Olsen (used with permission)

Salvation in Christ

Torrance's teaching concerning the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (which is grounded in Scripture and shaped by the teachings of the patristic fathers) is the basis for his insistence that salvation is not a transaction between us and God wherein we give God our repentance and faith and, in return, God gives us salvation. According to Torrance, viewing salvation as a transaction places us in a legalistic bind---throwing us back upon ourselves to muster up the right amount of faith and repentance. Morrison explains:
[Though] Torrance does not deny the necessity of rightly responding to God, [he] brilliantly displaces us as the focal point of our personal responses. Jesus Christ as a human being responded to the Father in perfect faith and repentance. Christ is the focal point of the human response to God, and our personal responses are made only within His response, as an echo to His vicarious humanity. (p. 153)
Central to Torrance's doctrine of Christ's vicarious humanity is his insistence that we avoid separating Christ's work (his doing) from his person/life (his being). As Morrison notes, "there simply is no saving work of Christ without equal recognition of His saving life" (p. 153). Sadly, many Christian teachers make this separation when they state that salvation was accomplished by Christ's death (alone). But Torrance insists that
it was not the death of Jesus that constituted atonement [salvation], but Jesus Christ the Son of God offering Himself in sacrifice for us. Everything depends on who He was, for the significance of His acts in life and death depends on the nature of His person. It was He who died for us. He who made atonement through his one self-offering in life and death. Hence we must allow the Person of Christ to determine for us the nature of His saving work, rather than the other way round. (p. 153-154, quoting Torrance in God and Rationality, p. 64) 
Because Torrance believes that Christ's person and work (his being and doing) are inseparable, he teaches that viewing salvation/atonement as a transaction external to the person of Jesus causes us to see repentance and faith as some sort of "admittance fee" to grace, thus throwing us back upon ourselves instead of upon Christ. As Morrison notes, Torrance's problem with a transactional, externalized (and thus legalistic) view of salvation (and thus of the gospel)
is that Jesus Christ does not remain essential for every aspect of our salvation, since the person of Christ has been marginalized. We know that we are saved only because of Jesus, but we lack a firm understanding of Christ's life as the essential foundation for our Christian lives. (p. 154)

Union with Christ

Fundamental to Torrance's relational (vs transactional/legal) understanding of salvation and the atonement, is the central place of the doctrine of union with Christ:
It is only through union with Christ that we partake of His benefits, justification, sanctification, etc.... Apart from Christ's incarnational union with us and our union with Christ on that ontological basis, justification degenerates into only an empty moral relation. (p. 155, quoting Torrance in God and Reality, pp. 64, 65)
For Torrance, salvation is to be understood as resulting from being "in Christ" rather than resulting from a mere external, legal transaction related to Jesus' work on the cross. Torrance emphasizes that salvation (and the atonement) is accomplished in and by Jesus---involving who he is as the incarnate Son of God acting on our behalf (as our representative and substitute). Salvation and atonement are not achieved apart from the person/life of Jesus. He, himself, is our salvation---atonement is accomplished in him, not the result of something achieved apart from him. Salvation/atonement is fully and only ours in union with Christ ("in Christ").

The Christian life

Torrance also sees the Christian life as fundamentally about union with Christ. Christian living is not "a work we are left to complete in ourselves," it is "a life lived exclusively in and through union with Jesus Christ" (p. 155). To view Christian living as something we do with some help from Jesus, and/or the Holy Spirit when needed, is to embrace what Torrance sees as a tragic error that leads to separating Christian living from union with Christ, thus legalizing the gospel in a way that divorces atonement from incarnation---again, a separation of Christ's work from his person.

The truth of Jesus, conveyed in the apostolic gospel, is that we do not live the Christian life by our own strength. Rather, in union with Christ, we, by the Holy Spirit, share in both who Jesus is (as fully human) and what he, as our representative and substitute, has done on our behalf. The apostle Paul put it this way:
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, KJV)
If we make the (all too common) mistake of separating Christ's work from his saving person, then the Christian life deteriorates into "a series of external works and religious efforts" (p. 157). Morrison points out that Torrance views Christ's vicarious humanity as
the faith, obedience, worship, prayer, repentance and life of the Son of God lived as a human being before the Father on our behalf. He fulfilled our human response to the Father by perfectly doing what we cannot do: living a life of true fellowship with God from within our sinful humanity." (p. 157).
Torrance thus sees Jesus as fulfilling God's covenant with humankind from both sides of the covenant relationship---both God's side and our side. This theological perspective is radically different from the transactional idea of salvation and the atonement in which we see the human side of the covenant being fulfilled by us---the idea that God does his part, then it's up to us to do ours. The problem with this idea, of course, is that it overlooks the reality that we are unable to do what is required of us. Jesus, standing in for us as one of us, must fulfill what is required of us. Indeed, that is precisely what he does, as Morrison notes:
In our place, Jesus Christ takes up "our side" of the covenant and perfectly lives a life of faithfulness and obedience to His Father as a human. In Him, the covenant is completed from the side of God to humanity and from the side of human beings in response to God. Any response that we make to God is a response from within the humanity of Christ, upheld and sustained by the one who perfectly lived a life of obedient faithfulness on our behalf before the Father. This is the saving significance of Christ's life. (pp. 157-158)
Rather than relying upon ourselves, the Spirit leads us to rely fully upon Jesus Christ. Any effort of our own then flows from that reliance and is, as such, an "echo... within the obedient humanity" of Christ. This does not mean that our response is passive, but that it is "taken up in and with Christ's response in our humanity." This then brings us back to Torrance's emphasis on union with Christ, for "in Christ" we offer our response---"in Him we participate in the Triune life of God, as we are lifted beyond our human capacity to participate in His relationship with the Father" (p. 158).

Though our responses to God are meager, and often flawed, they are, nevertheless, called for as we "concentrate what little faith we have on the perfect faithfulness of the Son of God." Torrance teaches that
our response to God's grace does not depend on us, but neither does it exclude us.... What matters is not the strength of our response to God, of our faith or obedience. What matters is Christ's life lived on our behalf. (pp. 159, 160)
By understanding that our faith is upheld within the faithfulness of Jesus as he responds to the Father, we are freed from the legalistic trap of turning our faith into a work. As Morrison notes, "when faith is understood objectively as Jesus Christ's faith from within our humanity, and subjectively as our echoed faith upheld in His faith, then divine grace returns [to] the center of the Gospel" (p. 161).

Worship and the sacraments

This grace-based understanding sheds light on all aspects of Christian living including worship and the sacraments. When we worship, we participate in the Son's worship of the Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit. Our worship is thus an echo of the love and trust within the Triune fellowship, with Christ himself our worship leader.

We also participate in this Triune communion through the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper (the Eucharist). That participation is twofold, "as we participate in Christ and as Christ participates in our humanity" (p. 167). As Torrance notes, when we are baptized, we are participating in Christ's own baptism on our behalf:
Jesus was baptised with the baptism of repentance not for his own sake but for ours, and in him it was our humanity that was anointed by the Spirit and consecrated in sonship to the Father.... For us baptism means that we become one with him, sharing his righteousness, and that we are sanctified in him as members of the messianic people of God, compacted together in one Body in Christ. (p. 169, quoting Torrance in Theology in Reconciliation, pp. 86-87)
In like manner, when we partake of the Lord's Supper, we are participating in Christ's own communion with the Father, thus taking part in his status before God. Torrance puts it this way:
In eating [his] body and in drinking his blood we are given participation in his vicarious self-offering to the Father. As we feed upon Christ [we are] receiving his eternal life into our actual life... [as we do] he unites us and our worship with his own self-consecration and so offers us to the Father in the identity of himself as Offerer and Offering. (p. 171, quoting Torrance in Theology in Reconciliation, p. 111)

Answering objections

Objections to Torrance's teaching concerning Christ's vicarious humanity (including the Christian life) typically are expressed in questions like these: What place do we have in salvation if Christ has done everything on our behalf? Are human beings nothing more than passive objects? Is our relationship with God only superficial? What about the call in the New Testament to personal response to God's grace? Torrance answers these and related questions by asking us to begin with the answer to a much larger, more fundamental question: Who is Jesus Christ? In answering, he directs our attention to the person of the incarnate Son of God, where we learn that divine and human agency are not mutually exclusive. Morrison comments:
There is only one person, the Son of God, who is at once fully God and fully human; but while the humanity of Jesus Christ is a real and true humanity, it has no independent existence apart from the incarnation. In other words, the humanity of Jesus is both fully dependent on the Son of God and truly genuine humanity. (pp. 172-173) 
From the God-man Jesus Christ we learn that divine agency (grace) and human agency (response) are not mutually exclusive. As Torrance likes to put it, "All of grace means all of man." Torrance explains: "The fullness of grace creatively includes the fullness and completeness of our human response in the equation" (pp. 173-174, quoting Torrance in The Mediation of Christ, xii).


In Jesus, God acts on our behalf, and on our behalf, Jesus then offers a perfect human response. Rather than excluding us, what Jesus does for us, as one of us, opens the way for and so includes and perfects our response---our participation in (sharing in) his human response. Morrison comments:
It is only in and through Christ's vicarious humanity that we personally respond to God, but we do genuinely respond. So, while we are not puppets in God's hands, we are nevertheless wholly dependent on Jesus Christ and His vicarious response to the Father as we personally respond to God. In a sense we might say Jesus Christ is our objective relationship with God, who at once includes our subjective relationship, upholds it, perfects it, and yet retains its real and genuine humanity.... We are at once genuinely free and totally dependent on Him. (pp. 175, 176)
[Updated on 5/3/2019] 

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