Universalism vs. participation in Christ

This post continues our look at Thomas F. (TF) Torrance's trinitarian doctrine of salvation as summarized by Dick Eugenio in Communion with the Triune God. This time we'll look at TF's rejection of universalism and his teaching concerning participation in Christ. For the other posts in this series, click on a number: 123457891011.

Last time we looked at TF's teaching that salvation involves an "atoning exchange"--the stunning truth that the Son of God, through the Incarnation, united our humanity with his divinity, and through his vicarious human life, death, resurrection and ascension, healed us from the inside, giving us a share in his relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Given this teaching, TF has been accused of being a universalist. But as Eugenio notes, TF rejected that accusation:
Torrance considers both universalism and [the Calvinist doctrine of a] limited atonement as twin heresies that impiously subjugate the logic of grace to a logico-causal understanding.... He argues for the ontological oneness between all humanity and Jesus Christ by virtue of the hypostatic union, which is the ground of the atoning union and atoning exchange. [Now quoting TF:] "Since in [Jesus Christ] divine and human natures are inseparably united, the secret of every man, whether he believes or not, is bound up with Jesus." Such a statement is indeed quite misleading if isolated from Torrance's overall theology. What Torrance affirms is the universal scope, range, and sufficiency of Christ's atoning work, but it is not true that he is not concerned with the efficiency and efficacy of the atonement.... In the end, Torrance's ultimate stance regarding the apparent discrepancy between the universal range of Christ's atoning work and the reprobation of some... [was to state that] the damnation of sinners is a "strange mystery of iniquity" (Communion with the Triune God, Kindle ed, loc 1828).
Hold on Tight 
by Liz Lemon Swindle
Used with permission
TF acknowledged that, in the end, some might repudiate the salvation that is theirs in Christ. But this "mystery" does not overthrow the reality of the stunningly comprehensive nature of the atoning exchange accomplished in the person and work of Jesus. On this point, Eugenio quotes TF:
In Jesus Christ himself God has penetrated into our passion, our hurt, our violence, our condition under divine judgment, even into our utter dereliction, 'My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?,' but in such a profoundly vicarious way that in the very heart of it all, he brought his eternal serenity...to bear redemptively upon our passion. Furthermore, the redemption of our suffering also entails the redemption of our human weaknesses. Even the economic ignorance of Jesus Christ is vicarious, so that we may know God only according to the knowledge of the human Jesus (loc 1856).
To many, this might sound like universalism, but it is not. TF not only strongly emphasizes what Jesus has done to include all humanity in his life and love (via the atoning exchange), but also that God, in Christ, by the Spirit now invites and enables people to participate in that inclusion. On this point, Eugenio quotes TF:
In the complete union of the human and divine in Jesus Christ, vicariously and redemptively, the incarnate Son assumed our humanity and opened his mutual relation with the Father for human participation" (loc 1883, emphasis added).
The ontological union of God with humanity in the person of Christ points toward (and makes possible) our participation in that union, by which we receive personally the benefits of the atoning exchange. TF is careful not to turn this participation into a legalism (Pelagianism), by stressing the sole mediatorial role of Christ in every aspect of salvation: "Jesus already did everything for our salvation in his vicarious life and death...The only human role in the redemption drama is to share what Christ already did for us and in us" (loc 1896). Concerning that sharing, TF wrote this:
We must think of Jesus as stepping into the relation between the faithfulness of God and the actual unfaithfulness of human beings... Jesus steps into the actual situation where we are summoned to have faith in God, to believe and to trust in him, and he acts in our place and in our stead from within the depths of our unfaithfulness and provides us freely with a faithfulness in which we may share... If we think of belief, trust or faith as forms of human activity before God, then we must think of Jesus Christ as believing, trusting and having faith in God the Father on our behalf and in our place (loc 1910).  
Again, TF's strong emphasis on the objective, vicarious role of Christ in our salvation raises the charge of universalism. But that charge is mistaken, for as TF makes clear, he does not embrace universalism, emphasizing the importance of our grace-enabled, personal participation in the life and love of Christ by the Spirit. Eugenio cites as evidence some of TF's published sermons in which he preached "the need for people personally to call upon the Name of Christ" (loc 1942). As Eugenio notes, TF believed that a person cannot "stand in aloofness in relation to God." In that regard, TF wrote this:
Christ has triumphed. Yes! But that triumph can only be yours in faith.... It is the grace of God--that you can have as your own all the power of God; and can appropriate all that Christ has achieved on the Cross against sin, if only you will stretch out your hand and take it (loc 1942).
Eugenio also references one of TF's sermons in which he "explains the necessity to work out our own salvation, although he emphasizes that it is more a case of working out what has already been worked in" (loc 1958). Eugenio quotes TF on this point in another of his sermons:
If you want communion with Him, then you must be prepared to share with Him His board. You must be united with Him in mind and affections. You cannot sit down with him at His table without sitting in union of spirit and purpose with Him who came not to be ministered unto but to minister and give his life as ransom for many. You must be united to Him in His gentleness and purity, in His love and forgiveness. In short, it means that you must drink His cup, and be immersed with His baptism (loc 1958).
Next time we'll look further at this issue by reviewing, with Eugenio, what TF teaches concerning the doctrine of justification.

Note: to read more about GCI's position on universalism, click here.