The key question: Who is Jesus?

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, 46, 7.

[Updated 12/11/2016]

Last time we looked at the wonder of God's grace seen in the dual mediatorial role of Jesus. JB continues this discussion in chapter three with the vital observation that in theology, our "dogmatic starting point" must be the question, "Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ?" Unfortunately, that often is not where we begin, focusing instead on the "utilitarian questions of 'how.'" JB elaborates:
In our pragmatic Western society in this technological age, our starting point so often is the problems of the world, of church and society---problems of race, the inner city, unemployment, poverty, violence, injustice. These are issues of such urgent importance that we give primacy to the question of how to solve them. We can too readily assume that Christianity is meaningful, useful, relevant, even true, only if it is seen to offer solutions to practical problems. We can too readily subsume theology... under the category of means and ends. (pp. 69-70)
This problem, according to JB, "is widespread in our churches today," He continues:
[As churches, we] can be so preoccupied with the problems of humanity, of society, of individual need or problems of the self, that we see the gospel exclusively in terms of these issues. We adopt an anthropological starting point, and then seek to justify religion in terms of its pragmatic value or relevance for our contemporary self-understanding---offering programs, structures, organizations, machinery to deal with these problems and the countless calls for action. It is as though by doing something, becoming more efficient, we will be successful and find solutions. (p. 70, emphasis added) 
Despite the pressures of these pragmatic concerns, JB pleads with churches not to give primacy to the "how" questions in formulating their theology and the practice that flows from it. Instead he pleads with them to emphasize first the "who" question. In this plea, JB is emphasizing a truth that was taught by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (to whom JB often refers):
Throughout the Bible, the indicatives of grace always precede the imperatives of law and obligation. It is only as we know who God is and what he has done and is doing that we can find appropriate answers to the question of how, and then see the incredible relevance of the gospel in every area of life. (pp. 70-71)
This truth has great significance for our understanding of worship. Worship of God (involving such things as church attendance) is not about what it does for us. As JB notes, "We worship God for God's sake" not our own. "We come to Christ for Christ's sake, motivated by love." And that encounter with God, transforms us as we are drawn into the love and life of the triune God. JB elaborates:
An awareness of God's holy love for us, revealed in Jesus Christ, awakens in us a longing for intimate communion---to know the love of the Father and to participate in the life and ministry of Christ. Worship in the Bible is always presented to us as flowing from an awareness or who God is and what he has done... (p. 71)
The point is that we don't worship and otherwise obey God in order to get (earn) something or to otherwise get God to do something; we worship God in order to share in God's living and loving. In the gospel, the imperatives (do this, don't do that) always preceed the indicatives (who we are, because of who God is and what he, in Christ, has done for us before we even thought of responding). JB comments:
Worship in the Bible is an ordinance of grace, a covenantal form of response to the God of grace, prescribed by God himself. This is supremely true of the New Testament understanding of worship, as the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son's communion with the Father and his mission from the Father to the world, in a life of wonderful communion. (p. 71) 

Answering first the question, "Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ?" is thus of supreme importance. Why? Because our doctrine of God (the who) determines our understanding of our response (as in worship---the what and how). If we see God as somehow aloof and apart from us, our worship becomes individualistic and typically moralistic (it's all about me---what I must do and how I must do it to get God to bless me). But if God is seen for who he truly is---a tri-personal communion of holy love, incarnate for us and with us in the Person of Jesus, and by the Spirt ---then our worship (response to God and his grace) will be one of love, one of participating in the triune communion of God into which we are drawn by grace. JB comments:
It is in this trinitarian way we have to see worship as the fulfillment of God's purposes in creation and redemption, to bring us into a life of communion with himself and one another. The triune God is in the business of creating community, in such a way that we are never more truly human, never more truly persons, that when we find our true being-in-communion. (p. 73)
This relational, trinitarian understanding of worship helps us see and appreciate the primary and essential role that the God-man Jesus, our Mediator, plays in worship as our High Priest. As JB notes, in worship we are participating in our Lord's own worship on our behalf (through his vicarious humanity). JB gives the example of the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, noting how they are principal ways we participate in what Christ has done, once and for all, and in what he continues to do. JB elaborates:
Baptism of Jesus by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Christ baptizes us by the Spirit that we might participate in his cleansing of our humanity and enter into his body, the communion of saints. At the Lord's Supper, he brings his passion to remembrance and draws us into wonderful communion---holy communion---with the Father, with himself and with one another [anticipating] our life in the kingdom of God, nourishing our faith "till he come." (p. 74)
Baptism and the Lord's Supper are not first about what we do, but about what God, in Christ, has done already and continues to do on our behalf. Thus we see baptism, for example, not as something that makes us a child of God, but what God in Christ has done to unite us to God as his children. Baptism affirms this truth, which is true in what JB calls "three moments":
  1. In the heart of the Father, we all have been children of God from eternity.
  2. We all became children of God when Christ the Son lived, died and rose again for all humanity long ago.
  3. As individuals, we become children of God when the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of adoption) "seals in our faith and experience what had been planned from all eternity in the heart of the Father and what was completed once and for all [2,000 years ago] in Jesus Christ" (p. 76).
The sacraments celebrate these three moments of the one act of salvation. In the gospel, it is the second moment that is the decisive one and baptism (along wit the Lord's Supper) is a sign of this one act of the triune God on our behalf---giving us ways to participate in, to experience, and thus be refreshed and renewed by the reality of God's work on our behalf. JB comments:
God forgives, God cleanses, God regenerates, God adopts, God sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts whereby we cry: "Abba, Father."  Our response to him is to say amen in faith---our passive recipient response. There is nothing more passive than dying, being buried, being baptized. (pp. 76-77)
In both baptism and the Lord's Supper, we celebrate God's covenant of grace---a covenant that is unilateral, not bilateral. That covenant is not an agreement we make with God as though God's grace is contingent on our faith; our decisions. We are not, for example, baptized in order to cause God to act, but because God has acted already, in Christ, on our behalf. JB comments:
The good news is that God has made a covenant for us in Christ and sealed it with his blood, nineteen hundred years ago [now 2,000]. It is a unilateral covenant of grace... but we are summoned through the Spirit to say amen to it in faith and to participate in "Christ and his benefits." (p. 77)
When we are baptized, we are saying "amen" to the one baptism of Christ (Ephesians 4:5), performed 2,000 years ago on behalf of all humanity. When we are personally baptized, we are incorporated into the one body of Christ, "that we might participate in all that [Christ] has done and is doing for us, that we might receive him with all his blessings." By the Spirit, Christ baptizes us "into a life of sonship, of service, of dying and rising with him in newness of life (Romans 6)" (p. 79). In these ways we understand baptism as a participatory seal, one that "marks out the individual personally as one who belongs to Christ, to make a visible difference between the church and the world" (p. 80).

Next time we'll look more at what JB has to say about our participation with Christ in and through the Lord's Supper. In the meantime, may we be reminded that the essential question in all of this is "Who is Christ," for that question leads us to the truth of all truths, about God, and about ourselves as children of God. May you rest in that truth today and every day!