Professor Thomas F. Torrance on Union with Christ
Professor Thomas F. Torrance on Union with Christ
Excerpts from The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church,
London: James Clarke & Co., 1959
It is thrilling to see so many lectures and essays and sermons on “Union with Christ” emerging in our time. Nothing could possibly be more important as Jesus’ union with the human race is the very heart of the gospel. Yet it is apparent that many of the old errors are rearing their heads once again. I thought it might be helpful to quote Professor T. F. Torrance at length on this subject to help us all keep our proper Christological bearings.
“Is the spiritual union another union, a union in addition to our carnal union with Christ, or is it a sharing in the one and only union between God and man wrought out in Jesus Christ? That is a very important question, for if the spiritual union is an additional union, then our salvation depends not only on the finished work of Christ but upon something else as well which has later to be added on to it before it is real for us. That was in fact the idea taught by Romans for example, in their doctrine of baptismal regeneration and ex opera operate sacramental incorporation into Christ, but it is the same idea that is taught also by Protestants in their doctrine of a union with Christ which is effected by faith or by conversion through which alone what Christ has done for us becomes real for us. Both these forms of the same error lead to a doctrine of man’s co-operation in his own salvation; and so involve a doctrine of conditional grace.”
“This doctrine is unfortunately found in the Westminster Catechisms. It is particularly clear in the later Covenant theology in which man was said to acquire ‘a saving interest in Christ’ through entering into a personal covenant with Him in addition to the Covenant of Grace sealed to him in baptism and proclaimed to him (on this condition) in the Gospel. As against that grave aberration it must be insisted that there is only one union with Christ, that which He has wrought out with us in His birth and life and death and resurrection and in which He gives us to share through the gift of His Spirit. The difference between these two views may appear very slight indeed at this point, but the implications of this difference are very far-reaching especially in the whole sphere of the life and work of the Church, in the doctrine of grace, and in our understanding of the Sacraments. (Torrance, The School of Faith, cvii-cviii).”
“How wide is the range of “the carnal union” which Christ has effected between Himself as the Incarnate Son and human flesh? Does this include all men, or does it refer only to the elect? This is of fundamental importance for the doctrine of the Spirit. If Christ’s incarnational union with us involves all men, then we must give a proper interpretation to the pouring out of the Spirit upon ‘all flesh,’ but if Christ’s incarnational union only involves those who believe in Him or only some out of the human race, then the doctrine of the Spirit’s work must be changed accordingly. The question to faced is whether Christ only entered into a generic relation with men through becoming one particular man, or also entered into an ontological relation with all men in the assumption of our human flesh. Two caveats against the former ought to be stated right away. If Christ only entered into a generic relation with men then (a) the saving union of men with Christ must be regarded as an additional union added by the Spirit on to the union which He has perfected in Himself; and (b) the Church can only be construed in terms of an extension of the Incarnation, both of which we must reject as erroneous.”
“This problem cannot be discussed fully here, but in line with what has already been said above about the relation of Christ to the creation, we may remind ourselves that the eternal Son and Word of God is He in whom all men cohere for He is the Creator who gives them being and through His Spirit holds them in being. There is thus an ontological relation between the creature and the Creator reposing upon His sheer grace, in which He gives them being as realities distinct from Himself, so that the ontological relation, as Barth has so clearly and decisively shown, is not reversible. That is, the Son and Word of God became man by becoming one particular Man, but because He is the Creator Word who became Man, even as the Incarnate Word He still holds all men in an ontological relationship to Himself. That relation was not broken off with the Incarnation.”
“It may be argued that this applies only to the eternal Son, but if we really hold that the human nature and the divine nature share in one hypostasis or person, it will be extremely difficult to maintain that Christ has only generic relation to men. In any case it belongs to the very essence of the Incarnational life and work of the Son that in Him redemption penetrates back to the very beginning and reunites man’s life to God’s creative purpose. Redemption is no mere afterthought on the part of God, for in it the original creation comes to a transcendent realisation, and the one Covenant of Grace made with all creation is fulfilled. The Biblical teaching is quite explicit that in Christ all things are really involved in reconciliation, that He is not only the Head of believers, but the Head of all creation and that all things visible and invisible are gathered up and cohere in Him—from which we cannot exclude a relation in being between all men and Christ. The teaching of the earlier of the Catechisms is that Christ is the Head of men and angels, the Head of all men, and as the Head of all men died for all men, so that all men are involved already objectively in His human life and in His work in life and death, i.e. not only on judicial and transactional grounds, but on the ground of the constitution of His Person as Mediator.”
“Now this carries with it the implication ‘that human beings have no being apart from Christ as man’ (which Dr. Henry rejects, The Gospel of the Incarnation, p. 5). If Christ had not come, if the Incarnation had not taken place, and things between man and God had been and are allowed to take their course as a result of man’s estrangement from God and God’s judgement upon man, man would disappear into nothing. It belongs to the nature of sin that it is alienation from God, and therefore that it is alienation from the source of all being in the Creator. There is nothing that the rebel or the sinner wants less than to be laid hold of by God in spite of his sin and be restrained from his sinful movement away from God, but that is precisely what happened in the Incarnation. The Incarnation means that God refused to hold back His love, and His loving affirmation of His creation, that He refused to let man go the way of his sin, from alienation to alienation, and so ultimately into non-being. The Incarnation means that God Himself condescended to enter into our alienated human existence, to lay hold of it, to bind it in union with Himself; and the consummation of the Incarnation in the death and resurrection means the the Son of God died for all men, and so once and for all constituted men as men upon whom God had poured out His life and love, so that men are for ever laid hold of by God and affirmed in their being as His creatures. They can no more escape from His love and sink into non-being than they can constitute themselves men for whom Christ has not died. How can God co back upon the death of His dear Son? How can God undo the Incarnation and go back upon Himself? How can God who is Love go back upon the pouring out of His love once and for all and so cease to be Himself? That is the decisive, final thing about the whole Incarnation including the death of Christ, that it affects all men, indeed the whole of creation, for the whole of creation is now put on a new basis with God, the basis of a Love that does not withhold itself but only overflows in our unending Love. That is why creation still continues in being, and that is why man still exists, for God has not given him up, but on the contrary poured out His love upon him unreservedly once and for ever, decidedly and finally affirming man as His child, eternally confirming the creation as His own handiwork. God does not say Yes, and No, for all He has done is Yes and Amen in Christ. That applies to every man, whether he will or no. He owes his very being to Christ and belongs to Christ, and in that he belongs to Christ he has his being only from Him and in relation to Him.”
“All this is not to say that a man may not suffer damnation, for he may in spite of all reject Christ and refuse God’s grace. How that is possible, we simply cannot understand: that a sinner face to face with the infinite love of God should yet rebel against it and choose to take his own way, isolating himself from that love—that is the bottomless mystery of evil before which we can only stand aghast, the surd which we cannot rationalise, the enigma of Judas. But it happens. Just as it is by the very breath God gives us that we sin against Him, so it is by the very being that a man is given in and through Christ that he may yet turn his back upon Christ and deny Him, and so shatter himself against the love of God that will not let him go just because it does not cease to love. But this does mean that if a man irrevocably chooses the way of his sinful self-will and suffers damnation, he does not and cannot go into non-being, disappearing into annihilation, for the Incarnation and death of Christ cannot be undone. The sinner cannot undo the fact that Christ has gathered him into a relation of being with Him, and has once and for all laid hold of him in His life and death and resurrection.”
“This may be stated in another way. The sinner cannot isolate himself from God by escaping into an area where God’s love does not love and where he can be left to himself. Even in hell he cannot be left to himself for there he is still apprehended by the fact that God loves, that His love negates all that is not love just by being love, that His love refuses to allow the sinner to escape being loved and therefore resists the sinner’s will to isolate himself from that love. His being in hell is not the result of God’s decision to damn him, but the result of his own decision to choose himself against the love of God and therefore of the negative decision of God’s love to oppose his refusal of God’s love just by being Love. This negative decision of God’s love is the wrath of the Lamb, that is to say, the once and for all fact that Christ has died for the sins of the world, the finalizing of the love in an eternally decisive deed, which just because it cannot be undone stands irresolutely opposed to all that is not love, or that resists it. Just because the love of God has once and for all drawn all men into the circle of its own loving, it has thereby rejected all that rejects God’s love. It does not reject by ceasing to love but precisely by continuing to love and therein rejecting all that rejects love. Therefore the sinner in hell cannot escape the fact that he is loved, cannot escape into being left to himself, and therefore even in choosing himself so as for ever to be himself, he cannot escape from himself as one loved, so that he is for ever imprisoned in his own refusal of being loved and indeed that is the very hell of it” (Torrance, The School of Faith, cxi-cxvi).