Thursday, July 12, 2007

Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace -- chapter 2 The priesthood of Christ

Previous Posts

About James Torrance
Chapter 1 -- Trinitarian vs Unitarian worship

This chapter starts with a story. I like stories.

It's Torrance's story about meeting a man on the beach. Torrance had just come out of the ocean on his afternoon swim and an elderly fellow who had been strolling the beach struck up a conversation. When the elderly fellow found out that Torrance was a pastor, he began to pour out his heart.

This man's wife of 45 years lay dying from cancer, and he had been walking the beaches in desperation, trying to figure out how to live without her. His father had been a minister, but he had drifted from faith. "... I was remembering how my father was a man of prayer and had wonderful faith when my mother died. I wish I had that faith. I have been walking up and down this beach trying to pray, but I can't!" came the man's plaintive cry.

Did Torrance give a lesson on prayer? Did he remind him of the words of the Lord's Prayer or the Prayer of Jabez? No

Torrance reminded him that Jesus knew all this -- and that scripture tells us that when we don't know how to pray, Jesus himself prays for us. He reminded the man of Jesus warning to Peter that Satan would sift Peter like wheat, but Jesus said "But I have prayed for you Simon, that your faith may not fail" (Luke 22:31). He reminded the man that Paul in Romans 8 tells us "The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express." He reminded the man that Jesus died that we might live and nothing shall separate us from the love of God. Then he prayed with the man right there on the beach.

The next day he met the man again. This fellow had gone home and told his wife everything, and she wanted Torrance to come. Of course he did. Torrance told her about the Trinity -- not in theological terms but in terms of the loving God who sent his Son to die that we might have forgiveness and the Spirit who draws us unto that Son so that we might enjoy eternal life. He spoke about Christ as our great high priest praying for us.

A few weeks later, Torrance received a note from the man saying his wife had died "safe in the arms of Jesus"

Immediately after the story, this quote: “It seems to me that in a pastoral situation our first task is not to throw people back on themselves with exhortations and instructions as to what to do and how to do it, but to direct people to the gospel of grace3 – to Jesus Christ, that they might look to him to lead them, open their hearts in faith and in prayer, and draw them by the Spirit into his eternal life of communion with the Father.” (45)

That's the best part of the chapter -- Torrance then goes into an exploration of Christ as our high priest. I've been preaching through Hebrews on Wednesdays, so I've been immersed in the priesthood of Christ. Torrance takes time to distinguish between contractual repentence and evangelical repentence -- in contractual repentence, we repent that we might be forgiven. In evangelical repentence, we repent in response to the great grace extended to us in Christ's work. As Steve Brown says "Grace always rolls downhill"

Torrance does give two great flashes of insight.

The first arises from evangelical repentence. Christ says "I forgive" before we even repent. Torrence asks us to imagine what we might do if someone told us they forgave us when we didn't think we'd done anything wrong. Odds are we'd be offended that we were being unjustly accused, and who is this smug person offering us forgiveness in the first place when we were justified in our actions to begin with, thank you very much. Odds are, in our offence we'd wind up rejecting the very forgiveness offered (oh we might graciously say something to the other person, but inside, the inner dialogue would reveal the dare they judge us so!). Without the regenerating grace of the Spirit, enabling us to see that we have done wrong, we will reject the freely offered grace.

The second arises from church history. Arius, the great heretic, apparently derived some of his thinking from the role of Christ as high priest. His thinking was that Christ could not at the same time be fully God and offer prayers to God on behalf of the people. If Christ was high priest, he couldn't be fully God. The insight here is that the great heresies (and thus the great doctrines) arise from issues that revolve around relationships -- in this case the relationship of Christ's divine nature and his human nature.

Christians cling to these great doctrines, for they define spiritual health. We cling to the Trinity as one God in three persons. This shows that the very nature of the living God's identity is in relationship of self-giving. We cling to the full humanity and the full divinity of Chrsit, for that is the key to the resolution of justice and love. We cling to the mystic union of the believer to Christ, for that is the ground of all Christian unity, all Christian growth.

Soli Deo Gloria