Monday, February 25, 2013

By Grace Alone

I am currently studying the subject "Jesus the Christ" at Tabor College as a part of my degree this semester.  The primary texts for this subject are by theologian Thomas Torrance, who has written a comprehensive work on the Incarnation, a key doctrine of the Christian faith about God taking on flesh and entering into our existence in the person of Jesus.  Torrance delves deep into this doctrine presenting "a full account of the meaning and significance of the life and person of Jesus Christ, arguing that his work of revelation and reconciliation can only be understood in the light of who he is (real God and real man united in one person)."

One of the biblical motifs used to describe Jesus is Him being referred to as the second Adam.  In 1 Corinthians 15:45, we read, "So it is written: 'The first man Adam became a living being', the last Adam [Jesus], a life giving spirit."  In explaining this motif, Torrance makes a very interesting parallel between the disobedience of the first Adam and the continued disobedience of humankind, despite God's reconciling act of grace through the second Adam, Jesus.
"Adam refused to preserve the order of paradise, refused to keep within the limits of creatureliness imposed upon him by the creator, refused to contain himself within the bounds of God's will, and now man, as Adam's child, refuses to fit into the order of restoration; mankind will not admit that they are flesh standing under judgement and can live only by grace.  They will not admit that God is right in his verdict on them, and thus cling only to God's mercy manifest in his very judgement, cling only to God's forgiveness which carries in its heart the judgement of the sin of the forgiven.  Humanity resents utter reliance on God; men and women want at least to cooperate with God in saving their lives - but that is the very way to lose their lives for by the very process sin is not really acknowledged, and its judgement and condemnation in the flesh are not really accepted."  (Torrance, p. 72)
In the context of the continuing struggle with sin for many Christians (Romans 7), I had an "aha" moment while reading this statement by Torrance.  Our acceptance of God's mercy and forgiveness contrasted with our unwillingness to fully embrace God's grace due to our self-reliance was particularly challenging for me.  I have long held to Augustine's understanding of operative and cooperative grace - operative grace referring to what God has commenced in us through His saving action and cooperative grace referring to what God completes in us through our cooperation with His saving action.  However, the idea of cooperative grace too easily plays into a form of works righteousness that is partially dependent upon what we do.  Paul addresses this issue in Romans 7 where he highlights our inability to deal with sin through observance of the law (cooperative grace):  "For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out" (Rom 7:18).  It seems the harder I try to cooperate with God's grace I am actually nullifying His grace by relying on myself to do what God has already done!

Romans 8, however, demonstrates the weakness of self-reliant grace and the fullness and power of Spirit-driven grace:  "For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.  And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit" (Rom 8:3-4).  God's salvation does not require my cooperation but my submission.  Grace that is dependent upon my cooperation is incomplete and denies the power of sin, but full submission to the operative grace of Jesus Christ is complete, totally destroying the power of sin "because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death" (Rom 8:2).

This is an enormous paradigm shift for me which totally changes the way I read another key passage in Romans that I previously understood in terms of operative and cooperative grace.  Romans 12:1-2 says, " view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship.  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."  God's mercy is all about His grace, whereas, offering myself as a living sacrifice is all about my submission, not cooperation.  My transformation is complete not by what I do in response to what God has done, but by fully submitting myself to what Christ has done and allowing His Spirit to complete His work in me.

Is it any wonder that we continue to struggle with sin when "humanity resents utter reliance on God" (Torrance)?!

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