John E. McKenna, The Vicarious Humanity of Jesus Christ

John McKennaJohn E. McKenna was adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific Seminary. He studied under Thomas F. Torrance at the University of Edinburgh and received his PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary. He died in 2018. 

Dr. McKenna discusses the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

Edited transcript

JMF: In this interview we are going to discuss the vicarious humanity of God as Jesus Christ. I’d like to begin by reading a quotation from a book – The Mediation of Christ, by Thomas F. Torrance:

To preach the gospel of the unconditional grace of God in that unconditional way is to set before people the astonishingly good news of what God has freely provided for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus. To repent and believe in Jesus Christ and commit myself to him on that basis, means that I do not need to look over my shoulder all the time to see whether I have really given myself personally to him, whether I really believe and trust him, whether my faith is at all adequate for in faith, it is not upon my faith, my believing, or my personal commitment that I rely, but solely upon what Jesus Christ has done for me, in my place and on my behalf, and what he is and always will be as he stands in for me before the face of the Father. That means that I am completely liberated from all ulterior motives in believing or following Jesus Christ, for on the ground of his vicarious human response for me, I am free for spontaneous joyful response and worship and service as I could not otherwise be. (p. 95)

As I said, that’s Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ. You were a student of Thomas Torrance, you studied under him and knew him personally. In today’s program, we’d like to talk about briefly who Thomas Torrance was, as he passed away recently, and what is this vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ that he is talking about that I just read.

JM: I’m very happy that you read that sentence and mentioned that Thomas has gone to be with the Lord in heaven. The last time we spoke together in his nursing home, he said to me, as soon as he got to heaven he would look up Karl Barth and find out what Karl thought about the direction in which he had taken – Barth’s theology.

It was a rather long sentence (three sentences), difficult to understand. We’ve already talked about the freedom of God to be as he is with his grace in the Old Testament. We spoke about the way that God, as his grace, had become the person of the Lord Jesus Christ who was our Savior. This sentence on the vicarious humanity has to do with all that God was able to achieve by embodying himself in Jesus Christ and what that means for us. So I’m very glad to think about Tom being in heaven and you and I sitting here becoming liberated as Christ applies his life to us – that’s the vicarious humanity the way that God is free to give us his Christ and his Spirit as the revelation of the Father – our Father and his Father.

JMF: Vicarious humanity – being human for us in our place and on our behalf, Thomas Torrance brings up the concept of “I don’t have to worry about my repenting being good enough, because Jesus is repenting for me.” How does that work?

JM: That’s a wonderfully relieving, delivering concept once you’re able to lay hold of it. Both the Torrances in Scotland, James Torrance and Thomas Torrance, were champions of this concept. James taught it all across the world while he was alive. He saw that all Christians worship as having a tendency to be something that we do – the church does. We thank God. We sing hymns, we pray, we do this, we do that. We take communion.

JMF: And because we do, God is pleased with us.

JM: Yes. For James Torrance, that was putting on its head the real meaning of worship. It is Christ who is obedient to the Father. It is the Spirit that Christ has sent that runs the church. So it’s what the Spirit does, not what the church does, that provides that kind of worship which is of the Father. They were always wanting to convert people from themselves, from that kind of self-centeredness. It isn’t what we do – from beginning to end, it is what Christ does for us. Christ is our worship.

JMF: So, our faith is in Christ, not in how well we do the things we ought to do. Our faith is in Christ, who did all those things for us perfectly.

JM: He did it not just on the cross and his resurrection, he did it with the wholeness of his life – a wholeness of the life that is continuing – he lives even today. In the Incarnation, you have to think of the word become flesh as the embodiment of God’s grace and truth and covenant relationship with Israel, and you have to think of Jesus Christ as his grace and truth coming to be baptized on the part of sinners. John the baptizer is baptizing with water sinners so that they can repent…

JMF: No wonder why John said, “Why should I baptize you?” knowing that here is the Lamb of God who is no sinner, who has no sin.

JM: Yeah, the text tells us that the baptizer recognized the Messiah and knew that the one coming after him was greater than him, so how is it that he could be baptizing Jesus? Jesus says to him, “Suffer it to be done according to all righteousness.” That is, he enters into the place of the sinner in baptism. He makes the kind of repentance as a sinner that repentance truly is, something that the sinner cannot do. The motto there with both Torrances was, “unless you know the grace of God for you, unless you know God’s forgiveness, there’s no way you can repent.” It isn’t that you repent and then God is gracious. It’s that God is gracious, repent. The one who did it as a man is the man Jesus Christ.

JMF: God has already done for you everything necessary, therefore repent.

JM: The repentance, obedience to the Father, obedience even to accepting the evil against God that is the world in the cross, and finally his resurrection to justify all that he came to do.

JMF: Many people think that the act of our repenting and believing causes God to change his mind toward us and apply the blood of Christ to us at that point. But that is not what is going on at all then.

JM: When we do that, Tom used the phrase, “looking over your shoulder,” you’re always wondering…

JMF: … did I do it well enough?

JM: Yeah. The answer is, “No.” None of us ever do it well enough – even at my best I need forgiveness, let alone you should see me at my worst.

JMF: Our confidence lies in the fact that it is Jesus being righteousness for us that is the basis on which we’re restored to right relationship, we’re saved…

JM: He takes us to the early fathers, and both the Torrances used it often in this act. They would say, “What has not been taken up has not been saved, the un-assumed is the unhealed.” Salvation is the healing of the whole man.

JMF: In other words, when Jesus became human, don’t a lot of Christians think that he became human as the perfect human; he did not take our broken sinful human nature on himself, he only took the pre-Fall or the “Adam before the Sin” kind of nature. But what you’re saying is that he took our actual sinful nature on himself, and that had to be true in order for it to be healed. What he took, what he assumed – that’s what’s healed.

JM: He took Adam’s sin. He took Abraham’s sin, he took Moses’ sin, he took David’s sin, he took the House of David fallen from God, upon himself.

JMF: Isn’t there something about that in Romans 8, the first few verses, that specifically tell us…

JM: I think St. Paul is trying to say there that the reason there’s no condemnation for the sinner is because Christ has done this for the sinner.

JMF: Let’s read that passage. Romans 8, verse 1:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law weakened by the flesh could not do, by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. And to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

It’s his assumption, or taking on of this sinful flesh, that allows us now to be walking in righteousness, but it’s not our own righteousness, it’s his.

JM: From beginning to end, his grace and truth, he is for us.

JMF: When we say that we don’t need to worry about whether we repent well enough and so on, and we say Jesus repents for us, we don’t mean, Jesus is a sinner and he’s got to repent. We mean…

JM: He was willing in his freedom as God to do this for us.

JMF: We certainly couldn’t do it for ourselves.

JM: He takes my broken prayers. He takes my wounded soul. He takes my fragmented mind. He takes up all of that and in the wholeness of who he is, presents me to his Father and our Father.

JMF: When we talk about the Christian faith being a life lived in faith, as opposed to a life of following rules, we’re not talking about … isn’t it kind of a razor’s edge that Christians tend to walk? On one side, we know that we are saved by grace and we trust God in faith to be merciful to us, to forgive us. But on the other side, we know that God doesn’t do this just so that we can continue to be in rebellion and live a sinful life, on the other side, we want to walk in the kind of righteous way that Jesus taught us (and that we, as Paul put it, ought to walk) because we are saved. How does that come together?

JM: Because he lifts me to his Father – that I might live before his Father as his brother. That’s a long way from license, isn’t it? Grace has nothing to do with the freedom to sin, it’s a complete liberty from death and evil and sin.

JMF: Yet we find ourselves still falling short, still participating in sin.

JM: That’s why it’s important that we learn how to forgive one another. We can’t learn that any place except with Christ in the Father – in the Father-Son relationship, the vicarious humanity of God in Christ for us is there fully mediating to us his grace and his truth – his life, his light, his word. That’s where we live as believers in Jesus Christ – we don’t have to look over our shoulders to see if we’ve done it well enough – we haven’t.

JMF: At the same time, we care about that. It isn’t as though we say, “I don’t care.”

JMF: Like prodigals. “Yes, Father.” Who says, “Yes” to the Father? Jesus Christ says, “Yes” to our Father for us, even when we are still willing to say “No” to the Father. Christ will not be who he is without us. We said that the Father-Son relation in Hosea 11. In the Father-Son relation, we learn love and grace and truth as he is eternally Father-Son in the Spirit. That’s what makes Baxter Kruger’s ministry so important in Mississippi, because through the vicarious humanity of God in Christ, you begin in the Father-Son relation, to seek to understand who you are as a child of his kingdom. There’s an awful lot involved in the vicarious humanity – when you want to flesh out the meaning of the concept, “vicarious humanity,” you’re always answering the question, “who is Jesus really?”

JMF: Across the page from what we just read is this comment that is also meaningful in terms of how we present the gospel to others. There’s this tendency to present the gospel – the good news as “God does not love you yet, but Jesus has done these things and you can take advantage of that, IF you DO certain things. If you pray a prayer of repentance and ask God to come into your life, then he’ll change his mind toward you.” And Thomas Torrance says this:

How then is the gospel to be preached in a genuinely evangelical way? Surely in such a way that full and central place is given to the vicarious humanity of Jesus as the all-sufficient human response to the saving love of God which he has freely and unconditionally provided for us. We preach and teach the gospel evangelically then in such a way as this [and here’s how he gives what the message actually is to us as unbelievers, but it’s a reminder of the way we stand as believers as well] – God loves you so utterly and completely [and this is to unbelievers] that he’s given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation.

In Jesus Christ, God has actualized his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a way once for all that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the incarnation and the cross and thereby denying himself. He died for you precisely because you are sinful and unworthy of him and has already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. [Then he goes on to say that]… Because all this is true, therefore, renounce yourself, take up your cross and follow.

The assurance we have in salvation, of our salvation, doesn’t lie in how well we do everything. It lies in our faith, or we sense it because we trust in Jesus. Our faith gives us that assurance and window on what is already true that God has already done. At least that’s how I see this... Torrance presenting what we just read in Romans chapter 8.

JM: I’ve heard him also say, when you understand God in this way for you, you have to understand that God loves you more than he loves himself. Recently, as I have been learning this kind of love through the vicarious humanity of Christ for me, the one who presents me to his Father in the Spirit, I’ve been watching people, and I know that naturally they do not believe they’re loved. They’re always seeking to be loved one way or another. But just sitting there and watching them, I can get a feel for this “they are unloved.” They know that. They’re always trying to do something to get love. To be loved.

Probably, their biggest problem is this: God so loved the world that he gave. This is the way he’s chosen in his freedom as his grace to love the world, to love these people, and the accusation is because, in his freedom he’s chosen to love in this way and not in some other way, well, then he’s some kind of narrow God, he’s not a universal God, and so we have a problem there understanding that the particular is the universal. The singular way that God has chosen to show his love in the world is something we despise, because we despise that kind of particularity.

JMF: You mean the fact that Jesus …

JM: Something new, something particular, is also universal.

JMF: So the fact that he is a Jew, the fact that he is a man and not a woman, a Jew and not anyone else, and the fact that you must believe in him, as opposed to some other thing that we come up with as humans – are all “particular”…

JM: Absolutely despicable! We prefer our “cows,” we said. We’d rather kiss our cows than know this love for us.

JMF: And yet this particularity, of Jesus, is how everyone is saved, it is not restricted to just a certain kind of person or certain part of humanity.

JM: It is the universal … He is the one God – the God of the Old as his grace is the God of the New as is grace embodied. It’s something new. We can accuse him of being narrow-minded for choosing this particular way, and the way that we prefer to kiss our “cows” is fundamental.

JMF: “Cows” – you’re referring all the way back the golden calf of Israel.

JM: Our idols. We would rather have our idols save us than the great “I am” that God is.

JMF: This sense of not being loved, needing love, looking for love – seems to be a plague of our time. Who doesn’t, even in marriages, in families, we disappoint one another but we can’t see past our own weaknesses… Love doesn’t have a chance. But in the gospel, we are saying that God already loves you even before you ever believed or even heard.

JM: Sure. That’s a very serious move that he’s made on us. We’re going to have to take it seriously sooner or later.

JMF: The fact that God does love everyone means that everyone has to take it seriously at some point, because he’s never going to let up.

JM: He doesn’t call anyone somewhere else besides to himself. All people are called to him.

JMF: “If I am lifted up I will draw all men to myself,” Jesus said. Men in the sense of all people.

JM: If you object to that, that’s a problem that you’re having with God.

JMF: That’s again like Israel, always having to struggle as a type of the way everyone is.

JM: Sure, and as such, Israel even today serves as the disobedient servant to show us, to bear witness to, to give testimony to the fact that this is the way he’s chosen to love.

JMF: Even those of us who are believers walk in that same path much of the time …

JM: We said, “stiff-necked,” “high-handed,” “murmuring,” “self-centered,” “wicked.”

JMF: We turn to God and yet we keep wanting to turn back.

JM: If you’re normal. Because we like that which we are habitually familiar with, much better than something really new. We like that much better. We’re always trying to get back. If I think about my time in the Haight-Ashbury, for instance, and people desperately looking for love in those ’60s and the kind of nostalgia that exists in our nation today for those times.

JMF: Where there was at least a recognition that we knew what we were looking for. We were looking for love and we knew it.

JM: I don’t whether we knew what love was, but we knew we needed something besides what we had. The vicarious humanity introduces us to a concept that takes us into the new creation, the new world of God in Christ for us, and that newness is not something necessarily having to do with what we already know. We have to be willing to become something new to accept him as the love he is for us.

JMF: Assurance of salvation is something that people want.

JM: It’s right there in him.

JMF: It’s there, in him, all the time, not in anything we do. Our faith is only in the fact of his love for us, not in anything that we can conjure up or worry about of whether we did well.

JM: If you’re looking for assurance in what you can do, you’re never going to have it.

JMF: Our assurance is absolute because it’s in Christ.

JM: He is who he is. I am who I am. “You tell them, I am has sent you.” When Jesus said, “before Abraham was, I am,” he was saying, I’m here. I’ve been sent, and I’m the one.GCS offers online master's degrees.

Last modified: Friday, February 1, 2019, 11:08 PM