Robert Walker, Christ Has Faith for Us
Robert T. Walker is a nephew of the late Thomas F. Torrance. He edited Torrance’s lecture notes into two books describing Torrance’s teachings about the person and work of Jesus Christ.
In this interview, he discusses who Christ is for us, and he has faith for us.
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JMF: You’re editor of two very important books by Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement and Incarnation. They’re having a great impact, and we’d like to talk to you about the project, how it came to be, how it developed, and you’re the person to talk to.
RW: I got a phone call from a classmate that I shared a room with at New College when we heard these lectures, and he asked me if I would be willing to edit the lectures. He had persuaded Thomas Torrance to get them published, and Thomas Torrance had given him the manuscript, or his son had, with a note saying that these needed an awful lot of work before they could be published. And Jock thought I was the best person to do it, so I said yes. But I had no idea how much work was involved in doing it.
JMF: You started in what year?
RW: 2003 or something. Thomas Torrance, my uncle, was almost 90 by that stage, and his short-term memory was failing a bit… he also had a stroke and so he couldn’t have done the job.
JMF: So it involved collecting the notes from the class…
RW: No, because by the end of his career, he read all of his lectures from a typescript. He’d often stop and speak off the cuff, and those were often the best parts. But the lectures or such were all typed out and duplicated for us. Later they were photocopied. Somebody put them onto computer disk, so I got hard copies and the computer disks to work with.
JMF: It wasn’t long before you realized that you’d need two volumes.
RW: That’s right. When I looked at all the material, and what wasn’t there that I knew he’d given us handouts on, and there was a missing lecture that I remember hearing, a whole chapter, I realized pretty soon we needed to have two volumes.
JMF: How many people were involved in helping you with the project?
RW: Mostly myself. Jock Stein, the editor of Handsel Press, who had initiated the project, was a great help. On any points of difficulty, just to check that I’d interpreted it right, I checked with Tom’s brother, David. So it was mostly myself.
JMF: As you went through and put together this material in a form that would be a book, you began to see that the lectures as they were prepared and presented are a little more accessible, easier to read for the average person, than Thomas Torrance’s earlier academic work, his published work.
RW: Yes. They’re lectures, so they’re the spoken word, and they come across better, they’re more alive. When he writes, it becomes a little more polished. He writes extremely well, but it comes across differently. These lectures are easily the most accessible way into his thought.
JMF: They’re also very thorough. As I recall, you mentioned that they’re covering pretty much the entire range of his theological thought.
RW: They cover the doctrine of Christ, the incarnation of God becoming human, the Old Testament background, the whole life of Christ, the atonement, justification, reconciliation, redemption, resurrection, ascension, coming again, doctrine of the church. Yeah, they’re pretty full.
JMF: You also put together a synopsis at the beginning that goes through everything that you’re going to see as a reader as you go through the book. You can get an overview from the beginning.
RW: Right. The synopsis is all the headings lifted out of the book and put together at the beginning. That gives a good guide to the contents in addition to the index.
JMF: I found it easy to find a topic that I wanted to read about. It’s easy using that synopsis or the index or together. It’s easy to locate a particular area of interest. You also included a glossary of terms. It’s user-friendly, both of them. What kind of feedback have you received from those who have been reading it?
RW: Everyone says that they’re very readable, and they’ve been surprised because Thomas Torrance has a reputation of being difficult at times. I heard these lectures. They were unbelievably thrilling and stretching —most exciting thing I’ve ever heard in my life, and ever will, because we heard the lectures every day but Wednesday, when there were no lectures. The content was deeply moving, inspiring, and thrilling. I was keen to make them as reader-friendly as I could in breaking up some of the longer sentences, adding lots of headings, explaining the meaning of terms that the students of the day didn’t have to have explained, but the early reader does, and making it reader-friendly.
JMF: In talking about how exciting and thrilling the lectures were, what is it about Torrance’s theology and his approach to these fundamental issues of the gospel and of Christian theology that make it so thrilling and exciting, so fresh, so worth reading?
RW: It’s deeply biblical. He was brought up to read the Bible three chapters a day and five on Sundays. He continued to do that all the way through his life. He read it two or three times each year. He is steeped in the Bible. That, plus he has this Christo-centric view. He interprets it in the light of his goal in Christ, and Christ as the atonement of sin and the heart of the Trinity. With that focus, he’s able to connect Christian doctrine to biblical passages. So you suddenly see some connections and new meanings in the Bible, and then it brings alive the Christian faith.
I felt, why aren’t we taught this in the churches? That’s the reaction I get when I teach it to a student. They say, “Why didn’t we get this in church? Because we should.” This is what they got at the Reformation, under Luther or Calvin. I find it hugely stimulating, enriching, and exciting.
JMF: What are some of the areas that we don’t get typically in church? A person would say Christ is the center of the Bible and he ties everything together, but what are they missing, that this theology is bringing out of the Scriptures?
RW: I could answer that for several hours, but for example, the way in which the importance of the person of Christ, who he is, that he is God, fully God, and yet fully man. We don’t make enough of his being fully man, and not just that, but that he is the union of God and man in his own person. He’s one reality. There’s not a God Jesus and a man Jesus. There’s one Jesus. In his person, he is the union of God and man.
Because that union that was forged and made at Bethlehem is unbreakable, humanity and God will never be separated — they’re one in Christ. That’s the heart of the Christian faith and our salvation. We are joined to Christ because he shares our humanity. Christ is God, he’s joined to God. Because of that union, that’s the heart of our salvation. That’s the ultimate meaning of all the great “I am’s” of John’s Gospel. That’s one aspect of a deeper biblical emphasis that we don’t get.
JMF: Most Christians seem to think Jesus came, was a human being, and died for our sins. Then, when he was raised, he goes back to being God. We don’t typically think of him as still being a human, fully God, fully man. We think of him as fully God again, but what is the significance of him being fully human? Why does that matter to me and my Christian faith and my walk with Christ?
RW: It matters hugely, and it’s common to think that he’s no longer a man. But if he’s only God, then we’re here on earth, he’s up in heaven, and there’s a distance. Whereas if he’s still man, if he’s still bearing our humanity, then he’s the one who prays for us and knows what we feel like. He takes our prayers, our human prayers, and presents them to the Father. Because he shares our humanity, that’s an unbroken link with him.
JMF: You said he takes our prayers and presents them to the Father. So would that mean that we don’t need to worry about whether our prayers are good enough?
RW: Right. We pray, and we’re called to pray, but our prayers are never what they ought to be. He is the one who has taken our fallen humanity and perfected it. He takes our prayers and makes them his, and presents them to the Father. That’s the emphasis of the letter to the Hebrews, that he is our High Priest. Paul also says that if we’ve been saved by his death, how much more will we be saved by his life? That is very significant. You’re saying if we’ve been saved by his death, how much more will we be saved by his risen life in heaven. Christian life is sharing in Christ’s risen life. If Christ is not risen as man, then we don’t have that risen life to share in.
JMF: What does it mean to share in his life? Usually we think of that as “We need to follow his example. We need to obey as well as he did, and that’s sharing in his life.” That doesn’t sound like what you’re talking about.
RW: It’s a lot more than that; that he has become man in our place for us, to act as man for us. In his human life, he’s fulfilled everything that we ought to be doing. It’s not a matter of trying to copy it, it’s the fact that he has already done it for us and it’s ours, so that his human life, his response to God, is our response.
That comes out strongly in Galatians 2:20, “I’ve been crucified with Christ. I live, yet not I but Christ who lives in me. And the life I life in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Properly understood, this faith is not our faith in Christ, and it’s not our faith that saves us. It’s Christ’s faith that saved us; it’s his humanity. We put faith in his faith or in his human life, in his human righteousness. That’s the content of our salvation. We don’t rely on what we do — we live out of his fullness, his prayer, his life. We live in union with him.
JMF: So the passages that speak of “We’re already seated with him in heavenly places, we’re already seated at the right hand of the Father with him, we already have passed into eternal life,” we can take them seriously.
JMF: So our acts of obedience, although they don’t merit salvation for us, are our participation in the righteous… Like the prayer you mentioned (he takes our prayer and makes it his own, so that it is effective), he takes everything we are and do in the same way, then.
RW: Yes. We are called to live out the life that he has lived for us. The only reason we can live it out is because he has already done it for us.
JMF: We’re living out something that’s already so.
RW: Yes. We’re living out the salvation that he has won for us.
JMF: It’s not a matter of going around worrying all the time whether we’ll make it, let’s say, into heaven or that we’ll measure up in some way.
RW: No. The gospel is the incredible realization that Jesus is not only God coming to rescue us, but he’s also God coming to be man for us, even to make our response for us. When we make a response, I’m not making an extra response to God in addition to what Christ has made for us — I’m letting Christ’s response to his Father be mine. I’m resting on his faith. We need to have faith, but it’s not faith in our faith — it’s resting on Christ and his human righteousness and his faith.
JMF: So we trust in him, not in ideas… Like you said, we don’t have faith in our faith. Often, our faith is weak, but we don’t have to worry when our faith is weak — we can trust that he has perfect faith for us.
RW: That’s right.
JMF: So we’re trusting in him completely. Someone might argue, yes, but if you believe that, then there’s nothing to keep you from behaving badly, from being disobedient, since you would say, “I’m already taken care of in Christ, so therefore I can live in whatever destructive way I want and I’m still safe in Christ.” How do we respond to that?
RW: That’s a key question. Paul answered it at the beginning of Romans 6. In chapter 5, Paul said we are saved. It’s been done. At the start of chapter 6 he says, “Does that mean we can sin? We’ve been saved.” He says no, because for one thing, if we sin, we’re bringing ourselves back again under the slavery of sin. But secondly, if we have been saved, we have been made new. If we sin, we’re saying we haven’t been made new, but we’re acting a lie against what Christ has done for us and we’re falling back into sin.
The fact that we’ve been saved doesn’t mean we don’t do anything; it’s the opposite. It liberates us to live out the life that’s given to us in Christ. We often think (this is the way Tom Torrance used to put it), some of God, some of man. He does his part, we now have to do our part. He always emphasized it’s not like that. The way it works is: all of God means all of man. The fact that God has done it all, his part and our part, that liberates us to become ourselves in him and to live to the full out of him, because we’re not worried about our having to do it. We’re living out of Christ.
JMF: How do we deal with the fact that we still sin? Even though we are in Christ, we fall short. How do we cope with that?
RW: We’ll continue to sin until the day we die. But it’s not what we do that counts, it’s what we are in Christ. We are in the process of being cleansed, slowly. We never reach perfection. In fact, often the more we know Christ, the more we know our sin.
JMF: It does seem like that.
RW: At the same time, we trust more in him. It’s not a matter of living out of ourselves and the concern with how good we are or how good Christians we are, it’s a matter of living out of Christ, with Christ and out of him.
JMF: That brings to mind the passage in Hebrews 4, “Since we have such a great high priest, therefore we go to the throne of grace to find help in time of need.” It seems to be saying, like you said, because he’s already done everything for us and made us who we are in him, that when we fall short, that grace drives us to the throne of grace to find the help we need. That takes away all the fear, anxiety and worry about salvation, doesn’t it?
RW: Yes, it liberates us.
JMF: It almost sounds too easy. It sounds too simple. It sounds like good news, but it’s so good that it can’t possibly be so.
RW: (laughing). That’s right. When somebody hears the gospel for the first time… I love Martin Luther’s phrase. He said it’s like a cow staring at a new gate. This can’t be true — is it? That is the impact of the gospel when we first see it. We’re liberated. You are freed from thinking, “I’ve got to do this.” Christ has done it for us. When we understand that, that is the beginning of faith.
JMF: That would drive you toward sin?
JMF: That would drive you toward joy, and toward the faith that you have to live it out.
RW: Yes. Torrance used to use the analogy that when his daughter was young, he would walk with his daughter. She held him tightly, but his hand was around hers. She’d often stumble. What mattered was not her feeble grasp of him, but his grasp of her. That’s the same as Christ. It’s not our grasp of Christ that counts, it’s his grasp of us.
JMF: Yes. That raises the question of confession. We’re told to confess our sins, and yet we’re already forgiven and our sins are taken care of. What role does confession play in the process?
RW: On the cross Christ took all our sins and nailed them to the cross. There are numerous verses that speak about, “If when we were enemies we were reconciled by the death of his Son, much more, having been reconciled, we are saved by his life.” The passages indicate it’s been done. We’ve been saved.
We do need to confess our sins. That’s partly for our sake, that in the process of confessing, we don’t bottle them up. We bring them to the surface in the light of what Christ has done for us. Our confessing them is part of the means by which what has been done already for us in Christ is actualized in our lives. We come to know the power of sins forgiven, if we can put it like that. He has already put away our sins, and yet we still live as though we have them. But by confessing them we bring them to the cross so that their having been put away on the cross is verified to us.
JMF: So we’re taking part in the thing that’s already so. We’re participating in the reality of the forgiveness we already have. That changes the way we approach confession. In my life, early on, I had the idea that God might not forgive me, so I would have to ask more than once and I would keep doing it with more and more fervency and intensity until I could feel that maybe I was convincing myself of the reality of it… It was as though I was asking, or let me say begging, a boss for a raise or something. It was like begging that God would forgive me until I felt like he had. Even then, I wasn’t sure that he did. Why would he forgive me anyway, because this is probably the 100th time I’ve asked about the same thing.
JMF: So that changes the whole… we can confess our sins knowing we’re forgiven. It’s almost a joyful thing.
RW: It should be joyful repentance. We don’t repent in order to be forgiven. It’s forgiveness that leads us to repentance and to joyful repentance. That’s a proper way to understand it.