In Solidarity with Sinners: The Public Ministry of Christ and the Mission of the Church (Reformission Monday)

In seeking to frame an understanding of the church’s mission on the basis of the message which it is called to proclaim, T.F. Torrance reminds us of the irreducibly personal nature of Christ’s public ministry among sinners. That is, he did not merely stand on a mount and preach; he also enmeshed himself in the lives of individual people, working his “contagious holiness” into the blood and bone of human joy and struggle, pain and sorrow. Torrance writes:

The atoning work of Christ seen at work like that is no mechanical or merely forensic transaction; it is the activity of the divine person penetrating directly into the hearts of men and women and in an acutely personal way, by way of God’s decision of love, opening up people in their decisions and gathering them into communion and union with God. That was the three years’ ministry of Jesus. That is why he operated as he did with unheard of meekness and kindness, shrouding his divine majesty and even veiling the naked truth by parable, lest he should blatantly crush the bruised reed or quench the smoking flax. He lived with publicans and sinners, and scribes and pharisees, and people of all sorts, gradually revealing himself, and as they were able to hear he spoke to them the truth, challenging them at every turn in their decisions before the majesty of the leper-2kingdom. Acting on their decisions and by means of them he penetrated into the innermost being of men and women as only he who is God and man could.

And so all through those years of historical encounter and human living in the midst of people and their hurts and needs, he involved himself more and more, intertwined himself more and more completely with sinners, until in the fullest and most personal sense he was the representative of the divine judge to us, condemning by his truth our sin in the flesh, and was also our representative, representing us the judged as he wore our humanity. Because he was God’s Son become man he could both incarnate God for us, and represent us before God, this one man on behalf of all men and women.

In this authoritative representation, representation in truth and reality, of God to us and of all to God, Jesus Christ stood in the gap to work out to the bitter end in justice and mercy the conflict between God’s holy love consistently true to itself, and man’s persistent contradiction of God’s love even when it was poured out in utter compassion and grace. In that, as the very heart of God beating within our humanity, he really suffered our distress, and bore also the whole of God’s judgement upon the humanity with which, in all its guilt and rejection, he stood in complete solidarity. All the years of his earthly life, but especially during those three years of his public ministry, as he revealed the Father, and poured out the Father’s compassion, he engaged himself more and more closely with the ultimate things, the very last things, until on the cross the eschaton took place, the final judgement and final salvation. [T.F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 152-153]

In application to our mission as followers of Christ, it is of course clear that we cannot repeat or extend the once-for-all atoning work of Jesus in the sphere of mission to which we are called. Yet as witnesses to his atoning work, we are constrained to adopt a method of mission that coheres with the message which we proclaim. Thus, as we proclaim the good news of Christ’s personal entwinement in our suffering and weakness in order to redeem us, as it were, from the inside out, it will not do for us to maintain a safe distance from the dirt and grime of those whom we are trying to reach. We cannot swoop down dropping gospel “bombs” and then swiftly fly back to our safe haven. No, the Christ whom we proclaim compels us to personal, intimate involvement in the aches and pains, the hopes and fears, the laughter and the tears of the people around us. The apostle Paul is a shining example of this kind of ministry when he reminded the Thessalonians that “being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8).

Such was the nature of Christ’s earthly ministry, and so must be the nature of our own.

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