Torrance on the atonement

I read Alister McGrath’s ‘intellectual biography’ of the Scottish theologian T. F. Torrance over the weekend. I particularly enjoyed this quote from Torrance.

One day a student called Harold Estes came into my rooms in the Dormitory to discuss an essay he had written on the atonement. He was a very gentle kindly person. It is he had spoke of the death of Christ simply as a demonstration of the love of God. He had been expounding something like what was known as a ‘moral influence theory’ of the atonement favoured by liberal thinkers but theological quite inadequate, as H. R. Mackintosh had shown us in Edinburgh. To help Harold I showed him a reproduction which I had of Grünewald’s famous painting of the Crucifixion, at Colmar, which is incredibly starkly vivid. I also showed him some of the enlargements of the painting, reproduced in a book I had with me, which focused on the fearfully lacerated flesh of Jesus which he suffered from the flagellation with thorns inflicted on him by the soldiers, deep wounds now blackened by the sun. Harold shrank back in horror at what he saw. I said to him: ‘Harold, you have written about that as a picture of the love of God. It is certainly a picture of the fearful sin and hatred of mankind, but if you can tell me WHY Jesus was crucified, WHY he endured such unbelievable pain and anguish, then you will be able to say something of the real meaning of the atonement, and about why the crucifixion of Jesus was and is indeed a revelation of the love of God – Christ was crucified like that FOR our sakes, to save us from sin and judgment. The meaning of the atoning death of Christ is expressed in that word FOR – Jesus died for you and for me, and for all people. It is only in the light of that FOR that the death of Jesus is a picture of the love of God. And what a wonderful picture it is of the infinite love of God who so loved us that ‘he did not spare his only Son but freely delivered him up for us all, that we might be saved.’

Cited in Alister E. McGrath, T. F. Torrance: An Intellectual Biography, T&T Clark, 1999, 54-55.

McGrath’s biography is available here from and

Torrance’s lectures on the atonement have recently been published and are also available here from and

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2 thoughts on “Torrance on the atonement

  1. Perhaps I’m missing something. Sometimes I wonder about the cruxification and what happened to secure our salvation. There is no doubt that the crucifixion and the preceeding torture are the worst things that humans can do to another (certainly at that time), but the two robbers also suffered in the same way. Except they were not cut off from the love, light and life of God. Jesus experienced the full extent of the human cruelty, yet was able to forgive, at the same time as dealing with the cause of that cruelty

  2. Torrance’s point, as I understand it, is that the cross is a very strange way to display divine love if that is all it is. We would regard it strange indeed if a young man said to a woman this is how much I love you and then started torturing himself. In other words, the cross only makes sense as a display of love if it is also the means – the only means – by which God secures our salvation through the substitutionary death of his Son.

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