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David Torrance: The Importance of Prayer in Pastoral Work

Rev. David Torrance shares some of the lessons he has learned about parish ministry.

(34.7 minutes)
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David Torrance

David Torrance served for 36 years in parish ministry in the Church of Scotland; he is the brother of theologians Thomas and James Torrance. He helped edit the English edition of Calvin's New Testament commentaries, and is a co-author of A Passion for Christ: Vision That Ignites Ministry. His website is at For a transcript of all five YI interviews, click here.

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Small group discussion guide

Discussion groups might wish to prepare their own topics, request topics from the group, use the following suggested topics, or mix and match all three.

Suggested topics:

1. Please cite some examples of how prayer has been crucial to your personal ministry.

2. Share your thoughts on, “Ministry is not like a normal job—we have to go with the Spirit.”

3. Reverend Torrance said that preaching and pastoral work go hand-in-hand. Please comment.

4. It was asserted that restricting the atonement to the death of Christ leads to legalism. How?

5. What did you think of, “We want the blessings of Christ rather than the person of Christ”?

6. The pastor identified salvation as being “in Christ.” What does this mean to you?

7. How do you understand the concept that it’s not our faith—we enter into Christ’s faith?

8. How can we explain the difference between universal reconciliation and universal salvation?

A few simple guidelines for leading a discussion: 1) Encourage open discussion. 2) Ask questions relevant to the topic. 3) Listen attentively. 4) Encourage divergent views. 5) Encourage everyone to participate. 6) Summarize and paraphrase. 7) Minimize teaching and preaching.

JMF: When you first became a pastor and then through the course of your ministry, what are some of the experiences that stand out? What kinds of things did you find that churches need, that individuals need, and what did you have to have, and be as a pastor, to serve in that day?

DT: In the Bible, in Acts chapter 6, when a dispute arose about the expressing of some of the supplies to the poor, the needy, of the church, the apostles said, it’s not right for us simply to give ourselves over to the practical affairs of distributing the poor, and they appointed seven deacons and he said (which I think is very important), “we will give ourselves to prayer and ministry of the word.”

Looking back at my college days, although I had a very fine teacher, in college days we were each divided up. We each had a pastor. About 12 of us were given to Professor James S. Stewart, who is well known, a very godly man, professor of the New Testament…and we had a Bible study. He met with us individually, he met with us in a group, and he met with me individually. He was a very shy man, but he got there, he said, “What did you read from the Bible before you came to college today?” I was reading Exodus, I told him. He asked us, did we say our prayers? I don’t think that’s done today. I admired the man immensely.

We are called, as ministers, to be ministers of the word in a ministry of prayer. Sadly, in the ministry, we pass over that question of prayer, but it’s there. The apostles said, we appoint deacons to look after the ministerial side so that we can devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. I find that very important. I had three parish churches. I had a period of evangelism, and then three parish churches In my second parish, although there were great rewards — I saw people converted — nonetheless there were great difficulties in that parish, and I found myself having to pray an hour every morning before breakfast for that parish. When our prayer life flags, our ministry flags, even if we do all the right things.

I came home to it very early in the ministry. I remember preaching a sermon on the atonement. People were moved and stirred. I was a probational minister at that time. I didn’t have my own parish and I was called to preach in another church. There, it went entirely in the wrong way, and I preached the sermon without prayer, and it fell flat. I felt rebuked, that this is God’s word, there’s nothing automatic about it. It’s so important that at each fresh occasion we give ourselves to the Lord and we pray for the Holy Spirit to work.

That came home to me powerfully when I was still probationary. I was a post-graduate student and I was invited to preach in July in a glorious summer weekend over in the west of Scotland, the west highlands. They said they’d put me up in a hotel, and I’d do services. I went in the wrong way, a lesson I never forgot. I put six sermons in my bag and went off. I went early after lunch, I arrived at the hotel, and I thought I’ll have a quick look at my sermon and go for a long, five, eight mile walk in the sunshine in the west highlands — it’s a lovely country. So I prayed, opened my bag, pulled out six sermons, read them, and I couldn’t preach them at all. I felt frustrated, so I knelt down again — my parents always knelt when they said their prayers at home — and prayed and asked what God wanted to say. It came to me clearly — the resurrection. That bothered me.

I read through my six sermons again, and they were further away than ever. So I knelt a third time and prayed, and this time it was absolutely clear — the resurrection. I thought no, I’ve got to have one of these sermons. I read through these six sermons, and I couldn’t preach them at all. The one thing that really kept, the resurrection…so I said, all right then, it will have to be resurrection. I felt frustrated, because now I would have to sit down on a glorious sunny afternoon and write a new sermon on the resurrection.

But in my state of frustration, nothing would come. I sat there in my frustration thinking of this sunshine, the warmth, the west highlands vanishing away. Here I was, how would I prepare this sermon? At 10:00 at night, I had one sentence on the paper, and I said, “Lord, if it’s the resurrection, you have to speak to these people. I have nothing to say.” I went to bed, slept, got up in the morning, my mind was still a blank. I said to the Lord, “Lord, if it’s the resurrection, you have to do something about it.” I went to church early and met the session clerk, who greeted me and said, “Could you make the intonations?” Because last night, their beloved senior elder died, and he wanted to break the news to the congregation. In some astonishing way, that sermon just flowed. I felt very rebuked.

A few years later, I was in Oban, again this time in the west highlands. I was sitting in the car. We were going to go to an island, Lismore, but my wife was shopping. As I was waiting, the session clerk came out on the pavement, so I rolled down the window and we greeted one another. He said, “Yes, I remember you. You’re the minister who came all prepared on the occasion that our senior elder died.”

I said, “Would you like a coffee?” He and I went for a coffee. I said, “Could I correct… I’m afraid I went to your church entirely in the wrong way. I did not go prepared. But by the miraculous hand of God, he took over that situation because I did not go the right way.” I’ve never forgot that lesson. The ministry is not like a normal job. We can’t just write a sermon. It may be doctrinally, theologically, correct, a good sermon. But we have to go with the Spirit of the Lord, and we have to pray. I take seriously those words that the apostles said, “We will not handle the administration. We will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

The focal point of the ministry which I’ve always tried to keep before me is preaching, proclaiming the word, teaching the word, and the pastoral work — meeting people face-to-face. I’m not very good at administration. I’ll do it, but I don’t particularly enjoy it, and often I have let it go, because people are what matters. Your preaching and your pastoral work go hand-in-hand. When you’re meeting people, I always, as a minister, had a reading and prayer. I’d visit the homes, visit people in hospital. I always felt it was right to read something of the word of God and to pray.

Again and again, I’ve found that the real pastoral work opened up after you prayed with someone. You can meet a family, you can greet them, you can ask about their welfare and about their children, their holidays, but once you’ve had a prayer, then they open up and the real pastoral work begins. We are here to share the gospel, to help people come to Jesus Christ. As we meet face-to-face, we are there to help people come and meet the Lord. That’s the key of our ministry.

The vicarious humanity of Christ

JMF: Let’s shift gears and get into pastoral ministry a bit. The same principle seems to apply to the Christian life itself. Let’s talk about what we call the vicarious humanity of Christ and how that works in a person’s life and how God deals with sin and with righteousness in the life of a believer.

DT: You used the word vicarious, which is a Latin word used by theologians. It means someone acting, speaking on behalf of someone else, for their benefit. This is precisely what God came to do in Jesus Christ —he came to take our place, act on our behalf, and work out a great salvation.

Many Christians, unfortunately, many evangelicals, restrict the atone­ment to the death of Christ, and therefore interpret it in a legal or judicial way. They’re correct to do so. There is a judicial element there, that Christ died for us and he rose again, and the virtue is that our guilt is removed, we are set free. But if we restrict the atonement to the death of Christ, then many problems arise. We are saying that the death of Christ is not part of the whole ministry of Christ and is separate from the resurrection. If we restrict it to the death of Christ, we are also throwing people back on them­selves, their own resources, and almost inevitably, they become legalistic.

JMF: For an average person listening to what you’re saying, let me try to recap and you tell me if I’m saying it correctly. It’s common for Christians to think, and many times they’re taught, that the key element of Christian faith is that “Christ died for your sins, therefore believe in him and your sins will be taken away — now go your way and do the best you can to be a good person.” The focus is on the death of Christ paying the penalty for your sins and therefore removing your sins, and it stops there, as though that’s all there is to it, but there’s far more to it than that. Is that somewhat what you’re saying?

DT: Indeed. If we restrict the atonement to the death of Christ, it creates a multiplicity of problems. Often the great tendency there is to want the blessings of Christ rather than the person of Christ. That is a problem which we see in the liberal world, like Bultmann. It’s equally a problem in the evangelical world — a tendency to want the blessings of Christ and not the person of Christ. A key phrase in the New Testament is the little phrase, “in Christ,” the Greek, en Christou, in Christ. That phrase, “in Christ,” in Jesus Christ, in the Lord, occurs something like 132 times in the New Testament. So if you ask me what is salvation, how are we saved? Yes, we are saved by the work of Christ, but by union with Christ. We can’t separate union with Christ and the work of Christ any more than we can separate the work of Christ and the person of Christ.

JMF: You’re saying that most of us want to receive the blessing of having our sins forgiven, but we don’t want Christ to be part of our life, in fact being our life, we want the pain of sin taken away, but we’d rather…now that you’re done, would you please just stay next door?

DT: That’s common, and it runs through all the churches. It is unbiblical. If you were to ask me, “How would you sum up Paul’s doctrine in his epistles?,” I would have to say that we are saved by grace and union with Christ. We’re not simply saved by grace, we’re not simply saved by union with Christ, it’s the two together — union with Christ and salvation by grace — because God came down — an incredible, staggering fact — that God came down to this earth and took flesh and blood as the man Jesus, although remaining God.

As man, he entered into our humanity. He was a particular man, and yet also a representative man at the same time. As he entered into our humanity, he took all our sins, all our weaknesses, all our sufferings, and he died bearing the connotation. But he did more than that. In taking our humanity, your humanity, mine, he became you, he became me. He sanctified our humanity, he turned it roundabout. He perfectly obeyed God the Father on our behalf. He prayed to the Father on our behalf. In the resurrection he offers himself to us. He offers us this new life, his life for our life, your life, my life, renewed, sanctified, so that to receive salvation is to receive Christ, to receive the new life of Christ. It’s a total thing.

To receive Christ is to receive the fullness of God that Paul talks about — the fullness of the Spirit. It also means on our part a total surrender, a total letting go. There’s tremendous joy in that because it means that in so far as Christ has done everything for us — he is for us in every situation in life, in every event in life, in every occasion. There’s no situation in life that we face but Christ is there, and it’s always “not I but Christ.” Not I but Christ when I have a great decision to make, not I but Christ when I worship, because worship means that Christ alone is the one who worships the Father, he alone enters the presence of the Father. When we are united with Christ, Christ is with us, in us, we are in him. In Christ we enter the Father. So it’s in Christ we can worship, in Christ we pray. We don’t know how to pray. We try to pray in our own efforts, and prayer is then a frustration. We try to pray and set aside times we pray, we know how we fail. But Christ prays. If we keep our eyes on Christ and remember that all through life, every step of life it’s not I but Christ, we’re on the victory side.

Many years ago I had a friend who became a minister, who in turn had a close friend who was a professional footballer. His friend, a footballer, was a Christian. But he thought of the Christian life in terms of football. He said one day, it was like me trying to play football. Jesus was standing at the touch line watching, and every time I came near the goal, I missed it. It was frustrating. But something marvelous happened. Jesus and I changed places. I now stand at the touch line. I watch Jesus playing, and he scores the goal every time, and all I can do is stand and cheer. It may be a simple story of a professional footballer — that to me is the Christian life. The whole of the Christian life is centered on Christ, it’s in Christ, it’s a union with Christ where Christ takes over because he’s accomplished everything for us — for our forgiveness, for our redemption, for our reconciliation with our Father, our entry to the Father’s presence, our entry to the kingdom of heaven.

JMF: So in speaking of faith, faith is in Christ himself, not in specific things or actions per se, but in him. It isn’t even a matter of our faith, we are actually entering into his faith.

DT: Absolutely. Faith is a way of being related to Jesus Christ. Our faith is important. Without faith we are lost. You can come and give me a gift, and if I say no, I don’t want it, I go without it. God comes to us with his gift, and we can say no, we don’t want it, and we’re lost.

A story that means a lot to me is of the announcement to Mary of the birth of Christ. Here was this young maiden, and the angel came and announced to her God’s will for her life. He announced that she would have a child. That child would be born of God and would be the Son of God. Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” She responded, saying, “Yes Lord, let it all happen just as you want it.” Mary had the freedom to say yes, and she said yes. She had the freedom to say no, in which case God would have chosen some other young woman. The marvelous thing is that Mary said yes. But when she said yes, that’s all she could do. She couldn’t create that child in her womb — that was a miraculous happening from God.

When you and I first come to Christ, God comes, he confronts us, he says, “I love you, I’ve forgiven you, I’ll give you all the fullness of God, I’ll bring you into the fellowship of the Father.” All you and I can do, like Mary, is say, “Yes Lord,” or “No Lord,” “Thank you Lord.” Our thanksgiving is our response to God’s glorious announcement of his love, forgiveness and salvation. It’s very important. But what matters is that our faith is a response to Christ, to his faithfulness, but it’s not a work.

Far too often we throw back the responsibility to men and women. That’s utter frustration. We get weary. Ministers, I’m afraid, approach the same way. They throw themselves into the ministry — I speak as a minister — it could be easy to let our devotional life, our time with the Lord, slip into the background. We try to go on under our own steam and our own effort, and we utterly fail.

JMF: What often is asked is something along this line, “You’re telling me that Christ has done everything necessary for my salvation and that everything I experience he is doing for me and through me, and that sounds like I don’t have to do anything, and Christ does it all. I don’t see how that’s consistent with the Scripture. It just sounds like some kind of universal­ism.” How do we respond to that?

DT: It depends what people mean by the use of the word universalism. On one hand it might mean, and rightly mean, that God loves the whole world and that when he came in Jesus Christ he redeemed the world — the salvation, the offer of salvation, is for the whole world. In that sense, I’m a universalist. It does not mean, however, that all people accept the salvation of Christ, that all people are saved. Sadly, no. The Bible never says that —we are free to accept or reject. God doesn’t send anyone to hell. He weeps over this world. Jesus wept over Jerusalem. He loved the people of Jerusalem and was sad that they were rejecting him. Because they’re rejecting him, they would suffer, and suffer terribly. If we reject Christ, we reject his salvation, we reject life, we’re lost. That’s the horrors of hell. I believe in hell. If we talk about the wrath of God, the wrath of God is really the wrath of the Lamb. God doesn’t want us to perish. He doesn’t want any sinner to perish. He loves everyone. The glorious thing is to be able to go to anyone and say that God loves you and God has forgiven you and he wants you. But we have to respond, and if we don’t, we’re lost.

Responding to Christ

JMF: What is the nature of our response?

DT: Our response is, as I have said, a response of thanksgiving. It’s an acknowledgement. As a pastor, I have often asked people to read certain portions of Scripture. When I’ve asked them to read a passage of Scripture and I’ve gone back to that home, they told me they read it. There are certain passages I use a great deal. Psalm 51 is a prayer of confession where David, a man of God in a remarkable way, called a friend of God, nonetheless sinned. The Bible doesn’t gloss over the fact of his sin and that he committed adultery and murder in the sense that he was responsible for the death of Uriah the Hittite.

I’ve talked to people and we’ve got so far, and I’ve said, “Will you read Psalm 51,” and I’ve found that they’re converted on that Psalm, that God has spoken to them through it. I’ve generally said, when I’ve given them Psalm 51, to read another Psalm, one of the Psalms of thanksgiving, maybe Psalm 103 or like that. I remember being on mission and speaking to a couple of young people, aged about 21, on the street, inviting them to our meeting. I thought he was very aggressive, and if I had mentioned the name of Christ again I think he would have physically assaulted me. So I said, “Can I invite you to a cup of tea?” And she came. He was a young person that I don’t suppose had ever been to church. But I tried to share the faith over the cup of tea, and I said, “Can I ask you to read Psalm 51?” She woke me up at 7:00 in the morning. I was still in my pajamas. She was on her way to work. She asked me about this Psalm, and that was her conversion. She was given words to pray. People come in different ways — some impressed by the love of Christ, a great many by an acceptance of the reality of sin.

Many years ago I met a brilliant student. He’d been done with school and was embarked on an honors course at university and said that after that, he hoped to go on to ministry and added the words, “But I’d like to go to a liberal college.” That bothered me. Something didn’t quite ring true. I felt compelled to pray for him. The more I prayed for him, the more I felt an extraordinary compulsion to pray for him. I found myself praying continually for this chap. Finally it came to the point that for a fortnight I saw him every day either for a coffee, or an occasional meal.

Then I asked him to read 1 John chapter 1, and he told me he read it and as a result he could no longer pray. That bothered me. I prayed a lot about that. Then I phoned him up and said, “I asked you to read 1 John chapter 1, and you told me you did. Having read it, you told me you could no longer pray.” He said, “Yes.” I don’t find it easy to talk to a person —frankly, my knees shook. I felt I had to. I said, “The reason is because you’re a sinner, and you won’t acknowledge it. You want to gloss over it. It says if we say we have no sin, we’re a liar. The truth is not in us. It equally says that if we confess our sins, he is just and willing to forgive us our sins.” So I said, “Your problem is that you’re a sinner, and you have to confess it.”

I thought we parted company. The next three days if he saw me he’d cross the street. He wouldn’t come near me. I thought, “That’s the end of that relationship.” Then he phoned me up and said, “Who’s been talking about me?” “No one’s been talking about you.” He said, “Yes, why did you say what you did? You’ve been talking.” I said, “I haven’t mentioned you to a single mortal soul. I never mentioned you to a member of the family.” He said, “Then why did you say that?” I said, “I’d been praying for you. I felt God wanted me to say it.” He said, “Can I come round and see you?” So he came around and he told me his story. He had got into bad company and asked if I would pray for him. I said, “No, not unless you’re prepared to confess your sins.” He says, “Yes, I am.” So we prayed, I prayed, he prayed. I can still see his face — the sheer joy of the Lord. He said, “I feel all the joy of my childhood is back.”

Some people come that way. Others come in a different way — they’ve had problems, they feel the love of God has helped them, very often an illness. They’ve been comforted, they’ve been helped, or miraculously healed, and they see the hand of God. Everyone’s different. As pastors we have to learn to love people, to befriend people, and everyone’s different. There’s no uniform way of going about things.

But we have to pray… I found it helpful as a pastor when I was visiting a parish, the home of a parish, to have a brief word of prayer before knocking on each new door — that somehow God will take over and I didn’t know what to say…would God just say whatever he wanted to say. You just relax, you try to love your people, to enter into their joys and sorrows and interests and family life. And yet within that situation try to help them to an understanding of God.

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