Discovering the grammar of grace

Written by on October 27, 2017

Over the events of the past week I have had the occasion to share this story twice. We tell the story in the first month of VantagePoint3’s A Way of Life process. It is such a beautiful invitation to live our way into “the grammar of grace” and, thereby, to discover the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who desires to keep company with us. May it be good news to you today…

Scottish theologian James Torrance tells the story of a “chance encounter” he had on a beach in southern California. Just after Torrance emerged from a swim off of Balboa Peninsula, an elderly gentleman on a walk drummed up a conversation with him. Torrance’s Scottish accent must have triggered the gentleman’s curiosity. He asked Torrance where he was from, what was he doing in southern California? Torrance shared that he was a visiting Presbyterian minister teaching a theology of worship class at Fuller Theological Seminary. The conversation immediately deepened. The gentleman shared that he had grown up the son of a Presbyterian minister but had long since drifted from the faith of his father. He also shared his tremendous sadness over the reality that his wife of forty-five years was dying of cancer. He confessed to Torrance that he had been pacing back and forth along the Pacific shoreline trying to pray: “When you spoke to me, I was remembering how my father was a man of prayer and had wonderful faith when my mother died. I wish I had that faith. I have been walking up and down this beach trying to pray, but I can’t!”

Torrance responded, “You have been walking up and down this beach, wanting to pray, trying to pray, but not knowing how to pray. In Jesus Christ we have someone who is praying for you. He has heard your groans and is interceding for you and with you and in you.”

Torrance opened up the Scriptures, showing the man the reality of Jesus praying for him. He first pointed him to the eve of the crucifixion, when Jesus told Peter, “Satan has demanded to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32, emphasis mine). In the face of Peter’s denial only hours later, Jesus lovingly prays for Peter in a way that Peter could never pray, or even understand. Torrance then told the gentlemen of the reality of Paul’s words in Romans 8: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes with the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26–27). Torrance shared how, a couple sentences later, Paul writes, “It is Christ Jesus…who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34). And finally, he pointed him to Paul’s towering conclusion in Romans 8 that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39b).

Torrance prayed with the man that day on the beach, and then a few days later with him and his dying wife, all the while sharing of Jesus’ loving identification and intercession for them. Through this “chance encounter” and their several days of friendship, conversation, and prayer together, the Spirit drew the man and his wife into awareness of God’s saving love in their lives.

Torrance concluded the story of his “chance encounter” by drawing a pastoral implication well worth our consideration. Allow his words to shepherd us as we read. What does this have to say to us as we seek to live and sustain prayerful lives?

It seems to me that in a pastoral situation, our first task is not to throw people back on themselves with exhortations and instructions as to what to do and how to do it, but to direct people to the gospel of grace— to Jesus Christ, that they might look to him to lead them, open their hearts in faith and in prayer, and draw them by the Spirit into his eternal life of communion with the Father. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is the grammar of Romans ch. 8—the grammar of grace, the grammar of our pastoral work. The first real step on the road to prayer is to recognize that none of us knows how to pray as we ought. But as we bring our desires to God, we find that we have someone who is praying for us, with us, and in us. Thereby he teaches us to pray and motivates us to pray, and to pray in peace to the Lord. Jesus takes our prayers—our feeble, selfish, inarticulate prayers—he cleanses them, makes them his prayers, and in a “wonderful exchange”… he makes his prayers our prayers and presents us to the Father as his dear children, crying: “Abba Father.”

God prays for us, with us, and in us. So many of us identify with the gentleman’s sense of prayerlessness. In one way or another, we have faced the frustration and guilt of trying to pray, but feeling either “not any good” at prayer or unable to pray. Some of us are spiritually asleep and others of us are worn out with years of trying to muscle some sort of “prayer life.” Perhaps Torrance’s guidance needs to confront both of these mindsets. We need to be directed to the gospel of grace, not to another “how-to” seminar.

Can we wrap our minds and hearts around the truth that Jesus intercedes for us, that he is far wiser and far more gracious than we, that he loves us and prays for us as our great high priest (Hebrews 4:14–16)? As we sit down to pray this week, can we practice beginning over and again, discovering and rediscovering God’s gracious life already at work among us, in us, and through us?


This story is included in A Way of Life Stage 1: Friendship with God. Taken from James B. Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Paternoster, 1996), 32-35.


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