[Note: Contrary to the Creative Commons license listed on this site, I, Wink, the author of this particular post am reserving all rights for this particular post. I don't mean to be a killjoy, but this topic is the basis for my as-yet-incomplete thesis. I'm tackling a controversial subject. As a result, I need to polish my ideas more fully before I can let it out into the wild under a CC license. Please respect my copyright on this post. Thanks.]
[Thanks for being patient everyone. This is the post many of you have been waiting for as it is the follow-up to my Critique of Penal Substitution. Enjoy!]
First, some notes about mystical union. There are two major varients of mystical union, one that has been taken up by the New Agers, and the varient called marital mysticism. Guess which one I'm in favor of.
Marital mysticism gets its name from Eph 5, where Paul says "...the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church." Marital because of the marriage imagery, and mystical because it is a great mystery. This union is described by many terms: spiritual union, mystical union, divinization, theosis, etc. I'm going to stick with either mystical union or spiritual union in this post. Usually, I'll just end up using the word "union" or "united" all by itself. When I do so, know that I mean this type of marital mystical union.
Mystical union is akin to the union of the members of the Godhead. (see John 17:20-23, we are united to Christ in the same way that Christ is united to the Father.)
This mystical union was a major element of Christianity during the patristic era. As the East and West split, the Eastern church retained its focus on mystical union, but that focus was greatly dimished in the Western church. While the early church had presumed that we were spiritually united with Christ starting at salvation, the Catholic Church started to see it as the goal of our spiritual life, not the grounds of it. For the Catholic Church, mystical union was attained at the end of sanctification, not at the second birth. The Protestant church has had a varying focus on this element of Christianity, but it is safe to say that it has nowhere near the importance that it has in the Eastern church.
Penal Union Presented
My understanding of the atonement is that we are mystically united with Christ. This union is the grounds or basis or machanism by which: God's wrath is satisfied, our sins are done away with, we are justified, as are sanctificed, we receive new life.
[Some others have taken to calling this model "Participatory Atonement" for reasons that I hope will become apparent. I like the name a lot. It certainly rolls off the tongue better than "Penal Union". However, at least for the purpsoes of this post, I am using the term "Penal Union". I do this becuase I want to emphasize the similarities that this model has with Penal Substitution. At the same time, the name highlights the differences with that same model.]
Many proponents of the Penal Substitution model do not acknowledge that Mystical union (or identification with Christ) is a major element of our Christian life. However, the more advanced and robust models do recognize it and will say that this union is necessary for us to be justified and to give us new life. I am in complete agreement with them on those points. However, I think that they do not go far enough. Typically, when they say that we are united with Christ, they imply that we are united with His post-resurrection life. That is certainly true, but we are united with more than that.
Gal 2:20 states that we "have been crucified with Christ". Not only do we die with Him on the cross, we are raised with Him too. It is clear that Paul sees this fact as a central part of our Christian existence. (See: Gal 2:20, 5:24, 6:14, Rom 6:1-11, 8:17, Eph 2:5-6, Col 2:9-2:14, 2:20, 3:1-4.) We are united with more than just Christ's post-resurrection life, we are united with His death and resurrection as well.
So what does this mean? Let us look at several aspects of atonement: Penalty, wrath, new life, justification/sanctification.
We have died in Christ. Death is the penalty for sin. Christ has paid the penalty for sin by dying. Inasmuch as We are United with Christ (form here on out, abbreviated "IWUC"), we have also died and thus paid the penalty for our sins.
God poured out His wrath on Jesus. IWUC, God has also poured out His wrath on us--the proper objects for His wrath. God's wrath, among other things, is an agent of healing and rehabilitation. I do not want to deny that God's wrath has an element of retribution, but I am here focused on the fact that God makes statements like:
"The Lord will strike Egypt with a plague; he will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the Lord, and He will respond to their pleas and heal them." (Is 19:22)
"...the Lord binds up the bruises of His people and heals the wounds He inflicted." (Is 30:26c)
"Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces, but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds!" (Hos 6:1)
In light of such passages, we can see that God tears down in order to build better. Like a wall that is so crooked that the only way to make it straight it to knock it down and build anew, so it is with wrath. God burns away our sins like a crucible purifies gold.
Ah, but there is a problem. We are nothing but sin, or as Augustine likes to put it, we are nothing but a "mass of perdition" (translated into more modern terms, a "lump of sin"). [Note: this means that when Christ bears our sins, he is indeed bearing our entire selves--he is bearing us on the Cross.] Now if God burns away all of the sin in us, then there will be nothing left of us, right? Wrong! We are united with Christ. He is in us, just as we are in Him. So when we are all burned away by God's wrath, nothing remains of us but Christ.
Being united with Christ is great and all, but being united with the dead Christ does us no good at all. And if the story ended here, Christianity would be worthless (c.f. I Cor 15:17). But Christ rose from the dead. He has new life, and IWUC, we have new life too (namely, His).
Typically, the legal-forensic view of Penal Substitution talks about justification as God viewing us as righteous, even though we aren't really righteous. However, in the Penal Union view, IWUC we really are righteous. Justification isn't God somehow ignoring the reality of our sin. Rather, justification is God's recognition of who we really are now in Christ. Similarly with sanctification: IWUC we are truly holy. What to make of the language that we are both sanctified and being sanctified? IWUC, we are sanctified. Inasmuch as we are Not united with Christ, we are being further united with Christ, and thus we are being sanctified.
Analysis of Penal Union
Notice how carefully I've preserved the penal aspects of Penal Substitution. Everyone is born a sinner. Justice demands that sin be punished with death. That penalty is paid on the cross.
Now notice the big difference. Jesus does not die in our place. He does not die instead of us. Rather, we die with Him. We are united with His death. (While I have not directly dealt with Rom 1-3 as some of you have requested, you'll notice that those chapters are the basic axioms from which I'm working. I trust that you can see that nothing in my theory contradicts Romans 1-3.)
Union language is dominant in the Pauline letters, and shows up in Peter's epistles too. But actual substitutionary langue shows up not at all. Penal language, certainly. But you never find Paul saying that Jesus dies instead of us on the Cross. Rather, you always hear him saying that we have died with Christ on the cross.
Regarding propitiation and the satisfaction of God's wrath, we can see that this model deals with those issues in ways that should be acceptable to adherants of Penal Substitution. God's wrath is indeed expressed. It is poured out on Christ, and IWUC, on us as well. God's wrath is satisfied becuase it is exhausted. He has poured all of it out. The only reason we survive such a wrath is because we are united with Christ who is capable of surviving such a wrath (though not without dying first).
Objections to Penal Union
Objections to this model fall under 3 main categories: 1) We must not take part in any aspect of our atonement, 2) Can't it be that our atonement is substitutionary in some respects, and unitive in others?, and 3) This model grievously warps the idea of free forgiveness. I will deal with each in turn
1) The primary objection that people have to this theory is that it makes us participants in our own atonement. This seems to be a denial of grace and the of sola fides, for we are participating in the work of salvation. Thus, this is a work based salvation. I have three responses to this. First, I must insist that while we do indeed participate in the work of the Cross, it is a passive participation only. Notice how often I use the phrase IWUC. That is to emphasize that it is not us who do these things, but Christ. We do these things only inasmuch as we are united with Christ. This passive participation is akin (though only loosely, please don't press this analogy too far: we are all aware that analogies have their limits) to a benchwarmer's participation to a team's victory. The benchwarmer may have played zero minutes of the game, but it is still accurate to say that the team won. And as such it is accurate to say that the benchwarmer won, even though the benchwarmer didn't even play.
My second response to this is to say that the only thing we do on the cross is die. Dying isn't a work. Dying isn't something you do, it is something that happens to you.
Third, I would like to point out that it is no hard thing to pay for your own sins. Everybody is capable of paying for their own sins. Every adherent to Penal Substitution who is not a universalist should be agreeing with me here: all who die apart from Christ pay for their own sins by dying (and going to hell, for those who believe in hell). Paying for sins is easy, you just have to die. You don't have to be God to pay for sins. The hard part about paying for your sins is surviving to tell the tale. It is only those who have been united with Christ who can do so.
2) The next most frequent objection goes as follows: Penal union sounds kinda OK, but why can't you suppliment it with some Penal Substitution? Can't it be both? Why must you discard Penal Substitution? Well, the short answer to that last question is that I think that Penal Substitution is unbiblical. However, I'll take some time to explain in more detail why I think that these two theories are mutually incompatible. First, I want to point out again that this model is closer to Penal Substitution than it is to any other theory. There is much good to be found in the Penal Substitution model, and I've tried to incorporate all of those into this theory. However, they cannot both be true.
Penal Substitution is by definition a substitutionary model. That is to say that the death/penalty is substituted, Christ's for ours. The language of substitution is "instead of" or "in our place". However, "instead of" is a denial of "together with", which is the language of union. If Christ takes our place on the Cross, then we cannot be there together with him. Substitution does not allow for that.
In critiquing my position, Jeremy likes to claim that Christ dies instead of us in one respect, but we die in Him in another. Thus they can both be true. However, I deny that the two models are referring to different respects. In Penal Substitution, Christ's death is the payment for the penalty of sin. In Penal Union, Christ's death is the payment for the penalty of sin. In both models, the death accomplishes the same thing. These are not different respects. The difference in the models is in whether we are together with Christ on the cross, or whether He takes our place on the cross. The difference is not in what the death on the cross accomplishes.
3) There is the occasional critique of this model that it denies forgiveness. The complaint goes something as follows: Forgiveness is the absense of punishment. For us to be forgiven, we must escape punishment (by definition of forgiveness). But we experience punishment (death) in the Penal Union model. Therefore, Penal union must be wrong and/or Penal Substituion must be right (for we escape punishment in PS).
My only response to this is that this definition of forgiveness is just plain wrong. Forgiveness is not about the absense of punishement--that's mercy. Forgiveness is about the restoration of relationship. It is about reconciliation. It is perfectly consistent to say that you've forgiven someone, yet still punish that person. Take, for example, parenting. As Christians, we are to forgive all who sin against us. Our children frequently sin against us. Does that mean that we should never punish our children? If forgiveness is the absense of punishment, then yes. But that is clearly absurd. We have a biblical responsibility to discipline our children and that includes punishing our children (though it includes more than that too). So what is forgiveness about? It is about resoring relationships that have become broken by sin. This does not require the absense of punishment. In fact it may even be necessary ("without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" Heb 9:22).
In Penal Union, it is true that we do not escape punishment, but we are forgiven for our relationship with God is one of reconciliation.