Exploration…is Penal Union the underpinning of Penal Substitution

Jan 2005


There may be an explanation as to how substitution was actually metaphysically done

At the descriptive and ‘transaction’ level, we can see how substitution and forgiveness work, and the biblical images of Christ bearing our guilt, suffering our punishment, and dying in our place are very clear in the text. They provoke us to sobriety, to humility, to gratitude, to warmth, to openness toward God’s love, to reflection at what this cost the heart of God, and then to a dance-of-heart at this freedom of soul.

Yet there is another strain of thought in (especially) Pauline theology which might also provide the theological and metaphysical mechanism of how this substitution worked, and this strain of thought is explicitly non-substitutional (from a legal standpoint). We might compare the two themes as being “Christ died for me” and “I died with/in Christ”.

The “Christ died for me” passages are well-known, and they form the clear scriptural/apostolic witness to substitution (e.g, Is 53; Rom 5.6,8; I Cor 15.3; 2 Cor 5.15; 1 Thess 5.10; 1 Pet 3.1).

But there are a number of “I died with/in Christ” passages, which might be referring to an ontic, theological, metaphysical reality which would satisfy the legal demands for ‘non-substitution’, while providing the opportunity for forgiveness based on substitution. There are several explicit and detailed passages here:

When we back up and try to understand what is going on in those passages, one salient fact emerges: in some real, meaningful, legal sense believers share the death of Christ. When we became believers, we were somehow ‘grafted in’ to the death of Jesus on the Christ. This is the doctrine of ‘mystical union’ or ‘spiritual union’ with Christ. When we receive the indwelling Spirit of Christ at our step of faith, we are inseparably linked to the person of Christ (“in Christ”). We—as part of His ‘body’—are “in Him”, and as such, we share His circumcision (Col 2.11), His burial (Col 2.12), His sanctification/righteousness (many, many passages), His resurrection (above passages) and His death.

This is no ontic fiction or mere ‘symbolic’ notion—the presence of the Holy Spirit in the heart/life of the believer is the ‘metaphysical mechanism’ by which we are “linked” into and/or immersed into (biblical ‘baptism’) the “mystical Body” of Christ. We really DID “die in Christ”, but not until we believed (temporal paradoxes notwithstanding). The passages above are quite clear: our ‘old self’ died upon our entrance into the Body of Christ, and “we” were reborn (the ‘new creation’ and ‘new man’ motifs). When the Spirit of Christ/Holy Spirit entered our hearts, the ‘old man’ was judged and separated from ‘me’ (death = separation, biblically speaking), and “I” was grafted onto (?) a new man/new creation (the new birth). The new me has never sinned, owes no debt-penalty, and is free in my relationship to God. The Old me was crucified on the Cross with Jesus—but this was not ‘applied’ to the Old me until my step of faith. I—as a new creation—am ‘dead’ to the old life, old world, old order. I am dead to the Law, to the penalty and claims of sin upon my life, I am dead to the old values my Old me seemed to espouse by its actions.

It is important to understand that this is a theological and ontological reality—according to God. I might not understand how the mechanism works, but the assertions make adequate sense to me. If I suspend the mind-body-spirit-consciousness metaphysical questions rampant in this, I can see how the substitution/non-substitution interaction might work:

  1. Non-substitution applied to my Old Self—it died at the Cross, in the Death of Christ. Penal justice was served—the ‘wages of sin is death’.

  2. Substitution applied to the ‘I’—Jesus took the punishment the “I” should have gotten for the sins of the “Old Self” to which it was attached. Forgiveness is mine.

These two themes are woven together tightly in the 1 Cor 5.14 passage: “if One died for all, then all died”. The at-least-representative (?) death of Jesus somehow effected (legally) the death of all. Legal justice was essentially served—the guilty died.

Now, if this theological understanding is correct, then we have both substitution and non-substitution at the Cross, and although we may have a difficulty placing those two together systematically, it seems plausible that our ethical objections may now be abandoned. Furthermore, it appears that we have a complex of themes very rich in content and beauty, and one which provides a fertile ground from which to develop our doctrines of forgiveness, intercession, and delay-of-judgment (all “problems” in a true, Kantian, punishment-as-moral-imperative system, which seems to be approximately what the bible teaches).


Pushback: Good grief, Glenn, how weasel-like can you get?! You “died in Christ”, eh?—allegedly satisfying the penal aspects, but your ‘old self’ didn’t experience a BIT of Death-level discomfort! You didn’t ‘suffer punishment’ at all! How can you say that it ‘satisfied’ justice, in such a “sterile” form of death?! Theological sleight-of-hand, it seems to me--!

Well, I appreciate your desire that I actually SUFFER (smile), but death actually isn’t really about that, in penal systems. In most/many societies (ancient and modern), capital punishment was generally done swiftly (generally for practical reasons), and NOT done in such a way as to prolong agony. Our ‘lethal injection’ execution mode, for example, is specifically designed to preclude actual physical pain ( https://www.cjlf.org/deathpenalty/TXInjection.htm), and historically, social executions were more often about efficiency of the act (e.g., beheading, hanging, firing squad) than about intense and prolonged suffering (e.g., burning at stake, impalement, crucifixion). The latter were sometimes used in cases of extreme “social deviation” (feared by the authorities as threatening the actual foundation of the community), such as occultism or sedition. Exceptions for public ‘entertainment’ (e.g. the Roman Circus) and for ‘social control through horrific punishment’ (e.g, Assyrian impalement) are exactly that—exceptions and not the majority mode. Generally, the judges wanted the capital-criminals removed from the community as quickly and as cleanly as possible. Execution and punishment (at least capital punishment) is more about removal than about pain.

The prospect of death (cessation of life, joy, possibility, future, influence, pleasure, significance, etc) is considered enough—after all, it’s the highest punishment penal systems actually HAVE. Even though lethal injection might be painless in itself, or even though hanging is supposed to bring instantaneous death and cessation of feeling, the death at the end of these processes is what the punishment is all about…

So, just because I didn’t feel any part of Jesus’ experience of pain on the Cross, doesn’t mean that my death ‘in Him’ and ‘with Him’ is any less a death of my old character-self. On the contrary, my Old Self—in this death—becomes ‘trapped in finitude’ and severed from God (a ‘curse’). It’s days become ‘numbered’—it has no future. It begins to weaken and lose its power over the “I-who-is-Glenn”. It begins to be ridiculed and de-valued and despised by the New Glenn. Its arguments and desires are largely ignored and resisted and trivialized, and increasingly so as the New Self gets stronger. It is not taken into consideration in decisions and trade-offs and plans for the future. It appears pathetic to the New Self, a twisted creature, self-absorbed, petty, tantrum-making, pouting, petulant, infantile. While the New Self dances in child-like wonder and abandon, it sulks and grabs at the toys to keep from sharing with others. Its occasional victories over the New Self (Gal 5.17), are minor and hollow, unsustainable, localized, only-skin-deep, and destined to prove pointless. It cannot command, it can only try to persuade or cajole—it is toothless, without the power it once had, without a hope of ever being a ‘player’ again…It is ‘sterile’, destined to be the last of its line—by the ‘sterility’ of its death at the Cross (smile)… It is dried chaff, a lifeless husk, an abandoned layer of snake-skin, to be blown away by the wind someday.

And, to top it all off, it has to share, for a little while longer, this glenn-body with the Spirit of the Living God, and the Jesus-looking New Me! Its self-absorbed enslaved misery watches the dancing of Glenn’s hopes, the slow-but-real healing of glenn’s heart, the joy of trusting finally (at least a little…smile), the freedom to focus on others first—and the freedom that comes from doing so, the incandescence of those increasingly-pure moral choices, the searing heat (to it, that is—its only actually soft warmth) of increasing love and compassion in this New Self, and a thousand other delights from the Author of LIFE…

That is death…



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