Atonement: participation, not mere imputation

This post continues a review of Alexandra Radcliff's book, The Claim of Humanity in Christ, Salvation and Sanctification in the Theology of T. F. and J. B. Torrance. For previous posts in this series, click a number: 12, 3, 5, 67891011.

Last time we saw what Torrance theology says concerning how the vicarious (substitutionary, representative) humanity of Jesus Christ is central to a biblical understanding of salvation and the atonement. We saw how the Torrance brothers emphasize that Jesus' resurrection not only confirms that by his death we have been forgiven, it also points to the new birth of a righteous humanity in Christ. The Torrances then note that in Jesus' ascension this new humanity "is raised up in Christ to share by the Spirit in his perfect relationship with the Father" (p. 61). JB Torrance puts it this way:
The Son of God takes our humanity, sanctifies it by his vicarious life in the Spirit (John 17:17-18), carries it to the grave to be crucified and buried in him, and in his resurrection and ascension carries it into the holy presence of God. (p. 61) 
"Abide with Me" by Del Parson
(used with permission)

Contained in this summary of the gospel is the important truth that the human Jesus still lives. Resurrected from the dead in a glorified human body, Jesus ascended bodily into heaven where he now serves as our High Priest. In that role, he continues his vicarious ministry, offering, as Radcliff notes, "worthy worship, which we are unable to do, so that we might be included in his perfect relationship with the Father" (p. 61).

Unfortunately, when thinking about our salvation and the nature of the atonement, the continuing high priestly ministry of the glorified human person Jesus is often overlooked or diminished. The same can be said about the role of the Holy Spirit. From Pentecost forward, the ascended Jesus is pouring out his Spirit on the Church. As JB notes, were that not the case, we would be unable to participate in Jesus' love and life. Thankfully, however, it is the case, and Jesus pours out the Spirit on the Church in such a way that we are able to participate in his glorified human life, including his relationship with the Father. In that regard, TF notes that Pentecost must be seen, not "as something added on to atonement, but as the actualization within the life of the Church of the atoning life, death and resurrection of the Savior" (p. 62). In short, we are saved by Jesus' life, death, resurrection and ascension, and his sending of the Spirit in a new way post-Pentecost.

Related to these ideas is one of the key points of Torrance theology, namely that the atonement has both a retrospective and a prospective aspect. Radcliff comments:
...Salvation involves not only a retrospective forgiveness of sins but also a prospective sharing by the Spirit in Jesus' relationship with the Father. We are a new creation as sons and daughters of God. We have been adopted into Christ's filial relationship to the Father. God created us not for external, legal relations but for intimate communion with him. (pp. 62-63 italics added)
As TF notes, atonement in a mere legal sense is not God's goal for us---the goal (telos) is our union with God in and through the God-man Jesus Christ, "in whom our human nature is not only saved, healed and renewed but lifted up to participate in the very life and love of the Holy Trinity" (p. 63).

Through his life, death, resurrection, ascension and continuing ministry as our High Priest, Jesus accomplishes this goal through what the Torrances call an "atoning exchange," by which...
...Christ takes what is ours, sinful humanity, and gives us what is his, a perfect relationship with the Father. We are not only forgiven but, in Christ and by the Spirit, raised up to participate in the inner relations of God's life, (p. 63)
This relational understanding of the atonement is what the Torrances refer to as Nicene theology, or the Nicene Faith. It' is what GCI means by referring to "incarnational Trinitarian theology." Sadly, the typical theological understanding in Western Protestantism limits the atonement to its retrospective aspect--- forgiveness of sin with imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer. This retrospective aspect is seen in a largely (sometimes exclusively) legal (forensic) sense---a sort of balancing of the books or the clearing of a legal record. But the Torrances, in line with the framers of the Nicene Creed (men like Athanasius), see atonement in a personal, relational-filial and ontological sense.

What Jesus did for us in and through his vicarious humanity was not merely legal---it was not merely external to us. Through the Incarnation, the eternal Son of God, by becoming fully human, took us (our diseased humanity, our fallen human nature) into himself and through his obedience as a human to the Father, dealt decisively with our disobedience. He did so not by merely expunging the record of our sin, but by dealing decisively with our fallen nature, which is the fountainhead of our sin. And not only was our fallen nature neutralized by Jesus, he imparted to us his perfect human nature which is rightly related to the Father by the Spirit (i.e. Christ's own righteousness).

All of this is accomplished in and through Jesus' vicarious (representative, substitutionary) humanity, which he, as our High Priest in heaven, shares with us by sending us the Holy Spirit in such a way that he unites us in what GCI refers to as a spiritual union with Christ (as distinct from the hypostatic union by which the Son of God united himself to our human nature).

Thus, we understand that the righteousness that is ours is not merely something imputed to us in an external, legal way, but is actual sharing, through the Holy Spirit, in Jesus' own life and love---his right relationship with the Father and with all people. The key term here is "union with Christ"---what the apostle Paul is referring to in his many mentions of "in Christ" or "in the Lord." As TF notes, "God does not give us abstract benefits; he gives us his very self.... The gift and the giver are one in the same in the wholeness and indivisibility of his grace" (pp. 68-69). As the apostle Paul notes, Christ (Christ himself) is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). Radcliff comments:
We receive righteousness not through an external imputation of the benefits of Christ but through a personal participation in Christ's very self.... Christ came not only so that humanity may have close fellowship with God, but so that we might share by the Spirit in the Son's intimate communion with the Father. (pp. 69-70)
Next time we'll dig deeper concerning what Jesus, in his vicarious humanity, has accomplished and continues to accomplish, by the Spirit, for our salvation.