“Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, Ever more his praises sing…” The words of the majestic old hymn, Praise, My Soul by Henry Francis Lyte, praise God for his saving work. As we reflect on these words, what should we understand by the concept of ransom? That it is a scriptural concept is undeniable. The relevant Greek words are lutron (price of release, or ransom) lutroo (to free by paying a ransom, to redeem, to liberate, set free or rescue from oppression) lutrosis (liberation from oppression) lutrotes (redeemer) apolutrosis (buying back of a slave, making free by paying a ransom, release from captivity) apoluo (to grant acquittal, set free, release, send away or divorce) and antilutron (ransom). The verb agorazo, to buy, is also translated redeem or redeemer. All these terms are found throughout the Old and New Testaments to describe God’s salvation of his people.
Clearly, these terms which describe what Christ accomplished by his death, are linked to the history of redemptive practice. God redeemed Israel from slavery (Ex 15:13; Deut 7:8) and established laws of redemption. Firstborn sons were to be redeemed rather than sacrificed (Ex 13:15). Each Israelite was to pay a ransom for his life to the Lord (Ex 30:12). Property sold to pay debt was to be redeemed by a kinsman (Lev 25:25). The poor who sold themselves as slaves were to be redeemed (Lev 25:48) and land was to be redeemed in the year of Jubilee. The story of Ruth is the story of the redemption of a widow and her dead husband’s inheritance by a near kinsman, Boaz. The Old Testament is replete with images of purchasing back, of redeeming. Isaiah prophesied that “the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing” (Isa 51:11). The Psalmist notes that Israel “remembered that God was their rock, the Most High God their redeemer” (Psa 78:35).
These redemption passages are fulfilled in the ultimate redemption of the Israel of God, both Jew and Gentile, for whom Christ’s sacrifice is efficacious. Zechariah recognised this at the birth of his son John, who would prepare the way of the Lord. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68). Jesus himself proclaimed his mission thus; “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom (lutron) for many” (Mark 10:45).
As a consequence of the atonement made by Christ, sinners are redeemed, bought back from slavery to sin. The New Testament writers do not shy away from using these terms;
“(Christ Jesus) who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1Tim 2:6 ).
“(Our great God and saviour Jesus Christ) who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).
These images of purchase, ransom and redemption underline the costliness of our salvation, for the price paid was no less than the blood of the Son of God.
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
“For you were bought at a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20).
“Knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet 1:18–19).
“And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation’” (Rev 5:9).
Jesus’ sacrifice has freed us from sin and death (Rom 5:18). In the Greek world, a slave could be set free by payment of a sum at the shrine of a god, effectively purchasing them for that deity, never to be enslaved again. The expression used was payment “for freedom,” and this familiar term was used by Paul to speak of the liberation achieved by Christ (Gal 5:1).
Through the history of the church the ransom aspect of the atonement has been understood in different ways, and caution must be exercised lest they be confused or misunderstood. In various forms the so-called “ransom theory” of the atonement dominated the church’s thinking until the late middle ages. In this view, history is a great cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil and Satan, the ruler of this world, took control over humanity. Christ’s life was offered as a ransom to Satan, who in his pride did not realise that he could have no hold over the sinless, divine Son of God. Variations on this theory were expounded over the centuries, but the common element was victory over Satan and deliverance of humanity from bondage to him. A modern development of this idea is found in CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Aslan agrees to offer himself to the White Witch in order for the duplicitous Edmund to be redeemed, yet rises again through “deeper magic” which the Witch fails to understand. Christadelphians reject the “ransom to Satan” theory of the atonement and I believe rightly so. Nevertheless Robert Roberts, in his determination to reject substitutionary atonement, goes too far in asserting that “no debt of ours has been paid or can be paid . . .”
How then are we to understand the language of ransom, payment and redemption? The New Testament emphasis is on the price paid for our redemption; but the analogy is not to be pushed to the point of considering to whom the price was paid. According to Scripture, humans are captive to sin (Rom 6:16–18), not to “Satan,” and God himself is the one who required propitiation and payment. The transaction is one conducted in the eternal counsel and purposes of God and redemption is all his work (2 Cor 5:21, Isa 53:6, 10). As a result of our purchase by the precious blood of Christ, we are no longer our own, free to act as we please; we are now slaves to righteousness. In 1 Corinthians 6 :19–20 Paul explains that the purchased believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, received from God. Because we were bought at a great price, we are to honor God with our bodies. “Created by God, one day to be resurrected to glory by God, purchased by God and indwelt by God,” as John Stott puts it, “we belong to God three times over, by creation, redemption and indwelling.” We are, in the words of Paul, crucified with Christ, dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus, and sin has no more dominion over us (Rom 6:11, Gal 2:20).
Intrinsic to this idea of redemption and purchase is the substitutionary nature of the atonement. If Christ died merely as an example or a representative of humanity, in what sense can we be considered ransomed? In what sense has he dealt with our sins and “purchased” us with his blood? How do Christadelphians understand the word “ransomed,” when they sing “Praise, my soul the King of heaven” — Hymn 116 in their hymnbook? Article XII in the Christadelphian Statement of Faith explains the atonement as “the condemnation of sin in the flesh, through the offering of the body of Jesus once for all, as a propitiation to declare the righteousness of God, as the basis for remission of sins. All who approach God through this crucified, but risen, representative of Adam’s disobedient race, are forgiven. Therefore, by a figure, his blood cleanseth from sin.” But propitiation in Scripture is the averting or appeasement of God’s wrath against sinful humanity, in which the God shows his love by bearing our sins in the Son’s body and taking the punishment which is our due; “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isa 53:4–6).
Jesus Christ, the divine Lord, is so much more than a representative of humanity. The Lord God of Israel has indeed visited and redeemed his people, at the costly price of his perfect Son. He did what we could not do, for we were helpless, dead in sin, completely unable to save ourselves (Eph 2:4–5). He paid the price, ransomed and redeemed us form sin and death and raised us to heavenly places. He propitiated his own righteous anger, he bore our sins in the awful degradation of crucifixion, redeeming us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13). He became sin who knew no sin that we might become his righteousness (2 Cor 5:21). Not having any righteousness of our own, the righteousness of God is imputed to us so that we stand justified before the judgement throne, as the beloved children of God. What a costly sacrifice! Yet God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, his life a ransom for many.