Like many others, I have been moved over the last several years to repeatedly reassert the biblical emphasis on Christ’s propitiating work on the cross in what is typically called the “penal substitution” view of the atonement—for instance, devoting an entire chapter to it as the “sharp edge of the atonement” in my book Gospel Deeps and another whole chapter defending it from recent critiques in a forthcoming book (2020) with Thomas Nelson. But penal substitution is of course not the whole of the atonement. The gospel is more multifaceted than that, and one of the least considered facets is Christ as our ransom.
Psalm 49 establishes a dilemma of direst condition:
Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice . . . (49:7-8)
The condition of man since the fall is one of bondage to sin and corruption from death. Having disobeyed God, we have revolted from our insidest selves to his good order and holy decrees. Therefore, we are slaves to death and children of wrath.
The psalmists then effectively tell us that no man can rescue himself. We can’t even rescue each other. Why? Because no sinner can muster the moral currency required to pay the ransom for this rescue.
This is cause for great humility in ourselves, because those who are saved are not saved by any righteousness of their own, and for great patience and mercy with others, because those who do not believe in Christ are, biblically speaking, captives.
So there is the gospel of Jesus Christ to be carried into every dark corner of the soul and every far corner of the world! Because in the gospel comes the ransom that sets captives free. Psalm 49:15 tells of it: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.”
God will pay the ransom himself in order to receive us back to himself. He has done this through Christ, who is our ransom, as we see in texts like Mark 10:45: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
But this angle on the atonement has always raised the sticky question: To whom is the ransom paid?
In C.S. Lewis’s classic work of “supposal,” The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, we see where Aslan makes the payment of his life for Edmund’s liberation in response to the White Witch’s demands. It’s a powerful scene and not without biblical resonance, but if we draw the lines too directly, we may make a theological mistake of some importance. Aslan is clearly Christ in the story, and the Witch is clearly the stand-in for our accuser Satan. But while Satan is often called the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4), he is still subservient to the sovereign Lord of all the cosmos. So we have to be careful in how we speak of ransom, lest we lend too much power to the enemy and deflect too much glory away from God.
There is in fact a “ransom text” in the Bible that gives us a clue as to whom is being paid the ransom. In 1 Timothy 2:5-6, Paul writes: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”
The context of this passage show us Christ as the “mediator” not between men and the Devil or between God and the Devil but between men and God. It would seem from the shape of this text, that the ransom is paid by the Son of God to God the Father, as Jesus becomes the ransoming mediator between God and men, making atonement for men to God. And of course we see the foundation of this truth in Psalm 49:7, where the ransom price of man’s life is said to be owed to God.
In this sense, the ransom view of the atonement is similar to the concept of propitiation (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2), which means “to make favorable.” Who has Christ made favorable with his sacrifice on the cross? Certainly not the enemy, whose frustration is compounded eternally knowing that Jesus’s death redeems souls from sin and its punishment, and who at the cross is not paid but actually shamed (Col. 2:15), and not satisfied but actually defeated (Heb. 2:14-15).
No, at the cross, the sinless Jesus has taken the punishment owed by the Father to the sinful rebels against his holiness (Isaiah 53:4-5). The wrath of God has been satisfied at the cross of Christ (Col. 1:20). It is the Father who in holy love sends his Son to make the payment that removes his holy wrath from the children of God (1 John 4:10; John 3:36). The Father has been propitiated. Similarly, then, Christ has paid the ransom to the only one who truly holds life and death in his hands—God himself.
So in the beautiful irony of the gospel, we are effectively saved from God by God. The only security from God’s wrath, then, is found in God’s love in Christ (Psalm 2:12). The ransom now paid, we have been delivered from the domain of sin and death into perfect union with the Son of God, in whom there is therefore now no condemnation (Rom. 8:1).