Redemption means to secure the release or recovery of persons or things by the payment of a price. It is a covenantal legal term closely associated with ransom, atonement, substitution, and deliverance, thus salvation. Theologically, redemption refers ultimately to the saving work of Christ, who came to accomplish our redemption by giving his life in substitution for our own as the ransom price.
Redemption is an important soteriological term and concept for Christians. The significance of the term is seen in that it serves as the overarching category for the whole saving work of God: redemptive history. It is the overarching rubric for studying the doctrine of salvation, as in John Murray’s famous book: Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans). Redemption (apolutrósis) refers supremely to the work of Christ on our behalf, whereby he purchases and ransoms us—at the price of his own life—securing our deliverance from the bondage and condemnation of sin. As the old song goes, “He paid a debt he did not owe, because we owed a debt we could not pay.” The New Testament speaks of Christ’s saving work in this way frequently. J. I. Packer explains: “New Testament references to the blood of Christ are regularly sacrificial (e.g., Rom 3:25; 5:9; Eph 1:7; Rev 1:5). As a perfect sacrifice for sin (Rom 8:3; Eph 5:2; 1Pet 1:18–19), Christ’s death was our redemption (i.e., our rescue by ransom: the paying of a price that freed us from the jeopardy of guilt, enslavement to sin, and expectation of wrath; Rom 3:24; Gal 4:4–5; Col 1:14)” (Concise Theology, Tyndale House, 135).
Redemption (apolutrósis) refers supremely to the work of Christ on our behalf, whereby he purchases us, he ransoms us, at the price of his own life, securing our deliverance from the bondage and condemnation of sin. The New Testament speaks of Christ’s saving work in this way frequently.
Paul talks to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28 about the importance of their watchcare over “the church of God, which he obtained (or purchased or acquired) with his own blood.” He tells the Corinthians: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1Cor. 6:19–20). Writing to the Colossians, he gives thanks to the Father who “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13–14).
To Timothy and the Ephesians he says: “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” (1Tim 2:5–6). He reminds Titus of “our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior 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 2:13–14). To the Galatians he exclaims “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13); he later elaborates “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (4:4–5).
But Peter uses this language too, exhorting the Christians of Asia Minor to “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 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” (1Pet 1:17–19). And John on Patmos reports that he heard those in heaven sing a new song: “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, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5:9–10).
Old Testament Background
In the Old Testament the idea of redemption is important and features in many contexts. Key words are gāʾal (“redeem,” “act as kinsman”) and pāḏâ (“buy,” “ransom,” “redeem”). Under the Mosaic law firstborn humans and animals were devoted to the Lord through redemption (Exod 13:2, 11–16; 22:29–30; 34:19–20; Num 3:44–51; 18:15–19). Land and other property could be redeemed (Lev 25:23–34), which features in the story of Ruth and Boaz. Boaz is called gōʾēl “kinsman redeemer” (Ruth 2:20; 3:9, 12–13; 4:1, 3, 6, 8, 14).
But the most important illustrative event of redemption in the Old Testament is the Exodus, where Israel is redeemed and God acts as the Redeemer. Moses recounts God’s words to his people in “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD” (Exod 6:6–8, ESV). The Passover meal (Exod 12:23–28) is a memorial of this redemption.
Elsewhere David addresses God: “O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (Ps 19:14), and Asaph says of Israel in the wilderness: “They remembered that God was their rock, the Most High God their redeemer” (Ps 78:35). The title is very important to Isaiah in the face of the exile: “Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I am the one who helps you, declares the LORD; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel” (Isa 41:14, see also Isa 43:14; 44:6, 24; 47:4; 48:17; 49:7, 26; 50:34; 54:5, 8; 59:20; 60:16; 63:16).
Four Significant New Testament Passages
Four New Testament passages illustrate the importance of the idea of redemption, and ransom price, in relation to the person and work of Christ. “The NT language of redemption . . . refers to the salvific work of Christ and to its effect for humanity. The word of Our Lord places beyond question three facts: (1) the work He came to accomplish was one of ransom, (2) the giving of His life was the ransom price, and (3) the ransom was substitutionary in character” (John Murray). We will see this clearly indicated in Matthew 20:28, Romans 3:22–25, Ephesians 1:7–8, and Hebrews 9:12–15.
Jesus, while challenging his ambitious disciples over their worldly quest for primacy, says: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom (lutron) for many” (Matt 20:28). Jesus’s description of his calling, purpose, and mission in life is striking. Self-giving marks it at every point. He is not here for other people to serve him. He is here to serve others. Indeed, he is here to completely give himself away in serving others, up to and including giving his life away as a ransom price for them. Matthew Henry explains: “Jesus Christ laid down his life for a ransom. Our lives were forfeited into the hands of divine justice by sin. Christ, by parting with his life, made atonement for sin, and so rescued ours; he was made sin, and a curse for us, and died, not only for our good, but in our stead.”
Paul, in expounding the basis of gracious justification, says: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption (apolutrósis) that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom 3:22–25). Paul is crystal clear that our justification (our being counted as righteous, or declared righteous by God) is the absolutely free and gracious gift of the extravagantly loving heavenly Father—we are “justified as a gift by His grace.” That is, justification is given to us freely, without price to us, but its basis is unimaginably costly, and it is only made possible through an exorbitant purchase “through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” Free to us. Costly to God. Jesus pays the redemption price of our free justification.
Paul’s glorious prayer in Ephesians 1:3–14 includes this acknowledgement, meant to stir the Ephesians (and us) to wonder, love and praise: “In him we have redemption (apolutrósis) through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us” (Eph. 1:7–8). The message, again, is clear. Our forgiveness is both costly and free. The price of our redemption is the blood, the life, and the death of Christ. Only on that basis may we receive forgiveness that is freely lavished on us according to the riches of God’s grace. Over and over we are seeing how God bears the price of our salvation and then gives it to us freely.
Musing on the superiority of the new covenant over the old covenant worship forms, the author of Hebrews says Christ “entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption (lutrósis). For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems (apolutrósis) them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Heb 9:12–15).
Hebrews is explaining why Jesus is a better high priest, and better mediator of a better covenant. He is better because he entered through his own blood (9:12)—on the merits of his own righteousness, unlike the Aaronic priests who had to offer sacrifices for themselves and the people. Jesus is both perfect priest and perfect sacrifice in one. Furthermore, the blood of Christ was more effective than Old Testament sacrifices (9:13–14)—cleansing consciences, forgiving sins, and obtaining eternal redemption. Jesus’s death accomplished redemption once for all. He does not merely cancel our debts; he liquidates them.
No wonder Christians sing hymns of redemption with stanzas like these:
William Cowper’s, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”:
Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its pow’r,
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved to sin no more
E’er since by faith I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme, And shall be till I die:
Norman Clayton, “Now I Belong to Jesus”:
Jesus, my Lord will love me forever, From Him no pow’r of evil can sever,
He gave His life to ransom my soul; Now I belong to Him;
Now I belong to Jesus, Jesus belongs to me,
Not for the years of time alone, but for eternity.
Fanny Crosby, “Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It”:
Redeemed, redeemed, Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb;
Redeemed, redeemed, His child and forever I am.
Fanny Crosby, “To God Be the Glory”:
O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood!
To every believer the promise of God;
Samuel Crossman, “My Song Is Love Unknown”:
They rise and needs will have My dear Lord made away;
A murderer they save, The Prince of life they slay.
Yet willing He to suffering goes, That He His foes from thence might free.
- W. A. Elwell, & B. J. Beitzel, Redeemer, Redemption. In Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, pp. 1827–1829). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988.
- John Murray. Redeemer; Redemption. In G. W. Bromiley (Ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Vol. 4, pp. 61–63). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979–1988.
- B. B. Warfield. “Redeemer” and “Redemption.” The Princeton Theological Review, (1916) XIV (1–4), 177–201.
- B. B. Warfield, “The NT Terminology of ‘Redemption,’” in Biblical Doctrines (1929; repr 1981), 327–398.
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