For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved… (Romans 8:22-24)
Coupons are the only things that people redeem today. A customer cuts a coupon out of the newspaper, or off of a package, or prints a coupon from the internet, and brings the coupon to the store. The clerk at the store redeems the coupon by giving its value to the customer, whether the coupon is worth ten cents, twenty-five cents, a dollar, or any other amount. Payment of a known value is the root meaning of the word “redemption.”
In the days of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire, slaves were redeemed. The seller would take the slaves into the market and put them on display. Interested buyers would look at the slaves and perhaps ask questions about them. When a buyer was ready to make a purchase, he would announce, “I redeem this one.” Money would change hands—the buyer would give the agreed value of the slave to the seller. The slave was not then free; the slave was now the property of a new owner.
The Bible says that God is our Redeemer—specifically, that Jesus Christ the Son of God is our Redeemer. He has paid a price to make us his property. We are not free now to do whatever we want; we are free to do whatever Jesus wants. Yet, because of this purchase, we are free. We once were slaves to sin, but Christ—by redeeming us—has taken us out of the power of sin. We once were destined for death, which we deserved, but by the price he paid to claim us, Jesus has set us free from death and has granted us the gift of life instead.
The financial metaphor of redemption is only one of the Bible’s pictures of what Jesus has done for us. The Bible speaks of salvation, of justification, of cleansing, and of other descriptions of what Jesus has accomplished. By any name, this gift from Jesus is a mystery. How does the life of one man, lived in Jewish communities at the edge of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago, make any difference to us today? How does the death of that one man, condemned as a criminal and executed on a cross, change the world and bring blessings to Christians? Christianity stands or falls on this point, for if the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus have no meaning today, then nothing in the Bible is worth learning or remembering. Without the sacrifice of the cross, Christianity has no hope and no good news to offer.
Some people today reject Christianity precisely because they cannot accept the mystery of redemption. Perhaps some of the analogies used to describe this mystery have repulsed those people. The description of an all-powerful God who sacrifices his only Son to rescue a group of people who do not deserve such mercy can be hard to accept. For if God sacrificed his Son, to whom did he sacrifice Jesus? Who is greater than God, and therefore in a position to accept this sacrifice? Likewise, the thought of one innocent being suffering so that many others can escape the suffering that they deserve can be repulsive. If the torture of one innocent child could bring great benefit to you and other people, would you accept that benefit, or would you reject it because of the unjust suffering of the one innocent child?
No analogy can completely describe the full meaning of redemption or salvation. Each analogy will have some weakness in its description; after all, redemption is a mystery. The cross, of course, was real. The pain, the bleeding, and the death were all real, not mere pictures or messages of some other reality. Jesus was innocent, but he was not a helpless child. He obeyed the will of his Father and accepted the torture of the cross because he knew that his suffering and death could redeem sinners. Yet no power greater than God received the payment that Jesus offered. Only God is Almighty; only God is in charge of the universe. Justice comes from God alone, not from any greater source, whether personal or impersonal. When the Bible speaks of redemption, the message of the Bible is that Jesus loves us enough to pay full value to make us his property. Redemption is still an analogy. The real meaning of the cross is deeper and more mysterious than any analogy.
On a certain weekend chosen by God from the beginning of creation, the Son of God was seized by his enemies. For more than thirty years he had lived on this planet, obeying all the commands that God has given to his people. He made enemies, though, largely because he promised rescue for those who had sinned, and said that he would perform that rescue. He was condemned by the Jews for blasphemy, because they believed that Jesus had insulted God by claiming to be the Son of God. Jesus was not guilty of blasphemy, because he truly is the Son of God. Rather than using the truth as his defense, Jesus remained silent and allowed himself to be turned over to the Roman authorities. Since the Romans had no law against claiming to be the Son of God, the high priests accused Jesus of claiming to be a king. This also was true, although Jesus did tell the Roman governor that his Kingdom is not of this world. Still, under pressure from the local crowd, the governor signed the order to send Jesus to the cross, condemned as a traitor to Rome because he was “the King of the Jews.”
The torture of death on a Roman cross was enormous, but the physical pain felt by Jesus is not the worst pain ever felt. Many other people were crucified by Roman authority both before and after the death of Jesus. Millions of other people have been tortured with physical pain, whether through the deliberate cruelty of other people, or due to illnesses or accidents. Some have lived with such pain for years. Being mocked by his enemies and abandoned by his friends made the suffering of the cross worse for Jesus, but even that rejection was not unique. The ultimate torment of the cross, which was added to the physical and emotional pain, was separation from his Father. The Father and the Son have always loved each other. For a few hours that Friday, though, the Father rejected and abandoned his Son, and Jesus felt the spiritual pain of separation from a loving God. In the darkness his voice was heard, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forgotten me?”
In simple language, the absence of God’s loving presence is called hell. Some people work their own way to hell. They do not want to be with God, so they try to get away from God. Anyone who willingly breaks God’s commandments is claiming independence from God. Everyone who chooses to sin is choosing to be in hell rather than to be with God. God does not allow that choice to be our final answer. Through the redemption paid on the cross, people are rescued from hell. Jesus went to hell that Friday afternoon so other people would never have to go there.
Like any mystery, the mystery of redemption is misunderstood in various ways. Some people see the death of Jesus on the cross as nothing more than an example, teaching his people the kind of sacrifice he expects all his people to be willing to make. The meekness of Jesus, his willingness to forgive those who hurt him, and his confidence in his Father despite all appearances, are elements of his sacrifice that Christians can admire and should imitate. But if the cross were only one more lesson in the teaching career of Jesus Christ, it would have no power. Without true redemption, the example is empty and might as well not be imitated. Though other people see the lesson as more about the world than about Jesus, they also are missing the point. The events of that weekend are much larger than corruption in society, the abuse of power by those who have it against those who don’t, or the inevitable danger of confronting a rotten system with honesty and love. When people start talking about the sacrifice of Jesus in these ways, they show that they completely misunderstand why Jesus allowed himself to be nailed to a cross.
Other people understand that Jesus died on the cross to save people. They misunderstand which people Jesus died to save. They assume that Jesus would only give his life to save those who are worth saving. In one way or another, they consider what it would take to be among those worth saving. Those who have not committed any great crime or caused a lot of damage in the world might be worth saving. Those who have taken part in the right religion might be worth saving. Those who have tried their best to be good, even though they have made a few mistakes, might be worth saving. Those who are better than average might be worth saving.
The Bible does not say that some people are worth saving and others are not worth saving. Instead, it says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and, “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked,” (Ephesians 2:1), and, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). In case anyone wants to say that people are saved through Christ after they have done something good to show that they were worth saving, the Bible clearly says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
God is holy. He has zero tolerance for sin. One small sin destroys a person’s worthiness to be saved in the same way one tiny hole pops a balloon. No one can begin the process of being saved, because without God’s help we are dead in sin. Therefore, the mystery of redemption requires that Jesus pays the entire price to rescue us, since without him we cannot rescue ourselves.
While some people say that we have to start the process of redemption by being good enough to rescue, other people say that Jesus begins the process and we must finish the process to be redeemed. Some say that we have to do good things to show that we have faith and have been redeemed. Others say that we must invite Christ into our lives or decide to belong to him before we can be redeemed. The answer to this misunderstanding is the same as the answer to the previous misunderstanding. Nothing we do finishes redemption, because redemption was finished on the cross. Jesus paid the entire price to redeem his people; nothing remains to be paid by his people. “This is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” If redemption had to be earned, even by the smallest action, then it would not be a gift. Jesus the Son of God completes the entire act of redemption, doing all the work from beginning to end.
A more subtle misunderstanding is that Jesus does all the work to redeem his people, but the reason he redeems them is so they can do good things for him. We were, after all, created to do good works. Being redeemed, we belong to Christ and are expected to obey him. We are free to do what he wants, not free to do what we want. Redemption and the forgiveness of God does indeed change people, making them able to imitate Jesus. While the connection seems logical, it still does not match what God has said through the prophets and apostles. We were created to do good works, but we are redeemed because God loves us. Good works are expected from us, but they do not cause our salvation. If someone asks, “Why did God make me?” the answer is found in the good works we are meant to do. If someone asks, “How am I forgiven for my sins? How am I saved from evil and from death?” the only answer is the mystery of redemption, the mystery in which Jesus does all the work that needs to be done.
All the descriptions of redemption are analogies. Real redemption is a mystery that cannot be explained by a single analogy. The word “redemption” itself is a financial analogy. It suggests that, by suffering and bleeding and dying on the cross, Jesus paid a price to purchase us. Before he redeemed us we were slaves to sin and evil and death, but now we belong to him. Another way of describing redemption with a financial analogy is to say that each time we sinned and broke God’s commands, we increased the debt that we owe to God. Even the best of us cannot pay that debt. Jesus is like a wealthy friend or relative who recognizes that we are deeply in debt and cannot pay what we owe; he pays all our debts himself, and then even opens a new account with his money and gives us that account so we too can be wealthy.
The analogy of redemption is sometimes described as Jesus taking the form of a ransom. As a Redeemer he assumes our debt and pays it in full; as a Ransom he claims us for himself, buying us out of the power of sin and evil and death. Neither image should be pressed so far as to suggest that Jesus is paying our value to a higher power. Jesus, the Son of God, is already the highest power that exists. However, the Son of God is offering payment to make us his people because he wants us to be his people.
A similar analogy omits the financial picture but says much the same thing. Jesus endured what we deserve so we can receive something better in exchange. By sinning, we broke our relationship with God. We indicated that we no longer wanted to be God’s people. The ultimate separation from God is called hell. Jesus experienced hell for several hours on the cross so we would never experience hell, even though by our sins we deserve to be there. In experiencing what we deserve, Jesus was able to spare us the punishment we deserve and instead give us a gift, blessings that only Jesus deserves.
This analogy is sometimes called the Great Exchange. Because we have broken God’s commands, doing what we want instead of what God wants, we deserve to be punished. Because Jesus lived among us as one of us and always obeyed God’s commands, he deserves to be rewarded. Because Jesus loves us, he trades places with us. He takes on the guilt for all our sins, and his own Father treats him as guilty of those sins. He abandons Jesus on the cross, and by doing that he removes the punishment that we deserve. Instead, Jesus gives us credit for his goodness. Because Jesus has given us that credit, God sees us through Jesus and claims us as his children. If Jesus had not exchanged destinies with us, he would be the only human being in God’s new creation. Because Jesus paid for our sins, we can join him in that new creation and live there with him forever.
This exchange was acted out in the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Pilate was hearing several cases in Jerusalem when the Jewish authorities brought Jesus to him. Pilate perceived that Jesus was guilty of no great crimes that deserved death. In various ways, he tried to find a way to set Jesus free. In his hearings that morning, he had condemned a convicted terrorist named Barabbas to death on a cross. Pilate now offered the priests and their minions a choice: either Pilate would set Jesus free, or Pilate would set Barabbas free. Because they were determined to destroy Jesus, they called for freedom for Barabbas. When Pilate then asked what he should do to Jesus, the crowd shouted, “Crucify him.” Up until that moment, the crowd had been planning to stone Jesus to death, according to the Law of Moses, but for that they needed Roman permission. Now the mention of Barabbas led them to call for the cross for Jesus. Barabbas, the convicted criminal, was free, and Jesus took his place, receiving the punishment Barabbas deserved. Every person redeemed by Jesus is a Barabbas deserving punishment, but Jesus has taken away that punishment and endured it himself so sinners can be free.
This same exchange can be described with a judicial analogy. We are defendants in God’s courtroom, and the evidence proves our guilt. Our accuser (Satan) reminds both God and us of the punishment we deserve. But we have a defense attorney who speaks on our behalf. By taking away our punishment (or by paying our fine himself), he is able to have us declared “not guilty.” The meaning of the word “justification” is “declared not guilty.” When he justifies us, God is able to remove our guilt, take away the punishment we deserve, and give us the gift of salvation, making us citizens of his eternal kingdom.
Why doesn’t God just forgive us because he is good? Why must Jesus pay a price to redeem us? The answer to those questions is best shown by another analogy which also involves justice. When people break God’s commands, they hurt other people. They damage God’s creation. God cannot ignore the harm done by sin. God is holy and just. A holy and just God cannot ignore evil or pretend that it doesn’t matter. Forgiveness is free to sinners, but it is not cheap. The forgiveness of sins is very expensive, and someone has to pay that price.
God is just, but he is not justice. God is holy, but he is not holiness. Not only is God loving, but God is love. Love is the center of the nature of the Triune God. God loves the people he made, even those who have sinned. God’s love triumphs over his holiness and his justice when God himself faces the punishment that sinners deserve and pays their debt in full.
One can almost imagine Satan, the accuser, stamping his little foot in God’s courtroom and shouting, “That’s not fair!” God is not fair, because God loves us too much to be fair to us. Anyone who demands justice from God in his courtroom is making a big mistake. God does not want to treat us as we deserve; he wants to treat us as Jesus deserves, since he has already treated Jesus as we deserve.
Some of the parables of Jesus describe God’s loving injustice. A landowner pays the same amount of money to workers who worked on his farm twelve hours and workers who worked only one hour. A manager is commended for changing the accounts when he is about to be fired, knowing that he is making friends for his future by his dishonesty. A strong man (the devil) is tied up by a stronger man (Jesus) so the stronger man can rob him of his possessions (sinners). God’s injustice is good news for those of us who need forgiveness and do not deserve forgiveness.
Redemption is often pictured as a rescue mission, which is why Jesus is called Savior. He saves his people from their sins. One depiction of Jesus doing the work of a Savior pictures him diving to the bottom of a muddy pond. Buried in the mud at the bottom of the pond is treasure. Jesus gets himself dirty hunting for that treasure. He lives among sinners and is even killed by sinners. Jesus finds the treasure, though, and brings it to the surface with him. In the same way, we are lifted out of this world of sin, claimed by Jesus, and lifted up to his kingdom. We never could have traveled there on our own; Jesus had to come down to us to lift us up to him.
Another picture of his rescue mission depicts Jesus as a shepherd, going out into the wilderness to bring back a sheep that has wandered, since the sheep cannot find its own way home and cannot defend itself in the wilderness.
Perhaps the most frequent picture in the Bible of redemption is that of victory over God’s enemies. Christians often become attached to the financial analogy or the judicial analogy and overlook the picture of Christ’s victory. On the cross, Jesus fought all our enemies. He fought the sins we have committed, and he fought the sins committed against us. He fought evil and injustice in this world, and he fought all the forces of evil, including the devil. He fought death—the final result of sin and rebellion—and every one of these battles was won by Jesus. In the long-standing war between God and evil, the decisive battle was fought outside the gates of Jerusalem on a Friday long ago. Jesus won that fight, and he announced his victory later that weekend by rising again from the dead.
Nations honor soldiers who give their lives on the battlefield defending their country. Our King gave his life on the cross to rescue his Kingdom from evil. Sports fans celebrate the victories of their teams and say “we won” even though they contributed nothing to the victory. Likewise, Christians are able to celebrate and say “we won” because of the victory Jesus won that weekend. Jesus does not mind sharing his victory; he wants to share his victory. Life in the new creation will be an unending celebration of the victory Jesus won and shares with his people.
One Day Jesus will return in glory, raise all the dead, and begin his new creation. This Day is called Judgment Day, because on that Day Jesus will announce his judgment, declaring who will live with him in his new creation and who will be locked outside his kingdom. Judgment Day will not be a trial; it will be only the announcement of a verdict. People will be divided instantly into two groups—the saved and the lost—and those who are saved will begin celebrating the victory of Jesus with him.
Those who trust in Jesus do not have to fear that Day. Being redeemed, they know his verdict already. On Judgment Day, according to Jesus and his prophets and apostles, the sun will stop shining and the earth will shake. Already when Jesus was on the cross, the sun stopped shining, and when he died, the earth shook. God’s Judgment was poured out on his Son and is finished. No Judgment remains for the people redeemed by Jesus, the people who belong to Jesus.
Redemption is a mystery. Perhaps the greatest mystery about redemption is the question, why? Why does Jesus love us enough to give his life for us? Why would he redeem us, rescue us, justify us, and claim us for himself? The answer cannot be found in us. The answer can only be found in Jesus. His nature is to love and to forgive. Because Jesus loves and forgives, we have been redeemed.