Ransom & Atonement

Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world.

This is one of the most basic statements of the Christian faith.  But it’s also one of the most complex statements too – there are many ways that the Bible describes Christ’s work of salvation.  Images like a rescue, a ransom, a victory, and theological terms like atonement, expiation, and propitiation dot the biblical and doctrinal landscape.  What we see of Christ’s work of salvation in today’s reading from Mark 10 begins with his prediction in verses 33-34: “The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”  This finds its echo in Isaiah 53:5-6 “he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, 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.”

Of all Jesus’ predictions, this had the strongest passion focus in detail (v32-34) and in theological emphasis (v45).  In short, his work of salvation is firmly rooted in his death.  This also sheds light on other Old Testament prophecies, such as in Daniel 7.  There we see a vision of four Beasts (world powers) being destroyed by God’s “horn” or strong arm.  As it turns out, Jesus shows us that he not only will suffer, but will die.  It is not just a struggle for victory, but a death for victory.  It turns out that his life itself is a ransom.

So the big question of the day is “what is a ransom?”  Well, it’s a sort of payment.  Put simply, God wants his people back, and Jesus offers his life as payment.  We sang a wonderful hymn of his atonement this morning, which plays into the ransom concept a bit:

Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

He left his Father’s throne above – so free, so infinite his grace – emptied himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.  ‘This mercy all, immense and free, For O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay Fast bound in sin and nature’s night; Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

The hymn also mentions our complicity in Jesus’ death: Died he for me, who caused his pain?  For me, who him to death pursued?  Thus we are reminded that we are both the rebellious and the redeemed.  Nobody stole us away from God that led him to ransom us back, we stole ourselves away from him.  That’s why we sing of such amazing love in the work of our Savior.  This great love of God is highlighted in our text today all the more in verse 33, where it mentions that Jesus would be delivered over to Gentiles.  His people rejected him so completely (as Isaiah prophesied, “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”) that they handed him over to the unclean for execution.

Anyway let’s take a closer look at the idea of a ransom.  In the context of the Old Testament Law, a ransom is a payment to free a slave (Leviticus 25:47-55) or to redeem your firstborn (Exodus 13:13-16).  In both of these instances, the ransom that Jesus paid is enriched with meaning.  His ransom frees us from the bondage of slavery to sin, death, and the devil.  His ransom opens to us the rights of a firstborn – to become children of God (John 1:12).  Both of these are beautiful pictures of salvation that are taken up in various parts of the New Testament.

One of the tricky questions that comes with the concept of the ransom, however, is to whom the ransom was paid.  In the early centuries of the church the ransom was often a favorite image of our salvation, and, as all popular things inevitably become, it became a source of some controversy and dispute.  Was Jesus’ ransom paid to the Devil or to God?  Early on, the idea that Jesus paid off the devil seemed to be the popular view.  Like Aslan handing himself over to the White Witch on the Stone Table to ransom Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Jesus handed himself over to Satan on the Cross to ransom all God’s people.  This fits in with Old Testament precedent of ransoming a slave – we are in bondage to sin after all, and Jesus himself acknowledges that Satan was “the ruler of this world”, if only temporarily (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11).  The idea that Jesus purchased us back from Satan also fits the tone of the Gospel of Mark in particular, because this book has a heavy emphasis on exorcism, deliverance from demons, compared to the other three Gospels.

However, this idea of the ransom eventually drifted into obscurity.  The trouble is that, although a Scriptural basis can be surmised, there are no texts that directly speak of Jesus paying off Satan.  It’s a good theory that connects some texts together nicely, but not all of them.  Instead, when we do read of Jesus offering his life as a payment, it is always a payment to God the Father.  First of all, Colossians 2:15 says that Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them”, which seems to contradict the idea of any transaction or negotiation between Christ and the Devil.  But even moreso, Romans 3:23-25 says

all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

This informs the notion of ransom with a whole different paradigm.  As St. Anselm of Canterbury wrote just over 900 years ago in his landmark theological treatise Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man?), all sin is a besmirching of God’s honor, and thus the ransom payment is owed to God himself if we are to be redeemed.  Western Christian understanding of the atonement, of our salvation, has turned on this point ever since, both in Roman and Protestant forms.  All have sinned, so Jesus as both God and man offered himself to satisfy the divine wrath and fulfill the divine justice.  No dirty deals with the devil, no lackadaisical overlooking of transgression, but rather love and justice perfectly united in Christ’s act of atonement for the sins of the whole world.  And on top of that, we realize that his self-offering was not only sufficient to cover the sins of the world, but it was more than sufficient, because Jesus was not just a perfect man, but also God himself.  Amazing love, how can it be that thou my God shouldst die for me!?

One final note on this subject… in this morning’s text Jesus says that he offers himself as a random “for many.”  Sometimes people look at this sort of phrase and wonder, perhaps either with skepticism or with fear, if that means that there are people Jesus did not ransom.  What if Jesus only died for some people and not all?  Are my sins covered or are they not?  The Calvinist doctrine of Limited Atonement (or Definite Atonement) does actually teach this: that Christ died only for the elect.  It’s part of a larger theological construct which we don’t need to get into right now.  What we can say about this text, though, is that such an interpretation of Jesus words is erroneous.  Whether or not you can defend the idea of Definite Atonement, that Christ died for some, not all, is a matter of debate for other passages.  In this particular case, when Jesus says “many” he is not implying “some,” but is drawing a contrast.  One man, Jesus, offers a ransom that covers many.  It’s not a matter of exclusion here, but of emphasizing the massive difference in scale.  Old Testament sacrifices were repeated for people day after day; Jesus’ sacrifice is one, once, for all (Hebrews 7:27).  Thanks be to God!

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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