Unfortunately, the analogy breaks down pretty quickly. In the grocery store, we are the ones doing the redeeming, while the manufacturer is the one paying the price. In the Bible, God is both redeeming and paying the price (Luke 1:68; Colossians 1:13-14; Revelation 5:9). The difference is subtle, but vitally important. According to the Biblical doctrine of redemption, we cannot redeem ourselves.
In the New Testament, two Greek words occur most often in the context of redemption. One word, lutron, is usually translated “ransom” or “redemption.” To pay lutron is to pay the price of release for someone who is in bondage or captivity. We find this word in Matthew 20:28 when Jesus says He came “to give His life a ransom for many.” Paul uses a similar word when he explains that all of us, as sinners, have been “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).
A second term, agorazo, means “to buy,” “to purchase,” or “to acquire.” It is closely related to the Greek word for “market” (agora). Paul draws on this imagery in writing to the brethren at Corinth: “For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6:20). We find it again in the Book of Revelation as the angels are lifting their voices in praise to the Lamb: “You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).
These two words paint a very powerful and moving picture of God’s redemptive work. Imagine this: My soul was up for sale in the marketplace of the world. Satan wanted me, and so did his silent partners: sin and death. And yet God came down to the market, bought me, and holds a bill of sale that reads, “Paid in full.”
How much did I pay? What part of the ransom came out of my pocket? Absolutely none. I was standing lost and alone. There was no hope for me without God. My debts were such that I could never secure my own freedom. But God paid the price for me, at the cross, with the precious blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. And I, having accepted that gracious offer, placed myself in service to God.
Sadly, we might never realize our desperate circumstances. Recall Jesus’ teaching on truth: “The truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). The Jews fired back saying, in effect, “We have never been in bondage, so why do we need to be freed?” (see vs. 33). How arrogant! They were under bondage in Egypt and Babylonia. God had to set them free on both occasions. Even so, these events pale in comparison to their spiritual condition. “Whoever commits sin,” Jesus reminds them, “is a slave of sin” (vs. 34). By the end of the passage, Jesus makes a very serious accusation: “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do” (vs. 44). In other words, when I sin, I serve the devil; he becomes my master, and I become his slave.
If the truth will make me free, lies will enslave me. The Jews of Jesus’ day, and so many in the world today, believe a lie—a lie sown by the devil—which says, “I can be free without God.”
Let us return, for a minute, to the marketplace. Given that God has redeemed me from bondage to sin, has my condition improved? Have I not merely exchanged one form of slavery for another? Well, yes, except that I have just improved my situation immeasurably. I have gone from serving that which is materialistic, ungodly and sinful to that which is good and righteous (Matthew 6:24). Frankly, a life spent in service to God is infinitely preferable to a life spent in service to Satan.
But there’s more to redemption than the initial act of release from a terrible life of sin. As a Christian I have been bought out of slavery and brought in to the household of God. I am now both servant and adopted son.
Paul develops this theme in the fourth chapter of Galatians. God sent His Son, he tells us, “to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (vs. 5). “Therefore,” he concludes, “you are no longer a slave [to sin—TM] but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ” (vs. 7). In God’s household (the church), we are both servants redeemed from sin and heirs of the Abrahamic covenant (Galatians 3:29). In my role as a servant, I labor willingly in God’s kingdom; in my role as an adopted child, I stand to inherit eternal life as a free gift of God (Romans 6:20-23).
Sadly, despite all that God has done for me, I can walk out of His house. I can wander back in to the marketplace of the world, and place myself in bondage to sin once again. Paul suggests at least two ways in which Christians can remove themselves from God’s grace.
First, we can return to worldly bondage by negating the grace of God. In Galatia, Christians from a Jewish background were binding the Old Law on Christians from a pagan background (e.g., Galatians 2:4, 5:1). They were wrong for imposing circumcision and ritual purity laws on the Gentiles. Legalism of any kind undermines God’s grace and wreaks havoc on Christian unity (Galatians 5:13-15).
And second, we can return to worldly bondage by abusing the grace of God. This happens when we presume that God will continue covering our debts, no matter what. In particular, if we think we are free to do exactly as we wish, and flout the generosity and patience of our Lord, then we forfeit the safety and security of His household (Romans 6:15-18). We cannot both serve and disobey our Master. We cannot pull away from a loving Redeemer and have Him lead us out of bondage at the same time. The Christian libertine is in as much danger of re-enslavement as the Christian legalist.
In 1707, Isaac Watts wrote a hymn originally titled “Redemption at the Cross.” Most of us are familiar with the first stanza: “Alas, and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sov’reign die? Would He devote that sacred head, for such a worm as I?” The answer to both questions is a resounding “Yes!” Jesus paid the price of my ransom at the cross.
Our choices at this point are limited but profoundly different. Either we can remain in bondage to sin, or we can place ourselves in bondage to righteousness. We can serve Satan in a world of hate and sorrow, or we can serve God as sons and heirs. We will get no better offer in this life. “But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe: Here, Lord, I give myself away, ’Tis all that I can do.”
[A version of this article appeared in Upon the Rock, July/August 2008, pp. 14-15,17-18.]
© 2008 – 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.