Have you ever gotten stuck in the snow or mud, spun your tries endlessly and concluded that you were never going to get out without help?
Have you ever been in debt so deep that you thought you could never get out unless some stranger died and left you a fortune?
Have you ever been enslaved by an addiction to alcohol, drugs, or smoking and knew that nothing short of a full-scale intervention could help you out?
Have you ever known someone who was falsely accused of a crime, spent years in prison and finally was freed when the real offender was identified?
Do you know anyone who is falsely accused of a crime and is still yearning for freedom from the charge?
If any of these things are true, then you can identify with today’s message. Today we are talking about freedom and redemption, or what we commonly call salvation.
We know that salvation comes from Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15:3, we read that “Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures.” It is one of the basic affirmations of our faith. But scripture gives us several ways to understand it.
We call these “theories of atonement” because they help explain what Christ did on the cross to reconcile us with God. None of these ways of understanding it explains it fully, and none alone is universally accepted by the church. That’s why we’re looking at several of them during Lent, as a spiritual discipline to prepare ourselves for what follows.
We’re following the outline of a book titled Savior by Magrey deVega. Last week we looked at the theory called substitutionary atonement. This week we look at ransom.
Jesus himself tells us that he came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
That’s affirmed in the first letter of Timothy: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all … (1 Timothy 2:5-6).
When we think of ransom today, we normally think of money demanded by kidnappers. That’s probably far from our personal experience, but it’s a standard plot in crime fiction and TV dramas.
It’s also a standard form of international extortion. The rogue leaders of Iran are notorious for kidnapping people and holding them hostage, not for money but for political capital. Even now Iran holds at least one Iranian-American as a lever to get what it wants in negotiations over nuclear limitations.
Debtors prisons are not common today, but they have been around for thousands of years. The idea is that if you owe somebody money, they can get you tossed in jail. There you’ll stay until you work off the debt somehow, or someone pays it for you, or you sell yourself into slavery. If it’s suspected that you’re not as poor as you say you are, you might be tortured until you reveal where you’ve hidden your treasure.
Jesus knew all about debtors prisons, as he reveals in parables in Matthew 5 and 18, and Luke 12 (Matthew 5:25-26, Matthew 18:23-24, Luke 12:51-59). In Matthew 25 he encourages his followers to visit those in prison. And of course in his inaugural mission statement in Luke 4, he says that God has anointed him to proclaim release to the captives (Luke 4:18).
Those captives might be debtors, or they might be slaves. When Jesus talks about giving himself as a ransom for many, he’s speaking primarily about liberating those who are enslaved.
And to what are most of us enslaved? Sin, of course. When we speak of liberation from it, we think of sin as something that holds us captive, something that prevents us from living the way God intends us to live. Jesus sets us free from captivity and enables us to live in freedom and joy.
Romans 3:23-24: All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus.
John 8: 34 & 36: I assure you that everyone who sins is a slave to sin. … Therefore, if the Son makes you free, you really will be free.”
Galatians 3:22: The Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.
Galatians 5:1: For freedom Christ has set us free.
And of course Paul, in Romans 8:1-2: There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.
It’s clear, then, that Christ frees us by paying a ransom for our freedom. Now comes a tricky question. To whom does Christ pay the ransom? This is where the ransom theory can go off the rails and crash and burn. In fact, we need to understand that all the atonement theories are metaphors, idea pictures, images. If you take them literally or legalistically, you destroy them.
For example, some early Christian thinkers figured that if Christ paid a ransom for us for sin, he must have paid it to Satan. We were imprisoned by Satan because of sin, so Christ must have paid Satan to set us free. This notion may make a certain amount of sense, but at the same time it veers into coarse superstition. It devalues the whole idea of God.
Satan may have us bound, as the song says, but God owes Satan nothing for our freedom. God is God, and God alone. Satan is far from God’s equal. God owes Satan nothing! God pays Satan nothing! When we say that Jesus “pays the ransom” or “pays the price” of our freedom, that’s an expression of the cost to him, not the price paid to any other. No actual transaction takes place. No money or favor changes hands.
But, as Paul says in Romans 8:3, Jesus deals with sin personally by condemning it in his flesh. In that passage from Romans 7 and 8 that we read earlier, Paul lays bare the truth of the human condition as he wrestles with himself.
He says: I do not understand myself. I want to do the right thing, but I just can’t do it. My spirit wants to soar, but my body is a slave to sin. Who can rescue me from this servitude? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ my Lord! Christ set me free!
When Christ pays the ransom for us, what occurs on our end is a relational transformation, an act of freedom inspired by God’s love. Christ sets us free indeed!
Truth is that all of us, to one degree or another, are captive to some sort of sin. If we are honest with ourselves, each of us can identify some force, some influence, some thing that is holding us down.
Something is keeping us from living the way God intends us to live. Like the snow or mud that grips the tires of our car, something is keeping our wheels spinning; something is keeping us from gaining traction.
Like the load of debt that hounds us by day and keeps us awake at night, something is cutting us off from the joy of living.
Like the drug or drink or weed that controls our body and rules our mind, something evil occupies the center of our attention.
Like the false accusation that won’t go away, something keeps us imprisoned.
We all need a savior. We all need to be set free.
What holds you captive? What chains do you want to see fall away? From what do you need to be freed? For what do you wish to be freed? Once you are freed, what will you do with your freedom?
O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come, O Israel.
Immanuel is here. You are no longer captive. You are free!
If we claim this truth, it’s time to own it by putting ourselves into these phrases from scripture.
Once I was a slave of sin, but Christ Jesus has paid the ransom price to set me free, and I am a child of God through faith. (John 8:34, Romans 3:23, Galatians 3:26)
Aren’t you glad Jesus lifted you?
This message was delivered February 28, 2021 to Edgerton United Methodist Church. The text was Romans 7:15, 18b, 22-25a, 8:1-2.