What Does It Mean That Christ Ransomed Us?

Scripture says Christ gave “himself as a ransom for all people” (1 Timothy 2:6, NIV). We “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” (1 Peter 1:18-19).

Like many biblical terms, such as hope, love, and joy, we have to define what Scripture means by ransom. In most people’s understanding, ransoms are paid by good people, but demanded by horrible people—despicable criminals who are malicious, greedy, and abusive to the innocent. Webster defines ransom as “a sum of money or other payment demanded or paid for the release of a prisoner, e.g. ‘the kidnappers demanded a ransom.’”

God, who in His holiness required the ransom, is not malicious or despicable, and neither are sinners innocent, though of course, God loved us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). Jesus, who paid the ransom for us, did not have to do it because the Father victimized people—because He absolutely didn’t! In fact, the horrible thing was done by us as human sinners.

But that is not the way ransom is normally used in the human context, and therefore, we have to be careful lest it lead to confusion and wrong thinking about God’s character. Those who have grown up hearing that word in church songs likely have no problem understanding the Christian use, but many people didn’t grow up in the church. I didn’t, and the first time I heard ransom in a song, I thought what is this all about? Later I found out what the Bible means when it uses the word—for example, in Mark 10:45, which says, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Some people hear the word ransom and think of Satan as the thief and deceiver, and like many kidnapers, enticing victims with lies and twisted truth. Much of that is true, yet the idea that Satan holds us for ransom is a common belief that Scripture never teaches. It’s absolutely correct that a price was paid by Jesus for people’s freedom. But WHO the ransom was paid to, WHY that person required that it be paid, and the CHARACTER of the one requiring the ransom is fundamentally different. 

In Scripture, it is God’s own righteous demand of holiness that must be paid in full, not Satan’s hateful demand as a malicious kidnapper. (As much as I love C. S. Lewis and the Narnia stories, the White Witch is portrayed as making the demand, though in the dialogue with Aslan, when he talks about the deeper magic that the White Witch knows nothing of, it becomes clear that the witch is not controlling the situation as it appears.) 

Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seven-Day Adventists do teach that Christ paid a ransom to Satan for us. Bible-believing Protestants normally affirm penal substitutionary atonement, with Christ dying for us and satisfying God's wrath upon sin in order to redeem us.

This is from an AI summary of the Ransom Theory: 

The Ransom theory of atonement claims that Satan held humanity captive due to the original sin committed by Adam and Eve in Eden. In order to free humanity from Satan's grip, God offered Jesus as a ransom, satisfying the demands of justice. Jesus’ death on the cross was seen as the payment required by Satan to release humanity. The Ransom theory suggests that through Jesus’ sacrifice, humanity was redeemed and set free from the power of sin and Satan.

While the Ransom theory was influential in early Christian thought, it has been criticized by some theologians for its portrayal of Satan as having power over humanity and for its lack of scriptural support. Today, the Ransom theory of atonement is not as widely accepted as other theories such as the Penal Substitutionary theory.

This is back to me—Randy, not AI!

The fact that God lovingly paid and fulfilled His own righteous demand makes Him the grace-filled rescuer, and Satan has nothing to do with it. If Satan didn’t exist and humans were still sinners, Jesus would still have had to die to redeem us, making us right with God. Satan is not owed anything by God or by us.  

Here is an excellent, biblically-grounded audio answer by John Piper, on Ask Pastor John, to someone’s question about the meaning of Christ's ransom in the Bible. And this is a brief article about the same subject.

Photo: Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries