The Ransom

Tomorrow, I plan to post a review of an excelent book I read this morning by R. C. Sproul entitled “The Truth of the Cross.” Sproul possesses the gift of explaining complex theological truths in clear language that anyone can grasp. For example, consider his treatment of the sometimes confusing understanding of the ransom motif:

We must be careful here. One of the views of the atonement that has competed for acceptance throughout church history is known as “the ransom theory,” but this theory has been articulated in two different and often conflicting ways. The first holds that in the transaction on the cross, Jesus paid a ransom to Satan because Satan held fallen man under bondage. In other words, Satan was the kidnapper who had snatched us away from our Father’s house, and Christ came and paid a ransom to the Devil to set us free.

It’s easy to see how this theory could develop. After all, who usually sets a ransom? It is not established by some board of trade that comes in and figures out the going market rate. The price tag for the ransom is set initially by the kidnapper, the slaveholder, or the hostage taker. He determines the ransom price, and then it’s up to those who are trying to free the kidnapped person, the slave, or the prisoner of war to decide whether they attach enough value to the captive to justify the ransom. Because the New Testament speaks of fallen man being in bondage to sin, and because Satan is the enemy of God and the tempter, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that Satan held us in bondage and demanded a ransom from God.

The Bible clearly calls attention to the Christus Victor element of the atonement, which is that aspect of Christ’s work by which He achieved a cosmic victory over powers and principalities, conquering the Devil and ending his power over us. We see the conflict between Jesus and Satan from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when the Spirit led Him into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. Jesus withstood that temptation, but Luke tells us that when it was over the Devil departed from Him “until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13b). Satan went into retreat, but not a permanent retreat. It was what we would call a strategic withdrawal so that he could find a better place to launch another assault against Christ. This was a conflict that went on throughout the ministry of Jesus.

But Christ gained the victory over Satan at the cross. It happened just as God had declared it would in the earliest days of the human race. After Adam and Eve sinned, God came to them and pronounced curses on them, then turned to the Serpent and said, “‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel'” (Gen. 3:15). This was the proto-evangelium, the first gospel ever preached. The New Testament writers would interpret these words as finding fulfillment in Christ’s death, for on the cross Christ crushed the head of Satan, though in the process He suffered pain Himself, even the pain of death. But He was raised from the grave through the power of God, gaining absolute victory. “Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:15).

However, the truth of the struggle between Christ and the Devil does not mean that the ransom of which Christ spoke was paid to Satan. Think of it for a moment. If Christ paid a ransom to Satan to deliver us from Satan’s clutches, who is the victor? The kidnapper usually does not want permanent possession of his victim; rather, he wants the ransom he can get in exchange for his hostage’s release. If he can get the ransom, he wins. So if the ransom was paid to Satan, the Devil laughed all the way to the bank and there is no Christus Victor. It must be Satanus Victor.

I favor the other expression of the ransom theory, which holds that the ransom was paid not to Satan but to God, because God was the One Who had to be satisfied. When the Bible speaks of ransom, it speaks of that ransom being paid not to a criminal but to the One Who is owed the price for redemption, the One Who is the offended party in the whole complex of sin—the Father. Jesus didn’t negotiate with Satan for our salvation. Instead, He offered Himself in payment to the Father for us. By so offering Himself, He made redemption for His people, redeeming them from captivity.

(The Truth of the Cross – pp54-57)

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