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This spring’s Gospel Project for Adults and Students will lead participants through the “Atonement Thread,” which helps people put the Bible together to see how the theme of atonement runs from Genesis to Revelation.

For the next several Thursdays, I’ve invited some friends to contribute to a blog series that looks at the beauty of the atonement from different perspectives. We began with Brandon Smith, who wrote about the mysterious beauty of penal substitution. Last week, Nancy Guthrie pointed us to the story of Hosea and Gomer to help us understand the beauty of redemption. Today, Jared Wilson shines light on the truth that Christ is our ransom.

Jared Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church and author of The Pastor’s Justification, Gospel Wakefulness, Your Jesus is Too Safe, and Gospel Deeps. His blog is The Gospel-Driven Church.


Psalm 49 establishes a dilemma of direst condition:

Truly no man can ransom another,
or give to God the price of his life,
for the ransom of their life is costly
and can never suffice . . .  (49:7-8)

The condition of man since the fall is one of bondage to sin and corruption from death. Having disobeyed God, we have revolted from our insidest selves to His good order and holy decrees. Therefore, we are slaves to death and children of wrath.

The psalmists then effectively tell us, no man can rescue himself. And we can’t even rescue each other. And why? Because no sinner can muster the moral currency required to pay the ransom for this rescue.

This is cause for great humility in ourselves, because those who are saved are not saved by any righteousness of their own, and for great patience and mercy with others, because those who do not believe in Christ are, biblically speaking, captives.

So there is the gospel of Jesus Christ to be carried into every dark corner of the soul and every far corner of the world! Because in the gospel comes the ransom that sets captives free. Psalm 49:15 tells of it:

“But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.”

God will pay the ransom himself in order to receive us back to himself. He has done this through Christ, who is our ransom, as we see in texts like Mark 10:45:

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

But this angle on the atonement has always raised the sticky question: To whom is the ransom paid?

In C.S. Lewis’s classic work of “supposal,” The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, we see where Aslan makes the payment of his life for Edmund’s liberation in response to the White Witch’s demands. It’s a powerful scene and not without biblical resonance, but if we draw the lines to directly, we may make a theological mistake of some importance. Aslan is clearly Christ in the story, and the Witch is clearly the stand-in for our accuser Satan. But while Satan is often called the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4), he is still subservient to the sovereign Lord of all the cosmos. So we have to be careful in how we speak of ransom, lest we lend too much power to the enemy and deflect too much glory away from God.

There is in fact a “ransom text” in the Bible that gives us a clue as to whom is being paid the ransom. In 1 Timothy 2:5-6, Paul writes:

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

The context of this passage show us Christ as the “mediator” not between men and the devil or between God and the devil but between men and God. It would seem from the shape of this text, that the ransom is paid by the Son of God to God the Father, as Jesus becomes the ransoming mediator between God and men, making atonement for men to God. And of course we see the foundation of this truth in Psalm 49:7, where the ransom price of man’s life is said to be owed to God.

In this sense, the ransom view of the atonement is similar to the concept of propitiation (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2), which means “to make favorable.” Who has Christ made favorable with His sacrifice on the cross? Certainly not the enemy, whose frustration is compounded eternally knowing that Jesus’ death redeems souls from sin and its punishment, and who at the cross is not paid but actually shamed (Col. 2:15), and not satisfied but actually defeated (Heb. 2:14-15).

No, at the cross, the sinless Jesus has taken the punishment owed by the Father to the sinful rebels against His holiness (Isaiah 53:4-5). The wrath of God has been satisfied at the cross of Christ (Col. 1:20). It is the Father who in holy love sends His Son to make the payment that removes his holy wrath from the children of God (1 John 4:10; John 3:36). The Father has been propitiated. Similarly, then, Christ has paid the ransom to the only one who truly holds life and death in His hands—God Himself.

So in the beautiful irony of the gospel, we are effectively saved from God by God. The only security from God’s wrath, then, is found in God’s love in Christ (Psalm 2:12). The ransom now paid, we have been delivered from the domain of sin and death into perfect union with the Son of God, in whom there is therefore now no condemnation (Rom. 8:1).

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6 thoughts on “Christ Pays the Ransom, But To Whom?”

  1. Clayton R. says:

    “It would seem from the shape of this text, that the ransom is paid by the Son of God to God the Father.”

    I’m sorry, but I cannot worship a god who has to be paid off in order to love me. That is just an existential problem I have with the picture of the Father you have portrayed here.

    Also, you say that we have been delivered from the domain of sin and death into perfect union with the Son of God…” Are you saying that the domain of sin and death belongs to the Father, and that is why the ransom had to paid to the Father?

  2. Brent White says:

    Nicely said. To avoid the caricature of “cosmic child abuse,” I would emphasize the nature of the Trinity: God the Son willingly and lovingly offers himself as the means of propitiation. It’s not as if God the Father sends his son kicking and screaming to the cross—not that you’re suggesting that.

    I like this quote from a 19th century expositor named James Denney:

    “Nobody has any right to borrow the words ‘God is love’ from an apostle, and then to put them in circulation after carefully emptying them of their apostolic import. . . . But this is what they do who appeal to love against propitiation. To take the condemnation out of the Cross is to take the nerve out of the Gospel . . . Its whole virtue, its consistency with God’s character, its aptness to man’s need, its real dimensions as a revelation of love, depend ultimately on this, that mercy comes to us in it through judgment.”

  3. We pay the price for speaking the truth. “And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.” Matthew 10:22. This is the price we pay for being a Christian.

    Jesus paid the price (bore the cost) to reconcile us to God; to restore us to a right relationship with Him. Jesus paid a price in that He gave us that which we did not deserve, out of His love, mercy, and generosity. It has to do with the covenant God initiated and made with His people; it required His life (see Hebrews 9:11-24). It was God’s doing to make this covenant. God paid the price (ransom) of redemption – He simply did that which was necessary for Him to do to redeem mankind and reconcile all things to Himself. It is not a matter of paying anyone. It is an expression of the process of paying the penalty due for our sin. What we could not pay or do, He paid or did for us. Jesus presented Himself sinless and blameless before God, on our behalf.

  4. Stewart Reimer says:

    What I love about Lewis’ nuanced expression of the atonement in “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”, is the superficial understanding of the Witch regarding Aslan’s actions. She believed that it was her claim upon Edmunds blood which was being satisfied, but in reality it was the deeper magic belonging to the Emperor Beyond the Sea. The ransom seems to be paid to her, in that her claim upon the life of the sinner is being fulfilled, but the reality is that it is the Emperor’s will which was set in motion from the beginning of all things. So justice and mercy belongs to God, but it is the delight of the devil to accuse the brethren and bring as many to the fate of death as he can. God however is the primary actor just as Colossians 2:13-15 demonstrates that it is indeed God who delivers us from the “principalities and powers”, and it is God who delivers us from the power of Satan (our accuser) and the wrath of God through propitiation(Hebrews 2:14-17).

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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