The gospel is of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:3). So few things are more important than rehearsing the glories of Calvary over and over again. And that leads to today’s question from a regular listener to the podcast named Frank. “Pastor John, hello, and thank you for investing so much time and thought into this podcast over the years. I’m a regular listener and my question for you is about Jesus, who ‘gave himself as a ransom for all’ (1 Timothy 2:6). But to whom did Jesus pay the ransom? Is he making a payment to Satan to free us from his captivity? Or is he giving his payment to God to free us from our penalty? Does the New Testament tell us? Whom did Jesus’s ransom pay?”
The New Testament, it seems to me, never says in so many words that the ransom Jesus paid was paid to God. But there is a hint in the Old Testament. I think the pictures of the death of Christ in the New Testament as a sacrifice made to God for the obtaining of a redemption, if not explicit, are implicit in that the payment was made by God to God. It’s important here to remember that all of these descriptions in the New Testament — redemption, justification, propitiation, reconciliation, and so on — all these are analogies taken over from human experience. Some of them are metaphors.
Not by Silver and Gold
Like all analogies, some aspects apply and some don’t. We have to ask in every case which ones do and which ones don’t. For example, it would be a terrible mistake, I think, to say that the use of the word ransom, which Jesus did use about his own death, means that there’s going to be an exchange of money between anybody and God.
“He died to rescue us from God’s wrath because we could never pay the massive debt we owed to the Father.”
In fact, Peter went out of his was way in 1 Peter 1 to say that we are not ransomed by silver and gold. The best way to think about the image of ransoming, I think, is to let the actual biblical descriptions of the death of Christ flesh out for us what the analogy of a ransom means.
Just a word about Satan though: No way! No way is the death of Christ a negotiation with Satan or a payment to Satan. When Christ meets the demonic forces in his ministry, they don’t say, “Did you bring the money?” He commands and they go. No negotiations.
When Paul describes what happened to Satan on the cross in Colossians 2:15, he says, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” This is a total defeat, not negotiation. In my mind, there’s just no thought in the Bible about God paying the devil a ransom.
An Old Testament Clue
Here’s the clue I’ve mentioned from the Old Testament about God being the recipient of a ransom. In Psalm 49:7–8, we read, “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” In Psalm 49:15, we then read, “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.”
I don’t think this is a direct reference to the ransom of Christ, but rather a picture of how difficult it is to get people out of Sheol, which is laying claim on all these human beings like a kidnapper. But it certainly is suggestive that if a ransom is to be involved in rescuing humans from death, it’s not going to be unbiblical to talk about paying it to God.
So when Jesus comes into the world, he says in 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.” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:20, “You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
God Paid God
Here’s why I think the ransom was paid by God to God, and in what sense it was a ransom. The key text that is absolutely crucial, I think, is Romans 3:24–25. Here’s what it says: “[They] are justified by his grace as a gift” — that’s what it means to be treated graciously — “through the redemption” — the ransoming — “that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood” — in other words, a sacrificial offering made on the mercy seat to God to avert his wrath and restore men (what a ransom does is restore us to the rightful parent or God or whomever we’ve been kidnapped from, so to speak) — “to be received by faith.”
“The payment was not silver and gold, but the blood of Christ exalting and restoring the glory of God.”
The picture is the following: Man has fallen short — far short of the glory of God. He has offended the glory of God. He has besmirched and dishonored the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We have committed treason by exchanging the glory of God for images (Romans 1:23).
God in his holiness and wrath upholds the glory of his name by sentencing us in condemnation — to eternal suffering in hell. But he’s also a God of great mercy, and he prepared another way for his glory to be upheld in justice. That’s what Romans 3:25 is about — namely, by sacrificing his Son for those who believe instead of sending them to hell.
Free from Wrath
That sacrifice, Paul says, ransomed or redeemed people from the wrath of God. What a glorious gospel! Saved from the wrath of God! Romans 5:9 says, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”
That’s the big issue. That’s the big problem in the universe — God’s wrath. By the shedding of blood, we have escaped the wrath of God. The blood ransoms; it redeems from the wrath of God. If someone asked, “How did it do that? How did the payment actually work?” I would say that what was paid was the repair of God’s dishonor. The repair of God’s dishonored glory. The death of Jesus, in giving up so much glory out of love and honor to the Father, has repaired all that has been dishonored by the sins of God’s people. That’s what’s been paid.
In that sense, I think the ransom was paid by God in Christ to God in sending his Son to die. He died to rescue us from God’s wrath because we could never, ever pay the massive debt of glory that we owed to the Father. The payment was not silver and gold, but the blood of Christ exalting and restoring the glory of God.