What does it mean for us Christians to say that we have been “redeemed”, that Jesus has provided “redemption” for us? There is an ongoing discussion of this on the Better Bibles Blog. I have made some comments there. Now I want to write something a bit less technical about it, so I am doing so here.
Eugene Nida, the pioneer of “dynamic equivalence” Bible translations like the Good News Bible (which was the main Bible in my church until last year), wrote in his 1977 book Good News for Everyone (p.74, as quoted on Better Bibles Blog):
The fact of the matter is that the terms “redeem” and “redeemer” have lost very much of their earlier significance in English. For many people “redeem” is associated more with trading stamps than with the biblical theme of deliverance and salvation.
Well, trading stamps have gone out of fashion since the 1970’s, at least here in the UK (it shows my age that I remember Green Shield stamps), but we still have all kinds of vouchers which we can redeem, which even have a “redemption value” (usually 0.001p!) printed on them.
But how does this relate to the Christian idea of “redemption”? In Ephesians 1:7 (TNIV) we read:
In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood…
Does this mean that the blood of Christ is like a voucher paid to someone as a purchase price for us? And if so, to who? This is indeed one line of Christian thinking on this subject, but the conclusion had to be the unsatisfactory one that Jesus’ blood was paid to Satan. Yes, we were slaves to Satan and we are no longer, but God did this not by making a business arrangement with Satan, but by defeating him and destroying his power.
But we are on the right track with the idea of Christians being set free from slavery. For the Greek word translated “redemption”, apolutrōsis, was commonly used in relation to the setting free of slaves. Sometimes a slave was freed because someone paid a price to buy the slave, and the Greek word for this price was lutron or antilutron, accurately translated “ransom” in Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45 and 1 Timothy 2:6 (TNIV and many other translations). In other cases slaves were set free by their masters without any payment being made, for example as a reward for faithful service, but the process was still known as apolutrōsis. And the same word was used for release of a prisoner, as in Hebrews 11:35, where there is no suggestion of any payment being made. So, although apolutrōsis is derived from lutron, it does not necessarily carry the idea of payment or redemption; it can just mean “freedom” or “release”.
So what should we make of this? The Bible certainly speaks of Jesus giving his life as a ransom (lutron or antilutron), Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45 and 1 Timothy 2:6. There is a similar picture in 1 Peter 1:18-19 (TNIV):
18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
Here “redeemed” represents the Greek verb lutroomai, derived from lutron, and a better translation might be “ransomed” or “set free by a ransom”, something for which silver or gold might be used. But this cannot be understood as in any way literal, for Christ’s blood was not paid to anyone, nor did he become Satan’s slave taking the place of others – that would be a rather inadequate view of the Atonement. So, the idea of a ransom must be taken as a model of the underlying spiritual reality, and one which like all models of the Atonement should not be pressed beyond the rather limited scope given to it in the Bible.
Thus it is better to take the word apolutrōsis as meaning not “redemption” but “release” or “freedom”. This works well every one of the ten times that the word is used in the New Testament. I offer my own translation, modified from TNIV, of these ten occurrences in their context:
…because your liberation is drawing near (Luke 21:28).
…through the freedom that came by Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24).
…as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the release of our bodies (Romans 8:23).
…our righteousness, holiness and freedom (1 Corinthians 1:30).
In him we have freedom through his blood… (Ephesians 1:7).
…until the release of those who are God’s possession… (Ephesians 1:14).
…with whom you were sealed for the day of release (Ephesians 4:30).
…in whom we have freedom, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:14).
…now that he has died to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant (Hebrews 9:15).
…refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection (Hebrews 11:35, TNIV unchanged).
And similarly for some related words:
…because he has come to his people and set them free (Luke 1:68, lutrōsis).
…looking forward to the liberation of Jerusalem (Luke 2:38, lutrōsis).
…but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to liberate Israel… (Luke 24:21, lutroomai).
…who gave himself for us to set us free from all wickedness (Titus 2:14, lutroomai).
…but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal liberation (Hebrews 9:12, lutrōsis).
The only other occurrences of “redeem” and “redemption” in the TNIV New Testament are in Galatians 3:13,14, 4:5 and Revelation 14:3. In these places “redeem” represents a quite different Greek word group, agorazō and exagorazō, which mean “buy, purchase”. These words are also used of Christian “redemption” in 1 Corinthians 6:20, 7:23, 2 Peter 2:1, Revelation 5:9, 14:4, where TNIV translates “buy” or “purchase”; also arguably Ephesians 5:16 where TNIV correctly interprets “making the most of”.
If “purchase” is acceptable in Revelation 14:4, it should also be used in 14:3 where it would be much clearer. This leaves Galatians 3:13,14 (the Greek word in v.13 is translated twice for clarity) and 4:5. In the latter case the reference is to freedom from slavery, but the Greek word has clear connotations of purchase. In 3:13 the point is that we were cursed and have now been set free from the curse. So I would suggest the following, modified from TNIV:
Christ set us free from the curse of the law… He set us free in order that… (Galatians 3:13-14).
…to purchase those under the law… (Galatians 4:5).
…the 144,000 who had been purchased from the earth (Revelation 14:3).
So we are left with a modified TNIV New Testament without the poorly understood words “redeem” and “redemption”, which to me would be great improvement. Similar changes to the Old Testament might also be beneficial, but I won’t go into that now.
As noted on the Better Bibles Blog, the Good News Bible (Today’s English Version), the Jerusalem Bible, the Contemporary English Version, the New Living Translation and The Message have mostly avoided the words “redeem” and “redemption”. But other recent versions like TNIV have, sadly, kept to a traditional wording which is poorly understood and misleading. As Christians we can claim to be redeemed, but how much clearer is this wonderful truth when we express it as “Jesus has set us free!”