by Herman Ridderbos
Closely related to the idea of Christ’s atoning death is that of ransom, which is denoted by various words34 and repeatedly connected with Christ’s death. Whereas, as we have seen, the idea of atonement pertains to the sacral, cultic sphere, that of ransom stems from the world of law.35 To be sure, some hold that when Paul qualifies salvation in Christ as ransom he may thereby be said to think of the so-called sacral redemption of slaves, a familiar practice in the Hellenistic world. The slave was required to give to the priest the price that was necessary for his freedom. The latter gave him freedom in the name of the deity, while the money was put into the hands of the owner. This was a specific legal form, whereby the slave in fact redeemed himself, and the deity only appeared as the fictitious purchaser.36 It is highly doubtful, however, whether such a connection may be made. Irrespective even of the material differences (with regard to the price, etc.), there is no formal similarity here. For in Paul’s representation God does not appear as the Purchaser, nor does the priest standing in his service, but Christ, who through his death redeems his own. The price is not thus paid by God, but rather to God (see below). And with that the real point of resemblance has fallen away.
When we examine the texts more closely, those passages are first of all to be referred to in which the concept of ransom (payment) is specifically mentioned. So indeed very explicitly in 1 Timothy 2:5, 6, where there is mention of “the one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom (antilytron) for all.” Closely akin to this is the pronouncement in Titus 2:14: “Christ Jesus, who gave himself for us, that he might redeem (lylrosetai) us from all iniquity . . .” These passages have rightly been viewed37 as closely linked to the well-known words of Jesus himself in Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28, “. . . to give his soul as a ransom for many.” The idea of Mediator that appears along with this (in 1 Tim. 2:6) designates Christ as the authorized representative both of God and of men. It is he who represents God with men and men with God.38 In this latter function he offers the ransom payment. At the root of this idea is the old Jewish legal custom set out in the law, according to which a ransom could be given for the forfeited life (cf. Exod. 2l:30).39 According to this line of thought the object of the ransom is not the slave who receives his freedom, but the one condemned to death whose life is saved in this fashion.
This idea finds somewhat less clearcut expression in those passages where the salvation of Christ is denoted with the general word “liberation” (apolytrosis), a word that originally meant liberation-through-ransom, but is no longer always used in the strict sense (cf. Luke 21:28; Rom. 8:23). In our opinion it is undeniable that in certain places the ransom idea still obtains. Thus, for example, in Ephesians 1:7, where liberation (redemption) through his blood is spoken of,40 and this liberation is then equated with the forgiveness of sins (cf. also Col. 1:14). The same applies to Romans 3:24, where the thought of setting at liberty is most closely connected with the reconciliation God has given through the blood of Christ. Here the thought of the sacral propitiatory death and the idea of redemption borrowed from legal life would then be coupled very closely together. Although it is not to be determined with certainty in each case to what extent the original significance of “redemption” plays a part in Paul’s use of the word liberation, it cannot be denied that in his preaching in general the idea of redemption-by-ransom has no less clear a place than that of atoning death,41 and where this liberation is related in particular to Christ’s death one will have to take serious account of the possibility that in those passages (especially Eph. 1:7; cf. Col. 1:14 and Rom. 3:24) the apostle intended this liberation quite positively in the original pregnant sense of ransom.42
How explicitly Paul speaks of “to ransom,” “to redeem,” may appear finally from a quartet of other passages where in the Greek the ordinary word for “to purchase” as a business term (agorazo, exagorazo) is employed, namely, 1 Corinthians 6:20 and 7:23, where it is said: “You were bought and paid for,”43 and Galatians 3:13; 4:5, where it is said that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us,” and again, that he was born under the law “that he might redeem them that were under the law.” All these passages relate the salvation thus described once again with Christ’s death on the cross. When Büchsel writes: “Intentionally it is not said . . . at what cost [the Christians were bought],”44 this can be accepted only if it is definitely established that this price was the death of Christ45 (cf. 1 Pet. 1:19). No other price or payment had in any case been spoken of. That we must so understand these passages — which have a paraenetic purpose and do not expressly describe the redemptive work of Christ — is clearly evident from Galatians 3:14; 4:5. There Christ’s curse-death on the cross is designated as the manner in which he has bought us. This is also the significance of Christ’s being “under the law” in Galatians 4:5.
Finally, the question arises here again as to the sense in which one will have to understand this representation of the salvation accomplished by Christ as redemption. Time and again scholars of every sort have laid stress on the fact that it is nowhere said to whom the price is paid. The main consideration here for most of them is the idea, correct in itself, that one must not think of a kind of business transaction between Christ and God, of which believers would then be the stake. To this extent one can consider it significant that it is not said that Christ paid the price to God.46 Yet on the other side, one should take no less care to see that the objective character of what is here called “to redeem,” “ransom,” etc., is not compromised. One runs this risk, in our view, when it is posited that there is “no question here in fact of a case at law with God,”47 or that Paul gives no answer to questions as to the significance of the necessity and the possibility of such a legal case with God and that, for Paul, in the cross of Christ God is not the Recipient but the One who is acting.48 Altogether objectionable is the notion that Paul did not consider Christ as in reality burdened with the curse of God, but speaks in Galatians 3:13 from the legalistic standpoint that he himself had rejected; in Christ it would then (on this viewpoint) appear that the curse of the law is not the curse of God and in this way the idea that God deals with men on a legalistic basis would be carried ad absurdum. The deliverance from the curse of the law would then mean only “a release from a false conception of God’s attitude.”49
However much we have to guard against a pedestrian notion of “buy,” “price,” “pay,” as though the salvation Christ has accomplished were a matter of a business transaction, this does not alter the fact that the whole thought of redemption and ransom rests on the awful reality of the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13; 4:5), a curse that one may not understand as an independent, blind force detached from God, but as the fulfillment of tile divine threat against sin (Gal. 3: 14). There is here in fact, however inadequate human words may be, a case at law between God and men, both Jews and gentiles.50 In this Christ makes his appearance as the Mediator, who gives the ransom for all (1 Tim. 2:6). His death is the costly price in this case. Here again the great presupposition is that God himself has sent and given his own Son to that end (Gal. 4:4, 5). Just as in the passages that speak of Christ’s atoning death (see above), this is the great secret that has now been revealed, the content of the gospel. In it Christ represents God with men (1 Tim. 2:6). As the one sent of God, he takes the curse upon himself and he dies, burdened with it, in place of men on the cross. He pays the price for them, he therein unites in himself God’s saving will toward the world and his wrath against the sin of the world. In the complex of ideas concerning redemption the thought of substitution is here perhaps still clearer than it was in the concept of Christ’s atoning death. It constitutes the fixed content of the ransom concept.51 For this reason the expression “became a curse for us” not only means “in our behalf,” but “in our place”52 as well (cf. 1 Tim. 2:6; Tit. 2:14). Although it is not thus said that Christ redeems his own from God, yet God is the one whose holy curse is executed on Christ in their place. Justice is not thrust aside, but justice is satisfied. Although we meet with no word for “satisfaction” in Paul, the idea of substitutionary satisfaction is materially present here. Salvation consists in the possibility, given by God and realized by Christ, that justice is victorious in love and love in justice. And all this one should view not in the first place as the substance of Paul’s personal experience or as the consequence of a severe, juridically conceived scheme of salvation, but as the apostolic unfolding of the meaning of the event, crossing all human expectations and calculations, of the death of Jesus Christ the Son of God. It is this eschatological fact of redemption which — in conjunction with the kerygma of the primitive church and in the light of the Old Testament, only now rightly understood — forms for Paul the propelling force for all his thoughts and causes him — riot only as theologian, but as witness of revelation legitimated by Christ himself — to trace on all sides the salvation of the Lord realized in it.
35. THE ADOPTION OF SONS.
The new relationship between God and men, at the root of which lies justification, which can be considered as reconciliation and is effected by Christ’s substitutionary work as Mediator (atonement, ransom), finally finds expression in the important concept adoption of Sons (huiothesia). The close connection of all these definitions of the salvation that has appeared in Christ may be seen, for example, from the pronouncement in Galatians 4:4ff., that “when the fulness of the time was come, [God] sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” The adoption of Sons is here described, therefore, as the object of the great eschatological redemptive event and as the direct result of redemption, just as that is said elsewhere of justification (Rom. 3:25, 26; 4:25) and of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18, 19). And as elsewhere God’s grace and love are designated as the principle of justification and of reconciliation, so the apostle says in Ephesians 1:5 that God in his love destined us beforehand to the adoption of sons.
Scholars have accordingly been able to say of these various central concepts with a certain degree of justice53 that they are only different figures for the same thing and are related to each other as concentric circles. However, this does not alter the fact, evident already from the preceding, that each one of these descriptions has its own specific significance and that only by means of the determination of that significance can the rich content of tile gospel be illuminated. This applies as well to the concept adoption of sons.
The term stems from tile Hellenistic world of law;54 its content, however, must not be inferred from the various Roman or Greek legal systems,55 nor from the adoption ritual of the Hellenistic mystery cults,56 but must rather be considered against the Old Testament, redemptive-historical background of the adoption of Israel as son of God.
Of special importance for this last point is
the pronouncement in Romans 9:4, where Paul lists the “adoption
of sons” as one of the privileges of Israel. To the same effect
he applies to the New Testament church, with some modification in
wording, the theocratic promise of God to David in 2 Samuel 7:14:
“I will be to you a Father, and you shall be to me sons and daughters”
(2 Cor. 6:18; cf. Rom. 9:26). From this original significance of
sonship as the special covenant relationship between God and Israel
it is also to be explained that Paul alternately and in very much
the same sense speaks of “children of God” and “children” or “seed
of Abraham” (Rom. 9:7, 8; Gal. 3:26, 29; 4:6, 7, 28, 29). It is
this peculiar privilege of Israel as nation that, in conformity
with the Old Testament promises of redemption (cf. 2 Cor. 6:16-18),
passes over to the church of the New Testament and there receives
a new, deepened significance. In Jesus’ preaching, too, this redemptive-historical
meaning forms the background of his repeated speaking of the sonship
When we consider in greater detail the passages where Paul expressly speaks of the sonship of believers and of their adoption as sons, it becomes clear at once that he is again thinking in redemptive-historical, eschatological categories. Sonship is not to be approached from the subjective experience of the new condition of salvation, but rather from the divine economy of salvation, as God foreordained it in his eternal love (Eph. 1:5), and realized it in principle in the election of Israel as his people. It took effect “when faith came” (Gal. 3:25, 26), that is to say, when the new order and dispensation of salvation became effective.58 Or, as it is said still more explicitly in Galatians 4:4ff., “when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth his Son. . ., that we might receive the adoption of sons.” Sonship is therefore a gift of the great time of redemption that has dawned with Christ. It is the fulfillment of the promise that was given of old to the true people of God (Rom. 9:26; 2 Cor. 6:18).
The sonship of believers is furthermore closely bound up with the fact that Christ is the Son of God. When God reveals his Son, the adoption of sons also takes effect (Gal. 4:4), and it is the Spirit of God’s Son whom God has sent forth into our hearts, who cries: “Abba, Father!” (v. 6). It is sonship “in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26), that is to say, it is given with him in his advent; as the eschatological Bringer of salvation, he is the one in whom, for those who are included in him, this new redemptive state has been given.
Just as reconciliation, the adoption of sons signifies more than a purely forensic description of the salvation given with Christ. The term drawn from Hellenistic legal life (huiothesia) must not lead us astray here. Undoubtedly the adoption of sons can be put on a level and mentioned in one breath with justification (Gal. 3:23-26), insofar as it, too, is obtained only “through faith,” and is set in an exclusive sense over against that which is sought in the way of works, as appears from the context in which Paul, in the Epistle to the Galatians, places sonship over against bondage under the law. It consists above all in a gift of God, given at the time appointed by him (Gal. 4:2), as a new status that means the end of being-under-the-law (Gal. 4:1-5). But at the same time59 it denotes the new relationship to God in a more comprehensive sense: it is the fruit, the consequence of the reconciling, redeeming appearance of Christ (Gal. 4:5), it is tile reconciliation accomplished by God himself, it is its realization.
This is also evident from the fact that the sonship of believers is related in particular to the work of the Holy Spirit. There is in the Pauline pronouncements a peculiar relationship of reciprocity between the adoption of sons and the gift of the Spirit, which has given occasion in the exegetical literature to all kinds of confused discussions.60 At one time, in Galatians 4:6ff., it seems that sonship precedes the gift of the Spirit: “And because61 you are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father!”
Then again, in Romans 8:14-16, sonship seems to be the result of the gift of the Spirit: “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God. For you have not received the spirit of bondage again unto fear; but you have received the Spirit of the adoption of sons, through whom we cry, Abba, Father! The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.”
Yet the unity of these pronouncements is not
difficult to grasp if one pays heed to the place and significance
that the work of the Holy Spirit occupies in the great eschatological
ordo salutis. Precisely in connection with the adoption of
sons the apostle speaks of the Holy Spirit as “firstfruits” (Rom.
8:23), in the same sense that he elsewhere terms the Spirit the
“earnest” of the salvation of the great future62
(2 Cor. 1:22; 2 Cor. 5:5; Eph. 1:14). Over against that the adoption
of sons embraces more; it spans the present as well as the great
future. Now the whole creation, subjected to vanity, still waits
with earnest expectation for the revealing of the sons of God, when
it will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty
of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:19-21). And likewise
believers themselves, however much they have already received the
Spirit as firstfruits, groan within themselves in the expectation
of the adoption of sons, when their body, too, will be redeemed
(v. 23). Over against the provisional and temporary character of
this gift of the Spirit stands thus the adoption of sons, which
has, to be sure, taken effect with the appearance of Christ, but
has a future and definitive significance. It is not to be viewed
in such a way that the sonship of believers is a secondary gift
that proceeds from the primary gift of the Spirit. It is rather
that the adoption of sons represents the new state of salvation
that has come with Christ63 in its
all-embracing and eternal destination, and that the Holy Spirit
in the meantime as gift of the interim “helps us in our weakness”
(v. 26). Where salvation cannot yet break through in its perfection,
where the sonship of believers awaits revelation in its all-embracing
significance affecting the whole cosmos, there the Spirit enters
in as firstfruits, to keep alive in the hearts of believers the
consciousness, the certainty, the liberty of sonship. The Spirit
as Substitute and Intercessor of the church cries and teaches to
pray: “Abba, Father!” and thus maintains the connection between
what is and what is yet to take place (cf. Rev. 22:l7).64
In this light it is clear that no reason whatever exists to mistrust
the translation of Galatians 4:6: “because you are sons, God sent
forth his Spirit into our hearts,” etc. It exactly reproduces the
meaning of the apostle. The Spirit comes in order to “maintain”
sonship. Romans 8:14ff. is in no way in conflict with this. The
stress does not lie on the first part of verse 14, but on the second.
The principal train of thought is this: he who by the Spirit puts
to death the old man will live (v. 13). For those who do that (permit
themselves to be led by the Spirit) are sons of God (v. 14). And
for God’s children the eternal inheritance has been prepared (v.
17). Verses 15 and 16, moreover, have a certain parenthetical significance.
They say that the Spirit through whom the children of God are led
to the putting to death of the deeds of the body is also the Spirit
who works and keeps alive in them the consciousness and certainty
of sonship by bearing witness “with their spirit” that they are
children of God.
The further question now is what this adoption of sons in Christ by the Holy Spirit involves. We have already pointed out that sonship or the sonship of God is of old a collective aspect or privilege of the people of God. It should also be understood as such in Paul’s epistles. This is evident even from the alternate use of “children of God” and “children [seed] of Abraham” (see above). The liberty of the children of God (Gal. 4:7) is none other than of those who have received as their mother the Jerusalem that is above, as the new center of life given over against the earthly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26). It is belonging to the new people of God, whereby the gentiles, too, may be called “sons of the living God” (Rom. 9:26). The evidence of sonship accordingly lies in that one has by baptism put on Christ and thus belongs to this new unity in Christ, in which no distinction is made (Gal. 3:26, 27). This “congregational” aspect of the adoption as sons, however little it is further expressly unfolded in Paul’s epistles, forms — one may say — the self-evident and dominating point of departure for all that is said about the sonship of believers.
This does not alter the fact, however, that it is just in these sonship pronouncements that the personal and intimate character of the reconciled relationship with God finds expression. God sends his Spirit into the hearts of his children to witness with their spirit (Gal. 4:6; Rom. 8:16). Conversely, this adoption of sons must make believers live in the true relation of sonship. They must put aside the slavish fear of God (Rom. 8:15), and ever and again65 may call on him as their Father in the communion of the Spirit (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). How personally and — in a certain sense — in how deeply human a manner the apostle understands this exercise of communion, and the extent to which he knows human timidity and weakness in it, find their most beautiful expression precisely in these passages on the Spirit and sonship. The Spirit is not only the one who teaches us to stand in this childlike relationship to God and to pronounce steadfastly the name Father in spite of all that still raises itself against this relationship; he is also the one who maintains this living communion. He comes from God to awaken in the hearts of God’s people the true consciousness of children, but he also mounts up, as it were, from the hearts of the children to God, because in their inability to find the right words in prayer he enters in for them with unutterable groanings; and God, the great searcher of hearts, will judge them according to this holy intention of the Spirit which is acceptable to God (Rom. 8:26ff.). Thus the work of the “Spirit-of-sonship” (Rom. 8:15) forms the indispensable and unbreakable link in the whole of God’s plan of redemption. For to them who love God as their Father, all things must work together for blessing. For whom God knew beforehand as his son and has drawn to himself, these will he bring to the appointed goal: to bear the glorious image of his Son. To this end he calls them out of the world as his own, to this end he justifies them and leads them to glory (Rom. 8:28ff.). In these profound and moving words of Romans 8 Paul delineates the unshakable firmness and the intimacy of the relationship in which God draws and keeps his own to himself. Therefore as God’s beloved children, in imitation66 of their Father, they are to walk in love, even as Christ loved them (Eph. 5:1), as blameless children of God in the midst of a perverse generation (Phil. 2:15), as children of God who are at the same time the children of the light and of the day (Eph. 5:8; 1 Thess. 5:5).
It appears from all this how difficult it is
to come to a meaningful delimitation of what must be considered
the specific character of the sonship of believers.67
In the context of the epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians
sonship represents in a special sense the principle of liberty.
This liberty, however, is likewise a very comprehensive concept.
It consists in freedom from the law, and therefore, in harmony with
what has been said about justification and redemption, has a forensic
significance (Gal. 3:23-25). At the same time, however, as the liberty
that is worked and maintained by the Spirit, it has a much more
inclusive sense, particularly in the last chapters of Galatians,
where liberty is described as the power and the principle of the
whole Christian life and stands in contrast to the discord and impotence
of the life that is under the law (Rom. 7:14ff.); while this liberty
finally has reference as well to the future glory of the children
of God (Rom. 8:21). This is not the place to go further into this
liberty through the Spirit and in general into the working out of
sonship in the life of believers. We must return to that in the
following chapter when we shall treat still further the life by
the Spirit as the subjective side of the salvation that has appeared
We still have to refer separately in this context to one important aspect of sonship, namely, to the close connection that Paul makes both in Romans and in Galatians between the adoption of sons and the place of believers as heirs. For this connection, too, the redemptive-historical viewpoint is of special significance. For however much the idea of being heirs, etc., has its motive in the Greek juridical term “adoption as sons,”69 on the other side the concept “portion,” “heir,” etc., is in the Old Testament no less closely bound up with that of “people of God” and “seed of Abraham.” We see therefore how in Galatians and Romans these three ideas — sons of God, seed of Abraham, heirs — run through each other: “For you are all sons of God, through faith in Christ Jesus. . . . And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:26, 29).
Taken formally, heirship is therefore not derived from the sonship of God, but from belonging to Abraham’s seed. Elsewhere, however, there is a direct connection between the first two:
From this last phrase, “joint heirs with Christ,” it is evident, just as with the adoption as sons, that Christ as the Son of God is the one in communion with whom the inheritance is received. He is also, however, the Seed of Abraham, to whom the promise of the inheritance had reference (Gal. 3:16, 18). The whole thought complex of inheritance, to inherit, etc., in Paul’s epistles does not thus rest on an incidental figure of speech, nor only on an association of ideas in connection with “adoption as sons.” It represents much more the primal promise given of old to Abraham and his seed (cf. Rom. 4:13; Gal. 3:8); it recurs in many different ways in the history of the people of God and acquires therein an ever clearer eschatological content.70
For this reason one is able to qualify this inheritance as “consummation of the sonship.”71 Paul’s epistles, too, describe it ever and again as future glory, together with Christ (Rom. 8:17; cf. Eph. 1:18), as the (coming) kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9ff.; 15:50a; Gal. 5:21), as imperishableness (1 Cor. l5:50b), as eternal life (Tit. 3:7). The “inheritance” is the regular denotation of that which in tile future is to be the portion of the true people of God (Eph. 1:14, 18; 5:5; Col. 3:24; cf. 1:12). However much, therefore, sonship contains heirship within itself and the latter is thus not merely a matter of the future, but very definitely of the present as well (as comes to the fore particularly in Galatians), this does not alter the fact that the gift that springs from heirship and which likewise will only bring sonship to (full) “revelation” (Rom. 8:19) is still a matter of hope and expectation.72
From this side, too, the all-embracing significance of the sonship of believers given in Christ comes to light. It admits of expression neither only in juridical nor in ethical categories. It is the privilege of the church as the true people of God, but at the same time it affects the individual believer in the deepest motives of his existence. It has bearing not only on his inner, but also on his physical life; indeed, it brings with it the redemption of the whole cosmos. The present and the future are therefore spanned by it. The whole love of the Father, the whole redeeming work of Christ, the whole renewing power of the Holy Spirit, are reflected in it. At the conclusion of our discussion of reconciliation it is evident, that the redeeming activity of God commencing with the justification of the sinner communicates itself in ever wider spheres.
Herman Ridderbos taught New Testament for many years at the Theological School of the Reforrmed churches of the Netherlands in Kampen. An editor of and weekly contributor to Gereformeerd Weekblad, he is the author of numerous books, including several commentaries in Dutch and English, and a comprehensive study of eschatology entitled The Coming of the Kingdom.
This article is taken from his work, Paul: An outline of His Theology, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI, 1975)
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