With tears we cry for it;
with broken hearts we yearn for it;
frustrated we beg for it—redemption.
Maybe every generation of Christians feels it at some point, that point where injustice, cruelty, bigotry, suffering and indifference intersect with such force and such regularity that we think to ourselves that things can’t get any worse, that there is no answer to the evil in the world but the return of the Lord. So we fervently pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That kingdom seems, in our best moments, far away; in our worst, a make-believe alternate reality. For the present we are caught in the whirlpool of humanity’s sin, our inherent imago dei damaged beyond recognition, our relationships ruined, our hope almost gone.
Last year’s theme at Corban University was “Picking Up the Pieces”, reflecting the devastation of the Fall in our lives. This year’s theme is “Made New”, which celebrates the biblical theme of redemption. Yes, the good news is that we have been redeemed; we are redeemed. But if we are redeemed, how is it that we still cry out for it? Why do we feel so helpless in the face of evil? If ever there was a biblical doctrine that expressed the already/not yet scheme of God’s salvific plan, this is it. In this article I will briefly set forth the biblical doctrine of redemption—past, present and future—concluding with an appeal to persevere in hope until that day when God’s redemptive plan will be complete.
Redemption is one of the many metaphors used by biblical authors to showcase particular features of our salvation (itself a metaphor). However, it did not mean to them what it means to us today. Current, popular ideas such as justice finally being enacted (“the victims of the crime finally had their day of redemption”), or of personal revenge, in which a wrong is made right, intersect with the biblical concept only marginally; they do not express its heart. Redemption has to do first and foremost, with God; it has to do with sin and the Fall; it has to do with the utter helplessness and hopelessness of sinners in their fallen condition. At its heart, it has to do with what God has secured through the death and resurrection of humanity’s Redeemer, the Lord Jesus.
The biblical metaphor deeply resonated with audiences in the Ancient Near East (Old Testament) and in the first-century Roman world (New Testament) due to the pervasiveness of slavery. Being purchased and then set free from bondage is the reality behind the biblical metaphor. In the Old Testament, the metaphor came to define Yahweh’s relationship with his people, Israel; he redeemed Israel out of slavery to Egypt (Ex. 6:6; 15:13; etc.). Ever after that seminal, climactic event in Israel’s history, the Israelites were known as a people set free by Yahweh; he was their Redeemer. While Yahweh chose Abraham and his descendants 400 years before the time of Moses, with Israel’s redemption out of Egypt they would henceforth think of themselves as the elect nation, a people of God’s choosing.
In the New Testament, the same metaphor is applied individually to those whom God has purchased and set free, not from physical slavery, as in the case of the Israelites in the days of Moses, but from slavery to sin. The metaphor is expressed in a number of ways: “slave to sin” (John 8:34; Rom. 6:17; 7:14); “bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:21); “enslaved to the elementary principles of the world” (Gal. 4:3); “enslaved to those that by nature are not gods” (Gal. 4:8). The price paid for our redemption, to extend the metaphor, is said to be the death of Christ (Eph. 1:7; 1 Pet. 1:18, 19 [the “precious blood of Christ”]). Skirting the theological debate of Particular Redemption vs. Unlimited Atonement, we can safely say that only believers experience redemption in its fullness, since only believers enjoy the present benefits of being redeemed and being able to look forward to a future redemption.
With the present and future dimensions of redemption, the biblical metaphor diverges even further from current, popular understandings of it. Still retaining the idea of slavery, the theology of redemption includes the idea that the sinner who has been redeemed through faith in Christ’s death and resurrection is not turned loose—freed—to live life in any way the person sees fit. On the contrary, those who have been set free from slavery to sin become slaves of Christ. That is to say, after the sinner has been redeemed, he or she belongs to God as his purchased possession (1 Cor. 6:19, 20; 7:22, 23; etc.). We become the bondslaves of Christ. It is only an apparent contradiction to say that in such servitude the Christian finds real freedom, but this will need some explanation.
To understand the biblical concept of redemption, one needs first to understand the biblical doctrine of freedom. In a scriptural context, freedom is hamartiological and soteriological, not anthropological. Put another way, we’re not entering the philosophical debate of determinism on one side, libertarianism on the other, with compatibilism somewhere between the two. This debate can take place apart from any assumption of theism. When the Bible talks about freedom, it does so as with any other topic, from a God-centered point of view. It speaks of freedom within the parameters of a person’s relationship to sin. Negatively, non-redeemed people are not said to be free; they are bound, enslaved to sin (see references above). Jesus somewhat proverbially stated, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Paul developed this thought in his letter to the Ephesians, in which he stated that his readers prior to their salvation “were dead in trespasses and sins . . . carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:2, 3). Any time the New Testament authors spoke of the inability of sinful people to please God, the same idea was expressed (e.g., “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” in Rom. 8:8). Bottom line: People who are yet to be redeemed from their sin are not free. That is, the non-redeemed individual cannot do anything of a righteous nature before God; they do the will of their master—sin.
The good news is that when sinful people are redeemed, they gain the freedom to do what humans were originally created to do—righteous deeds that please and honor their Creator. This becomes their burning desire, and they are free to fulfill it. This, then, explains the apparent contradiction in the sinner being set free and, at the same time, being made a doulos—a slave—of Christ. The biblical concept of freedom is not the ability to do whatever you want to do, whether good or bad, but it’s being able to do, finally, what we were created by God to do—please him. This is what we were made for; this is what gives us the greatest delight; this is the ultimate in personal fulfillment. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). But this begs the question, what does it mean to have been freed from sin?
Romans 6 contains one of the clearest, and yet potentially most confusing, descriptions of the believer having been freed from sin and made a bondslave of Christ. “We know that our self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin” (Rom. 6:6, 7). The potentially confusing part is how to understand the “old man” of Rom. 6:6 (NASB; ESV “old self”), and what it then means that “the body of sin might be brought to nothing.” Both can be explained in a way that advances Paul’s leading rhetorical question in 6:2: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” and the idea that we were once slaves to sin but now are slaves to righteousness (6:18). Simply stated, the “old self/man” is all that we were before we were saved, not the sinful nature that still resides within us. The old self is our former, unredeemed life in sin. That old life is dead and gone; we’re not going back to that life of slavery to sin. The destruction of the “body of sin” is the consequence of the death of the old self. The confusing phrase is best understood as the “body enslaved by sin”. The former sin-body connection, in which whatever we did was sinful in the eyes of God, has been forever severed, “done away with” (NASB) or “brought to nothing” (ESV). In other words, for the first time in our life, because we have been redeemed from our slavery to sin and made slaves to righteousness, we can not only say no to sin but we also can do works that please God. Yes, we can still give in to sinful temptation (the sinful nature is still alive and well!), but now that’s our choice to make; we are no longer compelled, by nature, to sin. We are no longer enslaved to sin.
This redemptive act of God on our behalf—releasing us from slavery to sin to become slaves of righteousness—thus defines the new normal for those who have been redeemed. Doing what is right and what is pleasing to God, overcoming sinful desires, and, in general, living a godly life are what is expected of us; this is normal Christian living. As we consider the failures within us and within our Christian communities, it might not be average Christian behavior, but it’s normal Christian living. We ought not to confuse what seems to be the average with what is expected, what is normal. This is what Paul tries to explain to the Romans when he tells them that they have now become douloi of Christ, slaves of righteousness. It’s to be expected that a slave does the will of his master. That was the case with sin before redemption and it’s still the case after redemption. We are expected to be obedient to our new master. As pointed out earlier, redemption has resulted in new ownership. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19, 20). Glorifying God in our body is not merely good advice; God demands it of us.
We need to keep in mind that this change of masters, from sin to righteousness, results in a very happy state of affairs for those redeemed by Christ. In fairness, the idea of being enslaved to anything or anyone does not normally elicit positive emotions, especially in those influenced by Western cultural values of individuality and independence. At this point Paul’s metaphor of slavery can be misunderstood. It’s possible he could have used a better metaphor to describe the resulting state of those who have been redeemed, but it worked well for his day and time. Paul must have been conscious of this, for his emphasis is as much, maybe more, on the freedom that the believer now has and the benefits it brings. Freedom in bondage? It sounds strange, even contradictory. “But now that you have been set free from sin and becomes slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (6:22). Living now in the Spirit (7:6), producing the wonderful fruit of sanctification, possessing eternal life—what can be more fulfilling and joyful than this? As observed earlier, we finally get to do what we’ve been created to do, which is to love God and obey him. This is ultimate fulfillment and happiness. Or, I should say, it’s the penultimate state of fulfillment and happiness; the climax of redemption is yet to come.
We don’t have a clear vision of anything that lies ahead for us. Part of the reason for this is that not much is revealed, at least not in any detail. Paul had about as clear an insight into the eschaton as any of the New Testament authors did, but he cheated. God allowed him to see “Paradise” (2 Cor. 12:1-4), but he wasn’t allowed to tell anyone what he saw, which isn’t very helpful for the rest of us. Something of the glory of that final day, however, is expressed in Romans 8:18-25, in which we read things hard to believe. In this passage we discover the future dimension of our redemption.
Redemption is far more than being purchased by Christ and released from the tyrannical rule of sin over our lives. If it were only this, of course it would be more than enough. But redemption is holistic in that it includes everything that pertains to humankind. Believers anticipate the “redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23), a reference to the resurrection. This is a good reminder to those who have unintentionally given pride of place to the soul of a person in salvation, leaving the body as an afterthought. God created Adam and Eve with body and soul. While, as a result of the Fall, it has become apparent that the soul can exist apart from the body, this separation was never the ideal and is only temporary. Yes, it is fine to emphasize that a sinner is saved upon believing in Christ, and that upon death the believer goes to be with Jesus in heaven, but our salvation is not complete until the entire person—body as well as soul—is saved. That will finally take place at the resurrection. We have been redeemed; we are redeemed; we shall yet be redeemed. Redemption will not be complete until the entire person—body as well as soul—has been redeemed. But the idea of redemption being holistic extends even further, to include creation itself.
In this same passage, Rom. 8:18-25, Paul very matter-of-factly informs the Romans that the entire cosmos is scheduled for divine redemption. He tells them and us that creation is suffering from its bondage to the Fall, but will be released from it at the moment that God will raise us from the dead. At that time we will revealed to the world for the first time as the people we really are—the sons of God (Rom. 8:19-23). Every time I read this I am amazed at not just what Paul reveals about the future of the cosmos, but the “For we know that” that prefaces it in v. 22. This is supposed to be something that is common knowledge? How would the Romans have known this? How would we know it? The word “incredible” comes to mind. We generally don’t think on this large a scale. It seems from this statement that the entire universe, or at least the part where we live, was in the past “subjected to futility” (8:20), which Paul then restates as in “bondage to decay” (8:21). Indeed, we know from the account of the Fall in Genesis 3 that Adam and Eve’s sin had a profound, direct, negative effect on their environment. Is this what Paul is talking about? “Creation” seems more expansive than this, but it’s at least the soil that Adam was to work. Whatever the extent of creation, creation seems to be very much aware of us; it knows our identities. It’s now suffering along with us, and we are told that the suffering creation is presently enduring will cease when our bodies are raised from the dead. When we are completely made whole—redeemed in body and soul—that’s the time when creation will be completely restored.
Paul’s theology in Rom. 8:18-25 is informed by the Genesis creation account. The planet Earth and humans are inextricably linked; our fortunes are intertwined. This shouldn’t be surprising to us. God created us to rule over his creation. This is stated initially (Gen. 1:26) and then immediately repeated: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Thus, from a creation perspective, the fact that human beings live on this planet is no mere coincidence, a result of blind time and chance. Creation was made for us; we were made for creation. Our fates are forever intertwined. Apparently, something happened to creation as a result of our sin that led Paul to describe the present cosmos in terms of bondage to decay and subjection to futility. That’s the bad news. The good news is that likewise, when our bodies are freed from their bondage to decay, the creation will be set free from its bondage. Paul personifies creation, likening it to a mother-to-be suffering the pains of childbirth. She can’t wait for the baby to come! Creation has been waiting a long time for us finally to be revealed as the people that creation knows us to be—the sons of God.
This synergistic dynamic between the cosmos and humankind is also a reminder to us to talk about our future hope more biblically, and thus more accurately. As a child growing up in a fundamentalist church, any time “heaven” was mentioned, which was a lot, it was always portrayed as the ultimate hope of the Christian. “Going to be with Jesus” when we die was the start of an unending existence in heaven. Various visions of how we would spend eternity were imagined, all having to do with being with Jesus and our loved ones already with him, in a place somewhere far removed from the earth. As stated before, our entering heaven to be with Jesus when we die, though true (cf. Phil. 1:21-23), is not our final destination; our salvation is not yet complete. Being with Jesus and our loved ones in heaven is a temporary state of affairs necessitated by the entrance of sin into the human race. We were never meant to be separated from our bodies. Salvation will be complete when our bodies are raised. At that point, although this isn’t explicitly stated in Romans 8:18-25, humans will fulfill their initial contract to rule over creation. Heaven is many things in the Bible; ultimately it is redeemed humans living on, and ruling over, a redeemed earth. This is part of the reason why our bodies, not just our souls, need to be redeemed and set free from sin. Disembodied spirits are hardly suited for the physical work required to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Gen. 1:26).
As a side note, this is why the theme of redemption, while vast in its scope throughout the text of Scripture, should not be considered as the single, all-encompassing, over-arching motif of the Bible. To be sure, the theme extends from Genesis to Revelation, but not all of Genesis and not all of Revelation. The theme of redemption does not surface until after the record of the Fall in Genesis 3, while the last two chapters of the Apocalypse follow the climactic, end-time judgment of everyone who has ever lived (the “Great White Throne Judgment”). What precedes the Fall in Genesis and what concludes John’s Revelation has to do with God’s kingdom, a kingdom on earth governed by his redeemed people. To rule God’s creation is what we’ve been created to do; this is the ultimate “heaven.” This is our hope, according to Paul. “For in this hope we were saved” (Rom. 8:24) and “we wait for it with patience” (8:25).
That no scientifically verifiable evidence exists for this future reality is Paul’s point: “For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees?” (Rom. 8:24). OK, so we get it; this is something that’s not supposed to be easy. But for most of us most of the time, this hope Paul talks about seems far, far away and nothing real.
Why is it so difficult for us to envision this glorious future? Part of our problem is that we work from a baseline that is itself a product of the Fall. As a result, we have little way of knowing how far we have fallen; fallenness is all we’ve ever known. If you want someone’s opinion on what it means to be free, you don’t ask someone who’s been in prison all their life. Try as we might to orient our thinking to the hope that Paul describes, we are products of the Fall and bound in our thinking by a worldview shaped by it. Like any worldview, we take it for granted. For example, everybody knows that a nation has to protect itself from hostile nations. The question is how large the defense budget should be. We know we will all die; the hope is to die with dignity. That we can put “death” and “dignity” in the same sentence and not see the absurdity of that reveals what we have become used to in our fallenness. That in the aftermath of the Ferguson riots a year ago President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder had to explain to us white folks why black parents feel the need to have “the talk” with their sons has been a painful reminder that racial inequities continue to be a fact of life in America. Yes, there has been progress, but everybody knows that this is a problem that will never go away.
Sometimes I feel full of hope; other times I struggle to grasp the hope that Paul talks about in Rom. 8:18-25. The sermon is on Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55); it’s the Sunday before Christmas. The theme of the Advent season has been “The Hope of Restoration.” It made me look at this text in a slightly different way than I have in the past. Every time I have read this passage, I have wondered how Mary, who hadn’t made the study of the Tanach a long, lifetime endeavor (wasn’t she a mere teen?), was able to recite from memory various Old Testament prophetic texts. It’s not just the fact that she knew the texts; she knew the metanarrative of Yahweh’s redemptive purposes for Israel that gave meaning to these texts. It’s as if she was expecting these promises to be fulfilled. That’s the thought that strikes me now—she really did believe in the hope of redemption. I then thought of how unlikely that was, given the state of Judea at that time.
Many times throughout Israel’s history the hope of Yahweh fulfilling his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been lost by all but a few (e.g., Simeon and Anna, Luke 2:22-38). Mary’s day was such a time. Jews of the Second Temple era still thought of themselves in exile, even though they had returned physically centuries previously to the Land. Yes, the nation had somehow managed to survive the Syrian wars of the Maccabean era, but how was being under the dominion of Rome anything but continued imprisonment and exile? Herod’s extravagant, newly rebuilt Temple complex in Jerusalem was a thing to behold, but any Torah-minded Jew saw it for it was—an attempt of a ruthless, ego-maniac to make himself look good and appease his Jewish subjects. With people like the Sadducees in charge, and to a lesser extent the Pharisees, rapprochement with hostile Rome was viewed as the lesser of two evils, the greater evil being the legitimate fear, expressed by the Sanhedrin, that “the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (John 11:48). Things were so bleak, so dark and so without hope in Mary’s time that I am amazed at how the announcement of Gabriel by itself was able to ignite so powerfully the hope that is expressed in the Magnificat. It must have been already been hot, waiting for the spark. Obviously, God knew what he was doing in choosing this young woman to bear the hope of the world. I am ashamed to say that I would not have qualified. How many of us today would?
The opening lines of Psalm 126 so well express the joy that the redeemed feel today:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
Then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done
great things for them”;
The Lord has done great things for his people;
we are glad!
It’s not possible to overstate the great things that God has done for us through his Son, and the joy that we have as his redeemed people. Our sins have been forever forgiven; we are new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17)! As amazing and wonderful as this is, it is just the beginning; the climax of redemption has yet to be reached. That’s the truth that faith must grasp and hold onto when our present, fallen world tempts us to despair and lose hope. Yes, it’s hard, but that’s the way of redemption. “But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it” (Rom. 8:25, NASB). It will be worth the wait!
 Unless otherwise indicated, biblical quotes are from the ESV.