Atonement as Ransom
“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 28).- Matthew 20:20–28
The Word of God has much to say about the atonement of Jesus, looking at it from a variety of different perspectives in order to explain all that Jesus’ death on the cross accomplished for us. We have seen that essential to any orthodox conception of the atonement is that it was a necessary event, grounded in the perfect justice of the Lord, and that it involves a substitution. Christ’s death is substituted for ours on the cross such that the penalty for our sin is paid, but not by us. Furthermore, Christ’s life of perfect obedience is substituted for our life of disobedience, enabling God to declare us righteous in His Son and to admit us into heaven (2 Cor. 5:21).
Another way the Bible describes the atonement is as “a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). Yet getting at what this actually means has been the subject of much debate in church history. In the early church, however, many conceived of the atonement as a ransom that Jesus paid to the devil in order to release us from imprisonment. With good reason, however, this idea of a ransom payment made by Christ to Satan has been rejected by the vast majority of Christian thinkers. The notion that Satan could somehow demand a payment from the Lord Himself undermines our Creator as the sovereign Lord of all and moral authority over the universe. It is also hard to see how Jesus could destroy the power of the devil by giving him exactly what he wanted (Heb. 2:14).
The atonement cannot be a ransom paid to the devil, but it can be one paid to our Creator. Any debt that we owe must be a debt owed to God, for He alone is our Sovereign. Scripture, in fact, specifically refers to our sins as debts that we have incurred against the glory of God (Matt. 6:12). Furthermore, while it is true that sinners are in bondage to Satan (John 8:31–47), that is possible only because our sovereign God has granted him a limited authority over transgressors. God and the devil are not coequal powers, each possessing inherent authority to make demands and to call people into service. Satan’s power over sinners is derivative, granted to him by God for a time until Jesus came to destroy the work of the devil. We escape enslavement to the devil not by paying a debt to him but by paying our debt to God. The price we owe the Lord is the price of our very lives, which we ourselves cannot pay, but Jesus paid this price in the place of all who trust in Him alone for salvation.
We can make two errors with respect to Satan. On the one hand, we can conceive of him as having no power at all. On the other hand, we can think of him as having more power than he actually does. The power of the devil is limited to whatever God allows him to do, and thanks be to the Lord, He has destroyed the devil’s power. We need not fear what Satan can do to us, for we have been freed by His grip by the death of God’s only begotten Son.
Passages for Further Study
1 John 3:8