Penal substitution—the suffering of Christ under the wrath of God in our place to pay the debt of sin we owe to our Creator—is the heart of the biblical doctrine of the atonement (Rom. 3:21–26; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24–25). Yet while penal substitution is essential to the gospel, it does not exhaust Scripture’s explanation of what Christ’s atonement accomplished. In today’s passage, for example, Jesus says that on the cross, He gave His life as a “ransom for many” (Matt. 20:20–28).
The meaning of the word “ransom” in the biblical context is not substantially different from how we use the term today. It was a sum paid in order to secure the release of someone in captivity. For example, a person could pay a ransom to free a slave from bondage or to get a kidnapper to release a hostage. The individual who holds the imprisoned person sets the amount of the ransom. Jesus clearly understood His death as a ransom given to release people from captivity, so there have been many theories that have sought to develop this aspect of the atonement.
Many thinkers throughout church history have believed that Jesus paid the ransom to Satan. Since Scripture describes demonic possession (for example, Mark 5:1–20) and speaks of enslavement to “those that by nature are not gods”—the demons that lie behind false religions (Gal. 4:8; see 1 Cor. 10:19–20)—it is understandable that people might believe Jesus paid a ransom to the devil. However, this idea does not agree with Scripture’s view of Christ’s work as a victory over Satan (1 John 3:8b). If Satan were to receive a ransom, he would actually be the victor, since he would have set and received the ransom price. Moreover, the devil is himself a rebel and has no right to demand a ransom for our redemption.
Our perfectly holy God, on the other hand, is well within His rights to demand a ransom to release us from our Adamic state of condemnation (Rom. 5:12–21). We are saved primarily from the wrath of God, although the atonement releases us from slavery to sin and Satan as well (1 Thess. 1:9–10). We are saved from God, by God, and for God. Christ’s atonement satisfies divine wrath—it is a propitiation. We are justly under God’s condemnation for even the smallest sin, for we owe our Maker nothing less than perfect obedience. Jesus pays the debt of punishment in place of His people, so God can be propitious or favorable to all who trust only in Christ.
Bondage to sin and Satan is a horrible thing, but worse still is to be captive to divine wrath. We must be brought out from under this wrath in order to be freed from the other enslavements of sin. When we present the gospel, we must call people to recognize that the worst thing of all is to be under God’s holy wrath, and we must exhort them to believe in Christ, who paid the ransom price to liberate sinners from the wrath of God.