Redemption as Gods Deliverance from Sin and Death

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Thus, redemption entails God's solidarity with humankind and this is manifest par excellence in the incarnation. But Christian witness is that Jesus Christ not only assumed humanity but also bore the sin of the world and provided deliverance from death. As George Florovsky notes, Jesus Christ bore the sin of the world as an act of will (Florovsky 19 76:98). He did not assume it by virtue of solidarity with humankind because the humanity he assumed was pure and innocent; "it behoved the Redeemer to be without sin, and not made liable through sin to death" (John of Damascus 1989:45). Rather, his bearing of sin was a further act of compassion and love, the culmination of his solidarity with humankind, which brought deliverance from the victory of death (Romans 8:2; Galatians 5:1; I Corinthians 15:54-5). Jesus Christ was, writes Paul, "put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood' (Romans 3:23). He took upon himself the curse pronounced against humankind in order that it might be removed from us (Galatians 3:13). How, then, are we to speak of redemption as God's deliverance of humankind from sin and death?

Let's start by noting that biblical witness to the experience of redemption is wide and varied. Redemption is synonymous with deliverance (Exodus 6:6). It comprises a deliberate act to save people from political, economic, physical, and spiritual oppression (Deuteronomy 7:8; Psalms 25:22, 49:7-8). Prophetic texts anticipated the coming of the Lord's anointed as redeemer (Isaiah 59:20, 60:16), whose suffering would transform the lives of the oppressed (Isaiah 61:1). Deliverance is also considered in spiritual and ontological terms. Jesus taught about a whole range of evil brought about by sin, and the need for redemption. He spoke of the fires of hell (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30) and their destruction of both soul and body (Matthew 10:28), and of God's judgment against sin (Matthew 11:22; Luke 11:32, 16:19-31). In the fourth gospel, Jesus is recorded as declaring the wrath of God on a world perishing under the weight of its own sin (John 3:16, 36; 8:24; 16:8-10), and as calling individual persons to a renewed relationship with God (John 3:5-8; 4:23; 5:25; 14:1). Paul's emphasis is upon God's gracious act to rescue humankind from death and the costliness of the incarnation as the means necessary for overcoming death. Sin, says Paul, is failing to give glory and thanks to God (Romans 1:21) and, thereby, falling away from God. It is manifest in an absence of kindness, and in deception, cursing, bitterness, and misery (Romans 3:12). He speaks of redemption as release from debt, or payment of a ransom, as borrowed from a quasi-legal context: "For you were bought with a price" (I Corinthians 6:20, 7:23). Yet, he does not emphasize the notion of debt since it is less a debt than a response of thanksgiving that is owed to God who raised Jesus from the dead.6 Righteousness is not counted like pay or reward (^lo6o;) but as a matter of grace (Romans 4:4).

This diverse biblical witness reminds us that the enormity and mystery of God's work of redemption cannot be enclosed in a single description. The several images never harden into a single or complete explanation, yet they imply a costliness which exceeds human imagining. How, then, are we to understand this costliness? Is a ransom paid to the devil as a matter of justice? Gregory of Nyssa is notorious for having suggested that the ransom of Christ's blood was paid to the devil and not to God the Father, as if the devil had rights. Later writers, notably Anselm, made clear that the devil had no claim which required God to act, not least because neither humankind nor the devil existed outside of God's power. Rather, "each and either of them was a thief, since, one persuading the other, each stole himself from his lord" (Anselm 1909:10). To be fair to Gregory of Nyssa, we should note his conviction that it is ultimately God - and not the devil - upon whom all things depend (Gregory of Nyssa 1989:492-4).7 This said, it cannot be allowed that either sacrifice or ransom were offered to the devil because that would imply that the devil had just claim upon God, thus denying God's sovereignty. Are we to suppose, therefore, that sacrifice and ransom are offered to God? Anselm suggests as much and answers as follows in response to Boso's question "What is the debt we owe to God?"

This is the debt which angels and men owe to God: paying which, none sins; and which every one who does not pay it, does sin. This is uprightness, or rectitude of will, which con stitutes the just or upright in heart, that is, in will; this is the sole and whole honour which we owe to God, and which God requires from us. . . . Whoever renders not unto God this due honour, takes away from God that which is His, and does God dishonour: and this is sin. (Anselm 1909:24)

Sin was an outrage to God and an affront to God's honor. Only Christ could satisfy the outrage of this sin and satisfy God's honor. Christ, who is both human and divine, paid the price of his life to meet this cost and to set humans free from slavery to sin. The radically different categories of culture within which this vocabulary of "honor" was used by Anselm, and within which it is heard today, give rise to problems of interpretation. Indeed, one danger is that such an understanding of redemption implies in a present-day context that God required payment in order to maintain the divine status. Anselm makes plain that God could not simply overlook sin because that would not accord with his dignity. Yet, the God who does anything to avoid dishonor seems to our eyes, perhaps, to be more concerned about maintaining the divine integrity than mending the broken relationship with humankind. To be fair to Anselm, we should recognize that his determining questions concern the moral order of the universe and how to bear appropriate witness to all the divine attributes. Also, he knew that humankind is lost if God is dishonored.8 How, then, are we to avoid such difficulties yet understand the costliness of redemption?

Some clues are found when we locate our questions within a theological anthropology which emphasizes the ontological end or telos of humankind. God, we have seen, created humankind for union and communion with himself and to exist "in the image of his own eternity" (Wisdom of Solomon 1:13, 23). Yet, Adam and Eve - representatives of all humanity - turned away from God, the author of their life, and became tragic figures destined to die and liable to corruption.9 Sin, says Athanasius, is a rejection of the good and the setting up of false gods instead:

For having departed from the consideration of the one and the true, namely God, and from desires of Him, they had thenceforward embarked in diverse lusts . . . whence the soul became subject to cowardice and alarms. . . . she learned to commit murder and wrong. (Athanasius 1989a:5)

Upon turning away from God the human soul becomes debased and fearful. The image of God in humankind becomes distorted and this results in a condition characterized by death and the "inhumanity" of one person to another. The result of sin is death because humankind has turned its back on life. Adam and Eve became mortal and, whilst we do not inherit the guilt of their personal sin, we inherit their death as mortals born from mortals. There is no quasi-genetic transmission of guilt: "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Sin is the peculiar privilege of each person alone, but we have received mortality from our ancestor's sin and are heirs to the corruption of death. We are also born into societies that are influenced by sin. Death (of the body, soul, hope, relationships, etc.) was not inflicted upon humankind by God but resulted from humankind's turning its back on God's life-giving grace. Death resulted in, and is synonymous with, separation from God. It was allowed by God within divine providence as a matter of "consequent will" and as a concession to free will (John of Damascus of 1963: IX, p. 42). It had no origin in God but was allowed as a way of halting the progression of sin and of ensuring that evil would not be victorious: "He condemned us to the corruption of death in order that that which is evil should not be immortal" (John of Damascus 1963:IX, p. 78).

Thus, according to Christian tradition, God allowed death to persist as part of the divine, providential care over created things but was not content with turning evil into a benefit, and made appropriate provision for its defeat. God refused to disregard the fragility of the human condition in the grip of death but reached out in love toward it, in order to enable humankind afresh to fulfill its vocation. Redemption is a negative moment in the divine economy in the sense that Jesus Christ became accursed with death to deliver humankind from sin and its consequences. Yet, its essential meaning is positive and aimed at the elevation of humankind to enjoy union and communion with God. Lowering himself to our level, God revealed in Christ "the mighty ocean of his love to man [sic]" and offered life to those who had spurned it. This is the free gift of grace of which Paul speaks (Romans 3:24). It surpasses the law because the law only exposes sin: "that sin might be shown to be sin" (Romans 5:13). Indeed, this love surpasses the law because it can bring persons right into heaven (John Chrysostom 1989b:489). As Joshua led the Israelites right into the promised land, writes John Chrysostom, so Jesus Christ has the power to bring people into a new state of being. He has this power only because he unites in himself the extremes of humanity and divinity: "[i]t is that the Lord of Glory is said to have been crucified, although His divine nature never endured the Cross" (John of Damascus 1989:48). Redemption in Christ is possible, argues Irenaeus of Lyons, because Christ "summed up in himself the ancient formation of Adam." By so doing he rendered the human body a participator of the resurrection and of immortality, thus becoming for humankind a Savior of the lost and a Light to those dwelling in darkness (Irenaeus of Lyons 1993:529-30). As mediator between God and humanity, Jesus Christ bore the sin and death of the world and became its remedy.

Redemption, therefore, is the efficacy of God's love available without limit to all in need. The costliness of this remedy was something that only God could bear. As John Cassian stated: "it does not lie in the power of a man to redeem his [God's] people from the captivity of sin" (John Cassian 1989:580). Humans could not pay because they are by nature mortal and corruptible; they are created by God from nothing and are not divine. They could not regain or buy back the incorruption for which they were created. Only God could go in search of those who had turned away from communion with God and identify with them. Therefore, God went "into the far country" to seek out those who were dying and offer them life again (Barth 1956:157-210). To cite Gregory of Nazianzen, "He needed flesh for the sake of flesh which had incurred condemnation, and soul for the sake of our soul" (Gregory of Nazianzen 1989c:441). Only by being perfect in divinity and humanity could he unite to himself the sin of humankind and offer to humankind the forgiving grace of God. His tears and sweat and sufferings would have had little redemptive significance, writes Athanasius, without his being both human and divine. Only God from God, Wisdom from the Wise, Being from Being, could pass on to humanity the things of God and serve as mediator between the two.10 In his humanity, he accepted our death and endured it as a choice of free love. In his divinity, he brought to nothing the power of death and offered humankind to share in his victory (I Corinthians 15:54, 55, 57; I John 5:4). Redemption was effected by kenosis: "Christ. . . emptied Himself to take the form of a slave . . . that he might by His own sufferings destroy sin, and by death slay death" (Gregory of Nazianzen 1989a:246).

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