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Chapter 22: God’s Redemptive Work in Jesus’ Human Life

Appendix 2: Further aspects and other theories of redemption

If the account in question G begins to render intelligible the human significance of Jesus’ free acceptance of death, it also provides a basis for clarifying some other aspects of the work of redemption.

First, Jesus’ death redeems inasmuch as it is meritorious. By dying, Jesus merits his own glorification and ours as well, insofar as we are united with him by faith. Jesus accepts death because of sin and on behalf of sinners; he offers himself as sacrifice in obedience to the Father (see Jn 1.29; 10.18; 14.31; Rom 4.25; 5.6–21; 1 Cor 15.3; 2 Cor 5.15; Eph 5.2). Given the human meaning of Jesus’ death, it is understandable why God is pleased with this sacrifice. Not that the death as such pleases him; but the love expressed by the gift is wholly acceptable. Moreover, as a great gift freely given, it deserves an appropriate response from God. Thus, Jesus’ death is meritorious (see S.t., 3, q. 48, a. 1).34

Second, Jesus’ death redeems inasmuch as it satisfies or makes up for our sins. His redemptive act pays the price and ransoms us (see Mk 10.45; 1 Cor 6.20; 7.23; 1 Tm 2.6; Ti 2.14; 1 Pt 1.18–19; Rv 5.9). Without Jesus and what he does, the human situation is quite hopeless. He comes into the world, lives and dies, and transforms our hopeless situation. This real transformation, which is somewhat understandable in terms of the human significance of Jesus’ acceptance of death, is the making up for our sins. Just this real effect of what Jesus does is the paying of the price. One need not suppose that God collects a payment; rather, he does the redemptive work and in his Son pays the price. The privation of sin really is healed and filled in by love. Like a healed wound, forgiven sin is transformed (see S.t., 3, q. 48, a. 2).35

Third, Jesus’ death redeems inasmuch as by dying he wins victory over Satan (see Jn 14.30; Col 1.13; 1 Jn 3.8) and also over sin and death (see Rom 5.21; 6.6–23; 8.3; 1 Cor 15.20–58). This follows from the fact that what Jesus does makes a real contribution to undoing the situation in which original sin placed humankind (see S.t., 3, q. 48, a. 4; q. 49, aa. 1–3). By reestablishing communion with God in a real human community, Jesus in principle overcomes everything involved in and consequent upon sin.

Certain mistaken ideas about redemption also ought to be set aside. Probably most people do not consciously hold these ideas in a straightforward way, but remnants survive in almost everyone’s mind.36

One false idea is that Jesus had to die to pay the devil a ransom, so that the devil would release fallen humankind from captivity to evil. This idea attributes too much in the way of power and rights to the devil, and erroneously suggests that he gains something from the act of Jesus. If the devil acquires anything at all in this situation, it is only the sins of the enemies of Jesus, not Jesus’ human act of freely accepting death. The act of Jesus does release us from the bondage of the devil, but the devil gains nothing from God or from Jesus. The redemption is more like a commando raid to rescue prisoners than the paying of ransom to buy their release (see S.t., 3, q. 48, a. 4, ad 2; q. 49, a. 2).

Another false idea is that God’s anger at sinful humankind had to be appeased. The picture is that of a vengeful tyrant, who has been greatly offended and would like to kill somebody. The trouble is, he cannot find anyone worth killing: The people who offend him are such vermin that it is beneath his dignity to bother wiping them out. But then there appears a real man among the offending group. So the tyrant delightedly kills him, getting the revenge he wants. This act calms the tyrant’s anger and puts him in a better frame of mind. When clearly spelled out, this idea is so crude that anyone can see its absurdity as applied to God.

Another false idea is that the death of Jesus pays God a debt, a price he demands for accepting fallen humankind back into his friendship. This idea is an improvement in some ways on the two preceding ones. Also, as I have explained, it is true that by dying Jesus somehow makes up for our sins and merits God’s love for us. However, the idea still is mistaken to the extent that it suggests that God needs to be reconciled to humankind rather than humankind to God. It also errs in suggesting that Jesus’ death benefits God, whereas it is his gift to us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3.16).

Finally, there is the idea that Jesus died as a scapegoat. This notion is that humankind deserved punishment for sin, but Jesus took the place of sinners, received their punishment, and so relieved them of having to be punished themselves. Up to this point, the idea is just right enough to find support in certain passages in Scripture and to be understandable in accord with faith as a whole (see S.t., 3, q. 1, a. q. 22, a. 3; q. 48, a. 2; sup., q. 12, a. 2). But the scapegoat idea often is developed badly, in a way that separates the death of Jesus from our lives. Punishment is viewed legalistically, as something arbitrarily imposed. Our redemption, then, would not make any real change in us or demand any real change in our lives.37 This view is incompatible with Catholic faith.

34. See Colman E. O’Neill, O.P., “The Merit of Christ,” in St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol. 50, The One Mediator, ed. Colman E. O’Neill, O.P. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 238–44.

35. For a detailed study which shows that this interpretation of how Jesus’ death satisfies for sin is authentically Thomistic: Romanus Cessario, O.P., Christian Satisfaction in Aquinas: Towards a Personalist Understanding (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982), 188–218. This account is to be contrasted with that which attributes to Jesus’ divinity the power of his death to satisfy for the infinite offense of sin, or which regards his death as paying to God the price of capital punishment for the sins of other humans.

36. A very instructive study: Stanislaus Lyonnet, S.J., and Léopold Sabourin, S.J., Sin, Redemption, and Sacrifice: A Biblical and Patristic Study (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970), summarized 290–96. Also see Kasper, op. cit., 113–21 and 252–68.

37. See Lyonnet and Sabourin, op. cit., 225–44, for a treatment of this idea and its historical origins, around the time of the Reformation, among both Protestant and Catholic writers. It is part and parcel of modern legalism.