Big Salvation Words: “Redemption,” Pt. 1

giphyBeing a common word that is used frequently when we talk about salvation, it’s easy to forget that redeem is a fiscal term. It is first used to describe the Israelites salvation from slavery to the Egyptians (Ex. 6:6). In a normal slave transaction, humans are bought and sold. If a person wants to free a slave, it would be necessary to first purchase (redeem) the slave from the current owner and then set him or her free. This is the classic fiscal meaning of the term “redemption.”

Of course, that’s not at all what happened to the Israelites. At first Moses politely demanded that the Israelites be set free (Ex. 5:1). Egypt’s Pharaoh refused and a battle of wills and disaster ensued. Each time the Pharaoh refused, another plague came upon Egypt (Ex. 5-12). In the end, not only did the Israelites leave Egypt, the Egyptians gave them jewelry and gold on their way out (Ex. 3:21-22), lost their first born (Ex. 12:29) and their army (Ex. 14:26-30). This is not a redemption from slavery at all if we think of it in fiscal terms. The slave owners (the Egyptians) were plundered and utterly defeated, so if anyone paid, it was the Egyptians.

Israel’s redemption from slavery is therefore more ironic than literal. It might be better say that they were “redeemed” from Egypt, the double quotes not implying that it did not happen, but rather that the transaction went in the opposite direction, the Egyptians paying for the privilege of releasing the Israelites from slavery.

There’s another monetary term that’s used three times in the New Testament, once by Jesus (in Mk 10:45 and Mt 20:28, in parallel passages) and 1 Tim. 2:6. Mark 10:45 says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” This phrase has led to a great deal of speculation about who was being paid the ransom. Among the ideas floated about is that it is either the Devil (more common in the Christian West) or Death itself (more common in the Christian East) that is on the other end of the transaction. In response, the rest of the commentators are a bit horrified by the idea that Christ was paying a ransom to Death or the Devil in order to buy us out of slavery. So this is a controversial topic.

But it doesn’t have to be if we keep in mind two things: first, that “ransom” is, in a sense, the noun form of the verb “to redeem,” and second, what actually happened when the Israelites were “redeemed.” In other words, if we maintain the ironic character of this ransom, it’s not a problem. The Pashcal Troparian (or hymn, if you want a more common term in English) that is sung throughout the Easter season in the Orthodox Church, and sung several dozen times during the Pascha service itself (with either the priest or the choir randomly breaking out in song during the service as a sort of celebratory exclamation point), says, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” This hymn gets to the heart of the matter.

Like the Israelites “far down in Egypt land,” this is redemption language turned on its head. We are “ransomed” or “redeemed” from Death, but ironically, it is Death who ultimately pays – not Christ, not us – and is therefore ultimately defeated.

And then the Exodus imagery is extended even further. Death is not only defeated, Death becomes an important and even vital tool for Life. Paul says, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Colossians is even more specific. “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)” (3:5). And then the text goes on to pick up another Big Salvation Word (see this post) in the next verse: “On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.”

So, in the beginning (that is, the three days Jesus is in the tomb), Death pays for the privilege of giving us life and releasing us. And then, Death keeps on paying by becoming the tool that we use “to work out our salvation” and ridding ourselves of the passions that would otherwise prevent us from becoming Christ-like in this life.

And this is the delicious irony of our redemption: It’s a “ransom” … It is God’s act of making Death work against itself in order to give us victory and life.

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Big Salvation Words: Wrath

Among Karl Barth’s opening general observations about the Doctrine of Reconciliation, he says that God “does not merely give out of His fulness (sic). In His fulness He gives Himself to be with” us and for us. God “gives Himself , and in so doing gives [us] all things.” Giving us “all things” is a good thing, right? Not so fast!

Barth continues: “Even in his experience of what comes to him from God, man can be blind or half-blind, and can therefore make mistakes, and can find terror and destruction in what God has allotted and gives as a supreme benefit. … Even the divine favour will then take on the aspect of wrath. God’s Yes will then become a No and His grace a judgment. The light itself will blind him and plunge him in darkness” (CD IV/1, pp 40f).

In relation to people who reject God, Barth insists that God is not angry, only merciful. “The love of God burns where they are, but as the fire of His wrath which consumes and destroys them. God lives for them, but the life of God can only mean death for those who are His enemies” [from their perspective, not from God’s perspective] (p. 221).

This idea of God’s light being both the warmth of love, the consuming power of divine passion for us, and in contrast, at the same time the consuming power of vengeance is a common theme in the Holy mothers and fathers. God’s mercy could be described as God’s willingness not to shine his love directly upon us (because it would destroy us) but only in veiled form. Once the chaff is gone and we are purified (that is, once we have arrived in heaven), we will be able to endure this shining love, but now it would destroy us.

It is in this sense that the Holy mothers and fathers also claim that heaven and hell are the same place. The conjecture is that all humans enter the identical presence of God after death. For the righteous this presence is love, glory, and light. For the unrighteous it is the consuming fires of hell.

In short, Barth is in full agreement with the ancient church that the wrath of God is a human reaction to God’s presence. Wrath is a negative human interpretation of the fire of God’s love.

Big Salvation Words: Judgment

In one of his more surprising insights, Karl Barth claims that the Fall of Adam and Eve, the root of their sin, was an act of judgment on their part. Adam and Eve “become sinners in trying to be as God: a judge” (CD IV/1 231). Barth says that to be human in the world as we know it (that is, hostile to God) is to be the “pseudo-sovereign creature” who believes its “most sacred duty [is] to have knowledge of good and evil.” Furthermore, we use that “knowledge” to “be a judge, to want to be able and competent to pronounce ourselves free and righteous and others more or less guilty.”

Unfortunately we are terrible judges. Our standard of righteousness, rather than matching reality, is a sliding scale that puts us into the best possible light. Judgment becomes an instrument of value, making us more valuable in our own eyes while making others less valuable, on (again) a sliding scale that allows me to dehumanize you and others that I especially want to dismiss.

Real judgment is something altogether different. Real judgment establishes our true and indelible humanity (and thus our worthiness as creatures of God) and distinguishes our true self from our failures, allowing God to transform us into what we might becomes. As Barth says, “In [God’s] hand there lies this solemn and powerful and redemptive instrument. In ours there is only a copy, a foolish and dangerous but ultimately ineffective toy” (p. 232)

Because of our confusion about judgment as it is exercised in human hands, it is also necessary to say that judgment does not grow out of anger or divine honor, or a need for cosmic justice. It is rather a relational act. “This is undoubtedly the mystery of the divine mercy. God acted in this way because He grieved over His people, because He did not will to abandon the world in its unreconciled state and therefore on the way which leads to destruction, because He willed to show to it an unmerited faithfulness as the Creator, because in His own inconceivable way He loved it” (p 237). We don’t typically think of judgment as an outgrowth of grief and loss, but true judgment is just that.

Finally, we need to understand that divine judgment is merciful because it is final. Much of our life is spent with a shadow of guilt darkening it. Our experience of being judged is that if I am judged unworthy today, the same will happen tomorrow. Human judgment is too often not an act, but an ongoing attitude or devaluing of the other person. Divine judgment is nothing like this belittling action which we often confuse with judgment. The divine sort is “a judgment beside and after and beyond which there need be no further fear of judgment; a judgment which concludes once and for all with redemption and salvation …” (p. 222).

This is not to say that judgment is pleasant, something to look forward to with longing, or any other such nonsense. But it is equally nonsensical to dread it because we tend to equate judgment with condemnation. Judgment, in the mystery of the divine economy, is the evaluation (or, the revelation of who we truly are in our inmost secret self) that makes grace possible. It is the first step in our rescue from despair. It is indeed the “solemn and powerful redemptive instrument” that God uses to bring us sinful humans to himself.

Big Salvation Words: Righteousness

Over the next few weeks I would like to revisit some of the big words that relate to our salvation. Many of them are hard and even frightening words, so we have a tendency to ignore them, or in the case of a word like “wrath,” leave them to the very conservative Christians who seem to revel in them. That’s a mistake.

After World War II – a war that was disastrous for European Protestantism because it revealed how empty that Protestantism was – Karl Barth did the hard work work of looking seriously at all these words and reincorporating the words and the ideas behind them into his theology.

One of the things Barth demonstrated was that it is not possible to merely turn to the Bible to define the big words. We bring all of our cultural assumptions to bear and thus when we read them in the Bible, what we are typically “reading” is not necessarily what the Bible actually says, but a subtle revision of what it says aligned with our cultural assumptions. Thus, you will not find a lot of biblical quotations in these essays. It’s not an exercise in what the Bible says so much as it is a proper definition of terms so that we can understand what the Bible says.

I will be focusing on a single volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics that deals specifically with the atonement. Volume IV, “The Doctrine of Reconciliation” is divided into multiple volumes. I will be using Part One. (It is typically identified as CD IV/1. When you see “CD IV/1, p 1,” or simply “p. 1,” you will know this is what I am referring to.)

The first word I want to consider is “righteousness.” I suspect we often unconsciously think of righteousness as a substance. For instance, I might pray that God would fill me with righteousness (as if it is something that can be poured into me). We might also pray that God would make me more righteous, as if there is a sliding scale, sort of like the air purity index.

In contrast to this, it’s helpful to think of righteousness as a binary (that is, only two options). The binary, in this case would be “right” or “wrong.” Then we might thing of the opposite of righteousness as “wrongeousness,” (if I may coin a word).

This approach to the word is helpful because righteousness is not a value judgment. For example, “God is righteous.” is not a parallel statement to “Michael is handsome.” Something that is far more close to being a parallel statement to “God is righteous.” is, “The speed of light is 3×10^8 m/s.” No value judgment, it is what it is.

The rightness that is referred to in the word “righteousness” is not a value judgment, it is a description of reality. The “rightness” is the way things are. This “rightness” of God is akin to things like gravity, the conservation of energy, etc. Barth defines it as, “the omnipotence of God creating order, which is now revealed and effective as a turning from this present evil aeon to the new one of a world reconciled with God in Him” (p. 256).

Eventually this distinction between value judgment and reality will become quite important. If this were a value judgment, God’s response to our unrighteousness could be construed as emotional. Thus divine wrath could be conflated with anger and vengeance (a term that appears 20 times in the Old Testament) could be conflated with revenge.

But once we understand that divine righteousness is a binary concept, we can begin to grasp that assuming that God is angry or disappointed or let down when we sin makes about as much sense as saying the building that the speeding Corvette ran into was angry at the Corvette and that’s why the building wrecked it and killed its driver.

To say that God is righteous, therefore, is, first and foremost, to proclaim God’s character. Secondarily, it tells us something about creation: The Creator imbued his ultimate reality into this created reality. The same righteousness that characterizes God characterizes our proper relationship to creation as well as to God.

The righteousness of God is not something that we try to achieve, it’s not something we try to measure up to. The righteousness of God is simply the reality in which live, and if we refuse to live in this reality of righteousness we will die as certainly as that unfortunate Corvette driver. This is the context in which we will explore other key words related to our salvation.