Rev. Joseph Holstege, pastor of Zion PRC in Jenison, Michigan

It may be one of the most misused words in the English language. An athlete has an amazing comeback, though everyone said his sporting days were over. A singer comes out with a new hit single, long after she was written off as old news. A CEO climbs back to the top after suffering a setback. And the news headlines flash—so-and-so has ‘redeemed’ himself! So goes the legacy of a foundational concept in the Christian faith when it is subjected to the eroding winds of pop-culture. 

The basic flaw in the popular usage of this term is the misidentification of what the word actually means. Redemption is not mere recovery after a setback. Redemption is not regaining popularity after having lost it. Redemption is the paying of a fee. 

All first-time parents in Israel went through the ritual of redemption, if their baby was a boy. Firstborn sons belonged to the Lord, who spared their lives in the Passover. “Therefore,” the fathers of Israel were taught to say, “I sacrifice to the Lord all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem” (Ex. 13:15). This redemption was the payment of five shekels to exempt the firstborn sons from serving like the Levites, which fee was paid to Moses, who “gave the money of them that were redeemed unto Aaron and to his sons, according to the word of the Lord” (Num. 3:51). 

A redemption fee could also be paid to buy back the land of inheritance, if that land was lost in hard times. The plot of land in Canaan was much more than personal property. It was the portion of an Israelite family in the Lord and His covenant. So, if your brother has lost part of his portion, “ye shall grant a redemption for the land” (Lev. 25:24). If the brother is too poor to make the payment himself, “and if any of his kin come to redeem it, then shall he redeem that which his brother sold” (Lev. 25:25). 

If that law sounds familiar to you, it is probably because it is the central plot device in the book of Ruth. That story beautifully illustrates how the effects of redemption could extend far beyond the dirt of Elimelech’s plot of land. The willingness of Boaz to redeem the land was his willingness to redeem Ruth as his wife (Ruth 4:4, 6, 9, 10). And the redemption of Ruth was the redemption of Naomi, who was now no longer bitter Mara (Ruth 1:20), but a smiling grandmother to a child not of her flesh and blood (Ruth 4:16). And that child, of course, is the ancestor of Jesus Christ, “who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (I Cor. 1:30; also, Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 18).

In the fullness of time, He came from God, to take the form of a servant, to live under the law, “to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:5). Those who were watching knew Him, though He appeared no different from other children, for they were those “who looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). The price of redemption he paid was far more than a few shekels, and cannot be measured in silver and gold (HC, Q&A 34). It is rather “through his blood” that “we have redemption” (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14) “that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance” (Heb. 9:15). 

The high price of redemption is due to the terrible cost of sin. It is always out of the depths of the knowledge of sin that the child of God cries. But let him cry in hope, “for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities” (Ps. 130:7, 8). Let him cry also in confidence, knowing the will of God in the cross of Jesus is “effectually [to] redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father” (Canons of Dordt, II, 8). Let him cry as an adult, or even as a little child, who has been baptized into the church, “since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ…is promised to them no less than to the adult” (HC, Q&A 74). 

Such a payment accomplishes far more than release from the debt of sin, however. Its effects ultimately are the extension of peace like a river over the whole world. The creature that now groans and travails under the curse waits earnestly for the day of deliverance. “And not only they, but…we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for…the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23). “Being justified freely…through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” we have peace with God in our souls today (Rom. 3:24, 5:1). But with Job we also look death in the face and confess, “I know that my redeemer liveth…and…in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25, 26). 

All this ought to tell us what it is that this payment purchases. It purchases our souls from the curse of death due to sin (Ps. 49: 8). It obtains for us the right to live as sons and daughters of the most high God in His covenant of grace (Ps. 111:9). It is the foundation of the church, which is called steadfastly to love and faithfully to serve their Redeemer, “who as a bridegroom for his bride, laid down his life for them upon the cross” (Canons II, 9). It is the ground of all our comfort in life and death, “that I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ” (HC, Q&A 1). 

So, Christian, live boldly for the Lord, “who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Tit. 2:14). “And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30). When you walk through the waters, do not be concerned about the churning waves. When you pass through the fire, do not be alarmed by the burning flames. “Fear not,” says your God, “for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine” (Is. 43:1).