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25 Theological Interpretations of God's Redemption in Christ Jesus

Updated on June 24, 2022

"And all are put right with God freely by his grace through the redemption effected in Christ Jesus." (Rom 3:24)

How Christians understand redemption affect their conceptions not only of God and Jesus Christ, but also of the human self and the world. The various traditions and conceptions of redemption have used metaphors such as sacrifice, expiation, propitiation, ransom, trickery, exchange, satisfaction, merit, substitution, moral influence etc, to explain the workings of redemption.

Each of these categories represent not only distinct understandings of redemption, but they also affect how the Christian community understands itself, its mission, and its role in the world.

1. Matthean Redemption

In Matthew, God’s promise in the Hebrew Scriptures to bring salvation to His people Israel and to the whole world is fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus will save his people from their sins, he will die on the cross and rise from the death. The expectation of salvation is established, and the cross and resurrection satisfy the expectation.

Jesus is not a passive recipient of fate, rather he is the active instigator, always in charge and carrying out his plan. God fulfilled His promises to Israel by rescuing believers from the broken covenant, saving both Jews and Gentiles from our sins by being “God with us” in Jesus, whose death was the blood of the covenant poured out for the forgiveness of sins.

2. Markan Redemption

In Mark (10:45), Jesus tells his disciples that the son of man has come to serve others and give his life as a ransom for many. Also, in the account of the last supper, the verse “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mk 14:24) expresses the notion of a vicarious death for others. The purpose of Jesus’ death is to bring release from the powers of death to other people.

Mark’s gospel itself develops the central emphasis on the cross of Jesus insofar as it presents Christian discipleship as the following of Jesus in suffering and the cross. In understanding who Jesus is and why he came entails acknowledging his claim upon one’s life. Mark’s characteristic model of salvation is discipleship.

3. Lukan Redemption

Luke, however, does not focus on the death of Jesus but rather upon the whole way of Jesus' life. The whole complex of Jesus’ life is redemptive: his ministry, healing, preaching, death, resurrection, and exaltation. In Luke’s gospel, “salvation” denotes deliverance from such evils as sickness, infirmity, or sin. Jesus’ turning to the poor, infirm and lost is redemptive. “The son of Man has come to seek and save the lost” (Lk 19:10).

The death of Jesus is comprehended as an event within the whole drama of God’s salvific plan that is being realized in Jesus. Luke presents Jesus as the suffering messiah, but gives more salvific significance to the resurrection of Jesus because through the resurrection, Jesus became the “leader of Life.”

4. Johannine Redemption

The Johannine view of redemption does not so much emphasize Jesus’ death as expiation as it emphasizes his incarnation and exaltation as the saving events. Jesus brings life as the revealer sent by the Father and returned to the Father. John’s gospel understood redemption within a dualistic context. The world is constituted by darkness, deception and death. Jesus is the light, the truth and life.

Jesus is the revealer and bringer of divine life. Redemption consists in participating in Jesus' unity with God. In this conception, Jesus’ death is not a sacrifice for sin, but an event of the ascent of the son to the Father that reveals his identity. The death expresses God’s love and reorients human life. In a world of darkness, the believer has the choice of living in disbelief and darkness or the light.

5. Pauline Redemption

In Paul’s writings, the term for redemption is not as significant as the following terms: justification, reconciliation and salvation. Paul understands sin as a cosmic power. The human situation is one of subjection and enslavement to the powers of the law and death. Redemption therefore does not simply blot out the punishment of sin, but it frees and liberates humans from the cosmic power of law, sin and death. Although present, redemption is also future and it embraces not only humans, but the whole creation.

Paul’s view of redemption has its centre in the justification of the sinner through faith. This centre is intrinsically related to his message of freedom: the redemption of human reality from the cosmic power of this aeon. The liberation from the powers of the world, from the law, and from sin and guilt all taken together constitute Paul’s comprehensive understanding of redemption.

6. Redemption in the letter to the Hebrews

The epistle to the Hebrews refers to Christ’s death as a sacrifice, but contrast it with the Levitical sacrifices. Sin is a defilement and the blood of Jesus is the cleansing from the defilement of sin. Christ is the Heavenly Priest who has offered himself as a sacrifice once and for all. The Church is the wandering people of God on their way to heavenly rest.

7. Redemption in Revelation

In the Book of Revelation John uses apocalyptic and prophetic imagery to describe redemption as liberation from bondage and slavery. Those who have been redeemed through the death of Jesus Christ have a new dignity. This dignity is expressed with the titles “kingdom” and “priests,” which in antiquity refer to political and sacral authority.

The author’s use of political imagery is strong and he maintains that final redemption and salvation is only realized when the state of dominion on earth is radically changed; when Satan and the Roman empire as a concrete demonic manifestation no longer rule. God and the Lamb will reign on earth.

8. Redemption as Recapitulation

Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation expands the notion of redemption in two ways. First, it views redemption as a historical process that moves toward a culmination. Redemption does not simply affect the transformation of an individual’s life, but affects the history of the human race.

Second, it expands the role of Christ as paradigm through a notion of “corporate identity or solidarity.” In placing the understanding of redemption within the narrative context of salvation history, Irenaeus uses the image of recapitulation to dramatize the solidarity between Christ and the human race. Irenaeus’ notion of recapitulation does not yet represent the “physical theory” of redemption, but moves in its direction.

9. Deified Redemption

This Greek or physical theory relates redemption to human mortality. Corruption and death are the primary effects of the human sinful state. The very act of Christ becoming human entails an elevation, transformation, and sanctification of human nature. Christ’s redemption effects “incorruption” and “immortality.”

In connection with the platonic doctrine of universals, this tradition views human nature as a concrete universal in which all humans participate. Human nature is deified by the incarnation, for by becoming human, Christ restored the divine image in humans and therefore effected their deification.

10. Redemption as Ransom

It interprets Jesus’ redemption with imagery of a political battle between two hostile forces. On a cosmic scale, God and Satan were engaged in a battle over the human race. The chief consequence of the fall was to place humans under the power of the devil. This tradition envisioned redemption as the emancipation of humans from the devil’s power.

This tradition drew on the imagery of the bait and the hook of Christ’s body as the bait by which the devil was caught like a mouse in a trap. In some version, God offered Jesus as a ransom to the devil. The devil accepted Jesus but could not hold him. Hence, the devil was tricked; in a more refined form, the devil is overcome because the satisfaction has been given to God who has pardoned humans.

11. Redemption as Satisfaction

Anselm understood the problem of sin and redemption quite differently. His emphasis was on a supererogatory satisfaction for human sin. Anselm argues that it is not enough for humans to cease from sin. They must offer satisfaction for the sins that they have already committed. They can offer as satisfaction only what they do not already owe to God, a work of supererogation.

Humans however cannot do that since they owe their creator everything. Therefore, only Jesus, born without sin, can offer his life as satisfaction. Because Jesus is also God, his life has infinite worth and effects human redemption. Anselm theory requires as a metaphysical necessity for redemption that Jesus be both divine and sinless.

12. Liberating Redemption

Abelard advances a theory of redemption in which Christ’s revealing love of God in his teaching and example leads to a response of love. Abelard rejects any idea of redemption from the claims of the devil. In Christ the love of God was made manifest in that Christ assumed our nature and remained faithful unto death.

For Abelard, supreme love redeems human. It liberates them not only from the servitude of sin but also gives them the freedom of children of God. Christ’s faith and love arouse faith and love in humans and became the ground for forgiveness.

13. Redemption as Liberating Love

Thomas Aquinas emphasizes the mystery of the love of God for humans. All the activities and mysteries of Jesus’ whole life are redemptive: incarnation, life, ministry, passion, death and resurrection. Thomas appropriates traditional categories (satisfaction, sacrifice and redemption), but modifies them with the notion of a liberating love.

Thomas replaces the metaphysical necessity of satisfaction with one of convenience. The suffering and passion of the earthly Jesus is redemptive, but for the sake of a certain convenience the suffering and death were necessary. The death on the cross was a sign of love expressing Jesus’ faith and obedience in love. Thomas also modifies the very concept of satisfaction. In a proper sense satisfaction is given when one gives to the offended that which the person loves equally or more than he hates the insult. Through suffering, Christ gave God something greater than any satisfaction.

Thomas brings into the centre of his conception of redemption Christ’s active personal love that embraced his whole life and was especially made manifest in the passion of his crucifixion. Because of the super abundance of his love, Jesus merited redemption for those united with him in love.

14. Redemption as Happy exchange

Martin Luther’s understanding of redemption underscored Jesus’ role as the representative of all humanity. Jesus represents humanity not so much in the offering of satisfaction as in enduring, as the crucified one, but as God’s wrath against sin. Luther emphasizes that in suffering and dying, Christ has willingly borne the divine punishment for sin.

Jesus has really taken the place of the guilty and has suffered the deserved punishment on their behalf. Christ is depicted as the one that has become cursed and has suffered for all. Luther employed the term “happy exchange.” An exchange takes place: Christ bears our sin; we in exchange share in his righteousness.

15. Redemption as Fulfillment of the Law

Calvin appropriated medieval feudal law to explicate his conception of redemption. John Calvin appropriated criminal law; in Calvin's conception, humans are guilty before God’s judgment seat and have to bear the punishment for disobedience. For Calvin, Christ bears the punishment in place of humans. God has given humans the law. Humans have defied God by breaking the law.

Consequently, they have been condemned by a righteous God. Christ has redeemed humans because he was made a substitute and a surety in the place of transgressors and even submitted as a criminal to sustain and suffer all the punishment which would have been inflicted upon them.

16. Redemption as Restoring Human consciousness of God

Nineteenth-century Liberal Theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, known as the father of modern theology, sought to overcome both the traditional emphasis upon vicarious satisfaction and penal substitution and the moralism of the enlightenment. His understanding of religion as neither metaphysical nor moral led him to define sin as that which prevents a proper relationship between self, world, and God. Sin arrests the development of the human consciousness of God. Sin arrests the development of the human consciousness of God.

Jesus with his sinless perfection affects his disciples so that they are drawn under the power and influence of his sinless perfection. Due to the power and presence of God in him, Jesus is the historical and productive ideal, the historical archetype that creates something new. Redemption is not some act that Jesus does. Instead it is what Jesus is and its impact and power upon the Christian community.

17. Redemption as Authentication

Rudolf Bultmann appropriates Martin Heidegger’s categories of self-understanding and authenticity. Consequently, the biblical understanding of sin is explicated as the inauthenticity of human existence, whereas faith represents authentic existence.

The way from inauthenticity to authenticity, from sin to faith, is possible only as grace and as faith in a saving event that is the act of God in Christ’s death and resurrection. The Jesus event is the saving word through the Word, by being proclaimed as God’s saving act that is encountered as kerygma.

18. Redemption as a move from Estrangement to Centeredness

Paul Tillich uses a modern philosophical category of estrangement to explicate sin, which is the personal act of turning away from God, the self, and the world. Estrangement expresses this state in which humans are foreign even to themselves for they are not what they should be. Jesus is the new being and not simply an ideal archetype of human essence above the conditions of existence.

It is in the cross that Christ’s participation in existential estrangement becomes manifest. Manifestation means more than becoming known or becoming communicated; it is an effective expression or actualization of God’s taking upon himself the consequence of human guilt so that atonement is actualized through the cross of Christ.

19. Redemption as Freedom

Karl Rahner argues that classic Christology often does not adequately express the soteriological significance of the Christ-event and that the horizon of modern western individualism does not readily grasp the “assumption” of the whole human race in an individual, the individual human reality of Jesus.

The tendency is to view Jesus as performing the redemptive activity rather than being the salvific event. While he is especially critical of traditional notions of expiation and satisfaction, Rahner emphasizes the grace of God’s universal salvific will. The death on the cross does not so much effect a change in God’s relation to humanity as it manifests Jesus’ acceptance of God’s will.

His acceptance is a real symbol that signifies divine grace. Rahner thereby shifts traditional emphasis on the “pro nobis” from Christ to God. The human situation for Rahner is characterized by guilt, Jesus is the absolute saviour.

20. Redemption as Restoration of Vision

H. Richard Niebuhr suggests that redemption has traditionally been understood with the aid of legal symbols and the correlative vocabulary of those symbols: commandment, obedience, transgression, and repentance. Instead he suggests the alternative symbol of the human as the maker and realizer of ideals. In this understanding human wretchedness is self-contradictoriness.

Sin is not so much law-breaking as vice. It is the perverse direction of human will, “harmatia,” missing the mark, rather than transgression of the law. Salvation is the restoration of the vision of God to humans, and the actualization of the power to live on the likeness of the vision. Christ as the responsible model has the dual role: representing God to humanity and humanity to God

21. Redemption as Reconciliation

Karl Barth made eschatology rather than Christology the locus for the doctrine of redemption. In his Trinitarian approach to systematic theology, Barth distinguishes between reconciliation and redemption. The life and death of Jesus Christ accomplish the reconciliation of the world with God that is manifested in the resurrection. Reconciliation and redemption are thereby distinguished.

Barth underscores the four pro-nobis elements of the reconciliation: Christ is the judge; he is judged in our place; the judgment was his death; and he establishes and reveals the righteousness of God. In Christ as the judge, humans meet a saviour who acts to overcome wrong and to establish righteousness and bring salvation.

Jesus took the place of humans as sinner and is put to death in our place. Barth’s exposition of atonement is critical of traditional conceptions. Atonement is neither satisfaction offered to appease the wrath of God nor does substitution prevent our sufferings. It is not God’s wrath that is satisfied but God’s love that works itself out through the victory over sin.

22. Redemption as God's Identification with Christ

Eberhard Jungel proposes that the death of Jesus establishes a new relationship to God. It discloses the being of God in its divine vitality. God bears Jesus’ death and by taking it on conquers. God demonstrates in the death and resurrection of Jesus that the divine reality is a living unity of life and death. In this way the doctrine of the trinity is a doctrine of soteriology.

The victory over death in the resurrection of Jesus constitutes not only God’s overcoming of death on the cross but also God’s identification with the dead Jesus. God’s identification with Jesus in his death is a turning around of death.

23. Redemption as Double Paradox

In a sharp criticism of Karl Rahner’s stress on God’s unchanging salvific will, Von Balthasar seeks to develop an understanding that appropriate the classical substitution theory with some modification. The redemptive death of Jesus on the cross is a double paradox. Jesus is handed over so that the sin of the world might vent its wrath on him. Upon the cross Jesus experience takes place in the relation of the divine hypostases.

The handing over by God the Father of Jesus is made possible through the son’s loving obedience. Jesus’ crucifixion, therefore, is both an abandonment and a manifestation of God’s love. It is not just a manifestation of God’s love but it is an event that relates to the inner-Trinity, so that one can speak of Jesus’ death as relating to God the Father and effecting human redemption.

24. Redemption as Commemorative Solidarity

Johann Baptist Metz underscores the apocalyptic character of eschatology. His view provides an eschatological reservation and critique of all political parties and programs. It reveals that the Christian conception of history is not simply an immanent progressive evolution to higher and higher stages of history. The Christian understanding of redemption asserts that the human history of suffering is at the same time a history of guilt.

This history of suffering is a history of victims and unmasks the ideology of emancipatory progress. Arguing that no theoretical solution can mediate between suffering, history, and redemption, Metz argues for an understanding of redemption that is a narrative and commemorative solidarity with Jesus.

25. Latin American Liberation

Latin American liberation theologians in response to Metz’s apocalypticism and Moltmann’s inner-Trinitarianism argue that where love, peace and justice take place on earth, there is already the beginning, incomplete and imperfect, of the final eschatological peace and love, an “identification without total identity” between the redemptive salvation and political liberation. Various models can express this identification that is not a total identity

First, a unity in duality, as for example the model of two natures but one person. Second, a sacramental model according to which the divine salvific will is signified and made present with human historical reality in an incomplete and partial mode.

Third, an anthropological model that uses the language of body and soul to express the relation of redemptive salvation and liberation, so that redemptive salvation always transcends historical and political liberation just as spirit transcend the body. Yet they constitute a unity in duality within a single history just as spirit and body constitute the unity of the human being.


The diversity within traditional Christianity on the meaning of redemption represents not so much a deficit as an abundance. The diversity of images, symbols, and categories of redemption cannot be reduced to a unified system or point without omitting important elements of the meaning of redemption.

Commemorative narratives about the history of suffering and the redemptive history of Jesus and the Christian community also cannot be reduced to a single notion of redemption. Consequently, the task of a theology of redemption is first of all to underscore the diversity of these symbols, images, and categories as well as the irreducibility of the narratives of suffering and redemption.


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