Rambling through Romans (18): 3:21-31(3)
21 But now God’s righteousness has been revealed apart from the Law, which is confirmed by the Law and the Prophets. 22 God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him. There’s no distinction. 23 All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, 24 but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus. 25 Through his faithfulness, God displayed Jesus as the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness in passing over sins that happened before, 26 during the time of God’s patient tolerance. He also did this to demonstrate that he is righteous in the present time, and to treat the one who has faith in Jesus as righteous.
“A ransom that was paid by Jesus Christ” (v.24).
What an interesting image! Some early church interpreters got a little carried away with it, though, and began to speculate about to whom the ransom was paid. The answer they gave, of course, was the Devil.
“Essentially, this theory claimed that Adam and Eve sold humanity over to the Devil at the time of the Fall; hence, justice required that God pay the Devil a ransom to free us from the Devil's clutches. God, however, tricked the Devil into accepting Christ's death as a ransom, for the Devil did not realize that Christ could not be held in the bonds of death. Once the Devil accepted Christ's death as a ransom, this theory concluded, justice was satisfied and God was able to free us from Satan's grip.” (Robin Collins, Understanding Atonement: A New and Orthodox Theory),
The text says nothing of this, however, and this illustrates the danger of pushing an image beyond what an author uses it to say. Paul knows humanity is enslaved to sin and he is well aware of the practicing of a benefactor paying a “ransom” to free a slave from their bondage. That’s as far as we should push it though. Adding the devil and a divine con game certainly gives color to the exposition but takes us into byways it’s best not to enter. These additional touches are primarily distractions from the point Paul wants to make.
The apostle himself surrounds this image with the touches he wants emphasized: “freely by his grace” (v.24). Paul here keeps the focus on the generosity and mercy of Jesus Christ. “Freely” – without compulsion or necessity or desert. This picture of Christ in the dusty marketplace paying for our release, chained and grubby though we are -doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves out of sheer kindness is striking indeed.