Redemption and the Secularist

For secularists, the idea of “redemption” must surely be a curiosity. We’ll keep them in our rearview mirror for the moment as we tidy up some housekeeping chores among believers. That can be risky, but we need to try it, using two broad categories—and a full range of perspectives in between.

Perhaps by exaggerating the differences just a little, we can think, on the one hand, of those believers who feel that God makes our decisions for us—that would be the predestinarian Calvinists. And I have used the word “feel” deliberately, because decisions in this arena appear to be determined more by feeling than by rational argument, though Calvinists do martial a host of rational arguments in defense of their “feeling.”

On the other hand, we can think of those who believe that we make our decisions for God. These would be the free-will Wesleyans, Arminians, Methodists, and Nazarenes.

Over against both of these groups, stand the secularists—puzzled, amused, or angry. They have no sense of need, no sense of the presence of God. They see little value in Scripture and grant it no sense of authority at all. That’s a thread we will want to watch as we proceed.

Of the various titles/tasks for Jesus, the official study guide has focused on the idea of “Redemption.” That idea comes with strong Old Testament roots in the Hebrew word Goel. In the OT, the King James version often translates the word Goel as “Redeemer.” A more functional title would be “the near kinsman who comes to the rescue of the family name, honor, and property.” The biblical book of Ruth illustrates two of these functions for us: restoring the family name and property. But the “honor” aspect comes much more clearly to mind in the cities of refuge scheme, where it fell on the Goel to avenge the death of a family member. Numbers 35:22–28 vividly describes how that custom worked in ancient Israel.

Behind this particular use of Goel is a God-given plan for cities of refuge to be established in Israel so that someone who killed a person unintentionally could flee there and be safe from the anger of the avenging Goel.

The idea of justice underlying the custom is, in many ways, light years removed from our modern ideas of justice. But we would all likely agree that unintentional killing should not be treated as first degree murder. The cultural background is fascinating, but we don’t have time to go into it here. Yet understanding the Goel’s task here helps us grasp the idea of Goel as “redeemer.” Even though it was the traditional role of the Goel to track down a real murderer and put him to death, God took steps to protect the one who killed unintentionally. That idea comes clear in Numbers 35, even though a number of aspects fall far short of our idea of justice:

If someone pushes another suddenly without enmity, or hurls any object without lying in wait, or, while handling any stone that could cause death, unintentionally drops it on another and death ensues, though they were not enemies, and no harm was intended, then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the avenger of blood, in accordance with these ordinances; and the congregation shall rescue the slayer from the avenger of blood. Then the congregation shall send the slayer back to the original city of refuge. The slayer shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. But if the slayer shall at any time go outside the bounds of the original city of refuge, and is found by the avenger of blood outside the bounds of the city of refuge, and is killed by the avenger, no bloodguilt shall be incurred. For the slayer must remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest; but after the death of the high priest the slayer may return home. – Numbers 35:22-28, NRSV

In both testaments, a host of different words convey the same idea behind redemption: a rescuing, a deliverance, often with a price paid (substitution). Exodus 13 tells about the redemption of the first born: Every male had to be “redeemed” by a substitute.

When the Lord has brought you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your ancestors, and has given it to you, you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the Lord’s. But every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem. When in the future your child asks you, “What does this mean?” you shall answer, “By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from human firstborn to the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord every male that first opens the womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.” It shall serve as a sign on your hand and as an emblem on your forehead that by strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt. – Exod. 13:11-16 (NRSV)

I don’t know that it would be fair to say that predestinarian believers are more devout than free-will advocates. I do think, however, that they are more likely to be drawn by the idea of redemption, a rescue that costs dearly. Thoughtful readers of the New Testament should recognize immediately that it is saturated with the idea of redemption through the blood of Christ: “For you were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20), and “In him we have redemption through his blood” (Eph. 1:7).

Grace and redemption go hand in hand in Scripture, though Calvinists need to be reminded that in Scripture, grace does not require an explicit “price paid.” In the parable of the prodigal son, for example, grace is represented by the father’s robe—but no price was demanded.

And if we shift the focus and look at Jesus, not as “redeemer” or “savior,” but as “rabbi” or “teacher,” the perspective changes markedly. A number of key passages in the official study guide focus on wisdom, learning, and teaching. And we can start with a familiar Old Testament passage from Isaiah 11. I have italicized the words that point toward wisdom and/or knowledge:

1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,

    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,

    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

    the spirit of counsel and might,

    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,

    or decide by what his ears hear;

4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

    and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,

    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

    and a little child shall lead them.

7 The cow and the bear shall graze,

    their young shall lie down together;

    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

9 They will not hurt or destroy

    on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord

    as the waters cover the sea. – Isa 11:1-9 (NRSV)

Here is a “restoration” passage that focuses solely on wisdom and knowledge, not on redemption. That has to be encouraging to those of an exploratory bent who have been warned of the dangers of human wisdom—often with a heavy dose of 1 Corinthians 2 where Paul reveals his distaste for “lofty words or wisdom,” “plausible words of wisdom,” and “human wisdom” (vss 1 and 4). The rest of chapter 2 is much more nuanced, however, and when linked with the exuberant claims for Solomon’s wisdom in 1 Kings 4:29-30, the exploratory mind can heave a sigh of relief: A believer can indeed believe and think.

And here is where we must start with the secularists. They are not at all awed by the things of God, in many cases because God’s messengers have given the distinct impression that believers are not “allowed” to think—their community forbids it.

And for Adventists, haunted by the long shadow of Ellen White, one of my favorite examples of her increasing openness as she matured comes from comments about the common mind, quotes 17 years apart (1872, 1889).

In 1872 she saw Adventists as being called to minister only to the “common mind”:

Our success will be in reaching common minds. Those who have talent and position are so exalted above the simplicity of the work, and so well satisfied with themselves, that they feel no need of the truth – Testimonies 3:39 [1872].

But by 1889, she was singing quite a different tune:

Mistakes have been made in not seeking to reach ministers and the higher classes with the truth. People not of our faith have been shunned altogether too much. While we should not associate with them to receive their mold, there are honest ones everywhere for whom we should labor cautiously, wisely, and intelligently, full of love for their souls. A fund should be [581] raised to educate men and women to labor for these higher classes, both here and in other countries. We have had altogether too much talk about coming down to the common mind. God wants men of talent and good minds, who can weigh arguments, men who will dig for the truth as for hid treasures. These men will be able to reach, not only the common, but the better classes. Such men will ever be students of the Bible, fully alive to the sacredness of the responsibilities resting upon them – Testimonies 5:580-81 [1889].

In short, don’t let anyone throw cold water on your exploratory impulses. The Lord needs your holy curiosity.

Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.

Photo by Lucas Pezeta from Pexels

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