Debt Forgiveness vs Ransom Payment

Debt Forgiveness vs Ransom Payment January 19, 2019

The Christian idea of the Atonement is quite often a collection of mixed metaphors. We sometimes talk about being redeemed from our sins, or say that Christ paid our debt on the cross. But sometimes we also say that God has forgiven our sins and erased our debts. So, which is it?

As my friend Chuck McKnight points out, forgiving a debt is not the same thing as paying ransom. Either you pay someone what you owe them, or they just forgive the debt and you pay nothing. You can’t have it both ways.

Here’s how Chuck explains it:

“Throughout the New Testament, one of the most important themes is that of God’s forgiveness of our sins:

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” (Ephesians 1:7–8, NRSV)

“He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13–14, NRSV)

“I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.” (1 John 2:12, NRSV)

And even in the Old Testament we see this theme come through:

“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
 Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
 so that you may be revered.” (Psalm 130:3–4, NRSV)

But according to penal substitutionary atonement, God is unable to simply forgive sins. In this paradigm, God’s “justice” is such that he cannot allow sins to go unpunished. So the only way he can “forgive” our sins is to punish Jesus instead of us. But this is not forgiveness at all, nor is it truly justice.

To forgive someone means to release them from their debt. If they are released from their debt, then there is no longer any need for payment to be made. Alternatively, if payment is made, then there is no longer any need for forgiveness. You can either have payment or you can have forgiveness, but you cannot have both.

God would be well within his rights to demand payment for sins. But if God demanded payment for sins, then he could not also forgive them. If God punished Jesus in our place, then we would no longer need to be forgiven, and the whole concept of God’s forgiveness would be a sham.

But Jesus reveals a God who truly does forgive sins. On several occasions during his ministry, Jesus drew the ire of the scribes and Pharisees by forgiving sins on God’s authority, and not once did he also demand punishment for them (Luke 5:20, 7:48, 23:34, etc.).

Furthermore, Jesus taught his disciples to always forgive those who sin against them, up to seventy-times-seven times (Matthew 18:21–22). Did he mean for his disciples to offer forgiveness only if they also received payment? Of course not! Such a notion is quite obviously absurd when applied on a human level. But is it any less absurd to think that our forgiveness ought to be more extensive than God’s forgiveness?

No. Jesus shows us that God truly forgives sins, which means that he does not demand payment for them. Jesus’ death on the cross was a crime that we committed. It was not God’s punishment.” [Chuck McKnight; “Exhaustive Reconciliation” Blog post]

I couldn’t agree more with Chuck on this one. What we see in Christ is one who forgives sins automatically. God’s attitude towards sin is simply this: God forgives.

Notice how the Apostle phrases it:

“God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting our sins against us.” (2 Cor. 5:19)

And furthermore, since we know that God is love, it’s even more scandalous when we read that “love keeps no record of wrongs” in 1 Cor. 13.

Notice how, when Christ forgives the sins of the lame man lowered through the roof by his friends, he not only does so apart from being asked to forgive, but the people standing around marveled at the authority that Jesus had to forgive sins – even more so than they were amazed at the power to heal! Notice how they responded: “When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man.” (Matt. 9:2-8)

What “authority” are they amazed about? The only “authority” in debate according to this passage was the “authority to forgive sins.”

Jesus commands us to forgive others when they sin against us. He does so on the basis that this is how God responds when we sin against Him. Because we have been forgiven, we should forgive.

So, how does God respond to sin? God forgives sin. Period.

We also are encouraged to forgive freely, because we have freely received this same forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not about receiving payment. If we forgive our debtors, it means we do not receive whatever it is we believe they owe us. We just let it go.

Jesus freely forgave sins all throughout his ministry on earth. He even forgave the worst possible sin imaginable – Deicide – with these simple words: “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

We are all forgiven. Christ has declared us forgiven. God does not count our sins against us. God keeps no record of wrongs.

Our chains are gone. We are free.

You are forgiven. Go and do likewise.


Keith Giles was formerly a licensed and ordained minister who walked away from organized church 11 years ago, to start a home fellowship that gave away 100% of the offering to the poor in the community. Today, He and his wife live in Meridian, Idaho, awaiting their next adventure.

His new book “Jesus Unbound: Liberating the Word of God from the Bible”, is available now on Amazon and features a Foreword by author Brian Zahnd.

He is also the author of the Amazon best-seller, “Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics To Pledge Allegiance To The Lamb” with a Foreword by Greg Boyd.

Keith also co-hosts the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast on iTunes and Podbean. 

BONUS: Want to unlock exclusive content including blog articles, short stories, music, podcasts, videos and more? Visit my Patreon page.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jim809

    So, if God forgives sin without requiring punishment or payment, what purpose was served with Jesus’s execution? Surely, if there was nothing to be gained by mankind killing Jesus, God would not have permitted it.

  • John

    I think its a bit of a false presentation to have to choose one over the other, either forgiveness or ransom as an explaining metaphor. Scripture refers to both, but I notice the ransom verses not mentioned here. Mark 10:45 and 1 Timothy 2:6 both refer to Christ as a ransom. Scripture often uses several metaphors to describe different aspects of salvation/forgiveness/redemption/etc. I think you press to hard favoring one over the other when it isn’t necessary. But I see this same mindset when it comes to atonement and the resistance to substitutionary imagery. I’m not sure how you address the scapegoat imagery from the OT, the necessity of blood for the forgiveness of sins in Hebrews, the ram in the story of Isaac’s sacrifice, his bearing our sins from Isaiah 53. I may not agree with a hard line take on penal substitutionary atonement, but I can read and see the images, metaphors, and typologies in the biblical narrative. I’m just not convinced that there is no substitution by Jesus on our behalf in some real aspect. There seem to me to be too much to explain away as the story reads.

  • You act as if God only permits certain things when it seems that the list of things God permits includes genocide, rape, homocide, incest, pedophilia, etc.

  • Ransom and redemption are metaphors and like all metaphors they break down in application. For example: God redeemed the Israelites out of slavery from Egypt, but who got paid? Actually, NO ONE was paid and yet we are told that God redeemed them out of their slavery. It’s a metaphor for being set free.

  • John

    Your point about no one getting paid is worth more dialogue and I will have to do some thinking on it. My point above was responding to the issue that ‘You can either have payment or you can have forgiveness, but you cannot have both.’ The payment refers to the ransom metaphor. So it sounds like you and Chuck are saying that you can’t have a ransom unless there is a payment to someone, and since you don’t see that payment directly in the scripture, then you don’t accept the ransom idea. Am I interpreting you right? I just don’t see how you can throw out ransom, if that is the choice being presented here, because it is scripture that articulates ransom as applying to Jesus. What do you do with the way ransom is applied to Jesus, regardless of whether we can see a payment or not? Like you say, metaphors break down eventually. The lack of a clearly defined payment does not negate the concept of ransom being used to explain something Jesus did. Perhaps you are not dismissing the ransom metaphor, but just trying to accentuate that forgiveness and/or substitution theory do not require payment.

  • Excellent observation.

    In the OT, God has forgiven sins, several times in fact. Simply dismissing our “debt” is a logical option for God that many modern Christians seem to ignore.

    Also, Paul makes clear that this is all water under the bridge. Our sins are already forgiven. Comparing Adam vs. Jesus, he says, “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (Rom. 1:18).

  • Iain Lovejoy

    “Ransom” is both a verb and a noun.
    To “ransom” someone is to purchase their freedom, and the “ransom” is the price paid for that freedom. God “ransomed” Israel because he retrieved them from slavery in Egypt, and Jesus “ransomed” us because he freed us from sin.
    As this is being used metaphorically it is not necessary that an actual “ransom” in terms of a required payment was paid over to some actual captor.
    The confusion between talking about ransom and forgiveness as opposing each other is if you maintain that it was God who was keeping mankind captive or enslaved, and that mankind was ransomed from God, rather than by God. If you take the Bible at its word when it says that it was sin and death that held us captive, not God, and it was not from God but from sin and death that Jesus ransomed us, then we are both freely forgiven and ransomed without contradiction.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    If the Bible is to be taken at its word, Jesus’s death was to deliver us from our slavery to sin and death. That is so that we would cease to live in sin, and endlessly suffer and die as the consequence of our sinning.
    Jesus’s death is only purposeless if you say that its purpose had nothing to do with a forgiving God sending him to save us from our sin itself and its consequences, but rather leaving us in our sinful nature unchanged while Jesus saved us from an unforgiving God sending us to hell.

  • John

    Excellent points. Yes, sin and death are our enemy and we were not ransomed from God as you state, but by God. But could we not say that the death of Jesus was the price paid for our freedom, thus a ransom? Per the story, sin comes with punishment – death. Jesus gave that death in our place so that we are free from its consequences.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    Yes, that is exactly what I am saying: the “ransom” is Jesus’s death, but it’s not a price paid to God that he demanded to forgive us, but a price paid by God because he forgave us.

  • Phil

    He wasn’t really killed. He just had a couple of days off dead. Besides, Jesus is a god, part of the whole. So how did he get to ask himself to “forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing”. None of it makes any kind of sense.

  • Not at all, dear reprobate. As the Church Fathers explained when monsters like you asked why the Cross was necessary despite you wanting to sin in peace and then be forgiven automatically:
    “you do not know the weight of sin.”

    Secondly, the Cross paid the debt of Adam. There is no loophole where you think you can be a monstrous reprobate and then even get a hint of a possibility at Heaven.

    When one goes to Confession, God agrees to forget the sin of the Penitent if they do the agreed upon Penance given by the Priest. This is not open to you, and it is not automatic.

    IN FACT, this arrogant assumption of automatic forgiveness you exude here outright precludes you from ever being forgiven even if you come to your senses and try to do this all the right way. Trying to take God for granted like you personal servant is the perfect example of third sin that cries to Heaven for vengeance of blasphemy.

    your devilry will be punished, and greatly.

    As for your previous message, if was a demon, dear reprobate, you would be worshipping me.

    I would love to crush your position and once more make you regret wasting my time, but you have presented no argument or position for me to do that against. you have not even addresses what I said, just implied that I wouldn’t be dogpiled if I just gave up and let you run over me.

    Of course I know better and that you satanic sadsacks honestly are so deluded as to think attacking Christians will make your shame go away. That means you are only emboldened by any giving of ground to you.

    Oh, is that it? That you can’t pretend to be worth something if I stand my ground? So you want me to give up so you an attack me from behind? Well why would I want I give you the false idea that you are worth something?

  • bdgphila

    Perhaps “debt” and “ransom” are not the only ways of explaining why Jesus died and rose.

    Jesus had prayed that “all my be one…” It seems to me that in Jesus, God became one with humanity so that in Christ, humanity may be one with God. (“Jesus” here is pre-resurrection and “Christ” is post-resurrection.) Jesus became one with all our sufferings and transgressions absorbing them as it were to the point of experiencing feeling forsaken, abandoned by God the Father. This would be a suffering way beyond our imagination or comprehension.

    Christ communicates to us through the Holy Spirit to live the New Commandment, to “love one another as I have loved you.” Through this we are united to Christ, to God.

    Jesus’s action on the cross was not transactional, but relational. God is Relation (Trinity) and so desires us to have a relationship with him and with our fellow humans

    Regarding Justice and Mercy, the Lord’s Prayer is clear that if we seek forgiveness from God, we must forgive others. His justice requires us to be merciful to others to the extent that we ourselves want mercy. In mercy, God has forgiven us our sins, and in justice, we must forgive others their sins against us.