How the Redemption Operated

by Fr William G Most


There is some confusion today as to how the redemption produces its effect It is not enough to say that Jesus redeemed us by dying, or even that He was obedient These are of course true But we must penetrate much more deeply.

Part of the trouble comes from the metaphor used by St Paul in 1 Cor 6:20 and 7:23 about the "price" of redemption If a price was paid, to whom was it paid? It would seem at first it should go to the captor--but the captor was Satan We cannot imagine the blood of Christ being paid to Satan Nor was it paid to the Father, for He was not the captor So what is the answer?

Distinctions are needed at the outset, between objective and subjective redemption The objective redemption is the work of once-for-all earning a claim to all forgiveness and grace The subjective redemption is the process of giving out that forgiveness and grace to men through all subsequent ages, including our own.

Three aspects or modes

The objective redemption is a rich reality So there are three ways of looking at it:

a) Sacrifice: We can gather the nature of sacrifice from Isaiah 29:13: "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." We see there are two elements: the outward sign, and the interior dispositions The outward sign is there to express and perhaps even promote the interior dispositions But without the interior, it is worthless, as we see in Isaiah We see from Romans 5:19 that the essential interior disposition is obedience: "Just as by the disobedience of the one man (first Adam) the many were made sinners, so by the obedience of the one man (Christ, the new Adam) the many will be constituted just." Lumen gentium (par 3) agrees: "By His obedience He brought about redemption." Without obedience, the death of Christ would have been a tragedy, but not a redemption It was obedience that gave it its value.

Thus the sacrifice of Christ was pleasing to the Father, and since it was undertaken in the name of the whole human race, it was able to restore mankind to God's friendship, which had been lost by sin.

We are still left with a question: Why did obedience to the Father call for something so tremendously difficult and painful?

b) New Covenant: The death of Christ in obedience to His Father provided a basis for a new covenant between God and man, with Christ's obedience supplying man's part in the covenant In a covenant, each party pledges something The things should be of at least approximately equal value Since the price of redemption was of infinite worth, that to which the Father obligated Himself would be similarly infinite, i.e., an inexhaustible treasury of forgiveness and grace G Philips of Louvain, one of the chief drafters of Lumen gentium, in his commentary on LG pars 61-62 has noticed that graces are not like jewels: one cannot put them in a box So what this really means is a claim to grace and forgiveness, to be given out at the suitable times.

This claim is not only inexhaustible for our race as a whole, but as Gal 2:20 shows, there is an infinite objective title for each individual human being: "He loved me, and gave Himself for me." The fact that this is true not only of St.Paul--a special person--but of all of us is brought out in Gaudium et spes par 22: "...each one of us can say with the Apostle: The Son of God loved me, and gave Himself for me." So there is an infinite objective title for each individual human being, generated by Christ's obedience.

(This does not imply one could have a spree of sin, and plan to pull up in time No, such a plan would fail for two reasons: 1) since the change at the end was preplanned, it would not be a real change or repentance, which is change of heart; 2) a spree of sin is apt to cause hardness, which prevents graces offered by God from getting in).

But the question still remains: Why did obedience call for something so immense?

c) Rebalance or restoration of the objective order: The answer to the question begins to appear now Pope Paul VI, in the doctrinal introduction to the constitution on indulgences of Jan 1, 1967, began by pointing out (AAS 59.5): "For the correct understanding of this is necessary that we recall certain truths which the universal Church, illumined by the word of God, has always believed." This is a significant statement Paul VI tell us that what he is about to present is part of the universal belief of the Church But that belief is infallible (cf LG 12).

On p 6.2: "As we are taught by divine revelation, penalties follow on sin, inflicted by the divine Holiness and justice...." It is important to note that Holiness is put in the first place The old theory of St Anselm on the redemption unfortunately said God had to provide satisfaction for sin Of course not! God does not have to do anything Further, Anselm focused on the justice of God Now that is not wrong, but the more basic consideration is His holiness, put in the first place by the text of Paul VI For if we center our thoughts on justice, some objectors may say: "When someone offends me, I do not always demand full justice Why cannot God just be nice about it? " The answer is, that even though He could do that way, His love of what is objectively right urges Him to provide that rebalance.

So Paul VI continues: "For every sin brings with it a disturbance of the universal order, which God arranged in unspeakable wisdom and infinite love." In other words, God being Holiness itself, loves everything that is right This was a striking idea when it first broke on the world For the gods of Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome were not just immoral but amoral--they acted as if there were no morality at all But Psalm 11:7 told the world: "God is sadiq [morally righteous] and He loves the things that are morally right." Hence the notion that sin is a debt which the Holiness of God wants paid.

Simeon ben Eleazar, a Rabbi writing about 170 A.D ("Tosefta, Kiddushin" 1.14), and claiming to base himself on Rabbi Meir from earlier in the same century, gives us a striking comparison which helps to illustrate the text of Paul VI: "He [meaning "anyone"] has committed a transgression Woe to him He has tipped the scale to the side of debt for himself and for the world."

The image is a two-pan scales.The sinner takes from one pan what he has no right to have The scale is out of balance The Holiness of God wants it righted How do that? If he stole some property, he begins to rebalance by giving it back If he stole a pleasure, he begins to rebalance by giving up some pleasure of similar weight.

But we kept saying "begins" For the imbalance from even one mortal sin is infinite, an Infinite Person is offended So if the Father wanted a full rebalance - He did not have to - the only way to achieve it would be to send a divine Person to become man That Person could produce an infinite value Paul VI put the redemption into this framework.

Since the chief topic of this constitution was that of indulgences, which depend on the "treasury of the Church" Paul VI spoke of the redemption in that background He said the "treasury of the Church is the infinite and inexhaustible price which the expiations and merits of Christ the Lord have before God...."

All sinners of all times took an immense weight from the two-pan scales But Jesus gave up far more than they had stolen, in His terrible passion.

To explain this universal moral order more fully: God established an objective order in the universe, according to which all things work together for the glory of God and the happiness of man When man sins, rejecting the gifts of God, he disturbs this order, and brings great evils upon himself as a natural result of this disturbance Given this situation, God's Holiness, or love of the objective moral order, demands one of two things. Either: men will have to live with with the consequences of his actions, and thus never attain the supernatural happiness for which they had been destined by God.

Or, some supernatural action of moral worth will have to take place in order to compensate for the disorder caused by sin Such an action would be pleasing to God, and might be accepted by Him in place of the loss suffered by men, which the good order of the universe would otherwise have demanded But having already lost the grace of God, men were incapable of undertaking such a supernatural action.

Thus, the Father willed that His only Son should become man As God, Jesus, would be able to perform an action of infinite moral worth As man, he would be able to offer this action to His Father in reparation for the sins of men The redemption of mankind, accomplished by Jesus out of love for men and in obedience to the Father, more than balanced the objective order This redemption was far more pleasing to the Father than merely preserving due order by leaving men to the evil consequences which they had brought upon themselves by their sins.

So this is the price of redemption, the rebalancing of the objective order, which the Holiness of God willed.

The Redemption Shows God's Love for Man

Rom 5:8 said, "God proved His love." Now, if someone desires the well-being of another, and starts out to procure it, but then runs into an obstacle, and if a small obstacle will stop him, the love is small If it takes a great obstacle, the love is great But if that love could overcome even the immense obstacle of the terrible death of Jesus, that love is immense, beyond measure.

It was not only the physical pain, but the rejection by those whom He loved that hurt Him The pain of rejection can be measured by two things: 1) how severe is the form of the rejection; 2) how great is the love for the one who is rejecting.

If someone jostles me in a crowd, that is a small thing But if he wants to kill me, that is far worse, and if he means to do it in the most hideous way possible--then the rejection is at the peak .And what is the love of Jesus? Inasmuch as He is a Divine Person, the love is infinite; inasmuch as we consider the love of His human will, able to overcome such a measureless obstacle, the love is beyond measure.

In the Garden of Gethsemani Jesus foresaw all sins of all times, and suffered from that vision Let us recall His foreknowledge and life-long anxiety, resulting from the vision His soul saw from the first instant of conception, and which He let us see briefly in Lk.12:50 and Jn 12:27 In line with this, Pius XI, wrote in his Encyclical Miserentissimus Redemptor (AAS 20.174): "Now if the soul of Christ [in Gethsemani] was made sorrowful even to death on account of our sins, which were yet to come, but which were foreseen, there is no doubt that He received some consolation from our reparation, likewise foreseen."

So now we see why obedience called for something so tremendous Yes, even the least thing done by an Infinite Person could rebalance In fact, the Father could have accepted an incomplete rebalance, from any religious act He might order to be done by an ordinary human Or, He could have been content with the Incarnation in a palace since, again, any act of an Infinite Person is infinite in value But the Father wanted not only to be able to forgive, but to forgive lavishly (The priest in giving absolution, can wipe out even a lifetime of dreadful sins in a moment: "I absolve you.") So He went beyond the incarnation in a palace, to the stable, beyond an Incarnation with only a prayer, to the horrible death of the cross The first thing Jesus had to say to His Apostles when He first came after His resurrection was, "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them." He had just paid a terrible price for that forgiveness He could hardly wait, we might say, to make that concretely possible.

[For the role of Mary, Jesus's Mother, in the work of redemption, see the section on Mary.]

Our participation in the subjective redemption

The Mass is the center of all In the Mass, the essential participation is interior To answer the prayers etc is good, but if the interior is not added, God will say again what He said through Isaiah 29:13: "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me." The interior participation of the people lies in two things, according to Pius XII, "Mediator Dei:" 1) The people offer inasmuch as the priest who acts "in persona Christi" thus also represents them, who are Christ's members; 2) They should unite their interior dispositions to His, especially their obedience to the will of the Father in acting, and in accepting the hardships that come with their daily life Vatican II, Lumen gentium par 34, calls these things "spiritual sacrifices."

Everything but sin can be turned into gold for eternity as a share in the sufferings of Christ Romans 8:28: "For those who love God, all things work together for good." Even worry can be made part of this, for Christ worried all His life long His human soul saw the vision of God from conception, and it showed Him everything He had to suffer That was, as it were, eating away at Him, and He let us see inside in Lk 12:50 and John 12:27.

If we love Him, we will want to make reparation for offenses committed against Him by ourselves and by others.

Abridged and adapted from the file "How the Redemption Operated, " by Rev William G Most.

Electronic text (c) Copyright EWTN 1996. All rights reserved.

Back to the teachings on Jesus main menu