What does “redemption” even mean?

Have you ever read the same term over and over, think you know what it says, hear it said a lot, and yet you aren’t quite sure what it means?


I’m like that with “redemption.” I’ve spoken about it. I’ve heard it in countless textbooks, songs, and even popular culture.

Yet part of me wonders if I even know what it means, or if I’ve been using it in the correct context. Sometimes, the Christianese language can become so ingrained, that we forget what terms actually mean.

When I was preparing to teach on soteriology last spring, I prepared by looking up definitions of words connected with it: justification, sanctification, redemption, grace, etc. I thought this would be helpful to both the students and me.

I was reminded that the original context of “redemption” contains hints of an economic transaction. In the Hebrew Scriptures, “redemption” was utilized to describe slaves being freed from bondage. The Greek word for redemption, apolutrósis, occurs 10 times in the New Testament, and only once in the Gospels (Luke 10:28).

While this is helpful, we realize words change meanings, and so we need to reflect upon what “redemption” means in our day. How have you seen it utilized in pop culture? How does it match up (or disconnect) from the Christian tradition? If redemption connects with a substitutionary atonement theory, and if one rejects such a theory, should one continue to use “redemption”?

I’ve perceived “redemption” as equal to salvation in how we use it today (particularly in my Christian context). But the economic nature  that accompanies redemption nags at me. I think of redeeming coupons, where the coupon might be a substitute for money or in exchange for goods.

An underlying question is: does redemption equal salvation? Is redemption the most important act in salvation? Is redemption what saves? Who, or what, saves us, and how?

My curiosity over “redemption” makes me reflect thus:

  • What words do we need to explore in our ecclesial settings?
  • How do we understand soteriology?
  • How do we communicate our understanding of soteriology? What might we need to do differently?
  • (With that, how do we understand “redemption” in pop culture? How is it different than our understanding of redemption as it relates to our faith?)
  • What are some other terms we might alternatively employ?

See Gerald Collins, “Redemption,” in  Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, and Hugh Pyper, eds., The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), beginning at 588, for more information on the use of “redemption” in Christianity.

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Author: Kate Hanch

I like to laugh, study theology, the church, & Missouri sports. Sister, daughter, wife, Baptist, Christian feminist, friend, minister, PhD student in theology, wanderlust.

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