Price, Payment and the Transactional Trap

Was Jesus’ self-sacrifice a payment?

The concept of price has many connotations, but it is not always related to a payment.

For example, when a soldier pays “the ultimate price” we do not make the illogical leap that somehow his life was a payment to someone. Actions have consequences, and we often refer to a negative consequence as “the price that has to be paid” e.g. if you decide to have offspring, then you will need to nurture and care for them for at least 18 years. That is the “price you pay” for having children. But there is no transaction, no payment to anyone.

So when something (freedom, peace etc) has been “bought at a price” it does not mean literally that some type of exchange or transaction took place.

“Price” thus has two different contexts and meanings:

  1. as in the costly consequence of a course of action (in war, child-rearing etc) or
  2. the payment amount agreed between different parties to enable a transaction to take place.

The former is a one-way sacrifice, the latter a two-way trade.

The Apostle Paul writes that we were bought at a price (1 Cor 6:20, 7:23). But there is a leap in logic to then jump to the conclusion that a transaction had taken place. All we can note is that Jesus sacrificed himself (Heb 9:26) and gave his life freely (Jn 10:18).

We read also that Jesus gives his life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:28), but this can simply mean Jesus gave his life as the costly price required to secure our freedom and not in the literal sense that a ransom demand had been set. To defeat death for us he had to pass through it. It was the price that had to be paid, the cost of the “I’m going to defeat death” course of action.

It is therefore a mistake to assume that when a “price has been paid” that it was, by necessity, transactional and that a payment was involved. This is to confuse the metaphor. The early church followed the flawed logic that price/ransom = transaction, and so started to question who had made the demand and to whom had payment been made?

Their earliest flawed assumption was that the Devil had demanded a sacrifice and that God had paid him off. Centuries late it was recognised that this gave the Devil far too much power and made God subservient to his demands.

So, it was decided, the payment must have been made… to God himself! The reason? Ah, said Anselm of Canterbury, it cannot be because of punishment for sin (that would be counter to God’s merciful nature) so it must be due to a debt of honour. Anselm determined that humanity has failed to fully honour God, so a perfect (infinite) man must give God the backlog of honour that is due so that God can then forgive. So God became man to pay God the honour due.

“No” said Calvin and the Reformers 500 years later. It was not a lack of honour that needed to be paid, it was a lack of punishment that needed to be made up for. God had been far too lenient and merciful in the past: as a “judge” he requires “justice” and “justice” (for someone of a holy, morally pure nature) must surely require that sin not be passed over but paid for. Until sin is paid for, God cannot forgive. And so God became man so that God could punish man’s sin.

According to such logic, all along God had a gun held to his head. He was:

  1. a slave to Honour, and could not offer mercy until his Honour had been fully satisfied, or
  2. a slave to Justice, and could not offer mercy until the scales of Justice had been balanced and every sin punished to the fullest extent of the Law.


The Bible testifies:

  • that God is merciful, abounding in love (Ps 86:15, 103:8)
  • that because of his great compassion he blots out transgression (Ps 51:1)
  • that Jesus came because of the Father’s overwhelming love for us (John 3:16).
  • that true Justice is to show mercy and compassion (Zech 7:9)

That sounds remarkably like the only “gun” pointed at God’s head was his own merciful, compassionate, pro-active love!

Jesus bought us, he paid a price, yes. But what was the context for that “price”. Was there ever a “payment” to someone? Was it ever a two-party transaction?

Rather than rush headlong into the Transactional Trap why not consider the possibility that there was no transaction at all!

What if, in the War against Death and in responsibility to his offspring, Jesus was simply doing what was necessary in order to redeem us.

What if it was all a glorious, unprecedented, one-way sacrifice.

2 thoughts on “Price, Payment and the Transactional Trap”

  1. I like ‘Transactional Trap’! You could also add in ‘Dubious Debt’.
    I’m amazed at how many teach that we failed to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (true) but that this was a ‘debt’ we ‘owed’ as a creature to our Creator (not biblically supported).
    I wonder if all these minsters think that their children owe them a debt (all rather Victorian), rather than that perhaps they owe their children the responsibility of wise parenting
    Thank you for your blogs

    1. I like “dubious debt”! Indeed, the idea that we owe God a “debt” is a legacy of Anselm’s theology – it doesn’t come from scripture. And you are so right – if ministers/preachers actually stopped to think about how they view their own children (and how they’d like their children to view them) we’d have a lot less warped theology coming from the pulpit.

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