That was a question I was dealing with the other night out at the prison bible study.
It's an interesting question as other than a vague sense that redemption is synonymous with "salvation," I don't know if many Christians have a ready definition for "redemption."
What I pointed out in my study was how redemption has strong associations with Christus Victor views of salvation, the notion that "salvation" is fundamentally about deliverance, liberation, freedom and emancipation from dark enslaving forces.
The idea that Christ is a "redeemer" goes back to the Old Testament notion of the goel, what is sometimes translated as "kinsmen-redeemer." The kinsmen-redeemer is related to the Hebrew word ga'al which means to buy back, to regain possession of by payment, or to ransom. The kinsmen-redeemer is the one who buys back and pays the ransom.
The basic function goes back to Leviticus 25. When Israelites fell into debt they sometimes would have to sell their ancestral property. When this happened the kinsmen-redeemer was to buy the land so that the land remained in the family:
Leviticus 25.25This role of buying back--redeeming--ancestral land to keep it in the family is nicely illustrated in the book of Ruth where Boaz, as kinsmen-redeemer, seeks to buy the ancestral land of Elimelek, Naomi's deceased husband.
If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and sells some of their property, their nearest relative is to come and redeem what they have sold.
But sometimes things would get worse and an Israelite would have to sell more than the land, he would have to sell himself as a debt-slave. When that happened the kinsmen-redeemer was to rescue their kinsman from debt-slavery by buying him back:
Leviticus 25.47-49aBasically, the idea of "redemption" is rooted in the notion of debt-slavery. To be "redeemed" or "ransomed" is to be bought back from slavery, from the ownership of another person. And the one who makes the payment is the goel, the kinsmen-redeemer.
If a foreigner residing among you becomes rich and any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to the foreigner or to a member of the foreigner’s clan, they retain the right of redemption after they have sold themselves. One of their relatives may redeem them: An uncle or a cousin or any blood relative in their clan may redeem them.
In the book of Isaiah God becomes identified as the goel, as the Redeemer of Israel. For example,
Isaiah 41.14And while the name "redeemer" doesn't occur in the New Testament, in many places Jesus is described as performing the role of the goel. For example,
"Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel; I will help you," declares the LORD, "and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.
Mark 10.45The words "redemption" and "redeemed" in these texts tend to obscure the OT echoes. That is, I don't think many modern readers know how to translate the word "redeemed." Though you do notice echos of the OT economic, buying-back overtones when we do things like redeeming coupons at the store. Translation-wise, I think the rendering of the NLT does nice job of highlighting the kinsmen-redeemer overtones in some of these NT texts:
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace
1 Peter 1.18
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors...
Ephesians 1.7The connections here with Christus Victor theology should be obvious. The function of the goel--the "redeemer"--has to do with emancipation and liberation from slavery, the "buying us back" from the ownership of another person.
He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins.
The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will give us the inheritance he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people. He did this so we would praise and glorify him.
And as should be clear, there is little in any of the NT texts that suggests that we were once enslaved or in bondage to God. No, our bondage was to dark spiritual forces. Thus Jesus, as kinsmen-redeemer, saves us by securing our liberation from these enslaving forces.
That is the meaning of "redemption."