In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace. (Ephesians 1:7)
For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13-14)
In these passages, Paul speaks of redemption, ransom and remission. They all add up to the freedom and forgiveness we have in King Jesus the Messiah, through what he did at the cross.
The Greek word for “redemption” is apolytrosis. It is a release or deliverance from bondage through the payment of a ransom. It is a compound word, and one of the words that it is made from, lytron, means “ransom.” Some early Church Fathers, taking the notion of ransom very literally, wrestled with the question of exactly to whom this ransom was paid. Origen and Gregory of Nyssa believed it was paid to the devil. Others disagreed, recognizing that the devil had no rights and nothing was owed to him. None of the Fathers understood the ransom as being paid to God.
However, the point of redemption and ransom language was not about who got paid what but about the deliverance that was brought about. The great salvation act in the Old Testament was the deliverance of the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage, and it was spoken of as a redemption. In Exodus 6:6, God tells Moses:
Therefore, say to the Israelites: “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.”The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word for “redeem” with the Greek lytroo (from lytron), the word for ransom. Yet, who was a ransom actually paid to? Certainly not to God. He was the one who delivered his people with “an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment” — he was not paying ransom to himself. Nor was any ransom paid to Pharaoh. There was never any negotiation about a price for release. In fact, when the children of Israel departed, they stripped Egypt of her treasures. So there was never actually anyone who was paid a ransom for their freedom. God came and rescued them by the power of his own might and defeated the enemy. Yet that was spoken of as ransom and redemption. Likewise, when we read about God’s great salvation act in the New Testament, the language of redemption and ransom is not about who got paid but about the deliverance of God’s people through the defeat of the enemy.
Now let’s look at the Greek word for “forgiveness,” which is aphesis. Paul uses it only twice, in Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 1:13, and in both cases it amplifies the idea of redemption. Paul does use the verb form, aphiemi, several times, but only once where it clearly refers to forgiveness, and that is in Romans 4:7, where he quotes Psalm 32: “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.” He uses it four other times but in ways that are clearly not about forgiveness. In Romans 1:27, he says, “In the same way the men also abandoned [aphiemi] natural relations with women.” We find it three times in 1 Corinthians 7:11-13, where the NIV translates it as “divorce.” In these instances, the verb form, aphiemi, is about what is put away.
The noun, aphesis, can mean forgiveness, pardon or remission, but that is a secondary meaning. The primary meaning is about release or freedom from bondage. So it is in Thayer’s Greek definitions as well as in Strong’s Greek dictionary.
Paul has much to say about sin, and though he speaks about forgiveness of sins on a few occasions (using the words aphiemi or charizomai), he has much more to say about the deliverance from sin we have through Christ. So, when the two times he uses the word aphesis, he combines it with redemption (release from bondage), it seems to me that he is using it more in the primary sense: deliverance. Now, I don’t doubt that he would include forgiveness within that, but as part of a richer dimension than we usually have in mind when we think of “forgiveness.” Not only would it mean that our sins are no longer counted against us (forgiveness) but that we also have deliverance from its power — sin no longer has dominion over us — and that is freedom.