Should We “Redeem” as Educators?

a Defense of the Term in Image Bearing

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Creation, Fall, Redemption

The development of biblical worldview in education is everywhere. The template of dealing with a fallen world has been best described in terms of Creation (how things ought to be), Fall (how things have been corrupted by sin), and Redemption (a biblical response to that corruption). Every subject taught is related to these aspects. Creation, Fall, Redemption (CFR) provides a method of contextualizing the reality we actually live in as we teach our content. As a template, CFR reminds us that there is no subject, no concept, no state of affairs that is neutral. All of the world is God’s world, and all the meaning in this world is reserved for God’s glory. Any corruption, supposed neutrality, or emptiness of that meaning requires a biblical response.

There are legitimate questions, however, some have asked. Is the term “redemption” appropriate to use in relation to the work of mere humans? Shouldn’t this term be reserved for Christ’s work on the cross? Who are we to redeem anything? What are we supposed to redeem anyway–culture, people, concepts, disciplines? To answer these questions, we must begin with how God made us.

 Image Bearers

God made us in His own image (Gen. 1:26). And bearing the image of God is reserved for man only. Being an image bearer is a state of being, but some of what image bearing means concerns what man does (image-bearing activity). Genesis 1:28 is God’s command to us to do image-bearing work. So, there is a sense in which image bearing is located in man’s being (how he is made, how he exists). However, image bearing in man is demonstrated in his actions as well (Eph. 5:1). In Genesis 1:28, man is to multiply. He is to subdue. He is to rule. “How” man bears God’s image is as important as “that” he bears God’s image. Here is where disciplines in academia come in.

Teachers ought to be asking how their students will demonstrate their image-bearing work in the skills they are taught. In each discipline, teachers should be interested in how image bearing is 1) made obvious in those individuals who practice the discipline, 2) demonstrated in the individual when the discipline forces the him or her into a problematic position, 3) formulated by the individual as to how he or she will best image God in the carrying out of the discipline in the future.

Imitating Redemption

There is a present concern that the term “redemption” is being used too freely in discussions of education. Some hold that the term redemption ought to be limited to its use in relation to Christ’s work on the cross. Once the theological import has been placed in the word redemption, they hold that we are no longer free to use it in a more common way.

The term redemption is indeed used in most of the scholarly literature in reference to viewing the world with a biblical worldview. It is also, however, used in Scripture in more common ways. And so, just as Paul under inspiration does not hold to using the term redemption only in its relation to Christ’s work on the cross, so we should not hold to this rule. Let’s be clear. We are not advocating for a flippant usage of the term. However, it would be wrong to create limitations on theological terms that the Bible itself does not stipulate. And we wouldn’t want to create limits on terms that Scripture itself would contradict. If the term redemption is to be used if and only if it is in reference to Christ’s work on the cross, we would have to explain why Paul breaks this rule in Ephesians 5:16 and Colossians 4:5. Also, if the word is to be reserved only for Christ on the cross, we would have to explain why Paul tells husbands to imitate Christ in His redemptive work in relation to a man’s relation to his wife (Eph. 5:25-26). First John 3:16 tells us to imitate Christ’s sacrifice to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Imitation is never identical. We can imitate only in a creaturely way—but we are to imitate nonetheless.

Redemption means to buy back. Paul uses the term (even after Jesus had filled the term with theological meaning) as something we can do as it relates to our response to this fallen world. We know imitating Christ is at the heart of our purpose for existence. The question is, then, what all is included in creaturely imitation of Christ the Redeemer?

If we are to imitate Christ, we are obviously never imitating in kind. When we multiply, we do not do so ex nihilo. When we subdue, we do not order the elements by separating the firmament from the sea. When we rule, we do not rule as a king but as representatives of the King. Are we told in Scripture to imitate Christ by sacrificing ourselves as Christ did for the church? The answer is yes (at least to husbands in Ephesians 5). Obviously, we are not sacrificing ourselves for our wives’ salvation, but rather, we are doing so as creatures imitating in our creaturely way.

Now the question is, if we are to imitate Christ, how are we imitating when it comes to responding to the Fall? Are we to imitate in a creaturely way by doing buy-back work, or are we to limit our work to creaturely restoring work?

Restore or Redeem?

Some people have used the term redemption and restoration interchangeably. In doing so, justification and sanctification are confused. Man’s salvation and the creation’s restoration are confused. Creation is not redeemed. Man is.

Although redemption means to “buy back,” the term has theological import. It means a buying back of what sin has stolen. Therefore, redemption is a response to sin (any want of or lack of conformity unto the Law of God). Restoration, on the other hand, is in response to the curse. The curse is a result of sin, but it is not sinful to be under the curse (even as Christ was). The curse itself is not sin, for it is from God. Only He can remove it and restore creation (it groans for that day). A creaturely way of imitating restoration is the work of mitigating the effects of the curse. This work of mitigation is at the heart of restoration. It is good work to do.

Why Redemption?

God made the world in a particular way. For instance, marriage is to be between one man and one woman; man is to work; people should advance the common good in society, etc. We call these kinds of concepts “creational norms.” We must remember that creational norms do not merely stand before us without meaning. God has given all creation its meaning. Creational norms ultimately find their end point in God’s glory. Any deviation of meaning that finds its end point in anything else but God is a robbery. It robs God of glory. It also violates reality itself, as what is known must be known in truth. This truth includes not just the facts, but it also includes what meaning facts are to have.

What the term redemption offers us is the pinpointing of the work of responding to sin specifically. What are we buying back that sin has stolen? Redemption (used in a creaturely way—e.g. Ruth 4:1-3, Eph. 5:16, Col. 4:5) is not to redeem the culture, nor redeem objects nor people, but to buy back (through Scripture) the meaning intended to be inextricably linked to the creational norms. Meaning finds its endpoint in God’s glory, and “all things” find their meaning there (Rom. 11:36, Col. 1:16). At the heart of all sin is the refusal to give God thanks and honor (Rom. 1:21). We are (and have been since Genesis 3) in a meaning war against Satan and the world. “Has God really said . . .?” echoes throughout time and is in the DNA of all sin. Sin constantly seeks to steal the true meaning that is assigned to all of God’s creation. Sin reinterprets all creation from being glory to God to the glorification of creation. Sin seeks to take any meaning that a creational norm has in its call to honor and thank God, and sin replaces it with honor and thanks to self.

Education stands as a gateway for young people to move them from mere acceptance of the world they live in to accounting for the world they live in. Although there is much the secular world rightly acknowledges about creation (gravity, biological processes, governing bodies, mathematical principles, etc.), the secularist will always worship the creation instead of the Creator (Rom. 1:25). All that seeks to give meaning to those things will be corrupted without a biblical worldview. Educators must continue the fight by seeking to identify creational norms, evaluating corrupted accountings of the world, and redeeming the meaning that is stolen from God’s creational work. Is it not man’s chief end to glorify God and enjoy Him forever? Ultimately, educators are to prepare students for that very work.


Renton has been a college professor for over twenty years teaching in both public and Christian colleges and universities. He is a national speaker on biblical worldview.