A Redeeming Influence?

Our Faculty Ministry mission statement asserts that we aim to identify, encourage, and equip faculty to be a redeeming influence in higher education. We have chosen this language, “redeeming influence,” carefully and intentionally. For some, however, this is an unusual and even inaccurate description of the kind of influence Jesus’ disciples are to have in the world.

One way to understand both our choice of this wording and these reservations is to review the Biblical teaching about “redemption.” In Scripture and the cultures of Biblical times redemption can be succinctly defined as “costly liberation.” Most commonly it refers to the act of freeing a debtor or captive or slave through the payment of a ransom. This metaphor of liberation at cost is applied in Scripture to the LORD’s work of liberating his people from bondage. In the Old Testament, redemption is seen in the Exodus from Egypt. The LORD acted in great grace and power to deliver Israel from slavery and make this rabble of slaves his own people and nation. As salvation history continues, however, it becomes increasingly clear that even the liberated people of Israel stand in need of a deeper liberation, a deliverance that reaches to the core of our humanity and our bondage to sin.

Defining Redemption

Jesus’ mission is just this liberation: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). In the light of this New Testament development, then, “redemption” may be more fully defined as God’s work of grace and power in which He frees us from bondage to sin and its penalty of death through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Three aspects of this definition call for particular notice:

  1. Redemption entails a background conviction that human beings are in bondage to sin. Jesus speaks eloquently about this inner, depth level of bondage in Mark 7 and John 8. We cannot deliver ourselves from this bondage. The consequences of this slavery are death and eternal alienation from God.
  2. Redemption is the work of the Triune God in grace and power. The initiative in redemption lies with God, who shows us goodness when we deserved judgment. And the delivering power comes, not from enslaved sinners, but from the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.
  3. Liberation for sinners is accomplished through and focused in Jesus’ death in our place as the payment of the ransom. This is repeatedly the center of joy and worship in the NT (see Ephesians 1:7, Galatians 3:13, 4:4-5, I Peter 1:17-21, Revelation 5: 9-10, to just scratch the surface of this vein of NT thought).

Delving into Theological Reservations

Given this rich Biblical teaching we can see that our mission statement asserts that our influence is based upon and seeks to be faithful to these truths. But some wonder whether we are engaged here in a bit of theological hyperbole. Given that redemption is this work of God to liberate sinners, are we not overstating our own role here? Is it not the case that we really intend to say we will seek to be faithful witnesses and an influence for good, knowing that only God redeems sinners! Others suggest that we might be using “redeeming” in our statement in a metaphorical way. We seek to bring good out of bad situations by gracious and costly service. But this is only a metaphorical echo of the LORD’s work of delivering sinners from their awful fate through the redeeming death of Jesus. Should we not be a bit more reticent in identifying our work with the redeeming work of the Triune God?

There is much to respect in these expressions of reservation. In particular, the humility which they evidence toward our efforts and their concern to keep our thoughts about our work centered on what is central to the Gospel, the work of Jesus, are particularly helpful in our determinedly individualistic academic culture that constantly celebrates human creative powers. Nevertheless, we continue to believe that it is fully appropriate to seek to be a “redeeming influence,” and intend no hyperbole or metaphor when we say this. To see why this is so, we must look further into the NT teaching about redemption and notice how it connects to other NT teaching about the LORD’s work of grace, righteousness, and peace.

Past, Present and Future

We begin by noting that redemption, while it centers on Jesus once-for-all work, has a present and a future dimension. Paul reminds the Corinthians that they had been (note completed past action) “bought with a price.” Consequently, they are to “glorify God in your body” (I Cor. 6:20). Redemption is not locked up remotely in the past. Nor is it an ethereal process. It involves our bodies and helps us to fulfill God’s purpose for our lives of bringing glory to our Redeemer God. This comes out again in another statement about being bought with a price directed to slaves, “Do not be slaves of human masters” (I Cor. 7:23). The redeemed belong now to their Redeemer. They have no option of other belonging that does not flow consistently from their belonging to Jesus. o the Galatians Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set you free. Stand firm then, do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5: 1). Redemption, then, makes us slaves of the LORD and simultaneously most free women and men. That grace-based slavery to the Lord and grace-based freedom from human expectations and law-keeping is most fully expressed when it results in “the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:14). As a consequence Paul can call on believers to “redeem the time” (Eph. 5:16, Col. 4:5). So, redemption has a real and formative present dimension.

Redemption as a future dimension reaches forward to the consummation of all things when it will be perfectly realized. Jesus spoke of the coming of the Son of Man in power and glory and went on to say, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21: 27-28). So there is a dimension of our redemption that awaits the end of all things. Redemption is eschatological (to use a theological term). This does not deny that redemption was perfectly and completely accomplished by the Lord on the cross. The ransom was paid in full, and we can add nothing. Nor does it deny that redemption is a present reality that shapes our lives. But we must also insist that we know only the beginning of what redemption means. We await its fullness when our Lord comes again.

Paul has the same idea in mind when he says, “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). We must also observe that in this same context Paul is also concerned for the renewal of the whole created order. The creation now groans in travail under the burden of sin and evil. But its day of release is coming when our redemption is completed (Romans 8: 18-25). When our Lord returns in glory the NT insists that bodily values will not be lost. These corporal and physical values will be retained in the perfect Kingdom of God, in a new heaven and earth where perfect righteousness, peace, and love will be the marks of the new order of things.

Something of the same idea is expressed when Paul says “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30). The presence of the Holy Spirit is a wonderful gift now, but has two future-oriented aspects as well. It is a foretaste of greater things to come, and it is a guarantee of those greater things. This gift marks us as secured for “the day of redemption” when greater things are to fully come.

The Pattern of Redemption

The pattern of past, present, and future redemption rooted in the finished work of Jesus should be a familiar pattern. For example:

  • Salvation has three tenses. We have been saved, are being saved, and will be saved.
  • Reconciliation is “making peace through his [Jesus’] blood.” But God has reconciled folk in the present time on the one hand, and reconciliation will one day embrace “all things on earth and heaven” on the other (see all of this in Colossians 1: 19-22).
  • The Kingdom of God has come, is here among us, in the incarnate ministry of the Lord Jesus (Matthew 12: 22-37; 13 and many other sayings of Jesus in the gospels). This Kingdom “is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved of men” (Romans 14: 17). And this Kingdom is also coming in the future in great power.
  • “Justification” is God the Judge’s verdict of acquittal in the last days brought forward into time through the work of Christ. And there will be a future day of judgment when all will receive the verdict of the great Judge.

This pattern is an expression of the NT conviction that the future age of salvation has been inaugurated in the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the foundational conviction of the whole NT about God’s work of salvation. Jesus’ coming is the great act of God on our behalf. He is declared by his death, resurrection and ascension to be the Lord of all things, of everything that he has created. He brings about the beginning of the wonderful realities of the new heaven and earth, where His Lordship will be universal, in our fallen and sinful time. So our lives, as followers of Jesus, have about them the redeemed reality of eternity, the embodied righteousness, peace, joy, and love of the new heaven and earth. When we act in faithfulness to this redemptive program of our God, we participate in redemption now, express its reality, and extend its reach, all in the confidence that one day this redemption will reach all things. Our influence, in short, is redeeming.

Characteristics of a Redeeming Influence

Further, we can identify three characteristics of this redeeming influence: it will be marked by joyful submission to our Redeemer, zeal to protect his exclusive claims on our allegiance, and creative freedom. Recall the ways in which we saw redemption to be a present reality for followers of Jesus. First, (I Cor. 6: 19-20) we are not our own. We belong to the LORD who has bought us. So we make it our aim in every aspect of our lives to bring him glory. In context, Paul was speaking of our embodied lives as sexual beings, an area of no small controversy in the academy. But this statement should not be limited to our sexual identity. Glorifying God is the purpose of all things (“whatever you do, do it for the glory of God” I Cor. 10:31). The way to fulfill this purpose is to live in the consciousness that “we belong, body and soul, to our great Redeemer, Jesus Christ.”

Second, redeeming influence requires that we “do not become slaves of human beings” (I Cor. 7: 23). We will be eager and careful to maintain foundational and exclusive loyalty to our Redeemer. Other forms of belonging we enter into must arise from our belonging to the Lord. We will perform not for the approval of our peers or the academic guilds to which we belong. Our understanding of excellence will be informed by the great aim of bringing glory to the Lord, and not by other standards, good though they may be.

Finally, redeeming influence will express our freedom in the Lord (Gal. 5:1). The Christian way is wonderfully open-textured. It is never a way of rigid conformity. This is not to say that God’s law is irrelevant or that rules are never helpful. But subjection to regulations is not the essence of the redeemed life. We are redeemed “for freedom,” and it is in freedom that we are privileged to live. So, one of the central characteristics of those who are redeemed by grace is creativity. Because we live to please our Master in heaven, we are released from thralldom to people and institutions. We are free to ask and answer life’s most important question: “What is the best I can do for the LORD who has bought me at such great price?”

Photo Credit: utnapistim


Tom Trevethan was one of InterVarsity’s most gifted Bible expositors and he authored the books The Beauty of God’s Holiness (InterVarsity Press) and Our Joyful Confidence: The Lordship of Jesus in Colossians (DILL Press). Tom earned an MA from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and served as a Campus Staff Minister at the University of Michigan for many years serving both students and faculty throughout his career. Tom most recently served on the InterVarsity Faculty Ministry Leadership Team as an Associate Director for Research and Publications, writing many resources for faculty and grad students and contributing to the Lamp Post faculty newsletters for several years (now Campus Calling). Tom retired in 2014 after 47 years of service with InterVarsity. He lived in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife Barbara, where they enjoyed many years of singing with their church and with the local Choral Union which won two Grammy Awards in 2005. Our hearts go out to Barb and their family upon learning of Tom's passing in October 2023. His voice, in both writing as well as singing, will be greatly missed.

In the GFM Resources, Tom's Bible study on Psalm 90 remains a wonderful resource for both students and staff. Tom's writings on the InterVarsity blog in 2014 include, On the Dangers of "Using" Scripture, part 1 and part 2. His research and thoughts on the InterVarsity Doctrinal Basis might have been shared with you during your Orientation to New Staff years ago. You can access the seven part series, Studying InterVarsity's Doctrinal Basis here. Tom worked with Nan Thomas on the Faculty Ministry booklet, Taking Time Apart.

We value the contribution of writers who are not employed by InterVarsity, some of whom may not necessarily agree with all aspects of InterVarsity's ministry, doctrine, or policies. These writings are the words of the writers and may or may not represent InterVarsity. The same is true of any comments which may be posted about any entries. Submitted comments may or may not be posted at the writer or the editor's discretion.