At Calvary there was an amazing cancellation of the debt that we owed as sinners:
Sinners are debtors who have no way of paying off the debt they owe. The good news of the Christian gospel is that Christ has cancelled that debt for us, by suffering in our place. Indeed, Jesus paid a very heavy price to secure our salvation. He took the punishment that we deserved upon himself, so that we might experience forgiveness of sins and new life in Christ.
Having written several articles recently on a different kind of debt – student debt – and President Biden’s plan to cancel much of it, I have already looked at political, economic, biblical and theological matters having to do with debt forgiveness or cancellation.
I have made it clear that when it comes to the state, there is no cancellation or forgiveness of debt – only transference. The student is let off the hook while the taxpayer foots the bill. Sadly some naive and clueless Christians have tried to argue that student debt relief is something Christians should fully support, and that it is like Jesus forgiving our debts.
Um no, it is NOT at all similar. The government approach transfers the debt to a third party. People still have to pay off the debt. The biblical story of the forgiveness of sins has to do with Jesus taking our place and doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. This involves the genuine cancellation of debt.
But since the idea of biblical salvation is often being raised here when it comes to student debt relief, it is worth looking at this matter further. I have already written about how things like the Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee as found in Leviticus 25 have nothing at all to do with modern things like student debt forgiveness:billmuehlenberg.com/2010/09/02/difficult-bible-passages-leviticus-25/
But here I want to look further at what Christ actually did on our behalf on the cross. And while terms like forgiveness and the like are used quite often in the New Testament, the only place where the idea of debt cancellation is clearly used is in Colossians 2:13-14. Let me offer a few translations of this text, and then offer some commentary.
Since this passage does present some exegetical, interpretive and theological problems, including the use of hapax legomena (a word used only once – in this case in the NT), offering a few different translations can help us get a feel for what Paul is trying to argue here:
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” ESV
“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” NIV
“You were dead, because you were sinful and were not God’s people. But God let Christ make you alive, when he forgave all our sins. God wiped out the charges that were against us for disobeying the Law of Moses. He took them away and nailed them to the cross.” CEV
“And when you were dead in your wrongdoings and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our wrongdoings, having canceled the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” NASB
As can be seen, it is mainly in verse 14 where various options arise as to how to best render the Greek. The two terms especially that can go in different directions are what the ESV renders “the record of debt” and “legal demands.” The point is that sinners are indebted to the demands of the law and have failed to obey them, and so there is a sort of IOU that needs to be dealt with.
We cannot deal with that IOU since even 99.99 per cent obedience would still give us a fail. Perfect obedience is required. We have not and can not do this. But Jesus had perfectly obeyed the law’s just demands and he has taken upon himself the punishment that we deserve. So he was able to rip up this IOU that left us not only condemned but dead in our trespasses and sins.
Any decent and scholarly critical commentary will spend a number of pages commenting on this passage, especially verse 14. Many can be mentioned here. Perhaps I can utilise just a few. First, the shorter 1986 commentary by N. T. Wright (TNTC). He asks:
How, then, did the cross solve the problem of sin? Paul does not attempt here a full theological statement of the achievement of Calvary. He aims, more specifically, to show how those things that might have excluded the Colossians from God’s people were dealt with on the cross. The present passage stands at the centre-point, both in literary structure and theology, of the whole chapter and section.
He goes on to note some of the matters that must be attended to here:
In verse 14 we must ask: (a) what is the ‘written code’? (b) How does ‘with its regulations’ relate to the rest of the verse? (c) What does ‘that stood opposed to us’ add which was not already said in ‘that was against us’? And, most important, (d) how has God ‘cancelled’ and ‘taken away’ this barrier? … NIV, like all translations, has had to opt for one particular point of view, and has in consequence made the passage seem simpler than it is.
After spending some time on the various options and how we might best proceed, he says this:
God not only ‘cancelled’ this ‘written code’; he took it away, (by) nailing it to the cross. The images are so overlaid here that it is hard to see how they are related to each other. But if we follow the line of thought taken so far, and pick up the suggestion of several writers that there is a reference back to the titulus, ‘The King of the Jews’, which Pilate nailed to the cross as the ostensible reason for Jesus’ execution (see Jn. 19:19), the following interpretation suggests itself. Jesus was sent to the Roman tribunal after being deemed worthy of death by a Jewish court, which had declared (whatever we make of the details) that he was guilty according to the law. Pilate, echoing that verdict but giving it a new twist, put on the cross the sign that read ‘The King of the Jews’. But Paul, looking at the cross, saw there instead the titulus that expressed the charge against all Jesus’ people, the written code that stood over against them, disqualifying them from the life of the new age. And it was God, not Pilate, who put it there….
The context safeguards this statement of what Luther called the ‘wondrous exchange’ (Christ takes our sins, we his righteousness, as in 2 Cor. 21) against the misunderstandings to which it has sometimes been subjected. God himself is the source of the redeeming action, not at all an unwilling angry tyrant, pacified by his Son’s pleading or, worse, by the sight of blood. And Christ dies under the ‘written code’ that stood against us … not in virtue of some arbitrary exchange of roles but because he, as Messiah, truly represents his people and can therefore appropriately stand in their place.
Or as Douglas Moo puts it in his PNTC commentary:
The forgiveness of sins that we enjoy in Christ is total: “all our sins” are forgiven (v. 13). The completeness and definitiveness of our forgiveness are the theme of v. 14, which Paul presents via two striking word pictures. Paul’s first word picture portrays a document that all human beings have signed, an “IOU,” in which we pledge complete allegiance to God. Our sins stand as conclusive evidence that we have failed to give God that allegiance, and so that document is “against us” and “condemns” us. But God has taken that document and wiped it clean; indeed, he has taken it completely out of the picture. He has, in fact, in a second word picture that both highlights the completeness of the removal and the means by which it was accomplished, “nailed it to the cross.”
In sum, the New Testament has many terms, images, pictures and metaphors that speak about what the work of Christ at Calvary entailed. The cancellation of our sin debt is one such image. As Peter O’Brien nicely summarises in his WBC volume: “God has not only removed the debt; he has also destroyed the document on which it was recorded.”
That is great news indeed. However, it has nothing to do with a government forcing taxpayers to pick up the tab for students who either should not have gotten themselves into such large amounts of debt in the first place, or should have been prepared to find a way to pay it off. Forcing a third party to pay this debt is not at all what the work of Christ on our behalf is all about.