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.
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