Most who are reading this are in some form of financial debt. Blessings to those of you who are not! But the majority of us owe money, either on a car or a home or a student loan, or something of the sort. Although it can be burdensome, most of us can at least see a light at the end of the tunnel. We are energized by the hope that one day it will be paid in full and we will receive from our creditors a piece of paper releasing us from any further obligation.
But to be burdened with a debt from which you will never be set free is simply too much to comprehend. To owe a debt that you know you can never pay off is psychologically devastating. Extend that indebtedness, and the penalty it incurs, into eternity and it becomes horrific beyond words.
Such was the reality of our spiritual indebtedness to God . . . until Jesus paid it all! This is the imagery Paul employs in Colossians 2:13-14 to describe the reality of having our sins forever forgiven: "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."
The translation "record of debt" (ESV) reflects terminology often used with reference to an IOU, that is to say, a signed acknowledgement of indebtedness. It is something similar to our promissory note today in which the debtor affixes his/her signature to a document that binds the individual to pay the full amount by a certain date. Without using the same terminology Paul nevertheless makes the same point in Philemon 17-19 where he says, "So if you consider me your partner, receive him [Onesimus] as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it . . ." In other words, Paul was giving Philemon an IOU signed with his own hand, in which he obligated himself to pay in full whatever Onesimus might have owed.
What was this "spiritual promissory note" in Colossians 2:14? Was it the Mosaic Law with its "commandments and ordinances" (Eph. 2:15)? If so (and this is an issue very much in dispute), Paul's point would be that the Jewish people were debtors to obey it in full. In the case of Gentiles, their conscience bound them to keep the moral law (cf. Romans 2:14-16).
Unfortunately, I must again take issue with the ESV rendering of this passage. It's not so much inaccurate as incomplete, for Paul not only says that this "record of debt" was "against" us (ESV), insofar as we are guilty for having failed to pay it, but that it also poses a very real threat to us (the NASV brings this across with its phrase, "which was hostile to us"). The threat consists of the penalty that we incur for having failed to pay it in full. What was the penalty for nonpayment? Not just a bad credit record. Not the repossession of our property. Not merely imprisonment. The penalty was death!
Here again is the glorious good news of the gospel of God's grace in Jesus Christ. The way God forgave us all our trespasses (v. 13b) was "by canceling" our indebtedness to him. The word translated "canceling" has the sense of blotting out or erasing. God has wiped clean the slate! "I, I am he," declares the Lord, "who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins" (Isaiah 43:25).
But note well. God didn't simply tear up the note, so to speak, and throw it away. He didn't say, "Don't worry folks. We'll just let bygones be bygones." The infinitely righteous One cannot pretend that our indebtedness never existed.
Instead, he cancelled the IOU of our spiritual obligation by "nailing it to the cross"! Some see here an allusion to the ancient practice of affixing to the cross an inscription of the crimes for which the person was being executed. If so, then God nails the accusation against us to the cross of Christ.
In any case, it is critical that we know there was no magic wand that waved off our guilt and made it disappear. God's justice and holiness are at stake here, no less so than our eternal destiny. That is why the payment must be made in full. We were buried beneath a mountain of spiritual bankruptcy. But God took that signed confession of indebtedness which stood as a perpetual witness against us and canceled it in the death of Christ.
We are no longer in default on the debt because Jesus paid it all! Whatever we owed, he paid. Whatever penalty we incurred, he endured. Well did the hymn writer declare: "My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin not in part but the whole, was nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! O my soul."
"Whatever curse was mine, He bore;
The wormwood and the gall.
There in that lone mysterious hour;
My cup – He drained it all."
Stunned by forgiving grace,