Sunday, December 9, 2018

What is the "certificate of debt" that Jesus canceled for us?

I recently heard a popular Protestant apologist argue that Colossians 2:14 is a strong proof text for Protestant doctrines such as Penal Substitution and Faith Alone. In this article, I want to look at this verse and show why this Protestant apologist is engaging in poor exegesis. The passage (briefly) is as follows:
11 You were circumcised with a circumcision not made with human hands, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith. 13 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, 14 by canceling the certificate of debt with its legal demands that stood against us . This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.
The Protestant made the claim that the phrase "certificate of debt" here was synonymous with "sin debt," and that by "canceling" it Jesus thus received the punishment our sins deserved. While his explanation is understandable, it is not genuine exegesis, and misses out on the richness of Paul's theology. Here's why.

The first thing I would propose is that we look to an undeniable parallel passage, which virtually all cross-references point us to, Ephesians 2, which says (briefly):
5 When we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him. 11 Remember that you Gentiles in the flesh, called "the uncircumcision" by those called "the circumcision" made in the flesh by hands - 12 remember that you were alienated from Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise. 13 But now in you have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
The parallels here are just too strong to ignore. We see in both passages references to "dead in trespasses," also "being made alive with Christ," also "raised with him," also "circumcision not made by human hands," among other similarities. Both passages are centered around the tension between Jews and Gentiles. What is the primary cause of this tension? The Mosaic Law Covenant. It gave many instructions for how Jews were to live separate from Gentiles (e.g., 'food and sabbath', Col 2:16).  This is a dominant theme in Paul's writings.

Given the above, it is pretty obvious that "canceling the certificate of debt with its legal demands" means essentially the same thing as "abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances". That is, the Mosaic Law was canceled, abolished, fulfilled, etc, (all terms the NT uses) through Christ's death on the Cross. This is an undeniable theme throughout the NT (e.g. Acts 13:38-39). And there's more to consider.

While many English translations render the Greek words of Col 2:14 as "certificate of debt with its legal demands," this long phrase is actually just two words in Greek. The first Greek word
is cheiro-graphon, which literally means hand-written (document), i.e., manuscript. It is only used once in the NT, and so assuming it means "certificate of debt" is a jump to conclusions (even if some pagan documents mean "certificate of debt"). Some translations properly limit themselves and do not add terms like "debt" here (e.g. Col 2:14 KJV). That's right, the term "debt" (and "certificate") doesn't actually appear here, it is assumed. This "debt" detail alone is quite a blow to the Protestant apologist's grand claim. The second Greek word is dogma, which is accurately translated as "legal demands," and only used twice by Paul. The two verses he uses it? Colossians 2:14 ("legal demands") and Ephesians 2:15 ("ordinances"). This again confirms the two passages are most certainly speaking of the same thing.

Who can deny that "hand written legal demands" and "law of ordinances" are most certainly Paul's way of saying the Mosaic Law? Recall how often the New Testament says "it is written" (over 100 times!), meaning the Old Testament Scriptures, particularly the Torah (Mosaic Law).
And Paul often refers to the Mosaic Law as the "written code" (Rom 2:27; Rom 7:6; 2 Cor 3:3). Paul is certainly contrasting this "hand-written" and "hand-circumcised" Jewish theme against the "not by human hands" circumcision of the Gentiles (Col 2:11; Eph 2:11; Rom 2:29; Phil 3:6). Given all this, how can you really assume such fancy language is a generic reference to sin, debt, etc? You can't, and such assumptions are terribly irresponsible.

With this, it can safely be said that the lesson of Colossians 2:14 is not that Jesus took the punishment your sin-debt deserved, in the sense of having your sins imputed to Him, but rather this was a more specific aspect of the Cross, namely addressing the roadblock which the Mosaic Law Covenant caused for salvation history (Gal 3:13-14). 

Finally, I would say appealing to Colossians 2 is terrible for Protestants for a few reasons. My favorite reason is that the reference to "being dead in trespasses but made alive" (Col 2:13; Eph 2:5) is speaking of inward transformation. This passage is clearly talking about Justification, which Protestants say is purely legal in nature and by Imputation, yet Paul says it is about being made spiritually alive. I address this issue elsewhere (e.g. HERE). My other favorite reason is that Paul explicitly mentions "baptism" within this Justification context (Col 2:12), which many Protestants cannot explain since they hold to faith alone.


Wendy FC said...

Brilliant work, Nick. As a protestant who rejects Penal Substitution and the forensic imputation, I really value how you analyse these mis-translations. (I'm a believer in union with Christ, so go with the ontological not some remote transaction).

Unknown said...

Wendy, Nick is awesome. What else can be said about it.

Nick said...

I would add another strong proof that I found, which is from the Calvinist/Reformed "Westminster Confession of Faith" (Chapter 19:3) which says:

//3. Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a Church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits;[a] and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties.[b] All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated under the New Testament.[c]

[a.] Gal 4:1-3; Col 2:17; Heb 9 throughout; 10:1. •
[b.] 1 Cor 5:7; 2 Cor 6:17; Jude 1:23. •
[c.] Dan 9:27; Eph 2:15-16; Col 2:14, 16-17.//

Notice that the very proof texts the WCF19.3 cites are Col 2:14-7 and Eph 2:15-16. This shows that the Reformed understood these verses to be saying the same thing, and that these verses refer to the Ceremonial Law being canceled out.