One verse cited often with regard to the crucifixion of Christ in the Orthodox liturgical tradition is Colossians 2:14. “When he canceled the handwriting in the decrees against us, which were opposed to us. And he has taken it from our midst, by nailing it to the cross.” This verse describes how, as the previous verse says, we who were dead in our transgressions were made alive by having those transgressions taken away. The language used here offers us yet another window through the scriptures to understand the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sakes upon the cross. Though it may not be apparent in English translation, this language of the handwriting of a decree is part and parcel of one set of the thematic language used throughout the scriptures to describe human sin and its relationship to death.
The Greek word translated typically in this verse as “handwriting” is translated so based on a woodenly literal rendering of a Greek compound word made up of the word for “hand” and the word for something written. Its most common usage, however, in the first century AD was to refer to an IOU or a promissory note. Its attachment here to the word translated “decree” which refers to an official public document moves the meaning toward the latter usage, a promissory note or a public document describing a debt owed. St. Paul is therefore here describing the effects of our transgressions, our sins, as an accumulated debt which represents a claim against us. Christ, through his atoning sacrifice on the cross, cancels this debt. The certificate of that debt is nailed to the cross and torn asunder.
The imagery of transgression as debt here utilized by St. Paul is commonplace in the Gospels. Depending upon the Gospel which one is reading, the Lord’s Prayer asks either for the forgiveness of debts or of trespasses. St. Matthew’s Gospel gives the Lord’s Prayer as referring to the forgiveness of our debts as we forgive our debtors (Matt 6:9-13). Immediately thereafter, however, as an interpretation of the prayer, Christ says that if we forgive the trespasses of others, then our trespasses will be forgiven us (v. 14-15). St. Luke, however, phrases the Lord’s Prayer as referring to the forgiveness of our sins as we forgive our debtors (Lk 11:4). These concepts are so closely aligned in Second Temple Jewish thought that they can literally be used interchangeably. In describing the forgiveness of sins, Christ uses debt in several of his parables (eg. Matt 18:23-35; Luke 7:36-47).
This understanding of sin as a debt, however, goes well beyond merely an analogy to help us understand forgiveness. Though not so in most of the cultures of our day, in the ancient world, the concept of debt was closely tied to the institution of slavery. Slavery in the ancient world was not primarily an instrument of racial or ethnic oppression. Rather, it was primarily an economic institution. With no concept of “bankruptcy” in the modern sense, the means by which a debt which could not be paid would be settled was indentured servitude. A person would work off the debt by becoming a slave. As the head of a household, not only a man who had incurred a debt would be sold as a slave, but his entire family. Children born into the family would be considered to be subject to the debt incurred by the father and might live their whole life in slavery attempting to pay it back or otherwise earn freedman status. Until that point, their lives and actions were not their own but were under the control of the person who held their certificate of debt and so had a claim to ownership of them.
In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul uses this language of debt and slavery to describe the relationship between sin and death (6:16-23). St. Paul posits that the wage of sin is death. Death is the means by which the debt incurred through sin is paid and so death, through the slavery of sin, projects itself back through the life of the debtor, expressing itself in the form of continued sin, which in turn increases debt and further enslaves in a vicious cycle (Rom 7:7-24). Because this debt has been owed by every human person who has ever lived, each person dies for their own sin (Deut 24:16; Jer 31:30; Ezek 18:20). Further, the devil is connected to this imagery as the holder of the debt. After his rebellion in Paradise, the devil was cast down to the underworld and given, for a time, dominion over the dead. Through death and sin, he has been able to enslave the great mass of humankind, with this certificate of debt as his claim over everyone who sins.
A critical theme of St. John’s Gospel is that Christ, as sinless, does not owe any debt to death. In fact, it was impossible for Jesus to be killed. Rather, he chooses to lay down his life and having done so voluntarily, is able to take it up again (John 10:17-18). Because Christ is without sin, the devil has no claim over him whatsoever (John 14:30-31). He cannot even lay claim to his body through decay (Jude 9; Acts 2:27). Because he had no sins of his own he was able to die for ours (1 Cor 15:3). Because his life is the ineffable, infinite life of God himself, it is able to pay the debt owed to death for every human person setting them free from bondage to sin, death, and the devil. The devil is thus rendered powerless and deprived of even his kingdom of dust and ashes. “Since, then, the children have shared in blood and flesh, he himself, in the same way, shared in the same things, in order that through this death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the devil, and might set free those who, through fear of death, were subject to a lifetime of slavery” (Heb 2:14-15).
This language of manumission and redemption, of being freed from slavery through Christ’s sacrifice, is also entailed by the paschal language surrounding Christ and his death. Christ died not on the Day of Atonement, but the Passover. The celebration of Pascha was and remains for Jewish communities a celebration of freedom from slavery. Slavery to a spiritual tyrant who wielded the power of death. St. Peter can, therefore, speak of us having been purchased by the blood of Christ, the paschal lamb (Matt 20:28; Mark 10;45; 1 Pet 1:18-19). St. Paul can say that Christ has been sacrificed for us as our Passover (1 Cor 5:7). St. John the Forerunner’s primary witness to Jesus Christ is that he is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). It is the lamb who was slain whom St. John sees seated upon the heavenly throne (Rev 5:6).
Redemption in this sense, from the power of death and the devil, is universal. On the last day, all will be raised from the dead, not only the righteous (John 5:25-27; Acts 24:15; 1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 4:16). Death has been destroyed in Christ’s victory over it. St. Paul can say that Christ is the savior of all men, especially those who believe (1 Tim 4:10). The power (kratos) of death which the devil wielded has been taken away from him so that now all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Christ Pantokrator (all-powerful; Matt 28:18; Eph 1:21; Jude 25). Every human person now belongs to Christ as their Lord and Master (1 Cor 6:19-20). Christ now rules over all of creation, over those who accept and embrace him as Lord and Master of their life and over those who continue in rebellion against him (1 Cor 15:24-26). In the end, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Rom 14:11; Phil 2:10-11).
The heresy of universalism which has arisen from time to time in the history of the church comes from a misunderstanding of this universal element of redemption. What is said about the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s dominion is then taken to also be speaking of entrance into the kingdom and eternal life. The scriptures, however, are utterly clear that the resurrection of every human person who has ever lived is a precursor to Christ’s judgment of the living and the dead. “Do not wonder at this, for the hour comes when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out; those who have done good to the resurrection of life and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29). Rather than removing judgment from all of humanity as they suppose, Christ’s victory over death makes him the sole judge of all of humanity (John 5:22; Rom 14:4). No one but Christ exercises judgment over human persons, including the devil and his demons. They no longer have any claim. Christ is the Lord and so the judge of all.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the story of his great victory over the powers of sin and death and the devil culminating with his enthronement at the right hand of the Father with dominion over all the earth. This is a proclamation which brings joy and freedom in our being set free and receiving forgiveness of our debts. But it concludes with the warning that this same Jesus will appear to judge the living and the dead. It is this final proclamation which has always produced the question, “What must I do to be saved?” It is this final proclamation which has brought us all to live lives of repentance and faithfulness within the community of the church.