Our spiritual condition before salvation is described many ways in the Bible. For example, we are described as once being spiritually dead, enemies of God, lost, slaves of sin, children of wrath, etc. We could add to that list, debtors – debtors to God. In Col. 2: 13b-14, Paul says that God forgave us our sins “by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.” That means before we were saved, we were debtors to God because of our sin, having violated His law. Our sin debt to God is also seen by comparing the two versions of the model prayer the Lord gave us in Matthew 6 and Luke 11. In one version we are to pray, “forgive us our debts” (Matt.6:12), and in the other, “forgive us our sins” (Luke 11:4). So our debt to God is indeed our sin.
The Magnitude of Our Debt
But just how big is our debt to God? One way to answer this question involves the penalty of our sin. If even one sin earns us eternal death, separation from God for all eternity (James 2:10, Rom. 6:23), it is hard to argue that our sin debt to God is finite. Behind this argument is the fact that our God is holy and infinite. If we were to egregiously violate a civil law against a human government official, like a president for example, we may be sentenced to prison for a long but finite time period. The higher the authority figure, the longer the sentence. But when we sin against the infinite sovereign Most High God, we deserve an infinite sentence – eternal death, being under His wrath forever (Rom. 5:9). This analogy suggests our debt is infinite.
Another way to see the magnitude of our sin debt to God comes from the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18. In verse 24 we see that the unforgiving servant (who can easily represent us) owed the king (God) 10,000 talents. According to some commentators, one talent was equivalent to about 20 years of wages of a common laborer at that time. Thus, the unforgiving servant owed the king 200,000 years of his wages! Other commentators say that 10,000 talents in common parlance at that time meant an infinite number. By either reckoning, the implication of this parable is that we, like the servant, owe God an unpayable debt. Even though Jesus used this parable to make a different point, it does suggest that our debt is so enormous we cannot hope to pay it.
Christ, our Substitute
So if we cannot pay our sin debt to God, who can? No ordinary man can because all have sinned and are themselves debtors to God (Rom 3: 23). Only the sinless Christ can, and He mercifully did on the cross! Look at Col. 2:13-14 again: “And you...God made alive together with him (Christ), having forgiving us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing to the cross.” So, God forgave our debt by cancelling our IOU, our record of sin that should have been nailed to our cross. Notice that God did not just throw away our sin record. He nailed it to Christ’s cross, imputing our sin debt to Him. Why? Because God is just and someone had to pay our debt. Only the sinless Christ, dying on the cross as our substitute, could pay our debt in full because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins [debts]” (Heb. 9:22).
In fact, when Christ uttered His last words on the cross, “It is finished” (“tetelestai” in Greek; John 19:30), He was also saying, “Paid in full.” We know this because “tetelestai” has been found on papyri of that time, which were tax receipts having the meaning “Paid in full.” Jesus’ sacrifice was so complete, it paid for all our sins – those before we were saved, all sins since, and all sins we will ever commit. His one sacrifice provides ongoing forgiveness for our daily sins (I John 1: 9).
The most common NT Greek word for forgiveness means “to send away,” so God sent away our sins forever by transferring them to Christ who paid for them completely on the cross. This is pictured for us in the yearly OT atonement ceremony of Leviticus 16 where the high priest laid his hands on the live goat, confessed all the sins of Israel, and put them on the live goat. Then, he sent the goat with all the people’s sins into the wilderness, never to return (verses 20-22). Similarly, God placed all our sins on Christ on the cross, cancelled our debt, and sent our sins away from us “as far as east is from the west” (Ps. 103: 12) and “into the depths of the sea” (Mic. 7:19).
But there is more. Not only did God mercifully cancel our sin debt through Christ, but He has graciously “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1: 3)! Apart from Christ, we were infinite debtors; in Christ we are now infinitely blessed. How great is our God!
Now, how does this gospel truth of our cancelled debt pertain to our daily lives? One application has to do with forgiving others. Consider the rest of the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 mentioned above. Jesus’ point is: How can we who have been forgiven by God so enormous a debt, not forgive the tiny debt of those who sin against us (verses 32-33)? I know that when I am offended in the future, I am going to try to remember God’s abundant mercy to me in forgiving my gigantic debt and realize how minuscule my offender’s sin debt is to me, and readily show him mercy.
Also, we should do what the unforgiving servant is not recorded as having done after receiving a pardon: give thanks and praise to God for His great mercy in forgiving our debt. As Paul often broke out in praise when writing about gospel truth, so too we should well up with praise to God and Christ as we meditate on the huge debt God blotted out for us through Christ. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits who forgives all your iniquity” (Ps. 103: 2-3).