I have heard and used phrases like the following all my life. They have become part of the Christian lingo, and are in many songs, sermons, and christian conversations:
- "Jesus paid our debt"
- "Jesus paid a debt that he did not owe"
- "Christ Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay!"
- "Jesus paid the penalty of man's sin"
However I can not find any verse or passage in our scriptures that describe what Jesus did on the cross in these terms.
One verse that is often used to support this theory is 1 Timothy 2:5-6:
"For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time." (NIV)But does ransom mean the same as paying a debt? If my child was held hostage by some bad guys or evil force, and I payed a ransom to free my child... would you say I was paying a debt? No, I didn't owe the bad guys anything. I was choosing to give something to win back something that was mine. Paying a ransom is not squaring things up so they are fair or even again. Paying a ransom is redeeming, or recovering ownership of something that was taken from you.
Also with the ransom analogy, who is the 'payment' made to? Who was holding the child captive? The bad/evil force. How does this go with the idea that Jesus paid for my sins to appease God's wrath? Was God the bad/evil force holding me captive? Or was the debt to Satan? And Jesus was making the payment to appease Satan? I don't think either option is fits.
My point here is that I don't see this verse giving strong support to use of phrases like "Jesus paid our debt".
So, are there other verses that support this doctrine?
OK, how about this one?
"for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:23-26 NIV)OK, here is redemption again, or buying back, which I think this is different than paying a debt.
What about 'sacrifice of atonement'? Does sacrifice mean payment?
Jesus was a sacrificial lamb. However we are also called to offer our bodies as a sacrifice to God. But I don't think most would take this verse as a command that our sacrifice to God is payment for our sins in any way. We shouldn't think we are paying off God when we make a sacrifice.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. (Romans 12:1 NIV)The cross was a symbol of sacrifice (not payment), and we are called to sacrifice our lives to God as we follow the example of Jesus.
"Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. "(Matt 16:24 NIV)We wouldn't say that we are paying off God as we take up 'our cross' and follow God.
So if Jesus was the sacrifice of atonement, lets look at what that meant to the Jews:
"This is the interpretation given by all the Jewish commentators, ancient and modern, on the passage; compare also Yoma 5a; Zeb. 6a, (image) = "There is no Atonement except with blood," with the identical words in Heb. ix. 22, R. V.: "Apart from shedding of blood there is no remission [of sins]." The life of the victim was offered, not, as has been said, as a penalty in a juridical sense to avert Heaven's punishment, not to have man's sins laid upon it as upon the scapegoat of the Day of Atonement, and thus to have the animal die in his place, as Ewald thinks ("Alterthümer," p. 68), but as a typical ransom of "life by life"; the blood sprinkled by the priest upon the altar serving as the means of a renewal of man's covenant of life with God (see Trumbull, "The Blood Covenant," p. 247). In Mosaic ritualism the atoning blood thus actually meant the bringing about of a reunion with God, the restoration of peace between the soul and its Maker. Therefore, the expiatory sacrifice was accompanied by a confession of the sins for which it was designed to make Atonement (see Lev. v. 5, xvi. 21; Num. v. 7; compare Maimonides, "Yad," Teshubah, i. 1): "no atonement without confession of sin as the act of repentance," or as Philo ("De Victimis," xi.) says, "not without the sincerity of his repentance, not by words merely, but by works, the conviction of his soul which healed him from disease and restores him to good health."OK, lets look at how some other parts of scripture describe what happened on the cross.
John the Baptist called Jesus the lamb of God:
"The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29 NIV)Jesus Sacrifice was pleasing to God
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2 NIV)How does Jesus describe his death?
"Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son." (John 3:14-18 NIV)In the days of Moses, the Israelites sinned by lacking trust in God. They were sent venomous snakes. God had Moses make a snake and put it on a pole. When the people were bitten by a snake and looked at the snake on the pole they would live (see Numbers 21:4-9). Jesus is saying that His death is similar to this. His body was raised up on a cross. Our lives are full of sin which will lead to death. But if we place our trust in Jesus on the cross we will live forever.
Jesus also played the role of high priest. It was the high priest who would make atonement for the people by making the sacrifice offering.
For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17 NIV)He took our sins away
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24 NIV)He took our bondage to human regulations away
"He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. "(Col 2:13-14 NIV).... and there are likely many more passages that describe Christ's work on the cross. It can be described in many ways, and much of it we will likely not fully understand. However I don't see a need to stick to descriptions that do not have solid scriptural support.
What's wrong with focusing on Jesus work as mediator, redeemer, ransom giver, sacrificial lamb of God, high priest, fragrant offering, and the one who removes my sin and my bondage to human regulations?
The description of a Jesus who paid our debt looks fine on Jesus. But it also makes God the Father out to be a God who requires human sacrifices to appease him (either ours or Christ's). If scripture isn't clear on wording it this way, I think it's best to avoid this type of language.
I'd love to hear your thoughts.