Disclaimer: About This Blog

THIS BLOG IS: my personal journey of how I am rethinking some of my spiritual beliefs.
THIS BLOG IS NOT: intended to point fingers at people who I think are wrong.
I do not believe the final judgement will be based on how many correct answers we get on a theology exam. I believe many people throughout history have had genuine relationships with our Lord and Saviour Jesus, despite holding questionable beliefs and practices. I make no claim to having it all figured out or being your judge. If we end up disagreeing over these topics I pray we can find a way to demonstrate grace.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Did Jesus pay our debt?

OK, I may be alone on these thoughts. And that's OK. I will still respect and fellowship with those who think differently.

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"
From what I can tell this type of language may have started with John Calvin in the 1500's, and the theory of penal substitution.

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."
http://bible.tmtm.com/wiki/ATONEMENT_(Jewish_Encyclopedia)
(emphasis mine)
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.

Related Posts:

24 comments:

Nick said...

I agree with the essence of what you said.

Some comments I would add though: The concept of "paying debt" is directly tied to ransom. It was used long before Calvin by Catholics, especially the Scholastics. But the Scholastics (eg Aquinas) never held to Penal Substitution, which is a different concept.
The "debt" is paid to God, which is reparations for offending Him. Catholics believe the greatest suffering of Christ was His anguish (sorrow) in His soul for realizing just how much our sins offend God. This sorrow was of great worth in God's sight. The Passion had nothing to do with God pouring out His wrath on Christ, though this is what Penal Substitution teaches.

From what you've said here, YOU would be VERY interested in an Essay I wrote against Penal Substitution:
http://tinyurl.com/cn9vrt

http://tinyurl.com/chjm8l

p.s. you should enable an option in your comment box that says "email me of follow up comments" so posters can be notified of responses.

Jonathan said...

Thanks Nick for your comment and links. I think we're in agreement with concerns on penal substituion.

Thanks for pointing out that the Scholastics (Aquinas) should get some credit for language like "Jesus paid our debt".

I'm just not convinced it is scriptural though. And I think there is a difference between paying a debt, and paying a ransom. A ransom is about redeeming something that is yours. Paying a debt is squaring things up for something you (or someone else) owes.

There is no debt to pay in a ransom. There is no squaring things up. Someone is held captive, and someone else redeems them.

I'd like to consider the viewpoint of early followers of Christ when they heard the message of Christ and the cross. Is there any evidence that they used language like "paying a debt"? If there isn't, then I don't see the need to add such language to our Christian lingo.

Thanks for the input Nick.
God bless!

Nick said...

I would think the concept is the same behind paying a ransom and a debt. I don't read them as radically different.

One term here which I believe is very important which Protestants who reject P-sub overlook is the term "propitiation." That is in fact a Scriptural term, but many Psub Protestants misread it to mean "take wrath upon oneself." The term actually means to "turn away" (appease) God's wrath. This is where Psub doesn't fit, but the Catholic notion of Satisfaction does. There is explicit Biblical support of righteous men turning away God's wrath without having to become the object of it.

Once you take 'propitiation' in account with 'redemption', then I believe a more 'interesting' picture emerges.

Psub Protestants will go after you on this 'propitiation' thing, so be warned and see if you can incorporate it into your understanding of God's grand plan. Just remember that propitiation doesn't at all require Psub.

Like a Mustard Seed said...

I don't think the idea of "paying a debt" is misleading, as long as it's understood within the entire context of the gospel...

Jesus told a parable that went:

"Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?"
22Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.[f]

23"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents[g] was brought to him. 25Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26"The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' 27The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii.[h] He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.

29"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'

30"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32"Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' 34In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."
So it would seem that Jesus doesn't have much of a problem with using debt as a metophor for the sin that we've been forgiven....

But I think the jist of what you're wrestling with was outlined in your statement: "But it also makes God the Father out to be a God who requires human sacrifices to appease him (either ours or Christ's)."

God doesn't require human sacrifice to "appease" Him, God requires justice and holiness as components of a relationship with Him. But in our sinfulness this was impossible, so God sacrificed Himself in order to satisfy His own desire to reach out to a fallen humanity.... If you have a conflict with that, then it would seem that simply removing the allegory of debt/payment, doesn't solve the problem, because you're still left with a Saviour who died for our sin....

Daniel

Jonathan said...

Nick,

Thanks Nick, you're not alone thinking paying a ransom is the same concept as paying a debt.

But let me try another angle. Consider the current cases of piracy in the seas near Somalia. These cases often end with the pirates being paid a ransom. Could we say these cases end with someone paying a debt? Does anyone owe these pirates anything?

Sorry but I'm not sure propitiation clarifies it for me either. "propitiation is the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, by which He fulfills the wrath of God " - wikipedia

I'm struggling with the Christian lingo that focuses on the wrath of God being placed on His son. I just am not seeing that focus in Scripture.

I'm thinking the work of the cross was a joint work of the trinity. All of God was involved, and at all times there was love and trust in their relationship.

At one moment Jesus questioned the Father's presence... "why have you forsaken me", but shortly later confirms his trust "into your hands I commit my spirit."

God bless!

Jonathan said...

Like a Mustard Seed,

Thanks for stopping by, and for sharing those verses.

Good thoughts.

I do see in this story a King who forgives debts (and sins).

I do see the urgency for us to forgive debts of others (and sins), or our sins will remain on us.

However, unless I'm missing something, I don't see this passage supporting the idea that Jesus paid our debts on the cross. So I'm still questioning if there is any scriptural support for language like "Jesus paid our debts".

I guess I'm wanting to stick to language that is clearly in scripture. I think we find we have less divisions when we use the same language that is used in scripture. So in terms of Jesus work on the cross... the Bible is clear 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. I wish we could stick to the language in scripture.

Thanks, God bless.

Nick said...

There is one nice passage on ransom/redeemed from 1 Pt 1:
"8For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, 19but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect."

So this doesn't fit the pirates debt thing. In this case man turned to sin and was in turn enslaved by sin, the 'ransom' comes in with the notion that God did something to pull men out of that slavery, similar to how God used the Passover to release-redeem his people from bondage.

We cannot ignore the fact 'ransom' is a 'commercial' term, and we both agree there has to be an element of truth (even if 'ransom' alone cannot completely capture it).

You said: I'm struggling with the Christian lingo that focuses on the wrath of God being placed on His son. I just am not seeing that focus in Scripture.

Nick: I agree, it is false and unBiblical (and even blasphemous) to say God's wrath was ever focused on Jesus, it wasn't. In the OT, people like Moses propitiated God's wrath, but God's wrath was never on Moses. Psub Protestants don't realize this point.

You said: I'm thinking the work of the cross was a joint work of the trinity. All of God was involved, and at all times there was love and trust in their relationship.

Nick: True. Even Psub Protestants believe this. The difference is, I (and I'm sure you as well) believe this is distorted if God's Wrath is on Jesus.

Jon: At one moment Jesus questioned the Father's presence... "why have you forsaken me", but shortly later confirms his trust "into your hands I commit my spirit."

Nick: Psub Protestants mistakenly read into this passage that God "turned away" because He couldn't look at sin and that Jesus was forsaken as a sinner forsaken in hellfire is. That is wrong. Ps 22:1B clears this up, and so has all of Christendom up to Luther (who changed it). The only "forsaking" was the Father NOT sending protection from Christ's persecutors (Mat 26:53). ALSO, Jesus was INTONING Psalm 22, that means when the Jews herd the FIRST FEW WORDS they immediately knew Jesus was calling upon that Messianic Psalm, He was applying the whole Psalm to himself (which mentions nothing of God's wrath, quite the contrary, v24).

Anonymous said...

Another passage to consider that mentions debt and cancelling it (which would mean something was owing I would assume) is found in Luke 7:41-50.

41"Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii,[a] and the other fifty. 42Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?"and skipping ahead a little...
47Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little."Any thoughts, Jon.

Christina :-)

Jonathan said...

Christina, Thanks for those verses. I think those verses supports the idea that God forgives or cancels our debts (and sins).

But they don't support the idea that Jesus paid a price to pay for our debts.

Nick, thanks again for the comments. Good thoughts.

I'm all for using language that is clear in scripture. Like 'forgiving sins', 'canceling debt', 'redeeming', 'ransom giver'. The more we focus on language that is clear in scripture, I think we'll find we have less divisions.

God bless!

Daniel said...

Good one Jonathan, thanks for your thoughts. I am on the same note as you!

Jonathan said...

Thanks Daniel for stopping by, and reading some of my random thoughts and questions.

God bless!

Stephen M. Driscoll said...

Jonathan, one of the problems I have with analogies is that they all break down. However, Jesus does use analogies to help His disciples understand His work at the cross. (Even the expression "work" is an analogy in itself.)

The problem is seldom ever in the analogy—especially when it was only offered to make a particular point. A good example is Jesus describing His return as a thief in the night. There we have the righteous Son of God likening an act of His own to that of a kind of person whom the Bible says will be condemned to hell. The point, however, is merely to stress that we will not know when He returns.

Likewise His usage of the debt owed to the king in the allegory cited above in previous comments. Likewise our modern analogy of Christ paying a debt.

Thus we can say, without any fear of contradiction to Scripture, Jesus paid my debt.

I ask that you not take analogies too far, thus leaving behind the intended point. Paul told Timothy, of the faithful men to whom he was instructed to entrust the message he heard from Paul, "charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers" (2 Tim. 2:14).

Jonathan said...

Thanks Steven,

I agree analogies only work to a point. Do you think it is possible that the proponents of the penal substitution atonement theory have taken some words from the Bible and taken those ideas too far as well?

My journey here has started with exploring church unity. I have found over and over again that the topics the church has divided over and debated the most are topics that are not clearly taught in Scripture. In this case I find it useful to try to stick to the language I find in Scripture. Jesus and others do talk about the work of the cross. But I find it concerning that they don't use the same language that I frequently hear today. I fear someone has taken some concept or understanding and taken it too far.

This post you found is fairly old. A summary of my concerns with penal sub theory is here:
http://jonjourney.blogspot.ca/2010/08/10-reasons-why-im-not-fan-of-penal.html

I appreciate dialog. I understand I am not holding a majority position on this one, and am OK agreeing to disagree on it. Thanks, God bless.

Jonathan said...

Steven,

Also... was the verse above you reference the story where Jesus mentioned a King who forgave a debt. Maybe changing that to Jesus paying is taking that analogy too far.

Lauren said...

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. (Colossians 2:13-14, ESV)

God bless! Glad you are pursuing the hard questions.

Jonathan said...

Thanks Lauren for the comment. I think there is a difference between canceling and forgiving a debt, and requiring payment for.
As a parent I am able to forgive my children when they do me wrong, without requiring a completely fair payment. I believe the verse you shared testifies that God chooses to forgive our sins. I don't see it talking in terms of Him paying for our sins.

Brett said...

Jonathan,

I think in looking for a specific tree, you are missing the forest. I suppose you believe in the Trinity? No tree, but a forest of evidence Scripturally. I see the doctrine of penal substitution the same way. Multiple interpretations of various passages could offer you a way out of the doctrine of penal substitution but the preponderance of the Scriptures that either imply or offer a penal substitution interpretation create a forest of evidence to support the idea. I think Lauren's reference to Colossians alone should put the argument to rest. Thanks.

Jonathan said...

Thanks Brett for the comment. I came across this article recently that I found helpful.

http://www.mbconf.ca/home/products_and_services/resources/publications/mb_herald/mb_herald_june_2009/features/thinking_about_the_atonement/


Throughout Church history Christians have held to different atonement theories. The one held by the majority today has not always been the majority position. They each have different Scripture to support them. Wikipedia has further info on the different atonement theories out there.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atonement_in_Christianity

Home Site said...

Jesus paid a debt he did not owe is in scripture plainly .God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Jesus said it is finished . the word in greek means paid .

Jonathan said...

Thanks Home Site for the comment. 2 Corinthians 5:21? I'm looking at the greek terms in that verse. Which term means paid? which term means debt? I don't see it. I think that verse fits equally well into other atonement theories:
http://jonjourney.blogspot.ca/2014/01/overview-of-different-atonement-theories.html

Sid said...

To sum it up:
If the debt is paid, then it is not forgiven...it's just paid.

The Biblical way of thinking has a lot more punch I'd say.

Historically Anselm's Cur Deus Homo (1098) put Penal Substitution on the map. Since that thinking took a millennium to become popular, I'll stick to using language that's actually in the Bible!

Good article.

Jonathan said...

Thanks Sid.

Maja Moeller said...

Wow, these thoughts are amazing and really helpful. Thanks Jon!
I had difficulties with this appeasing God's wrath for quite a while, but didn't know how to understand it differently without discarding the Bible.
What you write makes a lot of sense to me. Thanks again

Daniel Cartwright said...

Galatians says that Jesus removed the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. The curse of the law was a quite extensive list of punishments that would come on Israel if they failed to keep the law. I don't think we can remove the penal aspect of the cross. Isaiah says He was numbered with the transgressors and the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him.

Also, many will claim that PSA is new to the church. I have read PSA supporting comments fron several of the early church fathers. Just because the theology wasn't fleshed out yet doesn't mean it didn't exist.