Certificate of debt consisting of decrees

Summary: The certificate of debt consisting of decrees is traditionally interpreted as the Law of Moses, concluding that Col. 2:14 teaches that the Law of Moses has been cancelled. However, many interpret it as the penalty for our sins, in terms of the Law, for reasons such as:

The word cheirographon (translated “certificate of debt” by the NASB), is used only here in the entire Bible.  Outside the Bible it consistently is a note of indebtedness written in one’s own hand as a proof of obligation.

Most translations renders it as the record of our sins that has been canceled; not the Law of Moses.

Verse 14 must be read with verse 13, which would define cheirographon as being “dead in your transgressions”.

Ephesians 2:15 should not be used to conclude that Colossians 2:14 refers to the Law of Moses because different things are cancelled in these two verses for two different purposes.

The deception, as described by the letter, is non-Jewish, indicated by the emphasis on the supernatural, the worship of angels and visions, on mystery and knowledge and on self-abasement and the severe treatment of the body.  Paul calls it a “philosophy” and a “self-made religion”.  A statement that the Law of Moses has been cancelled does not fit this context.

The Colossians still observed the Jewish holy days, but this does not mean that the deception included Jewish legalism.  The Colossians observed these days in a joyous, festive manner, while the Colossian false teachers preached “self-abasement” and “severe treatment of the body”.  It is therefore concluded that the Colossian deception criticized the believers for HOW they observed the Jewish special days (2:16).

Verse 15 refers to the “rulers and authorities” that have now been disarmed.  It is implied that they accused Christians before God, but since their guilt has been eliminated, these “rulers and authorities” are unable to accuse Christians.

The cheirographon, that “was hostile to us” (Col 2:14), refers to the “evils and troubles” that will come for breaking the covenant (Deut. 31:17-26).

2:14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

The purpose here is to determine what this “certificate of debt consisting of decrees” is, that was “against us”, but that was “canceled out” by being “nailed … to the cross” (2:14).

Law of Moses – The KJV translation of this phrase is the “handwriting of ordinances”.  This sounds like the Law of Moses, which Moses wrote up by hand. Support for this interpretation includes the following:

The “handwriting of ordinances” “was hostile to us” (Col 2:14), while the Law of Moses served “as a witness against you” (Deut. 31:26).

Ephesians 2:15 is in many respects similar to Colossians 2:14, and in Ephesians “the Law of commandments” was abolished, which probably refers to the Law of Moses

For such reasons many people over the years concluded that Col. 2:14 teaches that the Law of Moses has been cancelled by the cross.

Translations differ – This phrase is translated very differently by other translations.  For instance:

Phillips calls it “the damning evidence of broken laws and commandments”.  If this translation is correct, this is not the Law of Moses.

The NIV reads, “the charge of our legal indebtedness”.  This also does not sound like the Law of Moses.  It sounds more like what we owe because we disobeyed the Law.

Importance – It is important to understand what this “certificate of debt consisting of decrees” (2:14) is because it helps to explain the nature of the Colossian deception.  If it refers to the Law of Moses, then it supports the view that the Colossian deception included Jewish legalism.

Greek – The transliterated Greek phrase translated as “certificate of debt consisting of decrees” by the NASB is Cheirographon tois Dogmasin:

  • Certificate of debt – cheirographon (G5498)
  • consisting of – tois (G3588)
  • decrees – dogmasin (G1378)

Proposed meaning – It is proposed here that the “certificate of debt consisting of decrees” (NASB) either refers to the record of our sins, and/or to the penalty we owe for such sins, according to the Law of God.  The evidence for this proposal is as follows:

Cheirographon

The word cheirographon is used only here in the entire Bible.  Literally it refers to something hand-written and the more literal translations simply render it as “the handwriting”, but outside the Bible and in the LXX (ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) it is consistently used for a note of indebtedness written in one’s own hand as a proof of obligation.  For instance, in the Apocalypse of Elijah is found a description of an angel holding a book, explicitly called a cheirographon, in which the sins of the seer are recorded.  For this reason many translations use the word “debt” (NASB, NIV and others) or “bond” (RSV).

The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown commentary defines ‘cheirographon’ as:

  1. A handwriting, what one has written by his own hand
  2. A note of hand or writing in which one acknowledges that money has either been deposited with him or lent to him by another, to be returned at the appointed time (Thayer’s).

For more information, refer to the “versebyversecommentary”-website. It states that this meaning is well-attested in both the Jewish and Greco-Roman world.

Translations

Secondly, most translations imply that the record of our sins has been canceled; not the Law of Moses.  It is really only the KJV and some other literal translations that allow one to identify it as the Law of Moses.  Other translations keep the cheirographon (something handwritten) and the dogmasin (decrees) apart as two separate concepts, interpreting the phrase “certificate of debt consisting of decrees” either as:

  • The record of our transgressions resulting from “disobeying the Law of Moses” (CEV); OR
  • The legal consequences or “legal demands” (RSV) of our transgressions.

See here for more a more detailed discussion of the alternative translations.

Context

Thirdly, the context implies that the record of our sins has been cancelled; not the Law of Moses.

Since the word ‘cheirographon’ occurs nowhere else in Scripture, the interpretation must be carefully guided by the context.  Theologians spend so much time on individual words and phrases, comparing it with similar words and phrases elsewhere, that they sometimes neglect the immediate context.  One of the fundamental assumptions of this website’s interpretation of Paul’s letters is that no one verse should be interpreted in isolation.  One has to allow the meaning of a verse to be determined by the surrounding verses in such a way that a series of verses will be telling a logical story and form a logical sequence.

The immediate context of the previous verse (2:13) defines the former condition of the Colossians as “dead in your transgressions”, but now the Father has “forgiven us all our transgressions” (2:13).  Since this is the immediate context, and since verse 14 starts with the word “having”, which is often used to indicate that what follows will elaborate on what was said before (2:2, 7, 12, 13), it is proposed that verses 13 and 14 form a unit and that verse 14 also deals with the forgiving of sin.  This would mean that the “certificate of debt” that was “against us … hostile to us” is explained by the statement that the Colossians previously were “dead in your transgressions” (2:13).  It would also mean that nailing the “certificate of debt” to the cross is a symbolic way of saying that the Father has “forgiven us all our transgressions” (2:13).

As discussed on the page that analyses 2:11-14, in the slightly wider context we note that the entire 2:9-14 forms a unit. To summarize:

The fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” in Christ (2:9). Therefore “in Him you have been made complete” (2:10) through “circumcision made without hands” (2:11), by sharing in His death and resurrection through baptism (2:12) and through the forgiveness of “all our transgressions” (2:13).

Cancelling out of the Law of Moses does not fit this context because Christians are not made “complete” by cancelling a law. Cancelling the record of our sins, or cancelling the penalty we owe for our sins, according to the Law of God, most certainly fits this context.

Pagan nature of the deception

Fourthly, the nature of the Colossian “deception” (2:8), which was pagan and not Jewish, implies that 2:14 does not refer to the Law of Moses.

The pagan nature of the Colossian deception is seen in the following:

The frequent reference to “mystery” in this letter implies that it was similar to the mystery religions of that time (see discussion of 2:2), with its secrets that were only known by the initiates.

The emphasis on “wisdom and knowledge” in this letter implies that the deception placed particular emphases on “wisdom and knowledge”, which implies that the deception was related to the Gnosticism of that time.  The name Gnosticism is derived from the Greek word that means knowledge.

The deception included “self-abasement” (self-humiliation) and “severe treatment of the body” (2:23), including submission to decrees such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (2:20-21).  The Law of Moses includes rules with respect to unclean food and the Jews added many rules for how food must be prepared, but the concept of “self-abasement” and “severe treatment of the body” went far beyond the Jewish rules.

The deception included worshipping angels (2:18).  It placed much emphasis on supernaturalrulers and authorities”, which probably describe different classes of angels.  It received its information via “visions” (2:18), probably claimed to have been received via angels.  This emphasis on the supernatural is foreign to Judaism

Paul calls it a “philosophy” (2:8), a “self-made religion” (2:23), the “tradition of men” (2:8): mere “commandments and teachings of men” (2:22).  It therefore was not based on the Law of Moses.

The church in Paul’s days was threatened by corrupting influences both from the Jewish and the Gentiles worlds.  In Paul’s other letters one would often find a confrontation between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians over the Law of Moses, but the word “law” is not found even once in the entire letter to the Colossians.

The reference to circumcision in 2:11 does not mean that the Colossians were troubled by people trying to circumcise them, like in Galatians.  It is merely used as a symbol of initiation into the church.

2:16, referring to “a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day”, is the only direct mention in this letter of requirements from the Law of Moses.  On the basis of this verse commentators often assume that the deception in Colossae included a dispute over the Law of Moses.  But since this is the only clear reference to the Law of Moses in a sea of references to influences that are distinctly pagan in nature, and since the early church did, in fact, observe the Jewish holy days, and since the Jewish festivals were observed in a joyous, festive manner, while the Colossian false teachers preached “self-abasement” and “severe treatment of the body”, it is proposed below that the Colossian deception criticized the believers for HOW they observed the Jewish special days.

Therefore, while in Galatians the threat was Jewish legalism, in Colossians it was pagan in nature.  A statement that the Law of Moses has been cancelled does not fit this context.

Ephesians 2:15

Fifthly, Ephesians 2:15 should not be used to interpret Colossians 2:14.

Ephesians 2:15 is often used to confirm that Colossians 2:14 talks about the Law of Moses. In both verses something related to “decrees”, that was “hostile to us”, have been abolished by the death of Christ. However, in Ephesians “the Law of commandments” was abolished, which probably refers to the Law of Moses, while in Colossians “the record of the debt we owed” (CEB), was “canceled out”.  Furthermore, the purpose in the two verses is different.  In Ephesians the purpose was to break down “the dividing wall” between Jew and Gentile and make “the two into one new man”.  In Colossians the context indicates that our guilt was removed.  It would therefore not be reasonable to assume that Colossians teaches that the Law of Moses has been cancelled simply because Ephesians teaches that.  See here for a more detailed discussion of Ephesians 2:15.

Against us

The cheirographon “was hostile to us” (Col 2:14), while the Law of Moses served “as a witness against you” (Deut. 31:26), but the context of Deut. 31 is the “evils and troubles” that “will come upon them” (v17) for breaking the covenant (v16).  It may therefore be appropriate to interpret the cheirographon as the “evils and troubles” that are due to us for our sins.  “Our sins testify against us” (Is. 59:12; Jer. 14:7).

Conclusion

In summary, it is proposed here that the point of 2:14 is to say that our guilt has been abolished and annulled.  We still sin, but our guilt has been done away with.  This interpretation fits the context of the previous verses, which assure the Colossians that they have been made “complete” (2:10) because He has “forgiven us all our transgressions” (2:13).

To interpret verse 14 as saying that the Law of Moses has been cancelled would not fit the context because guilt is not removed by cancelling a law.  Such an interpretation would also not fit the wider context of the pagan nature of the Colossian deception.

To interpret verse 14 as saying that our guilt has been abolished also fits the context of the verses that will follow.

According to verse 15 He “disarmed the rulers and authorities” via the cross.  It will be argued that these “rulers and authorities” conducted a war of words and that they used the Christians’ guilt as their arms (weapons).  They accused the Christians before God, but in verse 14 Paul states that that guilt has been eliminated, “to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (1:22).  This eliminated the ability of these “rulers and authorities” to accuse Christians.

Verse 16 warns Christians not to allow people to judge them with respect to certain things.  Because the “rulers and authorities” have been disarmed, the Colossian Christian should not allow themselves to be judged and criticized by the Colossian deceivers.

The full assurance of the fullness of God’s forgiveness is the core of Paul’s answer to those in Colossae that were trying to attain perfection (2:10) by the “severe treatment of the body” (2:23) according to the “decrees” (2:20) of the false teachers.  Even for us today the memory of our sins can create in us a sense of incompleteness.  The solution, according to Paul, is to accepts that our own efforts cannot compensate for our mistakes, but to accept that, through the cross, God the Father has blotted out our sins and granted us full forgiveness.

Colossians Table of Contents

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