I grew up in God’s Church and was brought up keeping the Sabbath and the Holy Days. There were, of course, many advantages to learning the truth at a young age; I did not have to unlearn false teachings, nor give up any cherished traditions such as Christmas or Easter. The downside, though—if you can call it that—was spending most of my life without a strong grasp of why mainstream professing Christians believed and acted as they did. As a young man, I had no idea how professing Christians justified practices like Christmas and Sunday-keeping, or by what “logic” they tried to claim that God’s law is no longer relevant.
But as I grew older and began taking on leadership responsibilities in the Church, I realized that I needed to have answers ready for outbursts like, “Dude, the old laws are done away with!” (And yes, that is an actual quote.) Why is this important? Because our need to keep God’s commandments is one of the biggest distinctions between what His true Church teaches and what most professing Christians believe.
Colossians 2:13–14 is one of the passages of Scripture most commonly used as “proof” that God’s people are no longer required to abide by His laws. In the New King James Version, it reads this way:
And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
In this article, we’ll break down this passage and answer three questions: What is the “handwriting of requirements”? What was nailed to the cross? What was “against us” and “contrary to us”?
What Scripture Doesn’t Say
Before we begin to answer those questions, it’s helpful to understand how mainstream professing Christians interpret Colossians 2:14. Both Protestants and Catholics read this passage and identify God’s moral law as the “handwriting of requirements” in question. The following quote from The Bible Knowledge Commentary summarizes the popular false interpretation of this passage: “This new life came when God forgave us all our sins for He canceled the written code. Before God’s written Law, His ‘written code,’ people stood condemned… so it worked against them and opposed them. But in Christ the Law is fulfilled… and done away with” (ed. John Walvoord and Roy Zuck, 1983).
In essence, these commentators say, Keeping God’s commandments is wrong because believers are dead to the law. Jesus fulfilled the law and therefore did away with it. He kept it so that we don’t have to.
But it’s not difficult to prove this interpretation wrong. Let’s do so by answering the first of our three questions.
What Is the “Handwriting of Requirements”?
As we’ve read, Colossians 2:14 says that Christ “wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” The two Greek words to focus on in this passage are cheirographon, translated “handwriting,” and dogma, translated “requirements.”
The New Spirit-Filled Life Bible says that the Greek word translated “handwriting,” cheirographon, is “a word commonly used when a monetary obligation was acknowledged by a debtor. It means a signed confession of indebtedness, bond, or self-confessed indictment.” Thayer’s Greek Lexicon adds further clarity, saying that cheirographon refers to “what one has written with his own hand… specifically, 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 an appointed time.” We could think of it like a mortgage or an IOU, in a way; a cheirographon is a written record of the debt we owe for our sins.
Elsewhere, the Bible uses dogma to refer to “decrees” of men, not God—for example, in Luke 2:1, which reads, “And it came to pass in those days that a decree [dogma] went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” When referring to God’s laws, the Greek Scriptures do not use the word dogma, but the word nomos. However, reflecting their bias against God’s law, many “Christian” commentators and translators assert that dogma in Colossians 2:14 refers to the Ten Commandments—an assumption that is inconsistent with the rest of the Bible. As we’ve pointed out, dogma refers to decrees of men—not divine decrees from God. This is important evidence that what’s being nailed to the cross is not God-given law, but something that came from human beings.
Other translations of the Bible can shed more light on this passage. For example, instead of “the handwriting of requirements,” the New Living Translation refers to “the record of the charges against us,” while the English Standard Version mentions “the record of debt that stood against us.” This certificate of indebtedness would record a massive sum that we owe but could never possibly repay—an insurmountable debt.
In Matthew 18:21–35, Jesus relates the parable of the unforgiving servant and the enormous, 10,000-talent debt he owed to his master. In today’s currency, his debt would be more than two billion dollars—truly, a debt that none of us could ever repay. Yet even that debt is small compared to the debt incurred by all our sins. The penalty for our sins can only be death, which is why Jesus Christ submitted to crucifixion and paid that penalty for us.
As we continue, we’ll see further proof that it does not make sense to equate the “handwriting of requirements” with the Ten Commandments.
What Was Nailed to the Cross?
At a crucifixion, both a condemned criminal and a list of his crimes were nailed to a cross. David Stern’s Jewish New Testament Commentary notes that “when a criminal was executed on a stake, it was customary to nail a list of his crimes on the stake; an example is the sign placed above [Jesus’] head ([John] 19:19–22).” Stern comments that “some interpreters take this verse to mean that God removed not the charges against sinners but the Torah itself.”
Since Jesus Christ lived a sinless life, how could any crimes be listed and nailed to His cross? They couldn’t—so a different sort of writing was nailed there instead: “And an inscription also was written over Him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38). One of the two criminals crucified with Him even declared, “we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41).
Jesus Christ had done nothing wrong, which even this criminal could recognize, perhaps by the simple fact that no physical record of any crimes was placed above Him on the cross. Spiritually, though, He carried on the cross a very long record of crimes—our sins. “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:20–21).
So, why did Jesus Christ need to die, even though He was sinless? Because of the transgressions of each and every one of us. He was crucified, having accepted the “handwriting of requirements” for our sins—the penalty for all the sins we ever committed. “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example…. ‘Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth’; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:21–24). Christ took all our sins onto Himself and very humbly allowed Himself to be led to His execution.
But what is this about His body being hung “on a tree”? Why does Peter use that word, instead of “cross” or “stake”? And he’s not the only one: Paul wrote in Galatians 3:13 that “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’).”
Most professing Christians take this to mean that the law is a curse. But that’s not what the verse says and it’s not what the curse is—the curse is the penalty for violating the law. Both Peter and Paul were referring to Deuteronomy 21:22–23, which states the following:
If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God (Deuteronomy 21:22–23).
Clearly, it is the penalty or curse for breaking those laws that was nailed to the cross—not the laws themselves. When Jesus Christ bore our sins, He became accursed. He took the handwritten declaration of debt from each and every repentant individual who has accepted His sacrifice, and that debt was nailed to the cross in His payment of it as if He had committed the crimes instead of us.
Jesus Christ suffered the consequence of the written record of sins that were against us and contrary to us, and that penalty was death.
What Was “Contrary to Us” and “Against Us”?
Colossians 2:14 says that Christ “wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” To confirm what it was that was “wiped out” and taken “out of the way,” let’s analyze two phrases in the verse: “wiped out” and “against us.”
The Greek word exaleiphō is translated “having wiped out.” This word is also used in Acts 3:19, which states, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out [exaleiphō], so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19). In this scripture, it is clearly not God’s written code, the Ten Commandments, being blotted out.
Another example of sins being blotted out is in Psalm 51, which David wrote after his adultery with Bathsheba: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out [wipe away] my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin…. Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities” (vv. 1–9).
David’s heartfelt repentance is bookended by two requests for blotting out. The first request is for God to blot out transgressions, or rebellions—David’s infringing or going beyond the bounds of moral principles, God’s standard of behavior. Does not God’s law define what His standard of behavior is? In verse 9, David asks God to blot out his iniquities—his guilt or his punishment. What David is asking to be blotted out is not God’s holy, perfect, and just law, but his guilt and the rebellious and perverse behavior that breaks that law.
For the grace [unmerited pardon or gift] of God that brings salvation [deliverance from death] has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works (Titus 2:11–14).
How are we to define “ungodliness and worldly lusts”? These are what we fall into when we break God’s law as it is defined in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). Jesus Christ gave Himself for us by taking away our sins, our list of crimes, and allowing Himself to be hung on the stake so that we could be delivered from death. Part of that deliverance is freeing us from lawless deeds and making us more and more proficient in doing good works.
So, would God’s law being described as “against us” and “contrary to us” align with the rest of the Bible? Not at all. In fact, Paul says in Romans 7:12 that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.” We were all facing death because of the penalty of sin, the transgression of God’s law. That is what was “against us” and “contrary to us.” Nothing ordained by God is contrary to human beings. God’s law is not the problem—sin is.
The Purpose of the Law
When we drive, most of us rely on speed limit signs to tell us how fast we can go, and how fast not to go. We know the consequences of disregarding those signs, and we know how to avoid suffering those consequences because of what the signs tell us. But what if the speed limit were a secret? How would we know how fast to go—or not go? How nerve-wracking would it be to drive on a road where we could be ticketed at any time for breaking a law we didn’t even know was there?
The purpose of speed limit signs is to define speeds that are too fast, and the purpose of God’s law is to define sin. “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). Why wouldn’t we want God’s law to define right and wrong for us? Sin makes our lives a tragedy of suffering, whether we know what it is or not. The law gives us the opportunity to escape that suffering. That is why the law is a great blessing: with it, we can know to avoid sin. “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Romans 7:7).
Those who claim that the law has been abolished say it is a burden, that to live by it is to try to “earn salvation.” But many of them will still try to live by some of the law—usually the part that falls under loving our neighbor as ourselves, as if that is somehow more “legitimate” than the first part, which tells us how to love God (Matthew 22:37–40). In reality, we can’t truly love our fellow human beings if we don’t love our Creator, just as we can’t truly love God without loving those He made in His image.
Our Old Man Crucified
What else was nailed to the cross, in a figurative sense? We were. Paul wrote, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, King James Version). Jesus Christ did not allow Himself to be crucified to pay the debt of our sins just so we could sit back and do nothing. This is the core misunderstanding that lets mainstream professing Christians get off track in their lives.
We all have a past—even those who grew up in God’s Church have done things that make us guilty of transgressing God’s law. What Galatians 2:20 says is that this old version of ourselves should be put to death, as was Jesus Christ. We should put an end to our old way of living and behave in a manner that shows a new, Christ-centered life.
In the book of Romans, Paul puts a finer point on this concept: “For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (Romans 6:5–6).
What’s been done away with? The body of sin—not the law of God. “For he who has died has been freed from sin” (v. 7). The handwriting of requirements has been paid by our Savior, and we are now free from the death penalty brought by our sin.
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more…. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord (vv. 8–11).
There’s an awful lot packed into these verses, but the gist is that, while sin and death are fundamentally linked, we can rise above sin as we make positive changes in our lives.
Baptism symbolizes our being crucified with Jesus Christ. When we go through the process of being baptized, we not only have our sins forgiven and washed away—we figuratively die. Just as Jesus Christ died on the cross, we should leave the old man behind us and come out of the water into a new life, dedicated to the service of God.
The Deeper Truth
So, what are the answers to our three questions? Let’s take one more look at Colossians 2:11–14:
In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
The “handwriting of requirements” is the debt we owe because of our sin, the penalty of which is death. What was nailed to the cross was that same debt, along with Jesus Christ and the old, sinful people we once were. Sin, along with its consequences, was contrary to us and against us.
People don’t want to change; they want a comfortable message that claims they are fine as they are. To this, the Bible responds, “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Colossians 3:8–10).
The key is that after we accept Christ’s amazing sacrifice, we should respond by living a new life that is dedicated to godliness. Jesus Christ is our perfect model for how we should live this new life. We will not do so perfectly. But we must try—and try our best.
God allowed Paul’s writings to be difficult to understand on the surface—they are an ideal test to distinguish between those people who are trying to understand God’s revelation and those who are just trying to find loopholes.
Jesus Christ did not nail God’s law to the cross. And we should be thankful that we have a Savior who abolished not God’s perfect law, but rather the debt we owe because of transgressing that law, as He paid that penalty for us. But that’s not the end of it. Now that we have been pardoned, Jesus Christ expects us to live a life that is forever changed because of our understanding of His sacrifice. The purpose of God’s law is to define right and wrong so that we can transform our relationship with God and man. When we follow that law, it changes life for the better.
Let’s be so very thankful that we have been called to this understanding, that our penalty was nailed to the cross, and that we have an awesome Savior who erased our debt by dying on our behalf. We can thank Him by living a life that respects and responds to that calling.