Is sin a legal debt to God?

by Matt Slick

Yes, sin is a legal debt to God.  Sin is breaking the Law of God (1 John 3:4).  The Law is exemplified in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and contains such things as "do not lie, do not steal, do not commit adultery, honor your father and mother," etc.  When someone breaks any of God's laws he has sinned, and the result is a punishment for breaking the law.  After all, there is no law that does not have a punishment.  So, when anyone sins there is a legal debt to God because it is God's law that he has broken.  In fact, consider how Jesus equated sin with legal debt.

Matthew 6:9-13 Luke 11:2-4
9 "Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. 2 "Father, hallowed be Your name.
10 ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Your kingdom come.
11 ‘Give us this day our daily bread. 3 ‘Give us each day our daily bread.
12 ‘And forgive us our debts [epheilamata], as we also have forgiven our debtors. 4 And forgive us our sins [hamartia],
13 ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’
For we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.’ ”

The word "debts" in Greek is ὀφειλήματα, opheilamata, and it means a legal debt.  The word "sin" in Greek is ἁμαρτία, hamartia.  Please consider the definitions of the words below. 

  • Debt, Ephemilamata "ὀφείλημα, ατος, τό
    • debt; (1) literally, what is owed debt, sum owed; in a broader sense of what is due obligation (RO 4.4); (2) morally, of guilt incurred sin, offense."1
    • "Two occurrences; AV translates as “debt” twice. 1 that which is owed. 1A that which is justly or legally due, a debt. 2 metaph. offence, sin."2
    • ὀφειλήa, ῆς f; ὀφείλημαa, τος n: (derivatives of ὀφείλωa ‘to owe,’ 57.219) that which is owed—‘debt, amount owed.'"3
  • Sin, Hamartia, ἁμαρτία
    • "ἁμαρτία, ας, ἡ sin; (1) of an act, a departure from doing what is right, equivalent to ἁμάρτημα sin, wrongdoing (1J 5.17); (2) as the moral consequence of having done something wrong sin, guilt."4
    • "ἁμαρτάνω [hamartano /ham·ar·tan·o/] v. Perhaps from 1 (as a negative particle) and the base of 3313; TDNT 1:267; TDNTA 44; GK 279; 43 occurrences; AV translates as “sin” 38 times, “trespass” three times, “offend” once, and “for your faults” once. 1 to be without a share in. 2 to miss the mark. 3 to err, be mistaken. 4 to miss or wander from the path of uprightness and honour, to do or go wrong. 5 to wander from the law of God, violate God’s law, sin."5
    • "ἁμαρτάνω; ἁμαρτίαa, ας f: to act contrary to the will and law of God—‘to sin, to engage in wrongdoing, sin.’"6

Also, Paul deals with sin in a legal context as well.  Consider Colossians 2:14 below, which I've listed in different translations and underlined a particularly important set of words.

  • NASB, Colossians 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."
  • ESV, Colossians 2:14, "by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross."
  • NIV, Colossians 2:14, "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."
  • KJV, Colossians 2:14, "Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross."

In each translation the underlined words are a single word in Greek: χειρόγραφον cheirógraphon.  It means...

  • Cheirógraphon, "A document, esp. a note of indebtness, is written in one’s own hand as a proof of obligation."7
  • Cheirógraphon, " strictly handwritten document; in legal matters a promissory note, record of indebtedness, bond."8
  • Cheirógraphon, "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."9

So, according to Colossians 2:14 Jesus "canceled out the certificate of debt."  In other words, he canceled out the handwritten note of legal indebtedness.  This is proof that sin is a legal debt, and since it is God's law that we have broken when we sin, it is a legal debt to God.

But, praise be to God himself who became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:1, 14) and bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24).  He took our legal indebtedness due to our sins and paid the legal penalty, which is death (Romans 6:23), by dying on the cross.  Therefore, all who put their trust and faith in what Jesus has done on the cross will be justified (made legally righteous according to the law) by faith (Romans 3:28; 5:1), and have a righteousness given to them by God, a righteousness that is not derived by their keeping of the law (Philippians 3:9; Romans 3:21; 10:4).

  • 1. Friberg, Timothy, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller. Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Baker’s Greek New Testament Library. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000.
  • 2. Strong, James. Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2001.
  • 3. Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996.
  • 4. Friberg, Timothy, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller. Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Baker’s Greek New Testament Library. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000.
  • 5. Strong, James. Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2001.
  • 6. Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996.
  • 7. Kittel, Gerhard, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–.
  • 8. Friberg, Timothy, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller. Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Baker’s Greek New Testament Library. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000.
  • 9. Strong, James. Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2001.

 

 

 

 
 
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