During this Easter season, we often sing the Elvina Hall hymn “Jesus Paid It All.” The refrain is:
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.
Jesus paid our debt through His substitutionary atonement on the cross and then overcame the penalty of sin through His resurrection. However, I’m afraid the fact that Jesus paid your debt and my debt is losing its wonder in today’s world.
We live in a time when debt is no longer something to be avoided or delivered from, but it is an accepted, even embraced, way of life. Numerous countries, including the U.S., run on debt-based economic models. The government’s debt is presently greater than $21 trillion—that’s a debt of $174,000 per tax payer. It is the largest debt for a single country in the world. Chasing the American Dream has resulted in student loan debt of $1.5 trillion and credit card debt approaching $1 trillion. One credit card company’s marketing promises to pay the card user cash back for using its credit card. Why doesn’t this company simply go bankrupt giving away cash? Because card users carry debt on the card.
Folks have forgotten the wisdom of “don’t spend what you don’t have.” Society has become desensitized to debt, justifies debt burdens, and feels entitled to debt forgiveness without consequence. To be sure, society is now conditioned to carry large debt burdens despite the long-term ramifications. Commercials and societal norms opine that you cannot go to college, buy a house, or get a car without loans. Even cell phone companies offer financing for the purchase of the latest and greatest phone.
With “living with debt” as the societal norm, do we really understand the debt that Jesus paid? Romans 3:23 is clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and Romans 6:23 informs us that “the wages of sin is death.” You and I deserve death. We are not entitled to probation for good behavior or a “get out of jail free” card. Death—no breathing, no firing of brain neurons, no beating of the heart, and no life support technologies keeping us “alive.” Moreover, the consequence of carrying our sin debt is beyond the temporal trappings of this world; it is eternal—eternal separation from God. As sinners, we are an abomination to a holy God. We cannot approach Him after the fact to plead our case or play “let’s make a deal.”
There is no debt forgiveness with a holy God. The sin debt has to be paid, or else we suffer the consequences. However, our debt is so enormous that it leaves us bankrupt, and we cannot do anything about it. Isaiah 64:6 attests that “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.”
But the good news is that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16) to pay our sin debt. Jesus is the only man who could pay our sin debt. Scripture attests to what Jesus did for us:
Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5)
[Jesus] Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation….” (Revelation 5:9)
Jesus died for your sins and my sins on the cross. His blood was spilled as the atoning sacrifice to pay our sin debt. John 19:30 records the last words of Jesus on the cross: “Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, ‘It is finished!’ And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.”
The single Greek word translated “It is finished” is tetelestai. It is an accounting term meaning “paid in full.” Jesus was declaring that our debt owed to God for our sin was completely wiped away forever. No payment plan is required, no surprise balloon payments materialize at the end—the sin debt has been paid in full. This is perhaps easier to see in the Greek, for tetelestai is spoken by Jesus in the perfect tense. There is no English equivalent to the Greek perfect tense. The perfect tense means that something happens at a specific point in time and continues on into the future with ongoing results. Hence, Jesus paid all of mankind’s sin debt at that very moment and for eternity.
Properly understanding debt this Easter season is of critical importance. It is not a material or monetary debt, but one that possesses eternal consequences for our soul. Hell is no longer our destiny because “Jesus paid it all….” We will be able to stand before holy God and be ushered into eternity with Him.
For an in-depth discussion on atonement, the following book is recommended: The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review, by David Allen, B&H Academic, 2016.
Although not the focus of this post, debt directly opposes biblical stewardship, and the amount of debt is affecting our churches as it prevents Christians from practicing the biblical discipline of generosity.