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What Was Nailed to the Cross?

     Many church-goers claim that the Ten Commandments were “nailed to the cross.”   Yet, is that what your Bible teaches?   Don’t be too sure!

     There is only one scripture in the entire Bible which speaks of something being “nailed to the cross.”   That scripture was written by the Apostle Paul. 

     Contrary to what many people believe, Paul was not---in any way---against God’s spiritual law.   In fact, there are a great many scriptures written by Paul that endorse the keeping of God’s spiritual law!   Therefore, it would have been totally contrary to these numerous scriptures---as well as contrary to the writings of the other disciples, and contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ---if Paul had, in fact, stated that the law or the Ten Commandments were “nailed to the cross.”

     Let’s now look at that one scripture, and see what Paul said:  And you, being dead [i.e., ‘When you were dead’—NAS] in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made [you] 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”  (Col.2:13-14).

     First of all, what is this “handwriting of requirements” that Christ “wiped out” and “nailed to the cross”?    Whereas the NKJV refers to it as “handwriting of requirements,” the KJV calls it “the handwriting of ordinances.”   So, just from that, it’s not clear what Paul is referring to. 

     The NIV, however, makes it clear what they think is being referred to, as they render the phrase as follows:  having canceled the written code, with its regulations…”    Plainly, the NIV is saying that this scripture means that God’s law was nailed to the cross!   The New International Reader’s Version expresses this error of the NIV even more plainly, as they render it as:  “He [Christ] wiped out the written Law with its rules.  The Law was against us.  It opposed us.  He took it away and nailed it to the cross.”

     Yet, how could this possibly be the meaning of what Paul was saying, when we consider the great abundance of scriptures written by Paul which strongly endorse the keeping of God’s law?!    Such a tremendous contradiction in teaching by Paul would be unthinkable!

     This passage in Colossians is not referring to God’s law.   In fact, the Greek word for “law”---nomos---does not occur one single time in the entire book of Colossians!   Furthermore, the book of Colossians doesn’t contain one single quote from the Old Testament---which is further evidence that the issue being addressed in Colossians is not God’s law! 

     The key to understanding this verse is to first understand the phrase “the handwriting of ordinances,” which is translated from the Greek phrase “cheirographon tois dogmasin.”   This phrase would be better translated as “the record (or catalogue) of our sins”---i.e., the “notes of guilt” that are against us.

     An analogy of “notes of guilt” would be the notes or records that are written against a person when he is found guilty of breaking man’s law.   Yes, just as “notes of guilt” are written against us when we break man’s law, likewise “notes of guilt” (or “records of our sins”) are recorded against us when we break God’s law.  

     In the book International Critical Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians it is stated on page 254 that the Greek word “cheirographon”  means  …properly an autograph, [and] was in later Greek a technical term for a written acknowledgement of debt.   Furthermore, the entire [aforementioned Greek] phrase is taken from a Greek idiom that refers to a handwritten bill of debt, based upon laws or teachings.”1

     Now, do you and I have a “debt” that needs wiping out?   Indeed we do!   Christ very plainly compares our need of God’s forgiveness of our sins (“our debts”) to that of someone needing forgiveness of a financial debt (Matt.18: 23-35).    Here, a servant owed his master a huge financial debt, and the master forgave him the debt.   But then the forgiven man refused to forgive a much smaller financial debt which someone owed him.  So the master then said to his servant:  “…‘You wicked servant!   I forgave you all that debt because you begged me.   Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’   And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.   So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses”  (verses 32-35).    So, if we don’t forgive others, then God won’t forgive us our debt that we have incurred due to our sins.

     Likewise, in Matthew chapter 6, Christ instructs us to pray that God will forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”  (verse 12).    And what is the debt we owe?   What is the penalty we earn whenever we sin?   Death is the penalty that we earn when we sin!  (Rom. 6:23).   Yet, for all who repent and accept Christ, His Sacrifice pays for our sins---pays our debt!  Our debt is “wiped out.”

     When Paul spoke, in Col.2:14, of something being “against us,” he was referring to these “notes of guilt”---this “catalogue of our sins”---being against us.   God’s law is not “against us.”    God’s spiritual law is for our benefit!

     Consider also that this Greek word “cheirographon” is found only once in the Bible.  So when there’s only one usage of a term, it’s impossible to make a comparative analysis of its meaning.  Yet, recent research has examined the usage of this Greek word in literature other than the Bible---but of the same time period.2

     In the book Apocalypse of Isaiah (as well as other works of literature of that time period) the term “cheirographon” is used to refer to the “record book of sin.”   So, here again, the phrase in question refers to “our record of sin.”   It does not refer to the Ten Commandments or to God’s law. 

     Yes, it was our “record of sin”---our “notes of guilt”---that was nailed to the cross.

     In The Ryrie Study Bible the following explanation is given in a footnote for Col.2:14:  handwriting of requirements = a certificate or acknowledgement of debt in the handwriting of the debtor.  The Mosaic law (which Paul’s phrase symbolizes) put us in debt to God with sin;  this debt He has canceled by nailing it to the cross of Christ.   Christ has made full payment.

     Let’s now consider several Bible translations of Col.2:14 which make the meaning clearer than the renderings given in the KJV and the NKJV and the NIV:

     “having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross”  (Today’s New International Version).

     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”  (NAS).

     “He has wiped out the record of our debt to the Law, which stood against us; he has destroyed it by nailing it to the cross”  (The New Jerusalem Bible).


In Conclusion

     Paul repeatedly taught adherence to God’s spiritual law.   Accordingly---and, as corroborated by new evidence ---Paul was not saying that God’s law or the Ten Commandments was nailed to the cross!   Rather, he was saying that the “record of our debt”---our “notes of guilt” is what was nailed to the cross.









1.  Tomorrow’s World Bible Study Course,  Lesson Ten,  Dec. 2000, p.9

2.  information from Dr. Samuel Bacchiocchi (Professor of Church History and Theology at Andrews University in Michigan) from the article “What Was Nailed to the Cross?”  The World Ahead magazine, March 1996, p. 16