And you, being dead in the trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made you alive together with him, having forgiven you all the trespasses, having wiped out what was written against us by hand in the decrees which were opposed to us, and he has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross; having stripped the rulers and authorities, he made a show in openness, having triumphed over them in it.
One of the implications of a narrative-historical hermeneutic is that the community, not the individual, is made the locus for New Testament theological reasoning. So, for example, eschatology—the “end” stuff—is not about what happens to individuals when they die but about what happens to communities, nations, empires, when God steps in to change things. This is not to say that the fate of individuals is unimportant, just that it is not at the centre of New Testament thought.
The same argument applies to soteriology—the “salvation” stuff. I am inclined to think that it is at least misleading to reduce salvation to the formula “Jesus died for my sins”, as though the cross were an event in our personal narrative:
Rather, I think we need to say something like: Jesus died for the sins of Israel or for the sake of the survival God’s people. The cross was an event in Israel’s story. My personal narrative has certainly intersected with the story of a people saved from destruction and radically transformed through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In that sense, my life has been deeply impacted by the cross, and I don’t think it’s simply wrong to say that Jesus died for my sins; but the narrative structure of salvation looks rather different:
With this cautious “thesis” in mind, I have been looking at the connection between Jesus’ death and the forgiveness of sins in the New Testament. Much of it has seemed fairly straightforward, which may only mean that I’m missing something. I plan to post a general piece shortly. But I did run up against Colossians 2:13-15 and I want to make some more extensive notes on it here.
There is an important connection between the forgiveness of sins and the cross in Colossians 2:13-15, but Paul’s argument needs to be followed carefully.
The metaphor Paul uses for forgiveness is that of the wiping clean or blotting out (exaleipsas) of a handwritten document consisting in decrees (to… cheirographon tois dogmasin). The document is then nailed to the cross. Exactly what sort of document this is is unclear. I rather like the parallel with Numbers 5:23 LXX: “And the priest shall write these curses on a scroll and shall wipe them out (exaleipsei) into the water of reproof that brings the curse.” Perhaps the more likely meaning, however, is suggested by Testament of Job 11:11, where cheirographon refers to a record of debt, which is cancelled.
In any case, it is difficult to read this as an argument for forgiveness on the direct and personal basis of Jesus’ death. Forgiveness comes about by the action of God wiping out their debt. The word for “decrees” is also found in Ephesians 2:15: “Christ has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing the Law of commandments in decrees (dogmasin).” Conceivably, then, the image of nailing the document to the cross makes a similar point: it is Jesus’ death which has brought about a situation in which not only Jews but also Gentiles—previously dead in the “uncircumcision of your flesh”—might find forgiveness.
The idea is found earlier in the Letter: the Gentile Colossians were once alienated from the God of Israel, being hostile in mind towards him. But they have been reconciled “in the body of his flesh through the death” (1:21-22). As in Ephesians, the thought is not that they have been individually reconciled through Jesus death but that Jesus’ death removed the dividing wall of the Law, with the result that Gentiles may be individually reconciled to God.
But Paul does attribute a clear efficacy to the cross in Colossians 2:15. The cross is the means by which the “rulers and authorities”, which he fears might exert a damaging influence over the Colossians (cf. 2:8-10), have been put to shame and defeated. As a result Christ has been made, by the resurrection, the “head of every ruler and authority” (2:10). So what the cross has directly led to in Paul’s argument here is not the salvation of individual Gentiles but the overthrow of the powers that governed the pagan world and the installation of Jesus as Lord.