When the Romans hung a condemned criminal on a cross as punishment for a crime, they always affixed a titulus above the one being executed. This titulus listed the capital crimes that had been committed, explaining why the crucified individual had to pay the debt his offense incurred against Rome. In the case of Jesus, the titulus read that He claimed to be “King of the Jews”; thus, the Romans crucified Jesus because they believed Him to be seditiously claiming for Himself an authority that, in their view, properly belonged to the caesar (John 19:16b–22).
As he unfolds the cosmic significance of that dark day on Golgotha, Paul, in today’s passage, alludes to the titulus the Father affixed to the cross when His Son bore the sins of the world, thus facing the wrath of God. On the cross, the covenant Lord took “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” and set it aside, “nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). The apostle is speaking of the IOU that all the children of Adam have signed off on. We came into this world under an obligation to obey God completely, and whether we grew up hearing the Word of God or know what the Almighty requires of us only because we are made in His image, none of us has paid this debt (Rom. 1:1–3:20). Having failed to obey God perfectly, all of us must pay for our evil through suffering eternal death — the wrath of God — but the Father has shown unfathomable love in allowing another to satisfy the debt for His people. Taking the debt — the IOU that shows what we have not done and the divine wrath that must fall on us — God nailed it over Jesus’ head, showing that His death satisfied our debt. In turn, we were taken out of a state of death in which we were uncircumcised in the flesh — slaves to our sinful nature — and brought to life, set free to love and obey Him (Col. 2:13). God did everything that had to be done, so we must not let anyone tell us that more is required to pay what we owe Him (vv. 8–12).
The Westminster Confession of Faith 11.3 summarizes it this way: “Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to His Father’s justice in their behalf.” God no longer regards anyone who is in Christ guilty of not paying his IOU, for Jesus satisfies the payment for us, and we are free from trying to do it ourselves.