Saturday, August 04, 2007

Pecuniary vs. Judicial Debt

In one of the comments, Seth asked the following question:

Here is my law question. As an attorney:

How would you define pecuniary vs judicial debt payments?

Money or jail?

Good question. In very broad terms, the difference is between payment in money or in kind (e.g., barter) as opposed to payment in the person of the debtor himself (e.g., imprisonment, penal servitude, stripes, or death).

The best way to think of the difference Seth refers to is not the difference between pecuniary and judicial debt but between pecuniary and penal (think penalty) debt.

Most pecuniary debts arise from contracts and normal civil transactions. But we're thinking of sin and of our debt as the penalty for our crime. So we should think of analogies arising out of criminal law, not the law of contracts. Under criminal law, a pecuniary debt might arise from certain violations and low-level misdemeanors where the judge is required or permitted to impose a fine as a penalty.

Let's imagine that you get a traffic ticket for speeding, and the judge imposes a monetary fine. You now owe a pecuniary debt. Let's imagine that you don't have the money but your brother does. He is able and permitted to pay the fine. When he pays the fine, your debt to society is discharged.

Some people see Christ's work on our behalf as similar to the brother paying the fine. And this analogy works to a certain extent. He has paid our debt on our behalf.

But let's imagine that instead of a traffic violation, we have committed a more serious crime that requires incarceration. Your brother can no longer pay. The only person who can pay this debt is you. You must do the time, not your brother.

Christ's work compared to payment

Our debt to God is not of the sort that can be paid off like paying a fine, the debt we owe to God is owed in our persons. We must ourselves do the time.

And yet God has offered to substitute Christ's sacrifice as our punishment. This has no analogy in human law. Civilized society does not permit a mother to take the chair for her son or the brother to do the 30 years for the brother.

This unique combination — a debt owed in our persons paid vicariously by Christ — is the reason why analogies fail. Christ has not paid a certain amount for so many sins. His blood is not like a quantity of money. His suffering is not a pain-for-pain equivalent for the suffering due to us. The gracious arrangement of the gospel is unique and without an exact human parallel.

The trouble with certain views of the atonement is that they fail to recognize the unique nature of this transaction. The famous double-jeopardy argument, for example, works only if one sees Christ's suffering as a payment (like a monetary payment) for the debt (like a sum of money due) of the elect.

All analogies limp. Deductive arguments based on analogies should always be viewed with suspicion.

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Anonymous said...


What an excellent post. I love the emphasis of the atonement accomplished by Christ as being unigue. This is a point that needs to be driven home again and again. Thank you for pointing this out. Christ the God-man is the unigue one.

Blessings in Christ,
Terry W. West

Josh said...


Would you enable "recent" comments? Its much easier to track comments in older posts.

Steve said...

Josh, I don't know what you mean. I took a look through the blogger options and I don't see anything that looks like a good candidate for what you're referring to. I'm puzzled, though I'd like to oblige you. Thanks for the suggestion.

Seth McBee said...

Thanks a bunch for this post...short and to the point, making it easier to grasp.

Have you ever talked to other Christian attorneys who disagree with you on this matter? If so, what was their reasonings?

Steve said...

Hi Seth. No, I've never discussed this with an attorney. I have talked with attorneys who are Arminian. To be honest, I don't know many attorneys who are well versed in theology.

Anonymous said...

Both pecuniary and penal analogies break down unless given in the form that Christ gave the pecuniary one in Matthew 18:23-35.

A servant owed the king a big debt, a couple million dollars. Servant couldn't pay. Servant begged for mercy. King forgave him.

(I want to stop right there and see that the debt analogy as Jesus gives it has nothing to do with how Jesus' death on the cross works, but with the fact that we need forgiveness. I would also note that Jesus doesn't say that the king paid the debt to himself, but that he forgave the debt. This is very important, especially when you look at Matthew 6:12 where Jesus instructs us to pray "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." Why pray for a debt that's already paid to be forgiven? Clearly, Jesus does not have in mind the cross working as a payment of debt! But let's continue with the parable.)

Servant goes and chokes other servant who owes him like 15 bucks. King hears about it. King unforgives the servant's debt because he didn't have mercy on others. Jesus says this is what my Father will do to you if you don't forgive others.

(Clearly part of this parable is Jesus showing that he will not pay our debt on the cross because God wants to retain the ability to unforgive the debts of those who try to abuse the system. He, therefore, will merely forgive our debt. And, if we try to abuse the system, he will unforgive it. Jesus shows, therefore, that the cross is not a payment for debt. Oh sure, it's the purchase price for the church and it's the redemption price, the ransom, but not a payment of personal debt by any means. Personal debt to God is forgiven on the basis of the cross, and can be unforgiven on God's terms. How different this is from the standard line given by theologians today who ignore this parable of Jesus, being ignorant of God's righteousness and going about to establish their own--to establish a new system and a new interpretation of the cross, one which Jesus would be and is fully opposed to.)

Kevin Williams said...


A speeding fine is pecuniary in the sense that money is invloved, however it is also and more so penal.

Anonymous said...

So would you hold to a more governmental atonement view, like the New England Calvinists of the 1800s, as opposed to a retributive satisfaction theory?

Steve said...

Jesse, I would be inclined toward the view of the atonement as a satisfaction. My views on this come primarily from Dabney and Shedd. I was just now looking at Calvin, and he appears to see the atonement as Christ meriting grace for us, and as Christ appeasing, satisfying, and expiating the wrath of God. By this work Christ delivers us from death. See Institutes 2.17.

I must point out that Calvin's statements in 2.17.1 are echoed by Dabney hundreds of years later in his Systematic Theology when he speaks of the satisfaction not being pecuniary and the relation of this to an objection of the Socinians. Calvin's statements in 2.17.1 might be addressed directly to the Socinians, and Dabney may have taken his views from it.

All of these men saw the atonement as a satisfaction and as having general (or universal) aspects.

That is not to say that the governmentalists don't have some things right.

I am not, however, well versed in the history, so you have me at a disadvantage. I'll stick with Calvin, Dabney, and Shedd. If it came to a dispute, I would turn to those sources first and last for the theory.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Steve said...

ccect iphone is a spammer. I don't mind backlinks; I don't mind internet marketing ... I don't even mind spam. Just don't expect me to leave it undeleted on my blog.

I mean ... how early 90's is it to put a comment on a blog with 2,000 irrelevant and unrelated keywords? You think Google will reward you for such nonsense? I think not (or at least I hope not). :-)

Ken Pulliam said...

Just came across your post on PST. My inability to reconcile PST with any viable concept of justice is one of the reason I left the faith.

I am currently doing a series on problems I see with PST.


John Hutchinson said...


I think that you should revisit the pecuniary debt understanding of the Atonement. First, you are understanding in the context of current law regimes and not one known to the ancients; where debt repayment required payment in the person until as a debt slave, you paid off that debt. Although in Rome, it ended amongst citizens in around 320 B.C. because of sexual scandal, the practice and understanding persisted with non-citizens.

Scriptures speaks to both explanations, (e.g. Matthew 5:26). I believe in both as each explanation has particular aspects that give a more full and convincing understanding.

And since it is more important that a person know that Christ paid it all, and have a cogent rational underpinning to stabilize that top belief; and emphasizing one view over the other might hurt that more important top line belief; I think that you can potentially hurt somebody's faith by denigrating an explanation with which, because of their own experiences, they are more comfortable with.