The Threefold Distinction of God’s Law

What use is the Old Testament law?  Has it been completely abrogated now that we are under the new covenant?  Is the Old Testament just background material to the New Testament?  Your answers to these questions are important because they will determine how you read and apply the Old Testament.  According to the New Testament, the Old Testament is for you!  You can and must read and profit from it.  The Apostles’ writings in the New Testament assume the continuing and binding authority of Old Testament doctrines and laws.  They cite the Old Testament as applicable to new covenant saints (Rom 3:10-18; 4:6-8; 1 Cor 9:8-10).  They explicitly teach that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction” (Rom 15:4; cf. 1 Cor 10:11), and “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16).

The Old Testament has continuing authority, but the New Testament must be our authoritative guide to interpreting the Old Testament.  We can only really understand the beginning of the Book in light of the end.  The end of the Book provides clarity and perspective on the beginning.  Thus, we should read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament.  Augustine understood this and said, “The new is in the old concealed; the old is in the new revealed.”

Even though the New Testament treats the Old Testament as authoritative, it also explicitly repeals some aspects of it.  So we need to interpret the Old Testament according to this rule: We continue to practice Old Testament principles and laws, unless the New Testament repeals them.  When we apply that rule to Old Testament law, it turns out that the civil and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament are fulfilled and abrogated in Christ, but the moral law of the Old Testament continues.  Here is an explanation of that threefold distinction of the Old Testament law.

First, the Old Testament contains “civil laws” (or “judicial” laws), which were for national Israel.  The civil laws describe the details of the national government, judicial system, penal code, and case laws of the visible structure of God’s Old Testament people (see Deut 1:9-17; 17:14-20; 20:1-20; etc.).  But with the cessation of the structure and polity of the Old Testament people of God, and with the institution of new covenant church polity, there is also a cessation of the Old Testament “civil laws” (Eph 2:14-16; Jn 18:36, etc.).  The moral principles standing behind the civil laws, however, are still instructive and binding for us (1 Cor 9:8-10).

Second, the Old Testament provides “ceremonial laws,” which outlined the system of Old Testament worship.  Ceremonial laws included detailed descriptions of the priesthood, the structure, and articles of tabernacle and temple worship, as well as the sacrificial system (Exodus 35-40; Leviticus).  These were types and shadows of Christ prefiguring and anticipating His first advent.  But now that Christ has come, the shadows of the old covenant are no longer necessary.  Hebrews teaches that Christ is our Great High Priest (Heb 7:15-17, 23-25), the “one mediator between God and men” (1 Tim 2:5); so, we have no need of the old priestly system.  With the coming of Christ, the sacrificial system is fulfilled and abolished since “by a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb 10:14), and “where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering of sin” (Heb 10:18).  Jesus fulfilled and did away with the ceremonial law.

Third, the Old Testament reveals the “moral law” of God.  The moral law is summarized in the Ten Commandments, which have continuing authority according to the New Testament (Matt 5:17-19; Rom 13:8-10; Jas 2:8-11).  This moral law has three uses:

First, there is the “civil” use of the moral law.  The moral law is a permanent manifestation of God’s eternal mind, which is written on the consciences of all men as His image bearers (Rom 2:14-15).  God’s moral law is the ethical standard by which everyone will be held accountable, including believers and unbelievers, individuals, families, churches, businesses, and governments (Rom 13:4; Eph 5:22-6:9).

Second, there is the “pedagogical” (preparatory) use of the moral law.  Romans 3:20 says, “Through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (cf. Rom 7:9).  The Ten Commandments expose sin and show men their need of Christ’s blood and righteousness to save them from God’s judicial wrath.  This is why we must preach the law before we preach the gospel (Mk 10:17-21).  People must understand their sinful condition before they will see their need of a Savior.

Third, there is the “didactic” (instructive) use of the moral law.  The moral law of God is the rule of life and conduct for all believers (cf. New Hampshire Confession of Faith, chapter 12).  Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (Jn 14:15).  In the new covenant, God writes the Old Testament “law” on the hearts of believers (Jer 31:33; Heb 8:10).  We’re told that the Ten Commandments are no longer merely written on tablets of stone outside of us, but are now written on the “tablets of human hearts” inside of us (2 Cor 3:3), such that keeping them is “not burdensome” (1 Jn 5:3), but flows from love to Christ and longing to become like Him for our joy and God’s glory.  My prayer is that God will use His moral law to drive us to Christ for justification by faith alone and to teach us to become like Christ in sanctification as we obey His gracious commands in our homes, our church, and in the whole community.