December 11, 2005 Q & A

God's Law in Old and New Covenants


When it comes to the older and newer covenants of grace, what is the traditional Reformed/Presbyterian view of what Christ abolished that was practiced in the Old Testament? What part of the Old Testament practices still apply to us as Christians and what does not? Is the ceremonial law all that does not apply to us, and, if so, what is included in the ceremonial law?


Traditionally, Reformed theology has taught that the Old Covenant law has three aspects to it: ceremonial, moral, and civil. Of course, all aspects of the Old Covenant law are fulfilled in Christ, but two of the three aspects are also abolished with the fulfillment, while one aspect carries over into the New Covenant.

That is, the ceremonial laws and the civil laws are fulfilled by Christ and abolished. The civil laws of the Old Covenant (example: Lev. 25:29, "If a man sells a dwelling house in a walled city, he may redeem it within a year of its sale. For a full year he shall have the right of redemption.") are abolished and no longer binding on us, and the ceremonial laws (example: animal sacrifices and temple worship) are also no longer binding on the new covenant believer. But the one aspect that does carry over is the moral law (as summarized in the Ten Commandments), and we are bound to keep those. This is how the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it in chapter 19:3-5:

... God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances; partly of worship, prefiguring Christ.... All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated under the new testament.... To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.... The moral law [however] does for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof....

What the Westminster Confession calls "judicial" law is usually called "civil" law (different wording, same meaning).

Covenant Theology teaches that the moral law continues to have three uses in the New Covenant: to restrain sin in God's common grace (the "civil" use), to act as a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ (the "pedagogical" use), and to instruct Christians in godliness (the "normative" use). This "third use" of the law (its primary use, according to John Calvin) is not recognized by all Christians, but is an important part not only of Presbyterian tradition, but of the broader Reformed tradition as well.

Example: The Heidelberg Catechism can be divided into three main sections: "Sin, Salvation, and Service" or "Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude." It is interesting that the Ten Commandments are discussed not in the section "Sin" or "Guilt" (which would have also been appropriate), but in the section "Service" or "Gratitude." That is, it is not only true that the Ten Commandments show us our sin and guilt, but also that they show us how to live grateful lives of service to God for his grace shown in our salvation. In no way does our following the law contribute to the earning of our salvation (see Eph. 2:8-9), but our being "under grace" does not free us from being obedient to the moral law of God.

Some have denied that, pointing to the Apostle Paul's statement that Christians are not under law but under grace" (Romans 6:14-15), but Paul also says, "the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good" (Rom. 7:12), "we know that the law is spiritual" (Rom. 7:14), and "I delight in the law of God" (Rom. 7:22). No longer "slaves of sin," the Romans "have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which [they] were committed and ... have become slaves to righteousness" (Rom. 6:17-18). The liberty which we have in Christ is not license to commit sin, but the freedom to obey his will. Indeed, service to Christ is perfect freedom, properly understood.

One final thought: love and law are not contrary, one to the other. Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments.... Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me" (John 14:15, 21). Similarly, the "beloved disciple," the apostle John, said, "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3).



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