With all the discussion surrounding the legitimacy of the use of law in evangelism, one of the issues that surfaces time and again is whether the Mosaic Law should be divided into three parts. I don’t think anyone disagrees with the notion that the tripartite division of the Law into moral, civil, and ceremonial components is a helpful informal categorization of the various commandments God has given to Israel. Where theologians part ways is whether to make such categories theological constructs by which to build one’s doctrine of the Old Covenant Mosaic Law’s relationship to the New Covenant believer in Yahweh.
I want to quote generously today from Dr. Tom Schreiner, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Question 14 of his 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law takes up the issue of the tripartite division, and I find his comments very insightful. Let me say at the outset that I recognize that he is not the authority, but that Scripture alone is. I’ll also add that this is not a journal article or a book-length treatment of the threefold division, so expecting exegetical argumentation for every point will likely leave you frustrated. Nevertheless, I do think we can profit from his comments, and that they will advance the discussion on the believer’s relationship to the Mosaic Law.
Moral, Civil, Ceremonial
“The distinction between the moral, ceremonial, and civil law is appealing and attractive. Even though it has some elements of truth, it does not sufficiently capture Paul’s stance toward the law. As stated earlier, Paul argues that the entirety of the law has been set aside now that Christ has come. To say that the ‘moral’ elements of the law continue to be authoritative blunts the truth that the entire Mosaic covenant is no longer in force for believers.
“Indeed, it is quite difficult to distinguish between what is ‘moral’ and ‘ceremonial’ in the law. For instance, the law forbidding the taking of interest is clearly a moral mandate (Exod. 22:25), but this law was addressed to Israel as an agricultural society in the ancient Near East. As with the rest of the laws in the Mosaic covenant, it is [obsolete] [cf. Heb 8:13] now that Christ has come. This is not to say that this law has nothing to say to the church of Jesus Christ today. As Dorsey says, it still has ‘a revelatory and pedagogical’ function” (89–90).
Schreiner goes on to give examples of Mosaic Laws that are no longer in force for believers in this age. He mentions circumcision (Rom 4:9–12; Gal 2:3–5; 5:2; Phil 3:2–3; Col 2:11–12), the Passover (Rom 14:5–6; Gal 4:10; Col 2:16–17), sacrifices and temple worship (cf. the Book of Hebrews), and food and purity regulations (Mk 7:19; Ac 10:15; Rom 14:14, 20; 1Cor 8–10) (90–91). He even mentions the Sabbath, offering further comment because it’s one of the Ten Commandments:
“Believers are not required to observe the feasts, festivals, and special days of the Old Testament calendar. This includes the Sabbath, even though the Sabbath is part of the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:8–11). Such a judgment surprises some but it must be recognized that the entirety of the Old Testament law is [fulfilled] in Christ. Paul clearly teaches that Christians are free in regard to the observance of days. No day, in principle, holds pride of place above another (Rom. 14:5). Clearly, the Sabbath is included here; since it was observed weekly, it was the day that would naturally come to mind for readers. Colossians 2:16–17 makes this even clearer. The Sabbath belongs to the shadows of the old covenant and is a matter of indifference now that Christ has come. … The Sabbath finds fulfillment in the Sabbath rest granted by Jesus Christ (cf. Heb. 3:12–4:13)” (91-92).
Having thus discussed some of the so-called “ceremonial” laws, Schreiner goes on to address the “civil” laws. I’ll skip that discussion, because unless you’re a theonomist, we don’t have to make the case that we shouldn’t be trying to turn our countries into the Israelite theocracy.
All of the Law is Moral
He sums up:
“We have seen thus far that it is overly simplistic to say that the ceremonial and civil law have passed away, while the moral law still retains validity. Instead, the Mosaic law and covenant are no longer normative for believers. And yet at the same time the law finds its fulfillment in Christ. Further, even though the divisions of the ceremonial, civil, and moral have some cogency, they are not clearly articulated in the New Testament, and the distinction between what is moral, civil, or ceremonial is not always clear.” (93)
I think this is a strong point. We all want to recognize that Christ has fulfilled the Law, and thus is described as “the end of the law” (Rom 10:4). But what my brothers who hold to the tripartite division seem to overlook (or at least, not talk about much) is that Christ is the fulfillment of the whole Law. If you ask these dear friends why we don’t keep the whole Mosaic Law, but only the so-called moral division of the Law, the answer you’ll generally hear is, “We don’t practice the civil and ceremonial law because they are fulfilled in Christ.” But the thing is: Christ fulfilled the “moral” aspects of the Law too! Jesus is not merely the fulfillment of part of the Law. He has fulfilled “all righteousness” (cf. Matt 3:15).
Besides this, as Schreiner alludes to, all of the Mosaic Law is moral. When God gives a command to His covenant people—whether it is, “You shall not murder” (Exod 20:13) or “You shall not wear a material mixed of wool and linen together” (Deut 22:11)—disobedience is immoral. If an Israelite didn’t obey a “ceremonial” commandment, he was still morally accountable before God for that disobedience. Schreiner says, “Many of the so-called ‘ceremonial’ laws have a moral dimension that cannot be jettisoned” (94).
Law of God vs. Law of Moses
So wait. I’m putting the moral and civil/ceremonial laws on the same level, and I’m saying that we are not under the Law. So am I arguing that because it’s OK to mix fabrics, it is OK to murder? Am I some kind of rabid antinomian?
No, I’m not. But how do I account for the continued relevance of many of the so-called moral commands of the Mosaic Law? Schreiner helps here again:
“It is perhaps instructive to note that in most instances Paul does not argue that the moral norms from the Old Testament are authoritative on the basis of their appearance in the Old Testament, though in some instances he does cite the Old Testament command (e.g., Rom. 13:9; Eph. 6:2–3). … They are not normative merely because they appear in the Mosaic covenant, for that covenant has passed away. It seems that they are normative because they express the character of God. We know that they still express God’s will for believers because they are repeated as moral norms in the New Testament. It is not surprising that in the welter of the laws we find in the Old Testament (613 according to the rabbis) that some of those laws express transcendent moral principles. Still, the mistake we make is trying to carve up neatly the law into moral and nonmoral categories.” (93-94).
Here Schreiner gets to the heart of the matter. The reason that certain Old Testament commandments are normative for believers today is not merely because they show up in the Old Testament. Murder isn’t wrong because it’s in the Law of Moses, because, again, a prohibition of mixing fabrics is also in the Law of Moses, and we don’t argue that that is wrong for believers today. No, the reason that certain Old Testament commandments are normative for believers today while others are not, is because those that are normative express the transcendent, unchanging character of God. They express the “transcendent moral principles” which make up what the New Testament calls “the law of God” (1Cor 9:21), that divine standard of absolute righteousness to which all are universally held accountable.
On Monday, we’ll look more closely at what Scripture has to say regarding the law of God, law of Moses, and law of Christ, and then examine the implications that has for the recent discussion surrounding the use of law in evangelism.