Posted by: stpowen | August 9, 2013

The Christian, the Law and Christ

The Law, the Believer and Christ.
John 14:21. “He who has My commandments and keeps them , it is He who loves Me.’

Romans 10:4. ‘For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.’

1 Corinthians 9:21. ‘Not being without law towards God, but under law towards Christ.’

I am indebted for much of what follows to The Law and the Gospel by Ernest Riesinger (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1999. ISBN 0-87552-387-0), The Defense of the Decalogue by Richard Barcellos (Winepress Publishing. ISBN 0-9654955-9-0) and a booklet entitled The Threefold Division of the Law by Jonathan Bayes (Christian Institute, 2005. ISBN 1-901086 31-3).

The question of the place of the law in the lives of believers is a vexed one. The ‘Young, Restless and Reformed’ (Y.R.R.) or ‘New Calvinist’ Movement, associated with American theologians such as John Piper, Al Mohler, Don Carson and others, has been the welcome catalyst for a greater interest in Calvinist theology. However, relatively few of the YRR folk would claim to be ‘Confessional’- that is, to follow one of the great Reformed Confessions of the Reformation. I believe that one of the main reasons for this is that many Christians do not like the thought of being ‘under’ the Old Testament law. They read verses that say, for example, ‘Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law’ (Gal. 3:13) and suppose that no part of the law has anything to do with them any longer. Of course the verse does not say that Christ has redeemed us from the law, but from its curse. More of this anon.

The second problem that people have is with the Reformed division of the law into three parts: the Moral, the Ceremonial and the Judicial. They find no verse in the Bible that says that God has made such a division and therefore look no further but reject the concept, believing that when the Bible speaks of ‘The Law,’ it always and invariably means the same thing:; namely, the whole of the law given to Israel by Moses.

We shall take the second issue first, and it may be helpful to define what we mean by this threefold division of the Law. The Ceremonial Law comprises all those commandments concerning the annual feats days, dietary regulations and the sacrificial laws relating first to the Tabernacle and then to the Temple, also the priesthood and Levitical system. It seems to have been epitomized in the minds of Jewish people in the rite of circumcision (Acts 15:1, 5: Gal:3). We can easily see that the Lord Jesus declared the dietary laws obsolete (Mark 7:14-23), and this was confirmed by the Lord to Peter (Acts 10:16ff) and was endorsed by Paul (Rom. 14:14). The Old Testament sacrifices have been fulfilled and superseded by the one true sacrifice for sin of our Lord Jesus Christ (Heb 8:13; 10:11-14), and the feasts days have been discontinued (Col. 2:16-17). All these things were but fore-shadowings of the great reality, which is Christ.

The Judicial Laws were those which had respect to the civil government of ancient Israel. We notice in particular that the death penalty was proscribed for, amongst other things, cursing one’s parents, adultery, homosexuality (Lev. 20:9-10, 13), profaning the Sabbath (Exod. 31:14), blaspheming the Lord’s name and murder (Lev. 24:16-17). The Lord Jesus Himself abrogated these laws in the case of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11). Today, we no longer stone adulterers, but rather point them to the One who said, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” It is for individual states to determine their own legal system, which Christians are to obey (Matt. 22:21; Rom. 13:1-7) under normal circumstances (cf. Acts 5:29). The Church has a far higher purpose: to convict men of sin and to direct those so convicted to the Saviour. However, it is clear that by imposing the death penalty upon these sins, God is showing His detestation of them and those who do not repent of them will face the full force of His righteous anger.

By the Moral Law, I mean that code of conduct summarized in the Ten Commandments, but fleshed out in other portions of the Pentateuch {1}. For example, the eighth commandment, ‘You shall not steal’ is expanded in Exodus 22 and elsewhere to include stealing by finding and the breaking of trust. The Decalogue was epitomized by our Lord in what is called the Golden Rule (Mark 12:19-31 etc.). So all those ‘Thou Shalt Nots’ which unconverted people find so restrictive are actually acts of love. For if I love God, how can I put other gods before Him, bow down to idols, use His name disrespectfully or fail to regard the special day He has decreed? And if I love my neighbour, how can I lie to him, steal from him, seduce his wife or covet his goods? It is my case that the Moral Law existed before the rest of the Mosaic Law and that is still applies today.

If I am going to show that this three-fold division in the Law is genuine and not merely a product of the legalistic minds of the Reformers and Puritans, I am going to have to show that it exists in the Bible, so let us come first to Deut. 6:22 which follows on immediately from the account of the giving of the Decalogue.

‘These words the LORD spoke to all your assembly, in the mountain from the midst of the fire, the cloud and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and He added no more. And He wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to Me.’

So we see straightaway that there is a difference in the mind of God (which is the only place it really matters) between the Decalogue and the rest of the Mosaic Law. The Ten Commandments alone God spoke to the whole assembly, and them alone God wrote on two tablets of stone. Keep that last thought in mind because it will be important later on. The remainder of the law, God delivered to Moses, apparently through the mediation of angels (Acts 7:53; Gal 3:19b; Heb. 2:2 etc.), who passed it on to the Israelites.

Now let’s look at some other texts which show that God regards the Moral Law more highly than the sacrificial or Judicial laws. Firstly, Amos 5:21-27-

‘“I hate, I despise your feast days, And I do not savour your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, Nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, For I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, And righteousness like a mighty stream. Did you offer Me sacrifices and offerings and offerings in the wilderness for forty years, O house of Israel? You also carried Sikkuth your king and Chiun, your idols, the star of your gods, which you made for yourselves. Therefore I will send you into captivity beyond Damascus,” says the LORD whose name is holy.’

Here God says that all the feasts and sacrifices commanded by the Mosaic Law are not acceptable to Him in the absence of justice and righteousness, and specifically, the Second Commandment.

Secondly, Psalm 40:6-8 (see also Heb. 10:5-10).

‘Sacrifice and offering You did not desire; My ears You have opened. Burnt offering and sin offering You did not require. Then I said, “Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do Your will, O my God, and Your law is within my heart.”’

The Holy Spirit attributes these words to Christ in Heb. 10:5, but they were uttered by David and therefore represent the words of the man after God’s own heart as well as the Saviour Himself. Sacrifices and offerings, although they were commanded in the Sinaitic Law were not God’s ultimate intention. Therefore the law written upon David’s heart was not the ones that regulated sacrifices. Rather, as I shall seek to show presently, it was the Moral law represented by the Ten Commandments.

Three more verses will establish the claim that God distinguishes between the Moral Law and the Ceremonial.

1 Samuel 15:22. ‘Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.’ [Remember that the ‘voice’ of the Lord was heard when He spoke the words of the Ten Commandments]

Proverbs 21:3. ‘To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.’

Hosea 6:6. ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.’

Next, I want to establish that the Decalogue pre-dates its publication at Sinai and therefore is older that the rest of the Mosaic laws. It is my contention that the Moral law was written on the heart of Adam and Eve in their un-fallen state in Eden. It is generally supposed that they had only one commandment of God to worry about- don’t eat the apple!- but a moment’s consideration will reveal otherwise. Suppose Adam had built an altar to the sun or the moon and started worshipping them, or suppose that he strangled Eve. Do you suppose that God would have said, “Oh, that’s alright, Adam; don’t worry about it. Just so long as you don’t eat that apple!” The very thought is ridiculous. No, no! The whole of God’s Moral law was written upon the hearts of Adam and Eve, and it was their delight to obey it, right up to that moment when they succumbed to the temptation of the devil.

Then, of course, everything changed. The Puritan Thomas Boston, in his book, The Four-fold State of Man, shows how the couple broke every one of the Ten Commandments, but here we will just note that they made an idol of their appetite and preferred it before God; they dishonoured their Heavenly Father; they committed spiritual adultery as they listened to the blandishments of the serpent; they coveted that which was not theirs, and stole what God had denied them, thereby bringing death upon themselves and all their posterity.

After the Fall, of course, God’s Moral Law which had been written on their hearts was smudged and defaced. Nevertheless, it survives to some degree in all their descendants. ‘For when the Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written on their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them’ (Rom. 2:14-15). Most unconverted people have at least an inkling of God’s law: they know deep down that it is wrong to steal, to kill or to commit adultery. Unfortunately this knowledge is not a strong enough force in many cases to prevent them from committing those very acts.

Let me give an illustration. Someone might be driving into my village at around 45mph without a care in the world, when suddenly he sees a large illuminated flashing sign with a big 30 on it. This driver has just been confronted by the law, and his natural reaction might be to brake sharply; his conscience has borne witness for a moment that he is a lawbreaker. However, because the Speeding laws are not written on his heart (though he must have learned them in order to pass his driving test), as soon as he is past the sign he will forget about them, his speed will start to increase once more and by the time he is leaving the village, his speed is back up to 45mph or so.

So the moral law of God was written on the hearts of every man and woman that ever was, so that they are without excuse before Him. Paul writes, ‘For until the law [was given at Sinai] sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death [the punishment for sin- Rom. 6:23] reigned from Adam to Moses…..’ (Rom. 5:13-14). If there were no law restricting vehicle speed in my village to 30mph, no one could justly be arrested for doing 45mph. But there is such a law and so speeders are guilty, whether they see the signs or not- it is their obligation to look. In the same way, if there had been no Moral Law before Moses, theft, murder, adultery and false witness would not have been sin and God would have been unjust in punishing perpetrators. But there is such a law, and it has been written on the hearts of all so that ignorance is no more excuse than deliberate forgetfulness.

It might be argued that sacrifices also pre-date Moses, and so they do. The first sacrifice was made by God Himself (Gen. 3:21). The cover the sin of Adam and Eve, an innocent creature had to die, pre-figuring the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. However, the systematization of the sacrifices does not occur until Sinai (Lev. 1-7), and all sacrifices are clearly fulfilled and done away with in Christ (Heb. 9:23-28).

At Sinai, God’s Moral Law was written on stone tablets so that all the Israelites might know exactly what God required of them. Yet even this did not lead them to keep the Commandments since the writing on their hearts was so vague and indisctinct. In Psalm 50:16-17. God askes the Israelites, “What right have you to declare My statutes, or take My covenant in your mouth, seeing that you hate instruction an cast My words behind you?” They were boasting of being God’s people and of having His law, but they were not keeping it nor interested in doing so. This was not true of all the Israelites; there were some who truly loved God, who were looking forward to the Messiah’s coming and who loved God’s law. Of the ‘blessed’ man of Psalm 1 it is said that, ‘His delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night.’ Now what law is it that this man so delighted in? Well since God Himself does not delight in sacrifices (Pslm 51:16), it cannot have been the sacrificial laws in which this man was constantly meditating. No, it is the moral law, which is the expression of God’s own righteous nature which is deserving of our contemplation.

So, in the light of the failure of the Sianaitic Covenant to bring about righteousness, in Jeremiah 31:31ff God announces His New Covenant:

‘”Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah– not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”’

In this new covenant, the law which had previously been written on stone tablets is written again upon the hearts of God’s people, this time more clearly so that they will be kept. This was wonderfully pre-figured back in Exodus 34 by God giving again to Moses the Ten Commandments which had previously been broken. That it is the Decalogue and not the whole of the Mosaic law which was to be written on the heart is proven by a reference to 2 Cor. 3:3: ‘Clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.’ Paul is saying that the Christian faith of the Corinthian believers could be clearly seen by all in that God’s Moral Law was not an external matter as it had been for the Israelites, known and acknowledged but not obeyed, but something living and internalized; written upon their hearts.

So it is the unconverted man or woman who looks at the Decalogue and sees a list of prohibitions and rebels, saying, “This is a hard saying; who can receive it?” (John 6:60, A.V.). The Christian rather declares, ‘This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome’ (1 John 5:3). The Christian loves God and loves to keep His righteous laws. The Lord Jesus declares, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me’ (John 14:21).

Now may be a good time to deal with some of the texts that people use to try to show that the Moral law is no longer binding.

Gal. 3:13. ‘Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us.’ Yes indeed; the curse of the law is that no one can be justified by it. But having been justified by faith alone, the law ceases to be a curse and becomes a blessing to us because it shows us what pleases God, and so we can say, ‘Therefore I love your commandments more than gold, yes, than fine gold’ (Psalm 119:127).

Rom. 10:4. ‘For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.’ Believers are counted righteous not by observing the law but by the blood and perfect obedience of Christ Jesus, but the text does not say that He is the end of the law, but that He is the end of the law for righteousness.

Gal. 3:24. ‘Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith, but after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.’ When we were children we were placed under the authority of teachers and tutors who stood in loco parentis and were commissioned to teach us and discipline us as they saw fit. The moral law was our school-master inasmuch as it stood over us, cane in hand, threatening punishment until we learned the lesson that we could not keep it but needed a Saviour. Having become Christians, the law has done its job in that respect and no longer threatens us. However, just as when we leave school or college we are not supposed instantly to forget everything we learned, but to use it in our daily lives, so we do not forget the law, but meditate upon it and base our lives upon its teaching (Psalm 1:2; 119:105-106 etc.).

Some people have suggested that the ‘law of Christ’ (Gal 6:2), is somehow different from the law of God, as though there could be some division within the Trinity. God forbid! Our Lord has told us (Matt. 5:17-20):

“Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfil. For assuredly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law until all is fulfilled……..’

Wherever the phrase ‘the Law and the Prophets’ appears in the Bible, it means the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures. So our Lord did not come to abolish the Old Testament. He goes on to tell us that not the smallest part of the law will ever pass away; what does He mean? Well, He cannot mean the whole of the Mosaic laws because just a short time later (Mark 7:18-19) He effectively abolished the dietary laws, and on the cross He rendered obsolete the sacrificial laws (Heb. 9:24-26). Therefore the law that will by no means pass away must be the Moral law.

“…….Therefore whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven…..”

It is surely significant here that our Lord uses the very word ‘commandments’ to describe the law which shall by no means pass away. These words were spoken to His disciples (Matt. 5:1-2) of whom we are the successors. To break, and to teach others to break, any of the commandments is a grievous sin.

“………For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”

What was the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? It was a legal righteousness: they kept the commandments outwardly, but their hearts were still full of wickedness (Matt. 23:25-28), and they made loopholes in the law for themselves (Matt. 15:1-7; 23:16;22) whilst inflicting the full weight of the commandments on the people (Matt. 23:4). In Matt. 5:21-48, our Lord shows that a mere outward obedience is not enough; the heart and mind must be employed in the keeping of God’s commandments. Our righteousness must be an evangelical righteousness. If we are born again of the Holy Spirit, we must be those who can say, “Oh! How I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97). Of course, when we try to keep the law this way, we fail. That is why God’s people are (Matt. 5:3-10) ‘Poor in spirit.’ They ‘mourn’ over their inability to keep the commandments as they should; they are humble or ‘meek’ because they have nothing to boast of before God (cf. Rom. 4:2) and they ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’ because they long to do God’s will more completely. They are ‘merciful’ to others because they know themselves to be sinners, saved only by the mercy of God; they are ‘peacemakers’ because they teach the way of peace with God (Rom. 5:1) and they are ‘persecuted’ by both libertines and legalists because they teach that all men are sinners by nature and need to repent.

We cannot be justified by keeping the law, not because there’s anything wrong with it, but because we can’t keep it. The righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is not our own but the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ; He is the ark in which we must take shelter, the city of refugee to which we must flee, the robe of righteousness that we must put on. There on the cross, all our sin was laid upon His sinless shoulders, and His perfect obedience and righteousness credited to those who believe on Him (2 Cor. 5:21). But that does not mean that we do not need to keep the Moral Law, however imperfectly we may do it. God forbid! It is only the man who is saved by grace who can understand Psalm 119. When the law ceases to be something that condemns and becomes instead our light and our guide (vs. 105-6), then we can say with the Psalmist, ‘My lips shall utter praise, for You teach me Your statutes. My tongue shall speak of Your word, for all Your commandments are righteousness’ (vs. 171-2). We have become the blessed man of Psalm One, whose ‘delight is in the law of the LORD.



  1. Dear Brother Martin,

    Thank you for this excellent summary, your last few articles are your very best and very many of your thoughts reflect my own convictions which I shall explain in my August PRS lecture. I agree with your conclusions outlined in your above essay but not in your analytical distinction between the alleged tripartite division of the Law, (a remnant of Roman Catholicism and Presbyterianism, but not our earlier Reformers and the Independents), which disturbs your argument. If any part of the Law is separated from the other, it is less than the Law itself and has thus lost its unity in pointing to Christ which is the lawful use of the Law. This is the teaching of Galatians. The message of the Old Testament in relation to Christ requires a pan-Biblical understanding found in its sapling in the first part of God’s covenantal revelation and in its full growth in the New Testament. Thus one cannot separate Law from Gospel in either Testament. As we must live in Christ to live according to all God’s revelations, all God’s revelations are to be followed in and through Christ. Nothing thus in Scripture can be left out. As you clearly show in your essay, the Old Testament saints saw this as did the New Testament saints. In their pointing out what the Law was when used lawfully, they were not abrogating the Law but they were pointing out how it worked when fullfilled, a point our OT fathers clearly understood.

    Furthermore, there is really no ‘Old Testament Theology’ in the Bible as what we call the ‘Old Testament’ was very much part of the New and was the Bible of the Church in Christ’s day. This was first extended into the so-called New Testament after the vicarious atonement of Christ as taught in the Old Testament. Our modern English ‘old’ and ‘new’ do not, therefore, reveal what the Biblical terms really mean which point rather to a covenant well-proved and its being ever re-emphasised and freshened. There is only one covenant of grace and this is everlasting. The Old Testament shows that if the letter only is followed, it is abrogated, if its Spirit is followed, it is ever fresh. This is also the New Testament story. This is why Tyndale and our Reformers spoke of the One Testament. Sadly, we have been led somewhat astray by the very imperfect brief teaching of Calvin on the subject as he tried to summarise the great writings of the English and Swiss Reformers on the subject. Remember Calvin, in his compilations, was in error on the Fall, predestination and also on the nature of the Church. He, too, left the Reformed teaching to delve back into Aristotelian analytical thinking which split the gospel up into as many unreunitable parts as illustrated in his Institutes. These teachings were built on by the Presbyterians who split both the Testament and the Covenant, paving the way for our modern Marcionite NCT-ites. On these issues, we have been duped by a faulty subsiduary reformation which has separated Gospel from Law. We must return to Scripture and the true Reformation

    Just a hurried attempt to synergise the fine thoughts in your article briefly,


  2. […] The Christian, the Law and Christ » via Martin Marprelate […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: