A Threefold Division

Feb 7, 2023 | Articles, by Nick Kennicott, Marrow Ministries Free Content

The Threefold Division of God’s Law

Christians often find it difficult to understand the place of God’s law in the New Covenant. Without making proper distinctions of the various kinds of laws found in Scripture, many Christians have struggled to find answers to the questions of non-believers. For example, one might say, “If you claim that homosexuality is a sin, then you have to also refrain from eating shrimp, or wearing clothing made of more than one fabric.” Typically, the person making this argument understands very little about the Bible, but they know that it says in the Old Testament that eating shellfish is not permitted (Leviticus 11:9-12) and that using mixed fabrics for clothing is prohibited (Leviticus 19:19). Are Christians right to assume that the laws of God pertaining to human sexuality are standing laws in the New Covenant era, but laws about lobster or cotton-polyester blends are not?

In historic reformed theology, the laws of God recorded in the Bible are understood to fall into at least one of three categories; a law is either ceremonial, judicial, or moral in its primary function. These distinctions are not without controversy, but all of the major reformed confessions of faith attest to the threefold division of the law either explicitly or implicitly, and as John Calvin points out, the “ancients” also “adopted this division.”[1] The rejection of the threefold division of the law is a modern phenomenon and has given rise to many theological frameworks including dispensationalism and new covenant theology.

The Ceremonial Law of God

The ceremonial law of God prescribed the outward worship of God for Old Covenant Israel. The ceremonial law was intended by God to bind the consciences of the Jews, and if they were to truly worship God as He commanded, adherence to the letter of the ceremonial law was paramount. The ceremonial law did not, however, bind the consciences of the people of other nations. In addition to proper worship, the ceremonial law also included elements like the sacrificial system, the Aaronic priesthood, dietary laws, purity laws, feasts and holy days, and the construction of the tabernacle and the temple.

In 19.3, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith says that the ceremonial law contained, “several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits.” The writer of the book of Hebrews goes to great lengths to show how the ceremonial law reveals types that are fulfilled in Christ, the antitype. Since Christ has come and the New Covenant has been inaugurated, the ceremonial law of God has been abrogated. The 1689 states that “ceremonial laws being appointed only to the time of reformation, are, by Jesus Christ the true Messiah and only law-giver, who was furnished with power from the Father for that end abrogated and taken away.” In other words, the ceremonial law has fulfilled its purpose, and adherence to the ceremonial law was completed in Christ, therefore it is no longer necessary for Christians to seek to uphold it (see Hebrews 10:5-9).

God delighted in the obedience of His people, however, the sacrifices they made were wholly insufficient to satisfy His requirements. Only Christ could fulfill God’s demand, and once He did, the ceremonial law was no longer necessary. In other words, the nation of Israel was bound to the ceremonial law until it was nailed to the cross in the death and eventual ascension of Christ.

In historic reformed theology, the laws of God recorded in the Bible are understood to fall into at least one of three categories; a law is either ceremonial, judicial, or moral in its primary function. Share on X

The Judicial Law of God

The nation of Israel was a theocracy, and they needed a legal code by which they were able to function as a society. The judicial law included things like the proper penalties for the breach of the law, issues pertaining to property rights and inheritances, the nation’s responsibility toward the poor, and the proper remedies for disputes, amongst other matters. John Calvin explains, “The judicial law, given to them for civil government, imparted certain formulas of equity and justice, by which they might live together blamelessly and peaceably.”[2] Many, but not all of the penalties prescribed in the judicial law were for breaches of the moral law.

The 1689 LBC (19.4) says that the judicial law “expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution.” In other words, the judicial law expired when the Old Covenant expired along with the theocratic rule of God in Israel. Nations in general, and Christians specifically are no longer obliged to adhere to the judicial laws of the Old Covenant that were given to Israel. Theocratic states under the one true God do not exist, therefore the theocratic law has been abrogated. The judicial law was unique to the people of Israel and God never intended for it to be the civil law of other nations.

The Moral Law of God

The Law that is written upon man’s heart is what the Church has called God’s moral law (Matthew 19:16-22; Romans 2:14-15; 3:19-20; 6:14; 7:6; 8:3; 1 Timothy 1:8-11). The Ten Commandments, when issued by God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17), were a restating of the Law that man already knew, thus mankind was not innocent of transgressing the moral law prior to Sinai.

The 1689 LBC (19.2) says that the moral law “continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness after the fall.” Specifically, the Ten Commandments are a perpetual rule of law that all mankind is obligated to uphold. For those who are not justified by faith in Christ, the moral law serves to indict them on the charge of breaching God’s Holy command. Christians, however, are not under a covenant of works, so the moral law is a rule of life that is a delight, and serves to direct the believer in understanding what it means to live a life honoring God.

Unlike the ceremonial and judicial law, the moral law of God is binding on all mankind in perpetuity, whether Christian or not. The 1689 LBC (19.5) identifies that “The moral law does for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof.” It is by his moral statutes that God judges the souls of man, and not only in mere adherence to the outward letter of the law but within the heart, as Jesus repeatedly emphasized. In no way did Jesus loose believers from their moral obligation to God’s law, but in fact, Jesus’ teaching strengthened its obligation (Matthew 5:17-18).

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), IV.XX.14. For an extensive examination of the threefold division of the law throughout Church history, see Philip Ross, “A Catholic Doctrine,” in From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2010), 1-50.

[2] Ibid., IV.XX.15.

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