Evangelicalism And The Reformed View Of The Law

Note: This post first appeared in February 2008. Since that time the original link to Pulpit Magazine has been taken down. The archives at Pulpit Magazine only go back to 2012.


At Pulpit Magazine, Nathan Busenitz is tackling the question of the relations between the New Testament believer and the Mosaic Law. Tommy Myrick kindly pointed me to the post and I thought it would be useful for an evangelical audience, who might not be familiar with the confessional Reformed approach to this question, to see a sketch of the confessional approach. I repost it here for those who are new to the Reformed Churches or the Reformed theology, piety, and practice and who might benefit from it.


One of my students pointed me to your blog. This is an interesting an important discussion. A few thoughts:

It would be useful to frame the debate in terms of the broader historic Christian tradition. In the Western Church it was the commonplace that the 613 Mitzvoth contain three distinct kinds of law, civil, ceremonial, and moral. Thomas Aquinas articulated the mainstream medieval view and it was the view of all the Protestant Reformers. The latter group argued, and all the Protestant Churches agreed (which anyone may confirm by reading the 16th and 17th-century Protestant confessions) that the civil (political) and ceremonial (cultic) laws were fulfilled by Christ such that they no longer bind the Christian beyond the “general equity thereof” as the Westminster Confession says. The moral law was said to belong to a distinct category, however, because it was understood to transcend the Mosaic theocracy. To be sure, it has always been recognized by the historic Protestant traditions that all the laws under Moses were civil, ceremonial, and moral in some sense. At the same time, it has been recognized that there is a distinct body of fundamental law, the moral law, which is not rooted in Moses and therefore does not expire with the Mosaic economy. That fundamental law is grounded in creation, not Moses, and as creation is perpetual, so the Moral law is perpetual.

The Moral law came to expression under Moses, in the Decalogue (Exod 20 and Deut 5) in terms of the Israelite, typological economy, thus there is language about “the land” and the Saturday Sabbath, that belongs peculiarly to Moses. But the essence of the two tables of the Moral law is recapitulated by our Lord in Matt 22:37–40 (which is really just quotation from Deut): “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart etc and your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

As to the fourth commandment, the historic Reformed view has always been that the fourth commandment (the Sabbath commandment) is a moral law grounded in creation. It has always been recognized that the Jewish Sabbath was temporary and typological, but also that the Sabbath principle is grounded in creation AND redemption (hence Exod 20 and Deut 5). If it is grounded in creation it isn’t a distinctly Mosaic commandment and therefore the Sabbath principle (one day in 7 for rest and worship) continues. All the Reformed churches confess (e.g. Heidelberg Catechism Q 103) that our Lord claimed the first day of the week for himself and for rest and worship by virtue of his resurrection. It’s true that, in modern times, Sabbath observance has lagged but the confession of the Reformed churches (e.g. the Westminster Confession and Catechisms) has not changed on these points.

Finally, it’s helpful to distinguish between the ways that historic, confessional Protestantism (Reformed and Lutheran) has spoken about the ways the law can be used. There is a civil use of the (second table) of the decalogue to restrain evil. There is a pedagogical use of the law to teach us the greatness of our sin and misery and to drive us to Christ and there is the moral use of the law to norm the Christian life. This is the universal teaching of all the Reformed Churches, in all our confessions. In our view, anyone who says that the moral law no longer binds the Christian is antinomian. In the same breath we want to say that absolutely no sinner is ever justified before God on the basis of his law keeping in any way.

Only Jesus, the Second Adam, who was not a sinner, kept the law perfectly for all his people and his law keeping is credited to those who believe. This righteousness is the basis for our justification and, out of gratitude, in union with the risen Christ, by the grace of the Spirit, we seek to keep the moral law. As we sin, we confess our sins and ask forgiveness by grace alone, through faith alone.

Finally, as you seem to suggest, theonomy (the abiding validity of the civil law in exhaustive detail) is a novelty and alien to confessional Reformed theology. It’s an unfortunate development born of more zeal than knowledge. The Reformed churches confess the civil use of the law (which confession has been modified in the modern period) so that the civil kingdom (as distinct from the spiritual kingdom manifested in the visible church) should adhere to the moral or natural law, but we don’t expect nor do we wish the civil magistrate to interfere with the church or to do the work of the church in any way, including the punishment of heretics. In the modern period virtually all the Reformed churches have repudiated the vestiges of Christendom so that we no longer hold to the civil enforcement of the first table of the law. That said, even though out tradition was theocratic (civil enforcement of the first table) we were never theonomic (civil enforcement of the Mosaic penalties). Calvin and Bullinger repudiated that notion as Anabaptist.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    I have some questions about the last part of your letter in this post. You say:

    That said, even though out tradition was theocratic (civil enforcement of the first table) we were never theonomic (civil enforcement of the Mosaic penalties). Calvin and Bullinger repudiated that notion as Anabaptist.

    I’m just trying to get an accurate understanding of your terms here and am asking for clarification please.

    So by “theocratic,” you are saying that the reformers thought it okay for the civil enforcement of the first table. I take it that this means laws against something like doing business on The Lord’s Day, or putting a man in jail for using the Lord’s name in vain, or even the unfortunate burning at the stake that sometimes occurred in the past. But the actual laws and punishments to enforce the first table were not taken from the 613 laws. Am I understanding you correctly?

    And then when you say “theonomic,” explaining that this means civil enforcement of the Mosaic penalties, I guess you’re referring to something like stoning an adulterer or idoloter or witch. Is that right?

    You say Calvin and Bullinger repudiated that notion as Anabaptist. I’d really like to read this, but there is so much available from Calvin I don’t know exactly where to look (other than the Institutes really). Would you please be so kind as to point me to the works in which Calvin and Bullinger repudiated these notions? Not the exact page and paragraph, mind you. If you give me the right book or commentary to find it in, I’ll do the rest of that work.

    I think if you can answer this here, it might help not only me, but anyone else who is reading this and wants to be more familiar with the primary sources regarding this issue.

    Thanks much,


  2. K,

    re: theonomy (and the usually associated glory age to follow according to Chr. Recon) see the 2nd Helvetic Confession where it condemns such as “Jewish golden (i.e. milennial) dreams.”

    As to Calvin, most of that work has been done. I know the theonomists hate it, but the Godfrey/Barker volume had some good chapters in this regard.

    Lee Irons, I think, has compiled resources on this on his site. On Calvin, see Institutes 4.20 [all]. See also his Sermons on Deuteronomy.

    The Reformers all embraced the threefold distinction in the Mosaic law. Beza wrote a treatise defending it. Bib scholars today reject it but they don’t usually pay attention to it’s original intent or its function. The Reformers distinguished between the civil and ceremonial and moral law. They held universally that the first two categories were fulfilled and the ceremonial/Jewish elements of the third were fulfilled. See my essay on natural law to which I gave a reference earlier. The point of the triplex divisio was to ensure the abiding validity of the moral law.

    So, yes, they believed in the civil enforcement of the first table but they did so not on theonomic grounds but on theocratic grounds. One just doesn’t find any of them teaching the “abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail.” They didn’t treat the distinctly civil/penal statutes in the 613 mitzvoth as the divinely revealed code for post-canonical civil legislation. They didn’t deny validity to states that didn’t use the Mosaic law as such. They just didn’t operate on a theonomic basis.

    Of course its anachronistic to ask, “where did they explicitly reject the abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail.” That’s like asking, “Where did they reject travel by jet aircraft. It assumes that AVLGED was “on the table” to be rejected.

    The idea that national Israel should form the sort of pattern that theonomists want was adopted by some Anabaptists. Certainly the idea that there was a coming glory age on the earth was adopted by many ABs. They were virtually all of them chiliasts.

    It’s true that, in the French Wars of Religion and in Protestant Resistance Theory generally, the Reformed did appeal to national Israel and particularly the kings of Judah and Israel as patterns for good kings and bad. When they did that they (as theocrats) elided the line between the canonical history and post-canonical history. They made post-canonical nation-states into the moral equivalent of national Israel.

    They were wrong, but idea of Christendom didn’t really begin to die until after the Thirty-Years War. Best analogy I can’t think of is the American Civil War. Ask folks in the South, after the war, if they were anxious to have their cities burned and their property destroyed again and the answer was no. The rhetoric about the South “rising” again was just that. So too in the Thirty-Years War. People were exhausted with troops in the towns etc. They were exhausted with the plague that followed the battles. It made people re-consider whether God really intended the civil magistrate to pick and ally with “the true church” and enforce the first table.

  3. Thank you Dr. Clark. Your efforts here will not be in vain. I have already downloaded the PDF you wrote on Calvin and natural law, as well as bookmarked your HB posts on this subject.

    I completely understand what you mean about “anachronistic” reading. I think that it is common for many to show support for themselves by trying to quote those highly regarded from the reformation in a light that makes it seem there is agreement. So yes, it’s important to know for sure what the reformers “actually” believed and taught. I am taking your advice and will be reading more of the primary sources.



  4. Dr. Clark,

    Do you know if there are any PDF versions of “Theonomy: A Reformed Critique” available for purchase or for free? The prices for a used copy are just outlandish.



  5. Dr. Clark,
    Your blogs on the mosaic civil law and the distinction between that and the natural law have been most helpful. One question though. I’ve been searching through Berkhof and Bavinck and can’t find an answer to this question: How did Christ fulfill the civil aspect of the mosaic law? I understand that it is abolished. But how was it first fulfilled?
    Thank you very much,

  6. Thanks, Dr. Clark! I’m glad to read your agreement that the Decalogue is binding as a rule of life for the believer.

  7. Hi Dr. Clark,
    I am not sure that my question exactly fits here, however I have been trying to wrap my mind around the covenant of works given to Adam and how and if it was fulfilled by Christ, the last Adam.
    I think that my question is very similar to Jed’s above (my brother’s name too.)
    How did Christ fulfill or abolish the covenant of works given to Adam at creation? I am trying to understand how this covenant ties into the Mosaic Covenant as being a covenant of grace.

    • Ginger,

      The two words that Reformed writers have often used to describe what happened to the covenant of works are “fulfilled” and “abrogated.”

      The covenant of works has at least three aspects:

      1. The promise of eternal blessedness
      2. A legal condition
      3. A federal relationship/headship

      Paul calls Christ the “second” or the “last” Adam. So, we know that there was a definite link between the two. Paul intentionally wants us to think of Adam and Christ as fulfilling similar roles. Adam was the first federal/representative head of all humanity. When Adam was charged with obeying God in the Garden he was obeying not only for himself but for everyone, for all humanity.

      When he sinned by disobeying God’s law, he did so as the representative of all humanity. Thus the old colonial Puritan jingle, “In Adam’s fall, sinned we all.” That’s the federal aspect.

      Both Adam and Christ were promised eternal blessedness on condition of obedience. This was the obedience to which Jesus referred in John 17 and on the cross (“It is finished”). Unlike Adam, Christ, the Second or Last Adam, entered into blessedness on condition of his obedience.

      In both cases the standard was God’s moral law expressed in the garden relative to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That law was re-expressed or re-stated or re-published under Moses as part of a temporary, national covenant. Israel could not obey the law for salvation. Indeed, no sinner could. In that sense, after the fall, the covenant of works was gradually being abrogated. After the fall, the demand of the law continues in its three uses (pedagogical, civil, normative). After the fall, however, it is not possible for us sinners to keep the law, to meet the condition and thereby to enter into blessedness. The law was republished to Israel, under Moses in 613 commandments and summarized in the 10 commandments in order to point them to Christ (1st use), to guide their national life (2nd use), and to norm their moral lives (3rd use). Insofar as the Mosaic law reflects the original covenant of works it has been said by many Reformed writers to have been “republished.” The Reformed have differed over the possible outcomes of Israel’s obedience. All have agreed that acceptance with God for justification was impossible. Several have said that their status as a national people and their tenure in the land was affected by their obedience or disobedience. This view, however, has become hotly controversial in recent years.

      The Reformed have always agreed and confessed that the Mosaic covenant, the old covenant strictly speaking, was an administration of the covenant of grace. Thus, it had a dual aspect. In some ways it was a legal covenant and simultaneously it was an administration of the covenant of grace. Clearly God did not relate to Israel strictly on the basis of performance or merit. They broke the covenant before Moses ever made it down the mountain with the tablets and yet God was gracious. The ceremonial system pointed to Christ’s obedience and death. The entire system pointed to a salvation to be earned for us and given to us. Yet it came to us clothed in types and shadows and 613 laws.

      The Mosaic covenant was both legal and gracious, in different ways, at the same time.

      The covenant of works was finally fulfilled by Christ in his active and suffering (passive) obedience all his life and especially at the end. All that he did and the obedient, second, last Adam is reckoned to all those who believe. Believers before the incarnation were looking forward to the Second/Last Adam and we look back to his obedience for us. To all who believe, it is as if they had met the terms of the covenant of works. Thus, for believers it is a covenant of grace. We are freely accepted for Christ’s sake. This is as it has always been after the fall. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David all looked forward to Christ and we look back to his accomplishment even as we look forward to his return.

  8. Thanks Dr. Clark,
    We have been going through the WCF during Sunday School and although I had thought that I understood it well enough I didn’t know that there was controversy surrounding how the covenant of works was re-established, re-instituted or re-published.
    Could one say that it was continued or re-administrated?

    Thank you so much for your time.

    • Ginger,

      I suppose one could say “re-administered.” I’m less confident about “continued.” The challenge is to express some degree of continuity with the covenant of works and to articulate the differences created by the fall (our inability to keep the law for justification) and to articulate correctly the outcome of law-keeping by Israel as a national people. In that regard I think the word “republish” is still helpful.

  9. This article reads like a technical publication for legal professionals. Did Christ intend for his saints to become covenantal lawyers, endlessly parsing out the finer complexities of law code?

    Law stupor (Rom 10:3-4, 11:8, 2 Cor 3:14) blinds the minds of men from acknowledging truths about Christ’s indwelling resurrection life (Gal 2:20) via the Spirit . . . who is our living, internal law imperative (Rom 7:6, Rom 8:2-4, 2 Cor 3:3).

    Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

    • John,

      Your post reads like an antinomian screed. Shall we sin that grace may abound? God forbid.

      Ps 119:97

      Oh how I love your law!
      It is my meditation all the day.

      Rom 7:12

      So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

      Rom 13:10

      Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

      Gal 5:14

      For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

      Jas 2:8

        If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.

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