Throughout its history the church considered as organism, i.e., its people, has often been tempted to go back to Egypt, as it were. We have often been tempted to look back to where we were in redemptive history rather than appreciating where we are and where are going (heaven). This was true even during the apostolic period shortly after the ascension of our Lord Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. One of first and greatest crises faced by the church was the question of what may be required of Gentles converts to Christianity (Acts 15). It was such a crisis that the church called its first formal assembly and delegated ministers and even apostles to attend. There were Judaizers who were demanding that, as a condition of being admitted to the church and even as a condition of acceptance with God (see Galatians 1–4 and Philippians 3 inter alia), Gentile believers had to submit to circumcision and other rites associated with the Mosaic law or from the typological period of redemptive history—circumcision was instituted under Abraham, 500 years before Moses but was legislated and regulated under Moses. Led by the Spirit the church issued a “decree” against the Judaizers. Gentiles would have to abandon pagan rituals (see Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians regarding the eating of meat offered to idols in chapters 8 and 10). They may not involve themselves in anything that suggested an alternative source or Mediator of salvation beside Christ. Believers in Christ, however, are free from the ceremonies of circumcision and the food and washing regulations (see Mark 7:19; Acts 10:15; Mark 7:1–23).
With this background in mind, in the post-apostolic period, the church gradually came to see that there is a threefold distinction in the Mosaic (Old Testament) law between that which is abiding, which we described as the moral law, and two categories or aspects of the Mosaic law which were abrogated by the obedience and death of Christ: the civil and the ceremonial. To be sure, Christ fulfilled all the law, including the moral. Those who are in Christ by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) are no longer under the law for acceptance with God (see Rom 3–4; and Galatians 3,4 and chapter 10).
The moral law, given first in creation and then re-stated under Moses in typological terms is permanent and abiding. It cannot justify. It does not have the power to justify sinners. We are sinners (in Adam and of ourselves) and therefore we cannot be justified by our own law keeping. Justification (free acceptance with God) and salvation (deliverance from sin and its consequences) is by God’s free favor (grace) alone, through faith (knowledge, assent, and trust) resting in and receiving Christ alone. Nevertheless, the moral law continues to serve as the norm for the believer’s life. Our Lord himself made this very clear in Matthew 22:37–40.
The other two aspects of the Mosaic law, the ceremonial and the civil, however, were not grounded in creation. They were intended as sermon illustrations that would last for 1500 years. They were intended to be temporary (see Hebrews 9). They were intended to point to Christ and then to away once the one to whom they pointed appeared. This is why Paul taught: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4; ESV). By “end” he did not, in the first instance mean stopping point. Rather, he means “purpose” or “fulfillment” or “intent.” We still use the word “end” in this double sense. At the conclusion of the book we might see the words, “The End.” We also say, however, that “That guy has a devious end in mind.” Paul is using the word “end” in the latter sense. This is Paul’s shorthand way of saying that the entire Mosaic economy was a servant of Christ. The law works for Jesus.
It is with these biblical truths in mind that the Reformed churches confess, in Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 19:
19. From where do you know this?
From the Holy Gospel, which God Himself revealed first in Paradise; afterwards proclaimed by the holy Patriarchs and Prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and finally fulfilled by His well-beloved Son.
Following the ancient practice of the church, which was formalized in the medieval theologians, the Reformed churches have always distinguished between the moral law, which is one thing, and the civil and ceremonial laws. The latter two categories or aspects were temporary in a way that the moral law was not.
The focus in the New Testament was particularly on fulfillment of the ceremonial laws because that is where the controversy arose. Implicit, however, in the fulfillment of the ceremonial laws was the fulfillment and abrogation of the civil laws. This is why, 80 years after the Heidelberg Catechism was adopted, the Westminster Divines confessed in chapter 19:
3. Beside this law, commonly called moral, 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, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.
4. 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.
We observe from the whole NT the way the civil law (e.g., 1 Peter 2; 1 Cor 9) that the civil laws are regarded as no longer being in force. The apostles draw inferences and principles from those laws, which the Reformed described as “general equity.” Those general principles can be deduced from the law but the law itself is no longer in force. Its job is done.
This distinction was particularly important in the Reformation since we were emerging from a long period of confusion where the medieval church had gradually re-instated versions of the ceremonial laws by virtue of the 9th-century doctrine of transubstantiation (formally adopted in the 13th century), which led to the gross error the memorial sacrifice of Christ in the mass, in an ever-growing ecclesiastical calendar that dwarfed the OT religious calendar for holy days and days of obligation, and in the introduction of musical instruments and hymns into Christian worship.* Through the gradual creation of the Constantinian church-state complex, the medieval church re-instituted a version of the Mosaic civil system. This happened though they explicitly confessed that these laws had been fulfilled and were not binding on believers. It is possible to say one thing and do another without even realizing that it’s happening—and do it for hundreds of years without realizing the contradiction.
The threefold distinction is not very popular among some parts of the biblical studies establishment. They regard it as artificial but the Reformed churches were right and the biblical studies folks are wrong. The distinction does exist. It may be true. It may be better to speak of aspects of the Mosaic law rather than distinct categories but if we allow the NT to interpret the OT and to teach us how to read the OT, then we must make this threefold distinction.
There are others who do not like the threefold distinction. Those who would impose the Mosaic civil laws or sanctions don’t much care for the threefold distinction. There seems to be a growing number of folk who are attracted to the idea of obeying the ceremonial laws again. This is very dangerous. To fall into this error is to give up one’s freedom in Christ and typically, if history is a guide, to lose the doctrine of free acceptance with God for Christ’s sake alone, through faith alone. The Judaizers never go away, they just go silent. As soon as they sense weakness in our resolve to rest in Christ alone and to uphold Christian freedom, they will begin their insidious work of taking us captive to the law again. We must stand with Paul: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1, ESV)
*On the introduction of musical instruments in the medieval period see:
- Calvin on Musical Instruments in Public Worship
- More From Calvin On Musical Instruments in Worship
- Robert Nevin on Instruments Etc
- On the Introduction of Instruments Into Public Worship
- On the Regulative Principle of Worship
- On Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs