Broadly, in evangelicalism, there are two stances toward the Ten Commandments or the moral law. For many, if not most evangelicals, it is believed that the Ten Commandments are so uniquely Mosaic, so identified with the Mosaic epoch in redemptive history, that when it was fulfilled and abrogated, they too went away. It is commonly said that the Ten Commandments are “not for today.” The opposite approach to the Ten Commandments also has significant support among American evangelicals. It is represented by the desire among some (often those identified with fundamentalism) to see the Ten Commandments restored to their proper place in American life. In one famous case, a judge sought to erect a monument to the Ten Commandments outside a courthouse. To be sure, in at least one state capitol (and likely many more) and embedded in the U. S. Supreme Court building are references to Moses (and Confucius and Solon) and to the Ten Commandments. There is a third approach, however. It is a minority view in American Christianity. Those who regard the Ten Commandments as “not for today” think of it, if they are aware of it, as legalistic. Those who want the Ten Commandments posted outside the courthouses of America think of it as antinomian but it is neither.
The Different Kinds Of Biblical Law
The Reformed describe the Ten Commandments as God’s moral law. We understand Scripture to teach that law was given to Adam in the garden and to be embedded in creation and written on the human conscience (Rom 1:18–2:14). It is truly universal in that regard. When God said, “you may not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die,” according to Paul (Rom 7:10) it promised life to Adam (and to us) if we obeyed but he did not and so it became death to him and to us in him. The substance of that same law was given to national Israel at Sinai in the Ten Commandments. Our Lord summarized the Ten Commandments in Matthew 22:37–40:
…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37–40; ESV).
Traditionally these two commandments are described as the two tables of the moral law. The first four commandments refer to our duty to God and the second six to our duty to our neighbor.
The reader will notice that we call this the “moral law.” We do this to distinguish it from the Israelite civil laws and ceremonial laws. Those aspects of the Israelite laws expired along with the Israelite religious system and along with the Israelite civil-political system in the death of Christ. He nailed those regulations to the cross (Col 2:14; Acts 10:15; 11:9). As the writer to the Hebrews says, when the priesthood changed, the law changed (Heb 7:10–14). The whole Israelite system was like an inverted pyramid, which rested not on the base but on the point. Christ, our Melchzedekian priest, with his eternal priesthood, upended that pyramid by the power of his indestructible life.
The moral law, however, because it is grounded in the divine nature, because it is part of the creational fabric and pattern (notice what our Lord did on the 7th day of creation and what Exodus 20:8 makes of it; notice how our Lord handled the question of divorce in Matthew 19:8), does not expire nor was it abrogated. To be sure, there were typological elements in the way the moral law came to expression at Sinai. The Saturday Sabbath in the 4th commandment and the land promise in the 5th commandment (as the Reformed number them) belong to national Israel but the Sabbath principle is grounded in creation and Paul expands and transforms the land promise in Ephesians 6:3. According to the Reformed understanding, Canaan was never the point (Heb 11:9–10).
Some modern biblical scholars do not like the traditional threefold distinction, which goes back in substance to the fathers and was articulated by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Theonomists do not like it because it works against their view of the abiding validity of the Israelite civil law. To the latter, the Reformed confess in Westminster Confession 19.4 that the civil laws have expired. Theonomy flatly contradicts the WCF. Nowhere do we see the Apostolic church seeking to impose or to persuade the Roman emperor to impose the Israelite civil laws. There is a reason for this absence. Those laws were never intended to be imposed upon any civil entity other than national Israel. When theonomists cavil about “general equity” (as if Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law or Bahsnen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics represent the “general equity thereof” it only shows that they have completely ignored the historic sense of the phrase, which William Perkins (among others) explained clearly centuries ago. (More here).
Those biblical scholars who chafe at the traditional understanding of the law do not always engage it seriously. There is a default among contemporary biblical scholarship to dismiss the Christian tradition and that prejudice owes more to the Enlightenment than it does to the biblical text. There is a sound defense of the traditional view in Philip S. Ross, From The Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law. For those able to read it, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza published a defense of the threefold division of the law.
Distinctions In The Uses Of The Law
The Reformed also distinguished three uses of the moral law. So far in this series we have considered two uses of the law, the first (the pedagogical use), and the third, the normative use, i.e., the law’s role as the norm for the Christian life.
There is however, another use, the second use or the civil use of the law. This use gets less attention. In this space I have written far more about the first and third uses of the law than I have about the second or the civil use of the moral law. One difficulty in writing and thinking about the second use is that we formulated these good categories and distinctions under the established or state church. Most of us, in America at least, have come, like Abraham Kuyper, to reject the establishment of a state church as contrary to the Word of God and a bad idea generally. As Kuyper noted long ago, the established church almost always turns against the orthodox. He was so opposed to the idea of a state-church that he declared that if it was required to be Reformed to hold to it, he would give up being Reformed. I have argued that, of course, a state-church is not of the essence of the Reformed confession. When we gave up the established church we did not change our doctrines of Scripture, God, man, Christ, salvation, church, or last things. We did not change our theology or our piety. It was accidental and not essential to the Reformed confession. On this see Recovering the Reformed Confession.
Post-Christendom, i.e., after the end of the state-church, how do we apply the moral law to civil life? First, we do not seek to impose Christianity upon any nation. Second, we recognize that the state has an obligation to uphold the 2nd table, those commandments that touch on relations between neighbors. In the second part of this series I argued that racism is a violation of the 2nd table of the moral law. It is contradiction of our Lord’s command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. It is also a violation of the 6th commandment, you shall not murder.
Consider the Reformed explanation of the 6th commandment in the Heidelberg Catechism:
105. What does God require in the sixth Commandment?
That I do not revile, hate, insult or kill my neighbor either in thought, word, or gesture, much less in deed, whether by myself or by another, but lay aside all desire of revenge; moreover, that I do not harm myself, nor willfully run into any danger. Wherefore also to restrain murder the magistrate is armed with the sword.
106. Does this Commandment speak only of killing?
No, but in forbidding murder, God teaches us that He abhors its very root, namely: envy, hatred, anger, and desire of revenge; and that in His sight all these are hidden murder.
107. But is this all that is required , that we do not kill our neighbor?
No, for in condemning envy, hatred, and anger, God requires us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to show patience, peace, meekness, mercy, and kindness toward him, and to prevent his hurt as much as possible; also to do good even unto our enemies.
Racism is the antithesis of loving one’s neighbor. It does not seek his good. It hates. It reviles. It demeans. It denies the other as image bearer. It does not show patience, peace, meekness, mercy, and kindness. Requiring tax-paying African-Americans to ride in the back of publicly-owned buses or in separate cars of trains, was a contradiction of the general equity of the law. It violated the natural and moral law. To segregate water fountains on the basis of skin color or ethnicity is a violation of the 6th commandment.
To use the ethnic slurs about an entire ethnic (racial) group of people, whether used by the ethnic majority or minority, is wicked. A slur is a slur.
The civil magistrate and civil societies have a natural interest in the application of the sixth commandment to social equity between ethnic groups.
There are complications. The 1964 Civil Rights Act blurred the line between public and private property, which has led to mischief whereby LGBT groups are seeking to force Christians to sanction, participate, and approve of behavior Christians reject as a matter of principle and they are appealing to the language of the Civil Rights legislation to make their case.
Still, if we observe the distinctions made above, Christians have the freedom to participate in civil life, to seek equity, to seek protection from abuse and prejudice (especially in the public, tax-funded sphere). I doubt that the visible, institutional church has any mandate to speak to these issues. There is simply no clear or compelling evidence in the New Testament to support the claim that the visible church must campaign for social justice. The NT account of the Kingdom of God is instructive in this regard. There were any number of grave social ills in the Roman Empire to which the visible church might have spoken but she did not. She did, however, instruct her members to be good citizens (Rom 13), to pray for the emperor (1 Tim 2:2), to live quietly (1 Thess 4:11, 2 Thess 3:12; 1 Tim 2:2), and to honor the emperor (1 Pet 2:13, 17).
We should also beware of the temptation to fall into a theonomy of the social left. If the USA is not national Israel for the right (and it is not) then neither can the social left treat the USA as if it were national Israel for its social purposes. Thus, e.g., appealing to the Israelite state to determine immigration policy is off the table. The USA is not the church. It is not the national people of God. The visible church may appeal to the magistrate in extraordinary circumstances (WCF 31.4) but otherwise we (as the visible church, not as individual citizens) should let the church, as an institution be the church. In the Belgic Confession (art.29) we confess that the visible church has three functions or marks: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline. In the history of the church rarely has she managed to perform those three functions adquately or consistently. To add “social justice advocacy” to the mandate of the visible church is to go beyond Scripture and imperil her true vocation.
Individual Christians, however, have every freedom to band together to advocate for social policies and our brothers and sisters have a right to disagree with us about those social polices. One hopes that both sides in the current discussions and arguments over social justice will remember the doctrine of Christian liberty.
The church as an institution should, however, speak to her members about the sin of racism. This gets us to the 1st and 3rd uses of the law, which this series has already addressed and which has been addressed previously in other columns. That Christians should violate the 6th commandment against anyone is sin. That her members should speak or act in ways that violate the law 6th commandment for those whom Christ shed is blood is shocking and should be the subject of discipline.
I have heard too often stories about the use of racial slurs in the visible church. Stop it now. Do not ever do it again. Do not excuse it. Do not defend it. It is not a joke. It is not amusing. It is ugly. It is, in effect, murder. If someone should object to such a violation of God’s holy law, do not try to deflect or mitigate it by saying, “Oh, you are one of those.” No, your brothers and sisters are fellow image bearers redeemed by the holy, obedient life and death of Jesus. All of us, minority and majority alike need to stop treating one another as if our brothers and sisters were any less than the precious children of God that they are.
The second use of the moral law is an undervalued use of the law and somewhat complicated by our free-church setting. Nevertheless, to the degree that the moral law is universal and to the degree that the state is obligated to uphold and enforce the second table, it is entirely appropriate for Christians to seek justice through the application of the 2nd table of the moral law in the civil realm.
” The first four commandments refer to our duty to God and the second six to our duty to our neighbor.” Wait, if there’s a second six, where’s the first six? (nyuk nyuk)
It is more serious and complicated than just a little spank in the hand.
There are now extensive civil and criminal penalties for prejudice in hiring, housing etc.
The use of church discipline for racist/prejudiced language is hardly a slap on the wrist unless one does not regard church discipline as a use of the keys of the kingdom.
For a Christian, there is no higher court in existence than the courts of the kingdom of God and no higher authority to be exercised than the binding and loosing authorized by our King.