This is a significant question for many evangelical Christians, particularly for those influenced by Dispensationalism. E.g., Charles Ryrie, a self-described “classic” Dispensationalist,1 wrote:
…Even though a dispensation ends, certain commands may be re-incorporated into a later era. Nine of the Ten Commandments are restated as part of the economy of Grace. So also is the law to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev. 19:18; cf. Rom. 13:8).
5. But some things are completely changed…. As a code of conduct and a specific revelation from God complete for its time, a dispensation ends. But some things may become part of succeeding codes in one way or another in the dispensations that follow. That is how, for example, Scripture can say that the law, and specifically the Ten Commandments, have been done away with (2 Cor 3:7–11) and yet incorporate nine of those Ten Commandments plus other commandments in the law code of the dispensation of Grace (Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 2007).
Clearly Ryrie was trying to account for the continuity and discontinuity between the New and Old Testaments broadly and specifically between the “old covenant” or the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant. He attempted this, however, without much reference to the broader, historic Christian reading of Scripture and the history of redemption. His account was certainly not that of the Protestant Reformers nor was it that of the Reformed churches.
He might have benefited, however, from engaging those traditions more thoroughly and carefully as he read and sought to explain Scripture. Had he done he would have learned a very important category: creational or natural law. The Apostle Paul says,
…that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse (Rom 1:19–20; NASB).
For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them… (Rom 2:14–15; NASB).
As Paul read and interpreted Genesis 2 he saw that God had revealed something about himself and the essence of his moral law in creation and in the human conscience. The traditional way to speak about this is natural revelation and more specifically natural law (lex naturae or lex naturalis). This is the historic Christian reading of Paul in the fathers, the medieval theologians, and in the Reformation theologians and churches. Here is a brief summary of some of the issues in the discussion of natural law.
The Moral Law
For the Protestants (Luther, Zwingli, Melanchthon, Bucer, Calvin) the natural law was substantially the same as what Christians have historically called the moral law. This category, in turn, assumed a threefold distinction in the Mosaic law: moral, civil, and ceremonial. The latter were the religious laws governing sacrifices and ritual purity and the like. The civil or judicial laws stipulated civil and capital punishments. The moral law, however, was always regarded as distinct and permanent in a way that the civil and ceremonial laws were not. Those laws were always intended to be temporary. They were never intended to be permanent because they were completely identified with national Israel and expired when that state expired with the death of Christ.
The moral law, however, was said to be grounded in the nature of God, to reflect his character and thus to be permanent and binding. Paul assumes that we understand this distinction. This is why he distinguishes in Romans 2:12 between those who were “in the law” (ἐν νόμῳ) from those who sinned “lawlessly” (ἀνόμως). The law is the standard by which sin is judged (1 John 3:4). This is Paul’s way of speaking about the Gentiles who were outside the uniquely Israelite laws, the types and shadows (Heb 8:5; 9:24; 10:1; 1 Cor 10:6, 11; 1 Pet 3:21; Col 2:17) and the Jews, who were under them as a “schoolmaster” (Gal 3:24). The Gentiles were still under some law. If they were not under the civil and ceremonial laws, then which law were they transgressing? The moral law, that law grounded in creation and revealed in nature and impressed upon their consciences. This is why all humans are “without excuse” before God. We all know that God is. We know enough of his nature and his law to be held accountable. We do “the things of the law” by nature, by instinct. Thus, Paul says, that the Gentiles are a law unto themselves. Every nation forbids murder, theft, adultery, lying, rebellion against authority etc.
The Ten Commandments that God gave at Sinai (or Horeb) did not originate there. They are not so identified with Sinai and Moses the way that the sacrifices, ceremonies, and judicial laws were. What was given at Sinai was already substantially revealed in creation. Adam knew that he was obligated to love God with all his faculties and his neighbor as himself. This summary, of course, comes from our Lord in Matthew 22:37–40 but he was only repeating the words of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Our Lord himself imposed upon us the Old Testament summary of the moral law. Adam was obligated to love God with all faculties by obeying him in refusing to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He was to repudiate the Evil One just as our Lord did when he was tempted in the wilderness. Adam was to love his wife and all of us by rejecting the offer to become as God. The whole moral law was summarized in the commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16–17).
This distinction between the temporary Mosaic laws (civil and ceremonial) on the one hand and the creational, moral law on the other explains better the continuity that Ryrie himself noticed but could not explain properly. He rightly saw that substance of the moral law is repeated in the New Testament. Under his explanation that continuity is presented almost as though it were arbitrary. That has been a view in the history of the church. Duns Scotus (c. 1265–1308) treated the moral law purely as the product of the divine will and not as grounded in the divine nature.
The Moral Law in the New Testament
To be sure, we have always recognized temporary and typological elements in the way the moral law was given at Sinai, where the Israelite land promise was attached to the 5th commandment, “that your days may be long in the land Yahweh your God is giving you” (Ex 20:12). That land promise expired with the national people. Notice what Paul does with the 5th commandment in Ephesians 6:1–9:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “honor your father and mother” (which is the first commandment with a promise), so that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him (NASB).
He turned “that your days may be long in the land” (Canaan) into “may be well with you,” which itself is an expression drawn from Deuteronomy 5:33, 6:3, 18; 12:25; 22:7; and Jeremiah 7:23. Paul speaks this way because, as he indicated in Galatians 6:16, believers in Jesus are the “Israel of God.”
So Ryrie was right. The New Testament repeats the Ten Commandments. He stipulated “nine of the ten” commandments but this is a disputed matter. Does the New Testament express the 4th commandment explicitly? Not in exactly the same words but Hebrews 4 does quote Psalm 95. Now, the point there is probably not to reinforce the weekly Sabbath but it is instructive to note that his whole argument rests on the divine institution of the Sabbath, which did not occur at Sinai but, as Hebrews 4:3,4 remind us, at creation. The Lord created and rested. That pattern is built into the nature of things. It is not a Mosaic or Sinaitic institution Therefore, the Sabbath as a pattern of rest and work, is built into creation. It did not expire with the abrogation of the Mosaic ceremonies.
Whatever one concludes about the Christian Sabbath, what we need to see here is that Ryrie was right. The Ten Commandments are restated and repeated in the new covenant but wrong in the significance he attached to that fact. They are re-stated and repeated because they are God’s moral law.
Thus, our Lord explained the Ten Commandments in his Sermon on the Mount. He gave this preface:
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:17–20; NASB).
From there (to v. 48) he proceeds to give the true sense of the Ten Commandments.
We know that the earliest post-Apostolic Christians read the Ten Commandments in their worship services. We have evidence of that in the letter of Pliny the Younger to the Roman Emperor Trajan (c. 112 AD), where he described the Christian worship services in Asia Minor.
Christians are not under the Ten Commandments as a schoolmaster. Jesus has satisfied the law for us and has taken away the curse of the law but we are under the law as the rule and guide of the Christian life. We are under them not because they Mosaic but because they are moral. They are God’s moral law.
1. Considering the history of Dispensationalism it would seem that its originators, John Nelson Darby (1800–82) and C. I. Scofield (1843–1921) should be regarded as “classic” Dispensationalists, since they established the movement and the basic outlines of its theology and hermeneutic (way of interpreting texts). Ryrie more probably represented a leading voice in what has been called modified Dispensationalism. The other significant group of Dispensationalists call themselves “progressive.”
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- Ursinus on the Abiding Validity of the Decalogue
- The Abiding Validity of the Creational Law
- Covenant Theology Is Not Replacement Theology
- AGR With Chris Gordon On Replacement Theology
- Three Things Dispensational Apologists Should Stop Saying
- Dispensationalism’s Millennial Memorial Sacrifices: Regression to Types and Shadows
- The PCUS Report On Dispensationalism
- Berkhof Contra Dispensationalism On the Unity Of Redemptive History
- On Distinguishing the Jerusalem From Below and Above
- What The Bible Is All About
- The Israel of God