The Law Of Christ Is The Moral Law

Introduction And Survey

In his provocative March (2020) essay, Matt Smethurst asked “Why Don’t Christians Keep the Jewish Law?” He reminds us that the “Bible is a thoroughly Jewish document,” a note that has been regularly (and properly) sounded in modern biblical studies. From this premise, he asks the provocative question before us. He notes that “God’s people kept it for centuries in the Old Testament. What happened?” He answers by observing that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah and the Son of God kept and completed “the law of God in his people’s place. Jesus embodied in himself everything the law demanded.” Smethurst recognizes two functions of the “Jewish law:”  “God designed the law both to instruct and guide his people and also to expose their sin and need for a Savior.” In the magisterial Protestant traditions we have spoken of these as the normative (third use) and the pedagogical use. Historically there was also a “civil use,” the function of which, according to Louis Berkhof, is to restrain sin and to serve “the purposes of God’s common grace in the world at large.”1 According to Smethurst, the “Jewish law” is a signpost that is no longer needed now that the “new covenant and new age ushered in by a new king” has arrived. As he puts it, “The signage of the law, therefore, can be taken down. It served its purpose.” This is because, we are no longer “under law” but “under grace.” For Smethurst, this is essentially a redemptive historical way of speaking rather than an order of salvation way of speaking. He explains the perspective from which he says these things:

Now, writing from a baptistic, new-covenant-theology perspective, am I saying that Christians have no moral obligations whatsoever? Not at all. Though we aren’t bound to the law of Moses, we are subject to what the New Testament calls “the law of Christ”—a moral norm encapsulated by sacrificial love (Gal. 6:2; see also 1 Cor. 9:21). And the moral norms of the law are not irrelevant to the law of Christ; they are included in it. If anything, they’re just intensified.

Smethurst’s essay is useful because it is a clear and concise account of the way many evangelicals think and speak about the law of God. It is also fundamentally alien to the way the broad Christian tradition, including the Reformed tradition, has spoken about the Ten Commandments as the moral law.

The Moral Law Is Not Jewish

The first issue to be addressed is the unstated but major premise of his argument, that all the biblical law is one and that it is all essentially Jewish. In short, he ignores the ancient, traditional Christian distinction between the three aspects of the Old Testament law: the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial. This distinction, formed this way, goes back to Thomas Aquinas.2 In substance, however, this distinction is implied in Irenaeus (c. 170) who was writing against heretical groups who made a radical disjunction between the Old and New Testaments. In response, not only did he argue for the essential unity of what Reformed theology would later call the covenant of grace, but for the abiding validity of the Ten Commandments for the New Covenant believer:

Preparing man for this life, the Lord Himself did speak in His own person to all alike the words of the Decalogue; and therefore, in like manner, do they remain permanently with us, receiving by means of His advent in the flesh, extension and increase, but not abrogation.

We see it also in several of the 4th and 5th century fathers, e.g., Chrysostom and Augustine both referred to the the OT “ceremonial laws” laws as distinct from the moral law. The abiding validity of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) was a datum in the ancient and medieval church.

The Reformation inherited this threefold distinction and it was received by the Protestant orthodox theologians. In the modern period, however, as Ligon Duncan noted recently, this distinction has not fared well among evangelical biblical scholars where the threefold distinction in the law has been widely rejected. This rejection has (unintentionally) facilitated the theonomic-reconstructionist movement, which also rejects the distinction.

There are thus, as suggested above, two outcomes by failing to distinguish between the moral or natural law as permanent, and the ceremonial (religious) and judicial laws as temporary. One outcome is that, as we see in Smethurts’s approach, with the death of Christ all the Old Testament law dies with him. The other, as noted, is the theonomic approach, whereby the judicial laws are not regarded as “expired” and thus they persist. This they say contra the Westminster Confession of Faith (19.3–5), where the Reformed confess:

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.

5. The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.

In other words, traditionally, Christians have understood that the ceremonial and judicial laws were specific to Israel and temporary in a way that the moral law is not. This is because Christians, including the Reformed tradition, have historically had some notion of natural law. The judicial and ceremonial laws were promulgated with the intention that they should be obsolete. They were never intended to be permanent. This is why the Westminster Divines (following the Reformed tradition) said that the judicial laws expired with “the state of that people.” They are only binding insofar as they reflect natural law (general equity. On this see the resource page on theonomy and reconstructionism where the classical Reformed definition of “general equity” is demonstrated from sources).

According to the Reformed tradition, the moral law, the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) is the natural law. It is grounded in the divine nature. It does not mutate in substance because God is immutable. When asked what the greatest commandment in the law is, our Lord replied:

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:37–40; ESV).

These are the two tables of the moral law: love of God and neighbor. The religious laws, i.e., the ceremonial laws, and the judicial laws are not the moral law. The washing of hands and refraining from eating crustaceans is not a perpetual obligation upon Christians. Indeed, the Holy Spirit revealed this directly to Cornelius and to the Apostle Peter:

The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven (Acts 10:9–16; ESV).

The ceremonial laws and the judicial laws have been abrogated by divine authority. The moral law has not been so abrogated because it was never temporary. It was revealed, in substance, to Adam. He was to love God with all his faculties and his neighbor (Eve and us) by obeying God and defeating the Evil One. Obviously, mysteriously, he did not and here we are. The moral law was known by nature before the giving of the law at Sinai. God’s invisible attributes and his eternal power and divine nature have been evident through nature to all since creation (Rom 1:20). The Gentiles, who did not have the Mosaic law (the ceremonial and judicial laws) nevertheless had the law: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law” (Rom 2:14; ESV).

The Ten Words given at Sinai was that same moral law, expressed in what we might call, to use an old-fashioned word, Israelitish fashion. E.g., the land promise in the 5th commandment is particular to the temporary, Old Covenant (2 Cor 3:14; Heb 8:6, 13). The substance of the Ten Commandments, however, is the moral law including the 2nd commandment (against images of God) and the 4th (the Sabbath). Smethurst affirms his desire to uphold the substance of morality but typically the point of his (the so-called “New Covenant”) position is to relieve Christians of the burden of observing the 2nd and particularly the 4th commandments. 

The Moral Law is The Creational Law

Our Lord recognized, however, that the ceremonial laws were intentionally temporary and that there are patterns and laws grounded in creation or in nature. Monogamous, heterosexual marriage is one of those creational patterns.

“Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt 19:3–9; ESV).

The Pharisees tested Jesus by giving him what they thought was an exam he was sure to fail. He did not. The core of his answer rests in the assumption that there are abiding creational, natural patterns. Polygamy was a temporary concession that has expired, Nature norms the temporary Mosaic judicial laws. We see our Lord taking same approach to the thorny question of the Sabbath. Jesus went through the grain fields on the Jewish Sabbath picking grain. The Pharisees accused him of acting unlawfully. Our Lord appealed to David’s example and then declared “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27–28; ESV).

When was the Sabbath made? According to Exodus 20:8, at creation, which, of course, is what we observe in the creation narrative. For all the attention and energy given to the (anachronistic) question of the length of the creation days, taken on its own terms, the creational institution of the Sabbath is the highpoint of Genesis 1–2. The Sabbath was instituted long before the temporary Mosaic laws were given. The Sabbath pattern is a creational, not Mosaic or temporary pattern.

Under The Law?

Finally, Smethurst conflates the Pauline teaching that we are not under the law—praise God that we, who are in Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, are not!—with the rejection of the abiding validity of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are the moral law and the moral law continues to norm the Christian life. To be clear, in the Pauline vocabulary, to be “under the law” is to be under the demand of the law to produce personal and perfect obedience. Those who have trusted in Christ are no longer “under the law,” but this does not answer the question of the Christian’s relation to the moral law as the abiding norm of the Christian life.

As noted above, he almost acknowledges what the magisterial and confessional Protestants (Lutheran and Reformed) called (and call) the third use of the law. Christ is our substitute. The law and its penalties have been nailed to the cross (Col 2:14). Christ is our victorious substitute but that reality never means, for Paul, that the moral law, which is the law of Christ—it was, after all, Jesus who led us out of Egypt (Jude 5) and the Rock from whom we drank in the wilderness and the manna on which we were fed was Christ (1 Cor 10:1–4)—and Paul regularly applies it to Christians as the norm of their new life.

In Romans 13, when Paul is instructing Christians on how to live the new life, in the New Covenant (which is new relative to Moses), he turns to the Ten Commandments: “For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom 13:8–10; ESV). Ephesians 5 is essentially a commentary and application of the Ten Commandments and Paul explicitly quotes the 5th commandment in Ephesians 6:2–3. According to Romans 7:7 the 9th commandment has abiding validity. Galatians 5:15–6:10 is a commentary on and application of the Decalogue to the life of the Christian.

According to James, the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, the Ten Words, the Moral Law is the “royal law:” which explains by quoting our Lord’s summary of the 2nd table but then turns back to the 7th and 8th commandments.

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:8–13; ESV).

This, the abiding validity of the Ten Commandments, the Moral Law, the Decalogue, the Royal Law, the Law of Love, the Law of Christ,  is the Apostolic teaching and it is the ancient Christian teaching. The notion that the Ten Commandments are so identified with Moses that they expired along with the ceremonial and judicial laws has historically been associated with marginal sects, not with the mainstream of Christian doctrine and ethical teaching.

The Reformation churches (Lutheran and Reformed) are united in their affirmation of the continuing validity of the Moral Law (the Ten Commandments) as the norm of the Christian life. Luther exposited them quite straightforwardly in his 1529 Large Catechism. The Reformed followed this pattern. Calvin exposited and affirmed their abiding validity in his catechisms as did the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). The catechism defines good works in terms of the Ten Commandments:

91. What are good works?

Those only which proceed from true faith, and are done according to the Law of God, unto His glory; and not such as rest on our own opinion or the commandments of men.

We know this because the very next question defines the law of God by quoting the Ten Commandments. The Reformation churches agree on the abiding validity of the 2nd and 4th commandments, even though we disagree about their application. The Reformed Churches understand the 2nd commandment to forbid images of God the Son incarnate and confess the abiding validity of the Christian Sabbath as a creational institution and as part of the new creation inaugurated by Jesus.

In other words, the position advocated here, the abiding validity of the Ten Commandments as the norm for the Christian life in the New Covenant, is not narrow, Reformed confessionalist, sectarian position (though I cheerfully subscribe the Reformed confessions) but rather a Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation consensus. It is certainly, however, the mainstream view of the Reformed tradition.

We acknowledge that, in this life we will never keep the Ten Commandments perfectly:

114. Can those who are converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?

No, but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with earnest purpose they begin to live not only according to some, but according to all the Commandments of God.

We understand that even though we are not “under the law” for our justification or salvation, nevertheless, our Father “enjoins up on” the Ten Commandments for good reasons:

115. Why then does God so strictly enjoin the ten Commandments upon us, since in this life no one can keep them?

First, that as long as we live we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ; secondly, that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life.

The Holy Spirit uses the Ten Commandments to drive even Christians back to Christ so that we will learn again and again to flee to him for righteousness and salvation. By hearing them read week and after week and by meditating on them, we are also driven to our knees and thence to Christ for the grace of progressive sanctification until we are finally glorified.



1. L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 614.

2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, 1a2ae 99.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. “One outcome is that, as we see in Smethurts’s approach, with the death of Christ all the Old Testament *lie* dies with him.”


  2. A large part of American so-called “Evangelicalism” represents a revolt againt one or more aspects of the Reformed confession. Lacking a grasp of covenantalism, many will fall for antinomianism.

  3. It appears to remove Christ from any part of the issuance of the Old Testament Law

Comments are closed.