In this series, we’re surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These aren’t irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.
The Internet can be one of the most frustrating places to witness someone trying to discredit the Christian faith. It’s so frustrating because it’s almost impossible to have a civil and reasonable exchange. One of the most common tactics has to do with our Christian opposition to same-sex “marriage.” Somewhere online a Christian will mention the Bible texts that condemn homosexual lusts and behaviour. Not long afterwards, the unbeliever comes along and asks the Christian whether he eats shellfish or wears a garment made of two kinds of material. Because, after all, the Bible speaks against these things too! So obviously the Christian is inconsistent – he says he believes what the Bible says, but he only picks and chooses what he’s going to obey. Gotcha!
The unbeliever doesn’t understand the Bible. He may know a few Bible texts, but he probably doesn’t understand how they work together. Many non-Christians think that all biblical commands should be equally applicable. If you’re going to forbid homosexuality, you must also forbid eating bacon. The Bible speaks against both and that settles it.
What the unbeliever doesn’t understand, and what every believer must understand, is a basic distinction between three different types of laws in the Bible. The moral law is God’s permanent will for humanity and it’s summarized in the Ten Commandments. The ceremonial law was God’s will for Old Testament Israel and it partly involved various forms of worship, including the sacrificial system which pointed ahead to Christ. It also included the laws of clean and unclean and more. Under the New Testament, all the ceremonial law has been set aside – fulfilled in Christ, it is not binding on Christians. The civil law was God’s will for the Old Testament nation of Israel. It was largely the application of the moral law to Israel’s particular civil context. While there may be and often are lessons to be learned from the civil law, it too is no longer binding upon Christians as it was upon the Jews in the Old Testament.
So to go back to our example above, the unbeliever equates laws concerning shellfish and garments with what God says about homosexuality. From a Christian perspective, what he is doing is confusing the ceremonial law with the moral law. Christians regard the laws about clean and unclean as part of the ceremonial law – in fact, in Mark 7:19 we read that Jesus explicitly set these laws aside. The Seventh Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” has not been set aside – it is part of God’s moral law. This commandment not only forbids the breaking of one’s marriage vows, but all unchastity. Indeed, it prohibits all forms of sin which undermine God’s good original plan for men and women. Homosexual lusts and behaviours therefore fall under the moral law. No one should be surprised that both the Old and New Testament condemn these things equally (see, for example, Leviticus 19:22, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Cor.6:9-10, Jude 7). This is part of God’s permanent and abiding moral law.
In previous installments of this series, we’ve looked at other distinctions involving the law: specifically, law/gospel (see here) and active/passive obedience (see here). When we speak about the law in those contexts (under the rubric of justification), we’re always speaking about the moral law. So, the law/gospel distinction reminds us that we cannot earn our salvation through our obedience to the moral law. The distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience reminds us that he has earned righteousness for us through his obedience to the moral law. Things would become very messy theologically, even dangerously messy, if we were to substitute one of the other categories. Therefore, this distinction is important not only for our discussions with unbelievers, but also for properly understanding how key parts of our salvation fit together.
This distinction between moral/ceremonial/civil law is clearly made in the Westminster Confession, chapter 19. It can also be found, albeit not quite as obviously, in article 25 of the Belgic Confession: “We believe that the ceremonies and symbols of the law have ceased with the coming of Christ, and that all shadows have been fulfilled, so that the use of them ought to be abolished among Christians.” Ceremonies are clearly identified here, but civil laws of the Old Testament appear under the less technical terms, “symbols” and “shadows.” Article 25 has always been understood to teach and affirm this distinction. It is a distinction with a long historical pedigree. The Reformation did not discover it, rather it was first articulated in the early church, and then later reaffirmed by theologians in the Middle Ages. Reformed theologians simply restated what had already been correctly formulated – this distinction provides a good example where there was no need for reform. This part of the Christian tradition is solidly biblical.
There is far more that could be said about this distinction. I could elaborate on several points, but my goal here is to keep things as short and simple as possible. The Bible includes many commands from Genesis to Revelation. I simply want you to understand that not all these commands apply to us in the same way they applied to their first readers. Good students of the Bible recognize this and use the above distinction to properly understand the Word of God, defend it, and live according to it.