[Note: this article was originally published in the winter 2019 edition of the Founders Journal]
Paragraphs 3 – 5
Second London Confession
The amount of literature that has been written on topic of the law and its relationship to believers is immense. Godly believers seeking to serve God and be faithful to Scripture can be pulled in countless directions. Am I still obligated to obey the law? If so, does that mean that I cannot, under penalty of death, pick up sticks on the Saturday (Numbers 15:32–36), eat shellfish (Leviticus 11:9–12), or wear clothing of more than one material (Leviticus 19:19)? If I am not obligated to obey the law, then how do I know how to please God? Am I bound to whatever demands are placed upon me by my conscience, my pastors, or by the culture? How do I know how to behave and how to live a life that is pleasing to God?
These issues are crucial, not only that we may live lives that are pleasing to God, but also so that we can lead men and women in our churches without binding their consciences. We must not put upon them a weight of law that has been lifted from them in Christ. Conversely, we must also encourage them in the proper path of holiness, which means we must know what that path is. We have not the liberty to add to nor take away from God’s decrees.
Thankfully, we have the wisdom of faithful men in the past to help guide us in such complex issues. They, standing on the shoulders of those before them, have charted a path that helps bring clarity to these difficult issues, and that avoids the twin pitfalls of adding to God’s law (legalism) and taking away from it (antinomianism). As will be shown below, the Second London Baptist Confession explains the biblical understanding of the law as a complex of different portions of laws: moral, ceremonial, and judicial. The moral law is unchanging and remains a guide for believers, while the ceremonial and judicial are abrogated by the coming of Christ. These simple principles are essential for the right understanding of the Bible and the proper application of biblical imperatives for us today.
Trifold Division of the Law
Paragraphs 3–5 of chapter XIX of the Second London Baptist Confession assume what has come to be known as the tri-fold division of the Old Covenant law. This tri-fold division distinguishes between the ceremonial law, the judicial law, and the moral law.1 Before examining each of these divisions of the law, the tri-fold division that is assumed must be addressed. Indeed, these very divisions within the law have come under attack recently.2
A complete defense of the tri-fold division of the law is beyond the scope of this article.3 However, a few brief comments can be made in defense of the interpretive framework.
First, the Old Covenant itself makes linguistic distinction between the Decalogue and the rest of the old covenant laws. The headings and outline of Exodus 20 (Ten Commandments) and Exodus 21–23 (the “Judgements”) shows the special privilege given to the Decalogue. Similarly, the Ten Words are presented as absolute commands or prohibitions, and are usually in the second person singular. They are general commands given without regard to any specific social context. By contrast, the Judgements are presented as case studies of law, functioning as precedents would in the legal system of today. Unlike the Ten Words, the Judgements are usually presented as conditional statements, rather than universal commands. Thus the structure of text, the nature of the laws, and the manner of their delivery all point to the distinction between the Decalogue and the rest of the Old Covenant laws.4
Second, the Decalogue is of a different origin and was treated differently than the rest of the laws. In Deuteronomy 5:22 we are told that God “added nothing more” to the Ten Words, which “supports the idea that the Ten are somehow distinct from the rest of the statues that follow and allows for the interpretation that the Ten are distinct in terms of being everlasting and moral in contrast to those that follow.”5 Additionally, the Ten Words were written on stone by the very finger of God, in contrast to the Judgements written on paper by God through Moses. Furthermore, the Ten Words were given with Mount Sinai with loud thunder, flashes of lightning, a thick cloud, and a “very loud trumpet blast” (Exodus 19:16). No other laws were revealed this way. Finally, the Ten Words were placed within the Ark of the Covenant, an honor not given to the remainder of the Old Covenant law (Deuteronomy 31:24–26). These reasons indicate the distinctiveness of the Ten Words apart from the Judgements.
Third, the New Testament contains several instances of authors seeing distinction within the Old Covenant law. Jesus teaches that “until heaven and earth pass away, not a dot will pass from the Law” (Matthew 5:17). What law is Christ speaking about? He goes on to list laws from the Ten Commandments: do not murder (Matthew 5:21–26); do not commit adultery (Matthew 5:27–32); do not lie (Matthew 5:33–37). Additionally, Paul writes, “So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” (Romans 2:26). Paul has a category for Gentiles who “keep the law” without obeying the Old Testament command to be circumcised. What law is Paul thinking about? Again, context shows, it’s the Ten Commandments (Romans 2:21–23). Furthermore, Paul distinguishes between “the law of commandments” and its “ordinances.” Ephesians 2:15 says that when Christ died, He abolished “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” Notice that Christ didn’t abolish the law of commandments itself, only its expression in ordinances. “Ordinances” are the national “rules” or “decrees” of Israel that were based on moral law, but not identical to it.6 Thus, the New Testament authors see distinctions within the Old Covenant law.
In light of the language used within the Old Covenant law, the differing modes of its revelation, the differing ends of its use, and the interpretations of the New Testament authors, it is reasonable to conclude that the Old Covenant law contained within it distinct portions of law. Given that Jesus said that some portions would not pass away (Matthew 5:17), the confession is correct to conclude that the moral core will remain in place and, as will be argued below, the ceremonial and judicial elements passed away with the dissolution of the theocratic nation and its cultic system.
After having addressed God’s unchanging standard of righteousness in paragraphs 1 and 2 of the confession, the authors move on to address the ceremonial laws in paragraph 3.
19.3. Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel 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 being appointed only to the time of reformation, are, by Jesus Christ the true Messiah and only law-giver, who was furnished with power from the Father for that end abrogated and taken away. (Hebrews 10:1; Colossians 2:17;
1 Corinthians 5:7; Colossians 2:14, 16, 17; Ephesians 2:14, 16)
God was pleased to give to the Hebrews the ceremonial portion of the law in order to magnify His name and make manifest His gracious provision to come, namely, Jesus Christ. The ceremonial laws related to the 10 commandments in that they regulated the proper observance of the first table of the law during the Old Covenant.7 These laws mandated “several typical ordinances” that served multiple functions. First, these ordinances were, in part, the means that God had ordained for His people to worship Him under the Old Covenant. Second, these ordinances prefigured Christ. That is, the ceremonial system with its sacrifices, priests, holiness laws, etc., all pointed toward the necessity of a once and for all sacrifice needed for the eternal remission of sins. Third, these ordinances also mandated “diverse instructions of moral duties.” That is, they instructed the Israelites in how they were to apply the immutable moral law of God to their religious and social context.
All of these ceremonial laws were not eternal; rather, they were “appointed only to the time of reformation,” i.e., until Christ. The law had always been but a “shadow of the good things to come” (Hebrews 10:1). Jesus Christ is “the true Messiah and only law-giver,” and His coming has made an end to all the types and shadows found within the ceremonial law (Colossians 2:14–17).8
19.4. To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of moral use. (1 Corinthians 9:8–10)
Just as the ceremonial law was concerned with the proper expression of the first table of the Decalogue under the Old Covenant, the judicial laws were concerned with the proper enforcement of the second table of the Decalogue under the Old Covenant. The confession makes two important points regarding the abrogation of the judicial (or civil) law, while affirming that the law itself is useful in the modern application of judicial principles. This paragraph is similar in substance to the Westminster Confession’s stance, and is clearly in line with John Calvin’s thoughts on the matter.9
The confession teaches that because Christ’s people are no longer limited to a single national body, and because the former theocratic state has been destroyed, it is reasonable to conclude, according to the confession, that the former civil code will end as well. However, the old covenant civil code retains value for new covenant believers. The judicial laws provide principles for the application and enforcement of the moral law in society: “Their general equity only being of moral use.” The judicial laws regulated punishments for breaching the moral law in order to establish and enforce justice in the land. Similarly, civil rulers of today ought to establish and enforce penalties for violating.10
Perpetuity of the Moral Law
19.5. The moral law doth for ever 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. (Romans 13:8–10; James 2:8, 10–12; James 2:10, 11; Matthew 5:17–19; Romans 3:31)
Being that law that is written on the hearts of mankind, and being the righteous reflection of the immutable character of our sovereign God, the moral law is unchanging and forever binds mankind. Mankind is made in the image of God, and therefore is obliged to honor God’s image by always acting in accordance to God’s standard of righteousness:
“The moral law (which is the pattern of God’s image in man) ought to correspond with the eternal and archetypal law in God, since it is its copy and shadow (aposkimation), in which he has manifested his justice and holiness. Hence we cannot conform ourselves to the image of God (to the imitation of which Scripture so often exhorts us) except by regulating our lives in accordance with the precepts of this law… This [archetypal] law is immutable and perpetual. Therefore the moral law (its ectype) must necessarily also be immutable.”11
The moral law of God reflects God’s perfect righteous character, and thus His immutable (archetypal) law or perfection. The logical formula is not complex: if God’s character does not change, then His moral law does not change. And if mankind is made in His image, then mankind ought to forever honor God by conforming to His standard of righteousness.12 The “moral law doth forever bind all.”
Indeed, far from removing the obligation of the moral law, the confession actually states that Christ in the gospel in no way dissolves this obligation, but strengthens it.13 The believer is freed from the rigor and reign of the law as a covenant (2LBC 19.6), is given a new heart with the law written upon it, and is given the Holy Spirit to guide him in his obedience to that law. The moral law’s fulfillment in the obedience of Christ and our freedom from its curse by His death opens to us a new freedom in our deliberate service unto God and unto holiness. Both of these are defined by the moral law. Far from ridding us of the law, saving grace actually frees us to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, the very summary of the law, while standing in a state of justification. Being freed to love God with our whole being is the very fulfillment of the law, and obedience to the law is the very path of expressing that love. Having been justified by a perfect righteousness, that same righteousness, the perfection of the moral law, points us to a path of sanctification until we are among the “spirits of the righteous made perfect” awaiting “the resurrection from the dead” (Hebrews 12:23; Philippians 3:11).
1 For the purposes of this article, I will use “moral law,” “Ten Commandments/Words,” and “Decalogue” as synonymous unless otherwise noted. However, I am aware that, properly speaking, the Ten Commandments contain statements that are partly moral and partly ceremonial. For more on this distinction between the moral law proper and the Ten commandments, see: Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, 1st edition (Baker Book House, 2006), s.v. moral law; lex naturalis; Francis Turrettin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 2.11.1 (pp. 1–18).
2 For example: Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 355; Tom Wells and Fred G. Zaspel, New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, Defense (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2002), 72–74; Jason C. Meyer, The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology (B&H Academic, 2009), 282.
3 For the best contemporary defense of the tri-fold division of the law, see: Philip Ross, From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2010).
4 For a thorough linguistic analysis of the Ten Words/Judgements distinctions, see: Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 305–9; see also, Ronald M. Rothenberg, “Relation of the Tripartite Division of the Law and the Public/Private Distinction: Examining the Streams of Thought behind Them,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 61, no. 4 (2018): 808–10; Ross, From the Finger of God, 86–88.
5 Rothenberg, “Relation of the Tripartite Division of the Law and the Public/Private Distinction: Examining the Streams of Thought behind Them,” 809.
6 For further argumentation, see: Turrettin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 2.11.24–26 (pp 145–167); Ross, From the Finger of God, 51–114; Tom Hicks, “The Division of the Old Testament Law,” Founders Ministries (blog), February 18, 2019, https://founders.org/2016/04/23/the-division-of-old-testament-law/.
7 Concerning the division of the law into two tables, see 2LBC chapter 19 paragraph 2, and Tom Nettles’ article that contains an exposition of this paragraph.
8 For a full defense of the abrogation of the ceremonial law, see: Turrettin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 2.11.25–26 (pp 158–168); Ross, From the Finger of God, 265–95.
9 John Calvin, John T. McNeill, and Ford Lewis Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559 translation edition (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 4:20:14–14; Samuel E Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 5th ed. (S.l.: Evangelical Press, 2016), 283.
10 It is worth noting that there is a small group of believers that argue for the abiding validity and enforcement of the judicial laws. Those of such a mind are called “theonomists.” For a substantive critique of such views, see: W. Robert Godfrey, Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Michigan: Academie Books, 1994); Samuel Waldron, “Theonomy: A Reformed Baptist Assessment,” The Reformed Reader, accessed February 18, 2019, https://www.reformedreader.org/rbs/tarba.htm.
11 Turrettin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 2.11.3 (p 12).
12 For more on the human obligation to obey God’s moral law, see: Ernest Kevan, The Grace of Law: A Study in Puritan Theology (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1997), 172–73; Ross, From the Finger of God, 308–50; Turrettin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 2.11.23 (pp 141–145).
13 For more on this increased obligation, see: Ross, From the Finger of God, 341–44; Kevan, The Grace of Law, 173–76.