The Three-Fold Division of Biblical Law

When we consider “The Law of God” in Scripture we’re considering the moral duties God requires of us.

Deut. 10:12–13, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?”

Though Israel was required to keep all the law of God, weightier matters as well as lighter matters (for even the in the OT some laws were more important than others – though all were to be kept, Matt. 23:23), the New Testament clearly informs us that portions of God’s law have been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ and are no longer binding in the original sense in which they were given. The fact that we do not sacrifice animals, stone rebellious children or forbid bacon from church potlucks displays that we do not view all parts of the OT law as equally applicable today. All parts remain profitable and were all written for our instruction,

1 Corinthians 10:6, 11, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did…Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”

But all is not to be heeded now in the same way it was prior to the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. Some people (quite a considerable number in our day) would have us to believe that we are not under any of God’s Old Testament commands. Apparently the apostle Paul didn’t get that memo,

Ephesians 6:1–3, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 'Honor your father and mother' (this is the first commandment with a promise), 'that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.'"

Paul seems to take for granted that the Ten Commandments are still binding to children and their Christian parents. He even quotes the promise in the fifth commandment as though it were still relevant and applicable. Because it is. God's moral law is forever applicable and binding. The sad nature of the case is that if we discard His law, we inevitably substitute laws of men and human traditions in their place.

Legalism would have us keep what we shouldn’t
Antinomianism would have us not keep what we should

Those terms are broader than that, but this distinction is still helpful.

Historically, the church very broadly – that is, theologians and denominations far and wide, has held to a three-fold division of the law of God. John Calvin, in the 1500’s can say that these divisions were “well known” and adopted by the “ancients.” Most Reformed Confessions incorporate these distinctions, as have many outside explicitly Calvinistic circles. Parts of God’s law are indeed, now non-binding, although even with these there are underlying principles perpetually applicable and profitable in many ways (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The central essence of God’s law is eternally, always binding.

We might alliterate this three-fold division as the Ceremonial, the Civil and the Central laws of God. Historically, the central laws have been identified as the moral law of God.

The Westminster Confession of Faith drafted largely by the Puritan Presbyterians (1646; followed by the Congregationalists, Savoy Confession of Faith, 1658; and the Baptist, 1689 Second London Confession), in chapter 19, “Of the Law of God” speaks of this tripartite view of the Law. After speaking of the perfect rule of righteousness stamped upon the consciences of Adam and Eve as image-bearers of God (Rom. 2:14-15), which, the confession says were later “delivered by God upon mount Sinai in ten commandments” – the Confession goes on to explain:

“Besides 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. 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.”

The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified as others, to the obedience thereof; and that not only in regard to 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.”

The ceremonial laws were types pointing forward, especially to the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The civil laws were types and principles pointing forward, especially to the kingdom of Christ. The law, in its ceremonial and civil aspects has been fulfilled.

Col. 2:17, “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
Heb. 10:1, “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.”

Christ is our Priest, Christ is our King, and Christ is the great Prophet that was to come (Deut. 18:15-19; Acts 3:17-26). Christ offered Himself, the once-for-all atonement to cleanse us from our sin and He ever lives to make intercession for us – He is our great, high Priest. His kingdom is not of this world; God is not in covenant with any earthy nation – we are governed by the sword of the Spirit, not the sword of the state. Christ’s laws are God’s laws - Christ is our King. As the consummate Prophet of God, He brings together what all God’s prophets were pointing to. He doesn’t come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but "to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). He’s not so much a new law-giver, as He is the law-restorer, the law-clarifier and concluder. As John Calvin says, “rather than adding to the law, Christ only restored it to its integrity…He cleansed it when it had been obscured by falsehood.” Jesus is the law’s “best interpreter.” Christ’s law, the royal law, the law of liberty, God’s law summarized and rightly explained, is the moral law. Those eternal and abiding truths, once summarized in ten words (the literal Hebrew language in Exod. 34:28; Deut. 4:13, 10:4 – note the footnote in most Bibles) and further summarized in the two great commandments (Matt. 22:37-38; Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18) are the moral laws of God - and as such, are applicable to all generations Old Testament or New.

Before I speak specifically of the moral law of God, the perpetual, unchanging, perfect standards of holiness – let me add a couple of reflections on the benefits of the ceremonial and civil laws to Israel (Here I recommend the excellent book by Brian Edwards, “The Ten Commandments For Today,” Day One Publications, 1996, from which these thoughts are borrowed).

The ceremonial law teaches us, that God is Holy and that worship is serious.
Remember Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron – who offered strange fire in the tabernacle and were consumed by a fire sent from heaven. Remember Uzzah reaching out to steady the ark of the Covenant as it was being improperly transported on an ox cart – who was struck dead in an instant by the living God who is serious about His commandments. We learn in the Ceremonial Law that God is holy, holy, holy. Joy in worship (Psalm 100, 150, etc.) is to be mixed with reverence and fear – “let not you heart be hasty to utter a word before God," says Solomon” (Ecc. 5:2) “for God is in heaven and you are on earth, therefore let your words be few." "Guard your steps when you go the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil" (Ecc. 5:1). 

Worship is not primarily or even secondarily about us – it is foremost about God. In Deuteronomy 12, when God is commanding His people to destroy the false gods and the altars of the Canaanite nations, He says in v. 4 and 8, “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way…You shall not do according to all that you are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes.” Doing whatever we want to do, is not the rule of the public worship of God. We serve a holy God who is serious about appropriate worship. The ceremonial law, though dead (in some regards), yet speaks.

His ceremonial law, pointing everywhere as it does to the culminating work of Christ – reveals to us both the seriousness of sin and the readiness of God to show mercy.
Sacrifices were brought to the Priests, a hand was placed on the animal and sins were confessed – guilt was symbolically transferred to the animal and the animal was then killed. Blood flowed almost incessantly in the tabernacle and temple. The constant picture of our sins deserving death drove a principle deep into the psyche of the people of God, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22); the ceremonial law made this picture-clear. And simultaneously God was revealing His mercy. A substitute was slain, that we might go free; blood was shed, that we might be forgiven. God reveals Himself as a God who hates sin, and a God who loves mercy. The law, all the law - the ceremonial law included, has much to teach us.

God’s civil laws also show us that God is just, wise, caring and merciful.
Maybe there are things for us to learn as a society from OT civil laws. It’s interesting that there are no instructions in the OT for building prisons. You have cities of refuge for innocent manslayers – but no ‘penitentiaries.’ Apparently the idea of criminals becoming penitent and changing their ways after a season in prison wasn’t a part of God’s justice system in the OT. The OT had just a few basic ways of dealing with crime. If a man committed a capital offense he was put to death (and there were many capital crimes beyond murder). If a crime involving a lesser injury, then an eye for an eye and tooth for tooth was extracted as punishment suitable to the crime. For many offenses, the criminal had to make right what had been done wrong. In Exodus 22, if a man stole an ox, he was to pay back five in the place of the one. Maybe restitution and labor and other means of punishment – rather than isolation or rehab would be more effective in dealing with criminal activity. Countries are not required to implement the letter of OT civil laws, but Scripture yet reminds us, that “righteousness exalts a nation, and sin is a reproach to any people" (Prov. 14:34). It would be to our benefit for our legislators to look to God's civil laws to inform their legislation today. There is much to feed the soul of the Christian in meditating on the revelation of God in his dealings with ancient Israel.

You also see in the OT that God is exactly what Jesus displays in the NT – a God of justice and a God of mercy. It’s easy, for example, to think of Jesus as a contrast to OT ethics when He shows mercy to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), but we should remember that the same mercy was shown to King David a thousand years earlier when he committed both adultery and murder (2 Sam. 12:13). The civil law ordered death, but there has always been an appropriate place for undeserved mercy.

The testimony is the same - Old Testament and New Testament, 

Ecc. 12:13–14, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

1 Peter 2:17, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (see also Prov. 24:21; 2 Cor. 7:1)

John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep My commandments.”

1 John 5:2–3, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.”

The promise of the New Covenant is that God will write His law, not on tablets of stone externally – we have that, but on tablets of flesh inwardly. The New Covenant grants a new heart not just to some within the covenant, but to all – circumcision in the flesh (OT) was always pointing to the true circumcision of the heart (OT and NT). The circumcised heart is the obedient heart. The new heart is the regenerate heart empowered by the Spirit of God, informed and enflamed by the law of God:

Jer. 31:33, “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Quoted in Heb. 8:8-13)

Ezek. 36:26–27, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

Those who are in the flesh are “hostile to God,” they do not submit to God’s law, “indeed they cannot” (Rom. 8:7). We, however, the people of God, “are not in the flesh but in the Spirit” (Rom. 8:8). As such, we not only submit ourselves to God’s law, we love His law, “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul…the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart…More are they to be desired than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Ps. 19:7-11).

J. C. Ryle, the evangelical Anglican of yesteryear, wrote:

There is no greater mistake than to suppose that a Christian has nothing to do with the law and the Ten Commandments – because he cannot be justified by keeping them. The same Holy Ghost who convinces the believer of sin by the law, and leads him to Christ for justification, will always lead him to the spiritual use of the law as a friendly guide, in the pursuit of sanctification.”

In modern criticism of the three-fold division of the law, one of the repeated objections is that “one will find it challenging to divide all the laws into three neat, watertight compartments” (To quote Jason Meyer, John Piper’s successor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and author of “The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology,” B&H Academic, 2009; D. A. Carson says the same thing in “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day,” pg. 68). It is to be admitted and granted that these divisions of law are sometimes interspersed and overlapping. But the difficulty of a task doesn't nullify the need of the task - nobody said that exegesis would be childs-play. It is self-evident in the New Testament that the moral law, summarized in the ten commandments, and further summarized in the two great commandments is an abiding ethic for the people of God, whereas, ceremonial laws and OT judicial laws do not apply in the church the way they did in Old Covenant Israel.

Take the clear words of the apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 7:19, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.” Circumcision itself was a commandment – but that no longer counts for anything, Paul says. What does count, what matters is “keeping the commandments of God.” There must  be distinctions then, between parts of God's law. If what matters is keeping His commandments, but certain of His commandments are no longer to be kept - then there must be criteria by which we such necessary distinctions.

1 Cor. 7:19 is also very useful when compared to the other two texts in which Paul uses the same parallel language. Gal. 5:6 and 6:15,

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”

For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”

In the New Covenant, what matters is a new creation - the new birth, regeneration. What does that "new creation" look like? "Faith working through love."  By the gift of persevering faith and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Christian life is about all things becoming new (2 Cor. 5:17) - We're transported, transformed into a life of walking not by sight, but by faith (2 Cor. 5:7). Faith is the God-pleasing gift (Heb. 11:6) that allows us to love God supremely and to love our neighbor sacrificially.

This is what Ezekiel said God would do: "He would cause us to walk in His statutes and be careful to obey His rules" (36:27). Being perfect as God is perfect (Matt. 5:48) – the standard to which we are all called to strive - is achieved through keeping His commandments.” Oh, we don’t keep them perfectly, but as obedient children we keep them sincerely, and in a manner that pleases our heavenly Father (more on this in our upcoming blog on The Summary of the Moral Law in the Ten Commandments).

An important factor to remember is that the summary of the law doesn’t eliminate the law that it summarizes – it includes it. Loving God with one’s heart, soul, mind and strength is to have no other gods, to serve no idols, to glorify His name and worship Him in Spirit and in truth (the first four commandments). To love our neighbor as ourselves is “to do no wrong to our neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10). To love your neighbor is to honor authority, to revere life, to uphold the sanctity of marriage, to not steal, to not bear false witness or to covet anything that is our neighbors (commandments 5 through 10). Love doesn’t eliminate these particulars, it includes them. They don’t become unnecessary. In degrees, hopefully in time they become generally habitual. But since their depth is so deep and the width so comprehensive, we shall ever stand in need of their reminder and instruction, and of the forgiveness of God for not keeping them as we ought. None of this makes them non-applicable. We who are yet sinful need God’s law – for correction and for instruction (1 Tim. 1:6-11; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).

I close with this illustration I read somewhere: If you learn to play the piano, you have to focus for a long time on lots of rules. But even when you can play without having to consciously think of all the basic rules – when you make mistakes it’s because you broke one of them. The individual laws still function as correctives and instructions for the way forward. The basic rules never become irrelevant or unapplicable, they just become part of the greater summary of mature skills and harmonizing principles. Love is the fulfillment of the law – not the discarding of it.

All of God’s law is applicable – but not all in the same way. There is no need to throw off the helpful, historical divisions of civil, ceremonial and moral laws. We need the whole counsel of God, every word that proceeds out of His mouth – especially those weightiest of matters (see our sermon series here) – among which is not only the Gospel, but the moral law that dovetails so perfectly before and after, with it.