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The Threefold Division of Law

The Threefold Division of the Law

Traditionally there has been recognized a threefold division or categorization of biblical law. For a contemporary study on this, the reader is encouraged to consult From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law by Philip S. Ross. The division is customarily recognized by the terms moral, ceremonial, and judicial laws, for example see chapter 19 of the Confession. Such a threefold division is not at all original to the Reformed tradition. Lutherans, including Luther himself, Anglicans and Roman Catholics employ such a distinction. This distinction is important in and of itself since it is a biblical teaching. It also serves as the foundation from which to address such current debates as New Covenant Theology, the Christian’s observance of the Sabbath day, and certain forms of Reconstructionism. While these important debates will not be addressed, it is hoped that what follows will provide help for addressing them.

Regarding the moral law, the Westminster Larger Catechism, question and answer 93, provides this explanation:

… the declaration of the will of God to mankind, directing and binding every one to personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience thereunto, in the frame and disposition of the whole man, soul and body, and in performance of all those duties of holiness and righteousness which he oweth to God and man.

The moral law respects those duties which in and of themselves are right and proper based upon the nature of God, man, and the appropriate relationships between God and man, and man and man. For example, never would it be acceptable to worship another God than the one true God; to do so would strike against the essential fact that none other is worthy of worship. Nor would it ever be appropriate to commit adultery. These actions violate the society God has instituted, and would never be acceptable on any ground or at any time.

In explaining the ceremonial law, the Westminster Confession (19:3) asserts:

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 diverse instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated.

Sacrifices, such as the paschal lamb, prefigured the substitutionary, atoning, and innocent death of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was called, “the Lamb of God.” Once his sacrifice was accomplished, no longer was their need for such sacrifices. This is expressed in Hebrews 10:1, “For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.” In addition, the Old Testament recognizes such a distinction of ceremonial from moral in Psalm 40, as is cited in Hebrews 10:5-9, wherein the distinction is made between that which is termed, “sacrifice and offering” and that which is termed, “thy will, O God.”

Lastly, the Confession treats of the judicial law in 19:4, “To them [Israel] also, as a body politick, 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.” These laws respect civil regulations, penalties, and privileges relating to the people of Israel as a nation. The Old Testament is full of examples to anyone acquainted with the Pentateuch.

This threefold division is not only customary among orthodox theologians, nor is it merely a helpful tool for thinking through the Scriptures, it is a scriptural teaching, just as the Trinity is a scriptural doctrine. Nowhere do we find an explicit statement of the Trinity precisely declared in as many words as in the Athanasian Creed. We do however find classes of passages relating to the essential parts of the doctrine. Thus a category of passages shows forth that there is but one God, another shows that the Father is God, another shows that the Son is God, another shows that the Holy Spirit is God, and another shows that these three persons who are God are distinct as persons, but united in essence. The language is then developed which accurately and protectively captures the teaching of Scripture as opposed to the errors of the heretics. Technical theological language is the fruit of concerted debate and biblical answering to error. Due to debates regarding the role of the law, the identity of the law, the abrogation of the law, etc., technical, yet biblically sound language and terminology developed. Moreover, there are categories of passages that demonstrate a categorization of laws. The three basic categories of passages are: one, those passages in the Old Testament that distinguish the Decalogue from the rest of Old Covenant legislation; two, those of the New Testament which demonstrate the endurance of the Decalogue; and, three, those of the New Testament which demonstrate the passing of the ceremonies, sacrifices, and civil limitations of the Old Covenant.

That the Decalogue is distinguished from the rest of the Mosaic legislation is clear. First its promulgation secures it a position distinct from the ceremonial, sacrificial, and judicial legislation which follow or precede it. The giving of the Decalogue is sealed off from all other legislation. First, preceding it is the preparatory measures (Exodus 19:7-15). Second the preceding events (19:16-20): “thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud…And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire…” Third, the giving of these commandments alone is characterized by a divine immediacy known to no other commandment during Moses’ leadership. Only the Ten Commandments were spoken by the Lord unto all the assembly (Deut. 5:22). Only the Ten Commandments were written immediately by the Lord (Ex. 31:18, 34:1; Deut. 5:22 and 9:10), and only these were written by the Lord upon tablets of stone, a feature directing us to consider their enduring quality. Lastly, only the Ten Commandments were so given by God, to which “he added no more,” (Deut. 5:22). The Old Testament believer, as with anyone who reads the Old Testament, was to recognize the Decalogue’s peculiar nature and use throughout the Old Covenant.

That the New Testament demonstrates the enduring standard of morality held forth in the Decalogue is clear from several passages. Not only are the demands of the second table of the Decalogue placed upon the New Covenant believer in Romans 13 and James 2, but in both places these commandments are summarized as fulfilling what it means to “love thy neighbor.” With parity of reasoning it is to be understood, by clear implication, that to “love the Lord thy God…” is concretely expressed by the first table of the Decalogue. This is readily admitted regarding the first three commandments. If we love God, we will have him to be ours and worship none other. Moreover, we find such moral demands quoted from the Old Covenant and applied to New Covenant believers in the New Testament: “Be ye holy; for I am holy,” “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” “That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord,” “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.” (1 Peter 1:16, Matthew 22:37, 1 Corinthians 1:31 and 2 Corinthians 10:17, 2 Corinthians 6:17-18, respectively.) The one who responds, “But where is the Sabbath command?” misses the point that what is moral under the Old Covenant remains moral under the New Covenant.

Within the Old Testament itself the Decalogue is distinguished from the Mosaic legislation of sacrifices, ceremonies, and civil regulations in that nothing new is legislated. Essentially this is the manifestation of the Decalogue being a clear articulation of natural law. The term natural law refers to the principles of morality which are founded upon either the essence of God or creation, as well as the established original relationships shared between and among them. John Owen, in his Day of Sacred Rest, using the synonymous term, “law of creation,” writes, “The law of creation, therefore comprised every thing whereby God instructed man, in the creation of himself and of the universe, unto his works or obedience, and his rest or reward. And whatever tended unto that end belonged unto that law.” Such laws are coextensive with the natures of those things upon which they are founded. Thus, those commandments which flow from God’s nature, are immediately binding upon the creation of a moral creature. For instance, never could there be a time when idolatry is right and proper.

Although some contend that the threefold division of biblical law is merely a human construct, this is to ignore the very teaching of Scripture itself. The doctrine is not a human development. It is a human statement of biblical teaching. To deny the doctrine is to deny the Bible’s teaching.

Jonathan D. Mattull
Jonathan D. Mattull
Rev. Jonathan Mattull serves the congregation of Sovereign Grace Presbyterian Church (FCC) in St. Louis. He received his formal theological training through Covenant Theological Seminary and distance courses through the Free Church Seminary in Inverness, Scotland. He is married with three children.