Which Old Testament Laws Must I Obey?

Series: Question Box

by Rick Phillips August 6, 2000

We have looked at a number of practical questions in our question box this summer.  Tonight I want to deal with a theological question, which is also a very practical matter, as theology always is.  To be more specific, tonight’s question has to do with hermeneutics, that is, principles of interpreting the Bible.  The particular question has to do with applying the commands of the Old Testament.  “As a Christian, how do we know what Old Testament laws we should abide by and which ones we shouldn’t?  For instance, I believe I should honor my mother and father, yet I don’t believe I should wear clothes only made of one textile (Lev. 19:3 & Lev. 19:19). I believe in observing the Sabbath, but don’t’ believe I should go see my pastor if I get a boil (Dt. 5:12 & Lev. 13:18).

This is a subject that has loomed large in the history of interpretation. Whenever Christians become serious about applying the Word of God, the question always arises as to the principles for doing so.  During the Protestant Reformation this was a particularly vital matter, since whole nations were reorganizing themselves according to their views of the Scripture. 

A prime example of this took place in 1643, when the English Parliament called for “an assembly of learned and godly divines… for the settlement of the government and liturgy of the Church of England, and for the indicating and clearing of the doctrine of the said Church from false aspersions and interpretations.”[1]  The context for this was the English Civil War, the issue of which was the freedom of the people to be governed according to the Bible and not according to the king.  So this issue before us was of singular importance to them.

The Westminster Confession, which is that body of learned divines produced, and which is our own doctrinal standard, deals with the Law of God in its 19th chapter.  It specifies three categories of the Old Testament Law: the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the civil law.  The moral law, that which represents God’s own moral character, is summarized in the Ten Commandments.  These are forever binding, in both old and new covenants.  The Confession puts it this way: “The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof” (WCF XIX. 5). In other words, the moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments, but also emphasized in many other places of the Bible, is binding upon us today.  Therefore, it is our duty to not worship no idols, to honor our mother and father, to bear no false testimony, etc.

The second category is the ceremonial law.  These are, according to the Confession, “typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ” (WIW. 3).  What this mainly refers to is the sacrificial system of the old covenant, although it also includes the whole cleanliness code including restrictions on food and the like.  I have been preaching through the Book of Hebrews in the early service, and next week I will be preaching from one of the main passages that tells us how to think about such ceremonial laws.  Heb. 10:1 tells us, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming--not the realities themselves.”  The context of Hebrews 9 and 10 makes very clear that it is the sacrifices he has in mind; it is the ceremonial law that is a shadow set aside when the reality comes, not the unchanging moral law of God. 

This gets to the question about coming to see a minister when you have a boil.  That regulation was wrapped up in the ceremonial law.  It served to make a statement about sin, which corrupts the flesh, and the sacrifices the priest offered in that case very blatantly represented the saving work of Jesus Christ.  The point here, however, is that the ceremonial law pointed forward to the work of Christ, which now has come so that they are set aside.

The third category is the civil law.    These are the laws that represented the criminal code, with its procedures and punishments, as well as a myriad of regulations and restrictions.  These would include the various capital crimes, like murder, adultery, and many other sins.  The Westminster Confession describes them as “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” (XIX. 4).  In other words, these laws were for regulating the nation of Israel, which was then but no longer is the particular people of God.  While there is an undisputed wisdom contained in this civil law it can not be made applicable to any nation today, since there are no biblically sanctioned theocracies now.

The view expressed in our Confession is the broadly accepted view of Reformed churches, our own certainly included.  There are two main objections to it.  The first objection says that the three-fold distinction of moral, ceremonial, and civil law is not biblical.  That it, it is not a distinction that is made in the Scripture.  Although there are categorical groupings in Scripture, like the Ten Commandments, we also find various laws from different categories listed without distinction as if they all belonged together.  You may have in Deuteronomy or Leviticus an expression of the moral law followed by something we put in the ceremonial law, followed by a part of the civil law.  The objection therefore says that this three-fold distinction is imposed upon the Scripture without legitimacy.

Our answer is that we are doing what the New Testament does, namely reflecting back on the Old Testament from the perspective of Christ’s finished work.  Furthermore, we are forced to reflect on the New Testament examples in which certain laws are set aside – such as the dietary laws and the sacrificial system – while others are rigorously enforced – such as the moral laws of the Ten Commandment.  There is a logic at work that is not seen in the Old Testament because it is the work of Christ that produces this logic. 

Indeed, the Westminster Confession’s view is not that laws have been set aside, but that a transformation has taken place in light of Christ’s saving work.  Israel has become the church.  The ceremonial law has been fulfilled in Christ and is transformed into the sacraments that look back upon what those laws once looked forward to.  The civil codes have lost their context now that salvation is in Christ, in a spiritual kingdom, and not in Israel, a temporal nation.  They are transformed into the judicious application of church discipline.  The moral law, however, reflecting God’s changeless character, remains unaltered, although in Christ we are no longer condemned by our sins against it.

Another objection comes from the theonomists, a word that means “law of God.”  Theonomists agree that the ceremonial law is exhausted, but insist on the direct application of the civil law.  They say that God obliges all nations to live according to the laws established for Old Testament Israel.  Such people sincerely advocate, therefore, the stoning of sexual sinners and the taking of an eye for an eye.  The problem with this is that Old Testament Israel corresponds not to the United States, or to France or Uganda, for that matter, but the church.  We, the church, are “the Israel of God,” as Paul says in Gal. 6:16.  The church exerts a spiritual rule over its members, not a temporal one. 

It certainly is true that we would be better off if our nation passed laws more in step with the logic of the Bible, although I for one have no particular desire to go back to the situation of Old Testament Israel apart from the grace revealed in Christ.  We are “not under law but under grace,” says Rom. 6:14.  But nonetheless we have been saved to be keepers and not breakers of the law.  The law is not over us, to condemn us, but under our feet, to be a guide for our path.  In saying that, it is the moral law, as reflected in the Ten Commandments, to which I refer, which we have the pleasure of obeying to the glory of God and out of gratitude for our salvation.


[1] The Westminster Confession of Faith, Atlanta, GA: The Committee for Christian Education & Publication, Presbyterian Church in America, 1990. p. xiv.

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