How to Draw Distinctions

There are a number of especially common and compelling misconceptions about the Bible which are held by the unbelieving world. One of the more popular ones is using nonmoral Old Testament laws against the eternally binding moral laws. For instance, in arguing against the Christian’s appeal to the Old Testament’s prohibition of homosexuality, many will accuse us of inconsistency since we don’t also equally observe the Mosaic Laws against eating unclean animals like shellfish, or meat with blood in it. From my standpoint as one who grew up being instructed that there are distinctions between moral, civil and ceremonial laws, it looks like those not so informed don’t know how to draw simple distinctions. But the apostle Peter once wrote about the fact that uninformed people twist Scripture to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16), so I guess it’s not uncommon for unbelievers to have such trouble with handling the Word of God correctly (2 Timothy 2:15).

URCNA Associate Pastor, WSC Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, prolific author and host of The White Horse Inn radio show, Dr. Michael Horton has written an informative explanation of this distinction between Old Testament laws. He shows why and how some were typological and thus temporary, associated with the ancient Israelite theocracy until their fulfillment in the redemptive life and ministry of Israel’s Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. He also explains that others are eternally and universally binding on all people at all times and in all places as part of God’s way of informing the world of their common need for redemption in the same Messiah of Israel, the Lord Jesus Christ, since the Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23). After his sacrificial death and miraculous resurrection, Christ has ascended to the right hand of God the Father enthroned in heaven to rule over all the nations spiritually, not geo-politically (John 18:36), through the preaching of the Law and the Gospel by calling out a people for his name (Acts 15:14) from every tongue, tribe and nation (Revelation 14:6).

In “Why Can’t I Own Canadians? Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth,” Horton writes (read the rest here):

The commands in the old covenant law (viz., Leviticus and Deuteronomy) are specific to that remarkable geo-political theocracy that foreshadowed the universal kingdom of Christ. The deliverance of Israel in the exodus anticipates a far greater exodus through the waters of death and hell in Christ. The holy wars pale in comparison with the judgment of the nations that Christ will execute at the end of the age. Even if Israel had been faithful to this covenant, Canaan would have only been a type or small-scale model of the extensiveness and intensiveness of God’s reign at the end of the age. Moses could not give God’s people rest in the land of everlasting Sabbath. As the prophets proclaim, this would only come when one greater than Moses would rescue his people and lead them victoriously into the perfect peace, love, and joy that he would win for his co-heirs.

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3 responses

  1. Cherry picking on a galactic scale. Slavery was not ceremonial practice or law. Horton is grasping at straws.

    1. Here are a few Bible verses that help us learn to draw a distinction between civil, ceremonial and moral laws in the Old Testament:

      Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27 ESV)

      but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17 ESV)

      For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (Romans 2:14-15 ESV)

      For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. (Romans 10:5 ESV)

      Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—(Romans 5:12 ESV)

      For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19 ESV)

      For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Galatians 3:10 ESV)

      But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”(Galatians 3:12 ESV)

      See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes. (Ecclesiastes 7:29 ESV)

      And he said to man, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.’” (Job 28:28 ESV)

      Thus, God entered into a covenant of works with Adam, binding him and all his posterity to the Moral Law, and he as the representative head of his posterity, was bound and enabled to keep the Moral Law perfectly, in thought, word and deed, in the spirit of the Law as well as the letter of the Law.

      But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:25 ESV)

      If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. (James 2:8 ESV)

      For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. (James 2:10-12 ESV)

      Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Romans 13:8-9 ESV)

      You shall be careful therefore to do as the LORD your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. (Deuteronomy 5:32 ESV)

      And he wrote on the tablets, in the same writing as before, the Ten Commandments that the LORD had spoken to you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. And the LORD gave them to me. (Deuteronomy 10:4 ESV)

      Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship from afar. (Exodus 24:1 ESV)

      These Scriptures indicate that after Adam’s fall into sin, and that of all his posterity, including you, the Moral Law remained a perfect rule of obedience, and as such was delivered by God on Mount Sinai in the form of ten commandments written on two tables.

      And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40 ESV)

      This passage highlights the fact that the first “table” of the Moral Law contains the first four of the ten commandments, which declare all of humanity’s, and therefore, your duty toward the proper worship of the God of the Bible, and the second “table” of the Moral Law contains the six remaining commandments, which declare God’s will for our relations with our neighbor.

      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. (Hebrews 10:1 ESV)

      I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. (Galatians 4:1-3 ESV)

      These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:17 ESV)

      These verses indicate how that in addition to the universal Moral Law delivered expressly to the nation of Israel on Mount Sinai, God also delivered special ceremonial laws for Jewish worship which are not universal, but were geared to teach the nation of Israel about Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings and redemptive benefits.

      Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:7 ESV)

      Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, (2 Corinthians 6:17 ESV)

      save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. (Jude 1:23 ESV)

      Here we see that some of the ceremonial laws delivered to Israel on Mount Sinai pertain to certain duties by which Israel ritually signified their status as a people set apart from the rest of the nations (the Gentiles) as a holy people, thus they were to avoid certain things considered ceremonially unclean.

      [B]y canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.…Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:14, 16-17 ESV)

      And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.” (Daniel 9:27 ESV)

      by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:15-16 ESV)

      These passages demonstrate how that the ceremonial Laws of holiness and worship are done away with under the New Covenant in Jesus Christ.

      Read all of Exodus 21-22.

      The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. (Genesis 49:10 ESV)

      Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. (1 Peter 2:13-14 ESV)

      “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them….“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:17, 38-39 ESV)

      These passages show us how that civil laws which regulated the social duties of the people of Israel, which were delivered on Mount Sinai along with the ceremonial laws, were to come to an end with the end of the nation of Israel upon its destruction in AD 70 and the diaspora.

      Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10 ESV)

      “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), (Ephesians 6:2 ESV)

      And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him….Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. (1 John 2:3-4, 7-8 ESV)

      These passages indicate how that the Moral Law given first to Adam in the Garden of Eden, and secondly to Israel on Mount Sinai, remain obligatory, unlike the ceremonial and civil laws, not only for justified believers in Christ, but also for unjustified disbelievers of the Christ of the Bible as confessed by orthodox Christians of many denominational stripes.

      For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. (James 2:10-11 ESV)

      So we see that all remain accountable for perfect obedience to the Moral Law, in the spirit and letter of the Law, in our thoughts, words, and deeds, observing not only each explicit command, but also the opposite command thereby revealed implicitly.

      “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-19 ESV)

      If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. (James 2:8 ESV)

      Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:31 ESV)

      Finally, these verses teach us that Christ in the New Covenant has not repealed any aspect of the Moral Law, but we all, Christian and non-Christian, remain obligated to love, worship and serve the God of the Bible according to the Ten Commandments, and to love our neighbors according to the Ten Commandments.

      This is the Scriptural basis for teaching that the civil and ceremonial laws of Israel were repealed when Christ fulfilled the Mosaic Covenant and instituted the New Covenant in the Upper Room just before he was crucified, risen and ascended to the right hand of the throne of God the Father to intercede for his elect until all are brought into the Kingdom of God through repentance of their sins and false religions to place their faith in Christ alone.

      Regarding your remark about slavery, it’s true that it’s not a ceremonial law that was repealed, but it was a civil law which was also repealed. The Old Testament laws about slavery were not part of the Moral Law, thus, we are obligated to engage neither in indentured servitude, nor chattel slavery, but we are obligated to worship the right God the right way according to the first table of the Ten Commandments, and to love and serve our neighbor in accordance with the second table of the Ten Commandments.

      1. I don’t think it’s cherry picking when you’ve brought the whole tree.

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