Confessionally Reformed: The Law

by | Dec 16, 2016 | Christian Herring

This is the 16th article in Christian Herring’s series “Confessionally Reformed,” where he explains what the term “Reformed” means. To see more articles in this series, follow the link here.


We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses.

— Nehemiah 1:7 (KJV)


The Well-Known Division

It has been commonly understood in the Reformed tradition that the laws of the Old Testament are divided into three primary categories; the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the civil (or judicial) law. Both the Westminster Confession and the 2nd London Baptist Confession describe this division in chapter 19 of the documents. This division has also been testified to in reformed church history.

We must attend to the well-known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law.

— John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion IV 20.14

The law given by Moses is usually distinguished into three species: moral (treating of morals or of perpetual duties towards God and our neighbour); ceremonial (of the ceremonies or rites about the sacred things to be observed under the Old Testament); and civil (constituting the civil government of the Israelite people).

— Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology

We define moral laws as those which pertain to the abiding spiritual commands of God that define sin and describe the actions which merit either spiritual judgement or spiritual blessing. These laws are based on the character of God, so they continue from creation into eternity.

We define ceremonial laws as those which pertain to the ordinances of the old covenant under the Levitical system, including the generational priesthood, the various feasts, the animal sacrifices, and the temple economy. These laws were types and shadows that taught the ancient church that there must be a mediator and a blood sacrifice for the remission of sins, and that this would be fulfilled in future times and afterwards abrogated.

We define civil or judicial laws as those which ruled the people of Israel as a political body, not to be continued in the new testament particularly, as God’s people are not composed into physical nations, but a spiritual nation. These laws do have a general principle of application to what civil laws should look like, and we are to apply them by general equity, not by letter.

What of the Use?

Others have defended the tripartite division better than I am able. For the sake of this article, I will merely spend time explaining what the benefit of acknowledging this division is for us. In the Recommended Resources at the end of this article, I will link to some defenses for the division.

Judicial Law

What we see of the judicial law is a civil application of moral principles. The civil laws were used in some cases to enforce moral laws, and in other cases to enforce ceremonial laws. The Westminster Confession explains that the judicial law was particular to the people of Israel as a political body. Now that God’s people no longer exist in this form, the laws have expired with that people.

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.”

— Chapter 19.4, Westminster Confession of Faith

The civil laws are not totally without use, however. This is why the Confession says that the “general equity” of the law carries over. This general equity applies today when a law in question is not tied to the people of Israel particularly. Those laws that are enforcements of the moral law are binding until the consummation.

There are certain laws that pertained to the people of God under the Old Testament that were for their particular place and station. In a nomadic or agrarian society, certain laws must be applied in a certain way that are different from how laws should be applied in more modern societies. Magistrates have the freedom to make and enforce laws that serve to uphold justice in a society in accordance with the moral law of God without constructing such laws to be enforced by the exact manner in which they were given in the Old Testament.

Ceremonial Law

The ceremonial law was a temporary ordinance given to God’s people in the Old Testament to instruct them in the things of the Lord and point them to ultimate fulfillment in the Messiah. At the coming of Christ, these ordinances were done away with, because they no longer had any use. This is why the Judaizing heresy was disputed against in Scripture. Going back to the old ordinances after the substance had appeared was effectively denying that substance, which was Christ.

For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh.”

— Ephesians 2:14-17 (KJV)

The book of Hebrews is a full exposition of how this ceremonial law was fulfilled in Christ. The Jews should have known that Christ was the fulfillment of the ceremonies, and they should have been able to explain how Christ fulfilled them, but, they needed someone to teach them again what were the “first principles” of God’s revelation.

For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”

— Hebrews 9:13-14 (KJV)

Moral Law

The moral law is the revelation that God has given the world that describes how we are to live in accordance to his will and requirements. For Adam, this moral law was a covenant of works, which he was required to uphold in order to earn eternal life. Upon his failure, the promise was made for another to fulfill the law on his behalf.

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”

— Romans 12:1-2 (KJV)

“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

— Micah 6:8 (KJV)

The moral law is that which condemns us if we do not fulfill it. Since the moral law is the perfect revelation of God’s standard, all men are required to fulfill it in order to please God.

“For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.”

— Galatians 3:10 (KJV)

Since all men are incapable of obeying the moral law because of the inherited sin of Adam, God sent his Son into the world to redeem those under the curse of that law.

But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.”

— Galatians 4:4-5 (KJV)

Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of all three categories of the law, being the prophet, priest, and king; the final revelation of what the fullness of the law entails.

Recommended Resources

The Larger Catechism by the Westminster Assembly
Lex Propria – Proper Law from Purely Presbyterian
The Threefold Division of the Law by Johnathan F Baynes

Christian Herring is a member of Redeemer Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Christiansburg, VA. He is a husband and father.
Share This