To add “social justice advocacy” to the mandate of the visible church is to go beyond Scripture and imperil her true vocation. Individual Christians, however, have every freedom to band together to advocate for social policies and our brothers and sisters have a right to disagree with us about those social polices. One hopes that both sides in the current discussions and arguments over social justice will remember the doctrine of Christian liberty.
Broadly, in evangelicalism, there are two stances toward the Ten Commandments or the moral law. For many, if not most evangelicals, it is believed that the Ten Commandments are so uniquely Mosaic, so identified with the Mosaic epoch in redemptive history, that when it was fulfilled and abrogated, they too went away. It is commonly said that the Ten Commandments are “not for today.” The opposite approach to the Ten Commandments also has significant support among American evangelicals. It is represented by the desire among some (often those identified with fundamentalism) to see the Ten Commandments restored to their proper place in American life. In one famous case, a judge sought to erect a monument to the Ten Commandments outside a courthouse. To be sure, in at least one state capitol (and likely many more) and embedded in the U. S. Supreme Court building are references to Moses (and Confucius and Solon) and to the Ten Commandments. There is a third approach, however. It is a minority view in American Christianity. Those who regard the Ten Commandments as “not for today” think of it, if they are aware of it, as legalistic. Those who want the Ten Commandments posted outside the courthouses of America think of it as antinomian but it is neither.
The Different Kinds Of Biblical Law
The Reformed describe the Ten Commandments as God’s moral law. We understand Scripture to teach that law was given to Adam in the garden and to be embedded in creation and written on the human conscience (Rom 1:18–2:14). It is truly universal in that regard. When God said, “you may not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die,” according to Paul (Rom 7:10) it promised life to Adam (and to us) if we obeyed but he did not and so it became death to him and to us in him. The substance of that same law was given to national Israel at Sinai in the Ten Commandments. Our Lord summarized the Ten Commandments in Matthew 22:37–40:
…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).
Traditionally these two commandments are described as the two tables of the moral law. The first four commandments refer to our duty to God and the second six to our duty to our neighbor.
The reader will notice that we call this the “moral law.” We do this to distinguish it from the Israelite civil laws and ceremonial laws. Those aspects of the Israelite laws expired along with the Israelite religious system and along with the Israelite civil-political system in the death of Christ. He nailed those regulations to the cross (Col 2:14; Acts 10:15; 11:9). As the writer to the Hebrews says, when the priesthood changed, the law changed (Heb 7:10–14). The whole Israelite system was like an inverted pyramid, which rested not on the base but on the point. Christ, our Melchzedekian priest, with his eternal priesthood, upended that pyramid by the power of his indestructible life.
The moral law, however, because it is grounded in the divine nature, because it is part of the creational fabric and pattern (notice what our Lord did on the 7th day of creation and what Exodus 20:8 makes of it; notice how our Lord handled the question of divorce in Matthew 19:8), does not expire nor was it abrogated. To be sure, there were typological elements in the way the moral law came to expression at Sinai. The Saturday Sabbath in the 4th commandment and the land promise in the 5th commandment (as the Reformed number them) belong to national Israel but the Sabbath principle is grounded in creation and Paul expands and transforms the land promise in Ephesians 6:3. According to the Reformed understanding, Canaan was never the point (Heb 11:9–10).
Some modern biblical scholars do not like the traditional threefold distinction, which goes back in substance to the fathers and was articulated by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Theonomists do not like it because it works against their view of the abiding validity of the Israelite civil law. To the latter, the Reformed confess in Westminster Confession 19.4 that the civil laws have expired. Theonomy flatly contradicts the WCF. Nowhere do we see the Apostolic church seeking to impose or to persuade the Roman emperor to impose the Israelite civil laws. There is a reason for this absence. Those laws were never intended to be imposed upon any civil entity other than national Israel. When theonomists cavil about “general equity” (as if Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law or Bahsnen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics represent the “general equity thereof” it only shows that they have completely ignored the historic sense of the phrase, which William Perkins (among others) explained clearly centuries ago. (More here).
Those biblical scholars who chafe at the traditional understanding of the law do not always engage it seriously. There is a default among contemporary biblical scholarship to dismiss the Christian tradition and that prejudice owes more to the Enlightenment than it does to the biblical text. There is a sound defense of the traditional view in Philip S. Ross, From The Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law. For those able to read it, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza published a defense of the threefold division of the law.
Distinctions In The Uses Of The Law
The Reformed also distinguished three uses of the moral law. So far in this series we have considered two uses of the law, the first (the pedagogical use), and the third, the normative use, i.e., the law’s role as the norm for the Christian life.