The Holy Spirit uses the Ten Commandments to drive even Christians back to Christ so that we will learn again and again to flee to him for righteousness and salvation. By hearing them read week and after week and by meditating on them, we are also driven to our knees and thence to Christ for the grace of progressive sanctification until we are finally glorified.
Introduction And Survey
In his provocative March (2020) essay, Matt Smethurst asked “Why Don’t Christians Keep the Jewish Law?” He reminds us that the “Bible is a thoroughly Jewish document,” a note that has been regularly (and properly) sounded in modern biblical studies. From this premise, he asks the provocative question before us. He notes that “God’s people kept it for centuries in the Old Testament. What happened?” He answers by observing that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah and the Son of God kept and completed “the law of God in his people’s place. Jesus embodied in himself everything the law demanded.” Smethurst recognizes two functions of the “Jewish law:” “God designed the law both to instruct and guide his people and also to expose their sin and need for a Savior.” In the magisterial Protestant traditions we have spoken of these as the normative (third use) and the pedagogical use. Historically there was also a “civil use,” the function of which, according to Louis Berkhof, is to restrain sin and to serve “the purposes of God’s common grace in the world at large.”1 According to Smethurst, the “Jewish law” is a signpost that is no longer needed now that the “new covenant and new age ushered in by a new king” has arrived. As he puts it, “The signage of the law, therefore, can be taken down. It served its purpose.” This is because, we are no longer “under law” but “under grace.” For Smethurst, this is essentially a redemptive historical way of speaking rather than an order of salvation way of speaking. He explains the perspective from which he says these things:
Now, writing from a baptistic, new-covenant-theology perspective, am I saying that Christians have no moral obligations whatsoever? Not at all. Though we aren’t bound to the law of Moses, we are subject to what the New Testament calls “the law of Christ”—a moral norm encapsulated by sacrificial love (Gal. 6:2; see also 1 Cor. 9:21). And the moral norms of the law are not irrelevant to the law of Christ; they are included in it. If anything, they’re just intensified.
Smethurst’s essay is useful because it is a clear and concise account of the way many evangelicals think and speak about the law of God. It is also fundamentally alien to the way the broad Christian tradition, including the Reformed tradition, has spoken about the Ten Commandments as the moral law.
The Moral Law Is Not Jewish
The first issue to be addressed is the unstated but major premise of his argument, that all the biblical law is one and that it is all essentially Jewish. In short, he ignores the ancient, traditional Christian distinction between the three aspects of the Old Testament law: the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial. This distinction, formed this way, goes back to Thomas Aquinas.2 In substance, however, this distinction is implied in Irenaeus (c. 170) who was writing against heretical groups who made a radical disjunction between the Old and New Testaments. In response, not only did he argue for the essential unity of what Reformed theology would later call the covenant of grace, but for the abiding validity of the Ten Commandments for the New Covenant believer:
Preparing man for this life, the Lord Himself did speak in His own person to all alike the words of the Decalogue; and therefore, in like manner, do they remain permanently with us, receiving by means of His advent in the flesh, extension and increase, but not abrogation.
We see it also in several of the 4th and 5th century fathers, e.g., Chrysostom and Augustine both referred to the the OT “ceremonial laws” laws as distinct from the moral law. The abiding validity of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) was a datum in the ancient and medieval church.
The Reformation inherited this threefold distinction and it was received by the Protestant orthodox theologians. In the modern period, however, as Ligon Duncan noted recently, this distinction has not fared well among evangelical biblical scholars where the threefold distinction in the law has been widely rejected. This rejection has (unintentionally) facilitated the theonomic-reconstructionist movement, which also rejects the distinction.
There are thus, as suggested above, two outcomes by failing to distinguish between the moral or natural law as permanent, and the ceremonial (religious) and judicial laws as temporary. One outcome is that, as we see in Smethurts’s approach, with the death of Christ all the Old Testament law dies with him. The other, as noted, is the theonomic approach, whereby the judicial laws are not regarded as “expired” and thus they persist. This they say contra the Westminster Confession of Faith (19.3–5), where the Reformed confess:
3. Beside this law, commonly called moral, 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 divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.
4. 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.
5. The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.
In other words, traditionally, Christians have understood that the ceremonial and judicial laws were specific to Israel and temporary in a way that the moral law is not. This is because Christians, including the Reformed tradition, have historically had some notion of natural law. The judicial and ceremonial laws were promulgated with the intention that they should be obsolete. They were never intended to be permanent. This is why the Westminster Divines (following the Reformed tradition) said that the judicial laws expired with “the state of that people.” They are only binding insofar as they reflect natural law (general equity. On this see the resource page on theonomy and reconstructionism where the classical Reformed definition of “general equity” is demonstrated from sources).
According to the Reformed tradition, the moral law, the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) is the natural law. It is grounded in the divine nature. It does not mutate in substance because God is immutable. When asked what the greatest commandment in the law is, our Lord replied:
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. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:37–40; ESV).