Wrestling with God’s Law as Ceremonial, Civil, & Moral

In light of recent posts that have touched on the overarching structure of Scripture and how the OT and the NT properly interact, I’m curious…how do you all feel about the traditional division of the law (moral, ceremonial, civil), and how would you say it’s proper to determine that something from the OT does *not* carry over?

While there is significant preceding evidence that God entered into covenantal relationship with humans, at Sinai he specifically and exhaustively made clear—in a manner intended to be received by all who heard it, and to endure for all to come—that he intended to relate to mankind in a covenantal manner. He thus promised to be faithful to his chosen (elected) people, and they in turn were expected to obey his law or Torah. The law dictated the lifestyle of the people and reflected how a human was to relate to God, to others, to self and to material things (see McGonigle & Quigley, A History of the Christian Tradition from Its Jewish Origins to the Reformation, pg. 34).

To the degree that these laws directly reflected the nature of God in universal and timeless application these laws have never and will never be annulled. Laws of this nature have sometimes, helpfully, been called the moral law of God. Those laws appear in seemingly random places throughout Scripture and are variously summarized in multiple places and ways, including the 10 Commandments, the 2 Great Commandments, Micah 6:8, and elsewhere.

It is impossible to ignore the observable reality that within the Sinai legislation are laws peculiar to the situation of national Israel within the Land of Promise, ruled by judges and magistrates constrained by the Sinai legislation as their national law, and in the presence of a functioning Tabernacle/Temple system. Christian men have therefore sometimes quickly summarized those laws which endure with universal application as moral, those which apply specifically to the Temple system as ceremonial, and those which specifically direct the nation-state of Israel in the Land and governing themselves as civil. This shorthand description can function as a helpful categorization in aid to the complex process of deriving healthy, biblical application in diverse times and places.

To the degree that so-called ceremonial or civil laws reflect the character of God in a universally applicable manner, these laws remain binding in every age, though they do not, necessarily, direct all men in every place with specificity. So, all men everywhere are required to acknowledge God and no god before Him (Ex. 20:2-3), yet it is also true that all men everywhere are not mandated to redeem their firstborn son for the price of five shekels, to be given to the sons of Aaron (Num. 3:40-51).

There are several Reformation-era statements on these matters that are very helpful, especially when read as summary statements, reflecting extensive underlying exegetical work. Here are two that I especially like:

I. As the ceremonial law was concerned with God, the political was concerned with the neighbor.

II. In those matters on which it is in harmony with the moral law and with ordinary justice, it is binding upon us.

III. In those matters which were peculiar to that law and were prescribed for the promised land or the situation of the Jewish state, it has not more force for us than the laws of foreign commonwealths.

(Johannes Wollebius [1589-1629]), Compendium theologiae christianae)

VII. OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.”

(39 Articles of Religion, 1562)

I’ve been giving this topic significant thought for several years now. In fact, I think I first mentioned it briefly in public at the 2013 New England Messianic Conference. I’ve been spending a lot of time on the topic recently because I think I’m finally making some progress in articulating something that will make sense to people. For a long time it was something I was intuiting, and I struggled to convey what I meant.

One thing I believe we should acknowledge is that the stereotypical response of pro-Torah people to this topic has not been well thought out, or sensitive to historical context. Among the Reformers and their early descendants (with some exceptions) references to the tripartite division of the Law were not meant to be rationale for how to escape the present applicability of God’s law, but used as a short-hand reference to figuring out how to apply God’s law. Unfortunately, being not well-informed on Reformation-era thought, too many have reacted against one sentence in the 19th chapter of the Westminster Confession (echoed in Chapter 19 of the 1689 London Baptist Confession), without being familiar with the broader context in which those statements were made.

I think we can all agree that figuring out how to apply God’s law to our contemporary situation is rarely easy. Just like “circumcision” had become shorthand for the proselyte conversion process in the 2nd Temple era, the division of the law into ceremonial, civil, and moral categories had become shorthand during the Reformation era and following for referring to the significant wrestling they had done to determine the manner in which God’s law should be applied in their time period.

But we read, “All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the New Testament,” and we freak out. Forgetting how precise these folks were in their working out of these concise statements. See, for example, the two quotes above.

There are at least four items of background we need to be aware of when considering this topic:

  1. For the Reformers, the reference to a tripartite categorization of God’s law was not a way to escape keeping God’s law, but a shorthand reference to textual exegesis focused on the manner in which his law should be kept.
  2. Over time, however, at least in practice if not in theology, this idea became a justification for why, essentially, nothing more than the 10 Commandments applied to contemporary Gentile believers.
  3. Dispensationalists seized on the complexity of the problem and the inevitable resulting inconsistency and said, “See, you can’t do this, it’s a unified whole and you must acknowledge that the entire thing has been done away with.”
  4. In reaction against the Dispensationalist’s view, which had increasingly influenced the practice, if not the theology, of Reformed people in the pews, Pro-Torah folks (ironically) insisted that the Dispensationalists were right and the law could not be categorized into parts, but must be accepted as a unified whole, but then in practice continued to inconsistently practice only those things which might be described as moral, while ignoring all those things which might apply to our congregational life (ceremonial) or political scene (civil).

It is time for us to stop reacting and to continue proactively articulating historically sensitive, theologically mature, biblically defensible, and eminently practical statements of our own. These will correct but not reject the overwhelmingly faithful line of reliable saints who have preceded us.

Tradition & Community

In the context of community, traditions enable the living out of the Gospel. Appropriate traditions will enable us to live out God’s commands in this time and place. Tradition often gets a bad rap in today’s world, but without it we could not function. What’s more, without a collection of consistent practices we will be unable to successfully reflect God’s image to the watching world, because we don’t reflect as individuals so much as we reflect as a Body.

Tradition, by its very nature, is a flexible, changing collection of practices. Traditions exist to aid in the honoring and observing of God’s way, and they vary from location to location, from time to time, and from society to society. Consequently, we must use our Reason to contemplate the words of Scripture and the history of Tradition in seeking to ensure that our practices continue to serve the same purpose for which they were created.

It must be remembered that Tradition is a tool that exists to serve the principle that is obedience to God. Whenever we begin to keep traditions for Tradition’s sake, we have allowed that which exists to serve to become that which we serve, and a sense of bondage inevitably results: a new law is created.

This is what had happened to Israel at the time of Christ. Because their identity was more, “we are Israel” than “we are those rescued by God,” they grew proud in the accumulation of their efforts to be godly. Prompting Jesus to rebuke them vigorously, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

Community is formed by a collection of common traditions. This is how we observe the Sabbath; this is how we memorize Scripture, this is what we pray after eating, etc., etc. Community is the environment in which we practice the application of God’s instructions in a collaborative and supportive manner.

God’s Holy Days

It is worthwhile to ponder why God created set times for offering worship, appointed times for meeting together, regular appointments to celebrate, remember and anticipate His redemptive action in history. I suspect it has a lot to do with a strange turn of words in Exodus 24:3. The people of Israel stand at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where Moses has gone up to meet with God, and now returns to share with the people God’s instructions for living, and they reply, “We will do and we will hear.”

“Practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity. That is not to say that Judaism doesn’t have dogma or doctrine. It is rather to say that for Jews, the essence of the thing is a doing, an action. Your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not waver. (Indeed, Judiasm suggests that the repeating of the practice is the best way to ensure that a doubter’s faith will return.) This is perhaps best explained by a midrash (a rabbinic commentary on a biblical text). This midrash explains a curious turn of phrase in the Book of Exodus: “Na’aseh v’nishma,” which means “we will do and we will hear” or “we will do and we will understand,” a phrase drawn from Exodus 24, in which the people of Israel proclaim “All the words that God has spoken, we will do and we will hear.” The word order, the rabbis have observed, doesn’t seem to make any sense: How can a person obey God’s commandment before they hear it? But the counterintuitive lesson, the midrash continues, is precisely that one acts out God’s commands, one does things unto God, and eventually, through the doing, one will come to hear and understand and believe. In this midrash, the rabbis have offered an apology for spiritual practice, for doing.”[1]

One of the reasons liturgy, prayerbooks, and appointed times are so important to us is that they shepherd us through the ups and downs of a life filled with unknowns, with difficulties, with times that don’t make sense to us from our limited perspective. Not only do they root us in the practices that will envelop, guide and protect us, which will eventually shed light on precisely those things that perplex us, but they also work to remove from us the individuality so prevalent in North American Christianity.

When your doing is rooted in community—everyone I know and love is praying these prayers with me, my ancestors (spiritual and/or literal), my friends, my descendants will practice these same disciplines—it reminds that you are a part of something bigger than yourself and your obsessions. There are times when you benefit from the faith of those around you, even when you might not be sure if you could muster it up yourself. Indeed, Mark 2:5 tells us that it was due to the faith of his friends that Jesus healed the paralytic lowered down through the roof.

The Fall Festivals are upon us. To many Christians this is an unfamiliar phrase, yet what we often consider the Jewish holidays are never so called in Scripture. Rather, God declares: “These are My appointed times, the times of the LORD that you will proclaim as sacred assemblies” (Leviticus 23:2 HCSB). If, indeed, as Paul wrote in the letter to the believers in Ephesus we, “are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household” then it is fitting for us as “children of Abraham”[2] to join Israel in showing up for the appointments God has set.

No, we cannot completely fulfill these festivals, for each included sacrifices and offerings that were to be given at the Temple, yet we can observe and remember them, seeking to find in them the truths God intended for His people to recall and to inhabit.


[1] Lauren Winner. Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2003. pp. ix-x.

[2] Galatians 3:6-9

In the King’s Army

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Matthew 28:18-20

But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.  1 Corinthians 15:56-58

Imagine a lengthy campaign to displace enemy forces and occupy the Asian theatre. Imagine, if you will, the plans made by the Joint Chiefs. Now imagine a solitary lieutenant of a single platoon stranded on a specific island with dwindling supplies who somehow comes into possession of a page from the Joint Chiefs of Staff Operation Order. Imagine his disillusionment as he reads the assigned objective: invade and occupy the continent of Asia. He can’t even get off the beach and they are telling him to conquer an entire land mass of nations. The grand plan seems wholly unrealistic. Discouraged by his present situation, he may even lose the will to get to the top of the next sand dune.[1]

As servant-soldiers in our King’s army this may be the situation we often find ourselves in. Facing seemingly repeated and unending defeat in our personal lives, we quail at the thought of the grand mission assigned to us. This perspective, however, reveals the consequences of the individualistic focus bequeathed to us by the baptistic perspective which has come to dominate the conservative landscape of North American Christians.

Men who are at war with themselves, and resentful of life and its requirements, are not able to command the future: they cannot even command themselves. –R.J. Rushdoony

When entering the Armed Forces, individual recruits go through a process of being broken down and then rebuilt, no longer as a mass of individuals, but now as a cohesive unit with each person thinking of themselves as a cog in the wheel of their collective mission. Having focused in on individual responsibility to decide for themselves and be baptized as a sign of their decision, we have largely lost this concept of being part of the Body of Christ, who is our Commander-in-Chief. As a result, we are taking no territory for our King. Too rarely is even the land of our own lives fruitful for the Kingdom; almost never are we conquering Canaan.

Implicit problems, however, with the Anabaptist view of the covenant have consistently taken Baptistic thought into Pelagianism.  Anabaptist theology individualizes the covenant. Consequently the covenant becomes subject oriented. Once that happens, the problems involved with subjectivism, mentioned earlier, cannot be prevented.” (emphasis mine) [2]

And therein the problem! Believer’s Baptism emphasizes the decision of the individual to the detriment of a focus on the Covenant Body, while deprecating the sovereign, solely capable, saving action of God. This has inexorably led to the completely out-of-control individualism of contemporary American Christianity. Why could the early Separatists and the Puritans pull off what they did in the colonies? Because they practiced infant baptism, and even if they were Baptists, they still held the residual perspective of the whole, rather than the over-arching autonomy of the individual, which has now utterly undermined the stability of America.

Look at the total inability of the Messianic movement to interoperate, and it becomes quickly apparent that a rescue of the covenantal perspective of circumcision/infant baptism is a desperately needed antidote to the presuppositional baptistic perspective of the majority of North American Christians, and almost all people of a Messianic persuasion. Tie this to objective rather than subjective salvation (and sanctification) and I am growing in my suspicion that “Reformed Baptist” (or Believer’s Baptism Messianic) might be the greatest oxymoron of the American era.


[1] I’m indebted to Jim Wilson in Principles of War: A Handbook on Strategic Evangelism (p. 14) for this illustration.

[2] Ray R. Sutton, “The Baptist Failure” in James B. Jordan, ed. The Failure of American Baptist Culture: Christianity & Civilization, No. 1. Paducah, KY: Geneva Divinity School, 1982, p. 157.

Discerning God’s Will

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.  Romans 1:13

In A Passion for Faithfulness: Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah, J.I. Packer suggests there are four factors that ordinarily ought to be taken into account when trying to discern God’s will about one’s proper place or task. The four factors are: the biblical, the pneumatic, the body, and the opportunity.

“The biblical factor is basic, in the sense that God never leads us to transgress any scriptural boundaries, and if we think we are being so led we need someone with a Bible in his hand to tell us we are deluded.”[1] The Bible tells us in general terms what is and is not worth doing, what sorts of actions God encourages and what sorts he forbids. In so doing, God says to us, in effect, within these limits, in pursuit of these goals, in observance of these priorities, you will find both the nature and the place of your ministry.

The second factor is pneumatic, meaning both the God-given desires of the spiritually renewed heart, in addition to any particular nudges the Holy Spirit may give, or any special burdens he may lay on our heart(s) over and above the general desires of a disciple pursuing the imitation of Messiah. Packer reminds us that this area is one of frequent self-deception, where mistakes are often made. The classic reference to this kind of guidance is Acts 16:6-8 where Paul is prevented from taking the Gospel into Asia, and then responds to the vision of the Macedonian man.

Packer warns us, “Christians vary, in this as in every previous age, as to how much or how little of this nudging they experience (and no sure reason can be given for the variance, save God’s good pleasure); but it would be perverse either for those who know more of it to treat as unspiritual those who confessedly know less of it, or for those who know less of it to treat as self-deceived those who claim to know more of it…. We may not ourselves often be guided by this kind of inner nudge—few of us, I think, are; but to discourage Christians from being open to it, as has sometimes been done, is radically Spirit-quenching.”[2]

Third comes the body factor: that is, the discipline of submitting such leading as we believe ourselves to have received to a cross-section of the Body of Christ in its local presence. Because there is such a danger of self-deception in the realm of the pneumatic, this is a sensible precaution and biblical guideline consistent with Proverb 15:22 (and 11:14), “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.”

The fourth and final factor is that of opportunity. If none of the previous three factors eliminate a particular goal we are pondering then we are left with the fact that we serve the God of providence, and if He is truly calling us to a particular place or task than He will overrule our situation so we might find ourselves able to pursue His leading. If, on the other hand, circumstances make such a move impossible, the right conclusion is that while God indeed has a plan for us, it is not in what or where we originally thought. As we see in Nehemiah’s life as well in St. Paul’s, the final confirmation that God had ordained a particular task or journey was that in quite unpredictable ways the opportunities were provided.

Let us then expect any goal that is God inspired to be consistent with His revelation in scripture, persistent in its nudging our spirit, blessed by others in His body, and made possible through evidence of divine intervention.

Reflect: When God calls me, he makes it possible for me to move in the direction he is leading.


[1] J. I. Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness : Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1995). 55.

[2] Ibid, 55-56.

Worship as Prayer; Prayer as Change-Agent

Do you believe public prayer of the church has the power to shape who we are and how we behave? By the term public prayer I do not mean the incidental prayers done here and there within worship. Rather, public prayer refers to the total worship experience, from its beginning to its end. The kind of worship I refer to is a prayer in the world for the world.

The gathering with its procession, songs of praise, prayers, and confessions is an act of prayer. The Word with its readings, Psalms, preaching, prayers of intercession, passing of the peace, and offering is all prayer. The Table worship with its setting, the “holy, holy, holy,” the alleluias, breaking of the bread, offering of the cup, rites of healing, and songs of death, resurrection, communion, and thanksgiving is all an act of prayer. The dismissal that sends people forth to love and serve the Lord is an act of prayer.

These acts of prayer, however, are not a mere collection of prayers but a praying of God’s story of the world and an offering of God’s story of the world to God as an act of thanksgiving. The whole act of worship says, “God, we are here to remember your story and to pray that the whole world, the entire cosmos, will be gathered in your Son and brought to the fulfillment of your purposes in him!” This kind of a prayer is a public way to remember God’s saving deeds in the past and to anticipate God’s rule over all creation in the future.

Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Worship : Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), 149.

Tradition Must Live and Breathe

In Chapter 10 of his De institutis coenobiorum (Institutes), which contains 12 chapters on the ordering of monastic life, St. John Cassian (circa 360 – 435) gives practical and pithy wisdom on the adaptation of “rules” to time and place.

But we need only keep to those which the situation of the place and the customs of the district permit. For the severity of the winter does not allow us to be satisfied with slippers or tunics or a single frock; and the covering of tiny hoods or the wearing of a sheepskin would afford a subject for derision instead of edifying the spectators. Wherefore we hold that we ought to introduce only those things which we have described above, and which are adapted to the humble character of our profession and the nature of the climate, that the chief thing about our dress may be not the novelty of the garb, which might give some offence to men of the world, but its honourable simplicity.

Too often we are enamoured of whatever tradition informs or fascinates us, and we attribute to the rules and instruction of a former time or a foreign place a rigidity unknown to their original formulation.

Tradition is helpful, indeed even necessary, so long as it serves a principle or set of principles. When it usurps the place of principle and becomes that which is being served, tradition becomes inflexible, harmful and counter-productive.

One of the things I love about God’s torah (teaching, instruction) is the eminent practicality of His nature revealed therein. I think of Deuteronomy 14 as an example:

“You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire–oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. Deuteronomy 14:22-26 (ESV)

So God says to take 10% of the fruits of your labor and have a feast in Jerusalem with it. However, if you live too far away to get your animals, and produce to Jerusalem, sell your produce and bring the money to Jerusalem to have a feast filled with whatever your heart desires. That is a God in tune with the day-to-day realities of the people He was communicating with.

The quote from John Cassian delights me because we so often think of monasticism as one of the most rigid, legalistic forms of Christianity, yet here is one of the fathers of monasticism saying “take it easy, use what is appropriate and don’t let your punctiliousness cause you to stick out like a sore thumb rather than evidence your humility and simplicity.