Study: The Christian and the Moral Law

April 12, 2016

The topic of the Law of God and its relationship to the Christian has come up frequently in my recent studies and daily life. Currently in the 1689 Confession Exposition series I’m in chapter 19, the Law of God, and now in the sixth commandment section of the “Ten Commandments” study from Tom Chantry.

Since last week, the blogosphere has been reacting to Stephen Furtick’s recent claim that “God broke the law for love.”  For reference here, I find Tom Chantry’s post the most helpful in response to the overall evangelical celebrity scandal issue.  His post includes links to several other responses, including the most helpful for the issue as this one from the “Mortification of Spin” blog, as well as Tim Challies’ response.

As I continue through the lessons in both the 1689 Confession and Ten Commandments series, studying various aspects in some detail, I am especially struck by the shallow and superficial (and just plain wrong) arguments and rhetoric of the New Calvinist / New Covenant Theology group, with its anti-Reformed view of the law.  As just a few examples, from a recent local-church NCT conference and some anti-Tim Challies / anti-covenant theology comments at a blog post:  1) rejection of any type of covenant made with Adam in Genesis 2, because “I don’t see the word covenant there” (really? is the word “Trinity” ever found in the Bible?), 2) dislike of Covenant Theology as “those baby baptizers” (will you ever consider that CT includes a credobaptist version, and decide to meaningfully interact with THAT form of CT?  No, it’s easier to resort to name-calling and broad-brushing about how CT is wrong because they’re baby baptizers…), and 3) the stated claim that the moral law was something that started (and ended) with Moses, and thus the only moral law for Christians is what is stated in the New Testament.

As just an aside on point #3:  I find this hermeneutic, that something can only be true for us in the NT era if it’s explicitly stated or “confirmed” in the New Testament, quite frankly, bizarre.  On the question of premillennialism and Israel’s future, dispensationalists (as well as classic/historic premillennialists) recognize the problem with this NT-priority hermeneutic and its implications: a God who changed His plan and changed His promises and His revelation, such that Old Testament believers did not have the same understanding of scripture as we do.  My problem with the NCT group is doubly-compounded in that they get both parts wrong: they apply the NT-only hermeneutic to the moral law (in agreement with dispensationalism) AND apply the NT-only hermeneutic to the question of Israel, rejecting anything of God’s future plans for Israel.  At least dispensationalists get half of it right; and confessional/CT amillennialists get the other half, about the moral law, correct.

Anyway… here are some interesting points from my studies on this topic:  scriptural considerations for why the Ten Commandments are different from the rest of the Mosaic law.

  1. The Ten Commandments were introduced before the rest of the law. They were given directly from God, literally inscribed by God onto the tablets.  These two tablets alone were placed into the Ark of the Covenant.  The civil and ceremonial laws were not put in the Ark.
  1. The summary content of the Ten Commandments is found in existence prior to Moses, going all the way back to creation.  The creation ordinances contain, at least implied, the basics of God’s moral law.  Marriage as a creation ordinance relates to the 7th commandment (adultery and other sexual sins), as well as the 8th commandment (not to steal another man’s wife) and the 10th commandment to not covet your neighbor’s wife.  Dominion over the earth pertains to the 5th commandment: God’s authority and our authority structure, in families and all of life’s social structures.  The seven day week pattern establishes the matter of a time for worship, which is the essence of the 4th commandment; and implied in the 4th commandment, of the schedule/time for worship, are the first three commandments about Who we are to worship, how to worship Him, and with what attitude.  The other part of the 4th commandment, the six days of labor, was also in place in the garden.  Adam was there to work the garden.  The part about working “by the sweat of the brow” was added after the fall, but work itself began before that.  Related to the labor part of the 4th commandment, comes the 8th commandment again:  work to provide your daily needs, and do not steal.  The 6th commandment is specifically referenced in Genesis 9, in God’s covenant with Noah after the flood, with the institution of capital punishment for murder.
  1. God’s moral law, as codified/summarized in the Decalogue, was always concerned about the heart. It was never just about the mere letter of the law.  Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount was not adding anything to that law, but was expositing and restoring the understanding of the law back to what it had always been–away from the Pharisees’ mistaken notion of an external compliance only.

Note here:  when the Israelites had so apostasized that God ejected them from the land, as described in the later prophets including Jeremiah and Ezekiel, it was their violation of the moral law (what is summarized/codified in the Ten Commandments) that angered God.  In fact, the Israelites in the time of Jeremiah (and even earlier, Isaiah’s day also)  were fully complying with the ceremonial law—in outward form.  It was their outward performance of the ceremonial law, without having the right heart attitude, that was the problem.

This point can also be seen in the Pentateuch, in God’s application of the moral law to the Israelites and their civil law.   Immediately after the giving of the Decalogue in Exodus 20, comes Exodus 21 with an interesting, detailed section of laws for Israel’s government.  Exodus 21:12-36 contains specific laws regarding cases where one person  is killed by another – application of the sixth commandment —  and distinction is made between killings done where the one person meant harm to the other, versus truly accidental deaths, including the provision of the cities of refuge which a person who had killed another could flee to—before the avenger of blood killed the man, and for the priest to judge the situation.  Understood throughout this section is that Israel would need a system of courts and judges, and that they would need to be able to investigate a crime and its circumstances.  This investigation would need to involve considering motives:  the motives and thoughts of the person who had killed another, as this is necessary information for determining if a death was accidental, or a case of what we would call 1st or 2nd degree murder.

The above is but a sampling, of scriptural issues to consider regarding the question of the moral law: what it was in the Old Testament era, and why it is God’s unchanging moral law from creation–and not something “only for Israel and the Mosaic administration” and thus no longer relevant to Christians in the New Testament age.

More next time:  the different usages/meanings of the term “law” in the New Testament.


  1. April 12, 2016 at 8:21 am

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

  2. April 12, 2016 at 10:44 am

    Is keeping the 10 commandments essential for justification/sanctification for a non-Jew believer in Christ?

    • April 12, 2016 at 10:49 am

      Not Justification. But as a guide for sanctification, yes. The third use of the law.

      • April 13, 2016 at 8:49 am

        Having been released from the Law do I then turn and go back to it to live? That very idea turns the entire content of Galatians on it’s head. Even in Romans Paul is clear we have a more excellent way to live now in Christ, by the Spirit. The Law served no other purpose than to condemn.

        “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”
        (Romans 7:4-6 ESV)

      • April 13, 2016 at 9:13 am

        Darin, you are still not understanding the covenantal view, the third use of the law. Galatians is talking about the law for justification, which is different than the third use for sanctification.

  3. David White
    April 14, 2016 at 2:24 am

    Thank you for your article, which prompts some thoughts. I have some brief questions:
    1. If the Ten commandments are to be distinguished, as you say, from the rest of the Law, why is it that the two most important ones, described by Jesus Himself as the two upon which ‘hang’ all the others, are not in the Ten, thus neither inscribed by God Himself in stone, nor kept in the ark?
    2. The argument for an overarching law from God given to all men, seems to me to be an argument which asserts something very important from extra-Biblical sources. As far as the Bible is concerned, there is no evidence for it. Indeed, in Romans 2, Paul emphatically states that the Gentiles ‘do not have the law’. But that they have a ‘self-law’, which gives them moral sense – but he is saying that this only points them in the same direction as the law of God, and it is non-absolute. I would be interested in your comments.
    3. It would appear to me that New Covenant Theology does not propose or promote lawlessness at all, or advocate ‘sinning’. That is unfair, and do because it is untrue. Rather, it proposes that believers live out the higher standard of the righteousness pf Christ, by the Spirit of God.

    I would be interested in your reply.

    • April 14, 2016 at 6:54 am

      Hi David,

      Thanks for your comment. In answer to your questions –
      1. Jesus’ statement about the two most important laws, is understood to be a summary of the two tables of the law – the first table (the 1st 4 commandments) our duty toward God, and the second table (5th through 10th commandments) our duty toward man. The Decalogue is a summary in ‘codified’ form of the unchanging moral law.
      2. Romans 2 in fact is referencing that ‘self-law’ as the moral law – yes, Gentiles were not given the law in a formal, codified form. The same moral law, which was summarized in the 10 commandments, is known to the unbelievers—but as per Romans 1, they suppress the truth. But the work of the law (the moral law of God) is written on the hearts of all mankind (Romans 2:15).
      3. New Covenant Theology does not promote practical antinomianism—actual practice of lawlessness. However, it teaches doctrinal antinomianism – that the moral law is not always the same and unchanging. NCT says that God raised the law, the moral standard, to a “higher level” that had been unknown in the Old Testament era. This post addresses that error – God’s moral law was always at that high standard, from creation and evident before Israel existed as well as evident in Israel’s government; Christ did not enhance or add to that law – the law was always at the same higher standard.


      • April 14, 2016 at 7:24 am

        Thanks for your time in replying, Linda.
        My problem is with phrases like ‘understood to be’. Who understands it to be, and why? I need Scriptural persuasion to understand, do I not, and not just the ideas of someone else, which I then adopt. And that persuasion must come from God’s word if it is to be authoritative, surely. So, when Jesus tells me that all of the Law and the Prophets ‘hang on’ those two principle laws, which are not in ‘The Ten’, I have to accept that they are not summary, they are foundation.

        I agree that there is only one moral standard of God. It is perfect holiness, isn’t it? And therefore unattainable by living under law, as Paul states. But in God’s amazing grace, our is a righteousness ‘apart from the Law’ – Christ’s righteousness, imputed to us. But I cannot see any Biblical statement – and if it were so, I think it would be clear and categorically stated – that tells me that God ‘gave law’ to any other than to Israel. And evidence that other nations live or lived under anything less vague than a perceived moral expectation is also lacking any Biblical evidence at all – it seems to be extremely loose, extra-Biblical, circumstantial evidence.

        So, I struggle with what you have been kind enough to bring to me.

      • April 14, 2016 at 12:18 pm

        Thanks for sharing your view; we don’t all understand these things the same way. But I see the many scriptures including what Paul says in Romans 1 and 2, and the scriptures referenced in this post, as showing that from the beginning other nations had the “works of the law” — suppressed, and yet as Paul said, they understand some parts of moral law. And non-Christians generally do understand some of the moral law, at least some of the second table of the law–our relationship to fellow mankind. Likely, they retain this understanding because these laws — do not murder, do not steal, etc. — affect them when others mistreat them.

  4. April 14, 2016 at 1:41 pm

    Hi Lynda. The Bible explicitly condemns pagan nations for a host of sins among them murder, deceit, idolatry, blasphemy, disobedience to parents, pride, boastfulness, sexual immorality and many others, but never Sabbath-breaking. Breaking the Sabbath is never mentioned put forth as one of the sins that brought judgment upon the Canaanites (or any pagan nation) or as something that will land sinners in Hell. Why do you think that is? If I’m mistaken can you please direct me to a Scripture where God commends or condemns pagans, who were completely disconnected from Israel, for keeping/breaking the Sabbath, whether by precept or example?

    • April 14, 2016 at 1:47 pm

      Adiel: I previously considered the question of the creation ordinance sabbath/seven day week, here:

      • April 14, 2016 at 2:00 pm

        That is very interesting! I would like to explore those sources more in depth. However I didn’t see anything from the Scriptures. The question that I’m getting at is God never commends or condemns non-Jews of keeping/breaking a Sabbath day neither by precept or example. When the Bible tells us reasons why the Canaanites were vomited out of the land there was mention of idolatry and sexual sin and murder but no mention of Sabbath breaking. In other words, if someone were to say that pagans sin by not keeping the Sabbath they would be saying something God has never said. And if anyone says that Sabbath-breakers will not inherit the kingdom of God they are saying something God has never said. Would you agree?

      • April 14, 2016 at 2:29 pm

        Well, in God’s purpose and plan, He did leave the Gentile nations in the dark while He focused specifically on Israel. Obviously the Gentile nations were guilty of breaking all of the commandments, both the 1st table of worshiping God as well as the 2nd table of law relating to our fellow man – and as such, they had so filled-up the measure of their sin in regards to the second table of the law, the bestiality and such, more than enough to condemn and judge them.

        Paul in Acts 17 specifically addresses the Gentiles in reference to the 1st table of the Law – first telling them about the “unknown God” (the 1st commandment) and further that “we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man” (the second commandment). Paul then noted that “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now…” So here is explanation why God judged the Canaanites in reference to the second table of the law – the times of ignorance.

      • April 14, 2016 at 2:06 pm

        To be a little bit more clear. I have no problem telling a lost friend that murderers, and homosexuals, and fornicators will not inherit the kingdom of God. If they ask me to show them that from the Bible I would bring them to clear Scriptures like Revelation 21:8 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. But if someone were to say “No Sabbath breakers will inherit God’s kingdom” (in reference to resting on a specific day) there would be no Scripture to point them to because the preacher would be saying something God has never actually said.

      • April 14, 2016 at 2:35 pm

        Thanks for your comment, and I understand what you’re saying… Tom Chantry in his Ten Commandments series dealt somewhat with this issue, as pertaining to lost man’s understanding of the moral law and lost man’s understanding (at least some of) the second table of the law, and the cultural understanding of some of the moral law. I agree that there is no explicit statement saying “No Sabbath breakers will inherit God’s kingdom,” but it’s all part of the same unchanging moral law, from creation, and revealed progressively throughout the Bible (progressive revelation). This previous post looks more specifically at Tom Chantry’s lesson regarding the moral law and the conscience:

      • April 14, 2016 at 2:39 pm

        This passage you are citing good example of what I’m talking about. When when Paul writes of the sins of the Gentiles he never mentions anything about Sabbath breaking. For example Romans 1:18-32.

  5. April 14, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    Are you referring to Acts 17? Paul clearly is referencing the first table of the Law, starting with the 1st and then the 2nd commandments. He also did not reference the 3rd commandment, but does that mean that the 3rd commandment is also no longer applicable (our attitude in worship)? The essence of the 4th commandment is a regular time/schedule for worship – and clearly, by their practice, those among the Gentiles who were converted, then showed in their Christian life that they were meeting with the church on the 1st day of the week – the 4th commandment. Paul’s sermon in Athens was starting at the beginning point, the 1st and 2nd commandments, but we all realize that even the best preachers are not going to be able, in any given teaching, to include every single thing that is set forth in God’s word. And remember too that for the 1st century church, the Old Testament WAS their Bible, and so they referred to it for the 1st and 2nd commandments along with everything else associated with the overall moral law, the God-ward part and the us-ward (fellow man) part.

    • April 14, 2016 at 3:07 pm

      Thanks for your response. But please notice that my point is not that Paul did not condemn the Gentiles for breaking the Sabbath in Acts17 but that he never condemns Gentiles for breaking the Sabbath anywhere in the Bible. Paul says that the Gentiles are condemned for murder, and blasphemy, and adultery, and outburst of wrath, and envy, and drunkenness, and many other things but never once for Sabbath breaking. Furthermore, Christians are reminded over and over again that extortioners and proud and arrogant and the covetous will not inherit God’s kingdom but we are never warned once warned about breaking a Sabbath day.

  6. April 14, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    Also, again back to the extra-biblical evidence for the creation ordinance Sabbath, it is clear that the pagans of ancient time, Paul’s day, did have an understanding of a 7 day week with one of those days set aside as holy, as special, for the gods that they worshiped — the corrupted remains of their understanding of the moral law. So, worshiping the Lord on the first day of the week, one day of the week set aside, was something that they already had some familiarity with.

    • April 14, 2016 at 3:11 pm

      Extra biblical sources , though interesting to know, do not ultimately persuade me one way or or another because I do not believe they are safe places to derive our theology. The only safe place is Scripture I’m sure you would agree.

      • April 15, 2016 at 2:23 pm

        Yes, agree, our theology comes from scripture. The extra-biblical sources are interesting, for confirming our understanding of Genesis, what the Bible tells us in Genesis — in reference to early civilization, references to Noah’s flood and so forth.

    • April 18, 2016 at 7:51 am

      I’m glad you agree that our theology must come from Scripture. According to the Bible, when did God make His holy Sabbaths known to the children of Israel?

      • April 18, 2016 at 9:32 am

        Exodus 16.

  7. April 14, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    ” it is clear that the pagans of ancient time, Paul’s day, did have an understanding of a 7 day week ”

    Can you please cite where this ‘clarity’ comes from?

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