God’s characteristics reveal themselves in the Law, but we’ll get to that in a second. Nevertheless, God’s Law has been the center of controversy, abuse, and confusion.
- How do we use the Law?
- What are the categories of the Law?
- Can we apply the Law? If so, which ones must we obey in the New Testament?
To get the most out of our time in the Ten Commandments, let’s do a general overview of Law in Scripture. We’ll answer a few questions. What does the Law teach us about God? How can we categorize the law? Are those different ‘kinds’ of law unified?
God’s characteristics and the Law
Many people don’t like God’s rules. They think they are stupid, no fun, useless, a burden. What do you think of God’s Law? Did you know your answer also answers other questions: “What do you think of God?” and “What does God think of you?”
“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” — Psalm 19:7
“All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.” — Psalm 25:10
Don’t miss the word used in the verses above, “testimonies.” What this word tells us is that the Law witnesses to God’s character. It is God’s report card, so to say. It “testifies” to His character and conduct. Scripture is telling us, “Following God is following His Law. Following the Law is following God.”
How the Law reflects God’s character:
- God is love (1 John 4:8)
- Law is love (Romans 13:10)
- God is holy (Leviticus 11:44)
- Law is holy (Romans 12:7)
- God is perfect (Matthew 5:48)
- Law is perfect (Psalm 19:7)
- God is good (Psalm 34:8)
- Law is good (1 Timothy 1:8)
- God is truth (John 14:6)
- Law is truth (Psalm 19:42)
- God is righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6)
- Law is righteousness (Psalm 119:172)
- God is spiritual (1 Corinthians 10:4)
- Law is spiritual (Romans 7:14)
- God is faithful (1 Corinthians 1:9)
- Law is faithful (Psalm 119:86)
- God is pure (1 John 3:2-3)
- Law is pure (Psalm 19:8)
- God is just (Deuteronomy 32:4)
- Law is just (Romans 7:12)
- God is immutable (Malachi 3:6)
- Law is immutable (Matthew 5:18)
- God is everlasting (Isaiah 40:28)
- Law is everlasting (Psalm 111:7-8)
When we sin, we are telling lies about God’s character. If you think God’s Law is useless or wrong, then you believe God is useless or wrong. If you want to understand what justice, goodness, truth, faithfulness, and love is, then God and His Law are great places to start!
Flipping the question
“What does God think of you?”
How we view the Law reveals how we view God. But an even more important question to consider is, what does God think of us? We can gain insight into this question by looking at:
- What God says about the writer of the Psalms above.
- And how He viewed the man who did not follow His law.
“But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.” — 1 Samuel 13:14
Here is what is going on:
- There was a King named Saul. He did not listen to God’s commands.
- Since Saul failed to keep God’s commands, God promised to end Saul’s kingdom.
- God was going to find someone who would do the opposite of Saul.
- Instead of breaking God’s Law, the new king would keep it.
- Being someone “after God’s heart” is someone who loves God and follows His Word.
- This new king, after God’s heart, is David.
Do you try to love and follow God by obeying Him? Are you someone who wants to be close to God’s heart? Do you want a life in line with God’s characteristics? If so, the Ten Commandments are a great place to start!
Another critical verse on what God thinks of us is Matthew 5:19.
Whoever, therefore, breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do likewise shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
- All Christians are part of God’s Kingdom.
- Christians who don’t follow God’s rules are “least” in the Kingdom.
- Those who don’t teach others about God’s rules are “least” in the Kingdom.
- Christians who do teach and do follow God’s rules are “great” in God’s Kingdom.
A Christian after God’s heart, or someone who hopes to love what God loves, will follow God’s Word. A Christian who wants to be “great” or be useful in God’s Kingdom will follow God’s Word. God’s Law is essential. Our relationship to, and interaction with, God’s Law tells us what we think about God and what God thinks about us.
Different “kinds” of Mosaic laws
A famous theological formulation developed during the Reformation is the three-fold use of the Law. First, the Law convicts us of our guilt and drives us to Christ. Second, it teaches what obedience to God looks like in our life. Third, God’s Law restricts the sinners, usually through the punishment and consequences of sin by the different governmental spheres.
Our love of dividing by three expanded into other theological formulations as well. Reformed thinkers today divide the law into three categories: moral, civil, ceremonial. Sadly, this division goes too far.
Owen’s twofold division of the law
I find John Owen’s twofold division of the Law (moral and sacrificial) is not only in accord with Scripture, but more faithful to the Word as well. Owen’s view is found in Volume 5, Section 30 of the six-volume The Works of John Owen. He grouped the Ten Commandments, case laws, and the sanctions attached to the case laws under “moral law.” Owen categorized God’s Law as either moral or ceremonial. If you want a greater grasp of the clarity John Owen brings to the study of Law, I recommend George Joseph Gatis’ paper “John Owen’s View of Substantive Biblical Law.”
Ceremonial vs sacrifices of faith
While not agreeing with Rushdoony on all of his positions, I find myself in agreement with him when he writes,
Although so termed by excellent scholars, it is, I believe, a serious distortion of Scripture. The dictionary definition of “ceremonial” is “marked by, involved in, or belonging to ceremony: stressing careful attention to form and detail.” This is true enough, but it does not do more than describe the care which must be given to every aspect of these laws, but their meaning lies elsewhere. These are laws of sacrifice; their purpose is to restore a broken relationship to God, or, to give thanks, to seek atonement, or some like urgent aspect of our duty to God. The word ceremony trivializes atonement, and all sacrifices generally.
The Institutes of Biblical Law (Vol. 3), RJ Rushdoony, pp 5.
If we are to use the designation of “ceremonial law,” then we must make sure we do not define or explain their significance in terms of meticulous care, but in terms of what they signified. The God-centered context of those laws is the atonement. We find the seed of Christ’s reconciliation of the world to Himself in the “laws of sacrifice.”
As we have seen, there are distinctions in the laws of the Bible. Just as there are distinctions and specificity between God’s Laws, there are distinctions and specificity to God’s characteristics. God is not an undefinable blob.
The relationship between different “kinds” of laws and God’s characteristics
We talked about the proper “division” of the Law (twofold) and how we can classify them (moral law and laws of sacrifice). However, we do not take the supposition that scientific knowledge of a subject is gained by merely breaking it down into the smallest parts, but also understanding the unity of the whole. Or, how are the divisions of the law united in God whose character they represent?
Though the two families of the law are distinct, we cannot fail to see they are interrelated. The ceremonial laws are, as a matter of necessity, morally significant, since they demand obedience to the thrice-holy God; and the moral laws have an inescapable significance for the ceremonial laws (worship practices) since they set forth the manner of life that demonstrates the fear (worshipful respect) due to the Lord. In fact, all of the commands of the Law are so interrelated and interdependent that they form a living organism, one that serves to support the people of God in their call to remain faithful to the covenant. Upon the commandments of the Law hang the life or death of Israel. The laws concerning sacrifices and things “clean and unclean” have to do simultaneously with sin and forgiveness — each of these being moral categories. The moral laws dealing with persons and societies have to do with the sacrifices and divine worship that the members and people of the covenant owe to their Lord.
A New Day of Small Beginnings, Pierre Courthial, pp 45
A couple of things we can learn here. First, all the laws are moral since they find their genesis in God. Second, the ceremonial laws define ethical-worship, and the moral law defines the ethical-life that worships. Third, they all support God’s people to remain covenantally loyal to Him. Fourth, both “kinds” of laws deal in moral categories of covenant-keeping and covenant-breaking. The “laws of sacrifice” deal with sin and forgiveness. The “moral laws” deal with sin and righteousness. Lastly, all biblical laws shape a society after God’s characteristics!
God’s Law reflects God’s characteristics. Whether we study a single commandment, a series of laws, or the topic in personal or academic research, we must approach it with reverence. We are not above it. We must be in submission to it as we are in submission to God. In summary, as we start looking into the Ten Commandments, we need to do so with humility.