Three Categories of God’s Law

Bob RoaneCounseling, Wise living

Delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night and your ways will always be prosperous….All His laws are before me; I have not turned away from His decrees….The law of their God is in their hearts. Their feet do not slip….All His laws are before me. I have not turned away from His decrees. (Psalm 1:2, 10:5, 18:22, 37:31)

Obeying Our Commanding Officer

Army Sergeant York tried for 25 years to quit smoking. After multiple failed attempts, he went in for his yearly medical exam. The Army physician told him that his health was being severely harmed by smoking and that he should stop. The doctor looked at him and said, “What are these two bars on my lapel?” Sergeant York replied, “They mean you are a captain.” The captain said, “Yes. And they also mean I outrank you, and I am giving you a direct order to stop smoking.”

Sergeant York went home and never smoked another cigarette. He couldn’t quit on his own, but he could begin healthier living when he understood the power of a superior officer. He was thoroughly trained by the United States Army and was not willing to violate an order.1

As Christ’s followers, our Commander-in-Chief has given us many commands in the Old and New Testaments. They are all given to us in love by Jesus for our good. When we take them as seriously as Sergeant York took his order to quit smoking, God can transform our lives. “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.”2

How Do These Laws Apply?

As we read God’s law in the Old Testament (“OT”) Scriptures, we see moral, ceremonial and civil (or judicial) elements. The Lord’s moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, is permanently binding on us. The ceremonial and civil elements were for the OT period only. The ceremonial law was a shadow of Christ which He fulfilled at His coming, and the civil law was a model of organizing society. Maybe this chart will be helpful:

Moral Law Ceremonial Law Judicial (Civil) Law
Summarized in 10 Commandments Ordinances which included circumcision, sacrifices, offerings, purifications, and holy days associated with the Hebrew worship service (tabernacle + temple) Laws the Lord gave to Israel as a nation
Changeless + eternal Provisional + temporary Provisional + temporary
God’s moral law pertains to everyone, saved and unsaved, forever, in its content and also in relationship to the authority of God, our Creator, who gave it. Christ’s gospel does not in any way remove this obligation, but rather strengthens it. The first four commandments teach us how to love God and the remaining six teach us how to love human beings. God gave OT Israel, as a pre-Christian assembly of believers, ceremonial laws. Some of these pertain to worship and foreshadow Christ, His grace, actions, suffering, and the benefits gained from believing in Him. All of these ceremonial laws are now nullified under the New Testament. God also gave OT Israel as a political body various judicial laws. These expired with the state of OT Israel and make no further obligation on God’s people than appropriate in contemporary circumstances.3

Here are some samples:

God’s Moral Law

Leviticus 19:11-18, 33-34 Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another. Do not swear falsely by My name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD. Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight. Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD. Do not pervert justice. Do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD. Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD….When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Jesus was quoting Leviticus 19 when He gave us the Second Greatest Commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”4 Leviticus chapter 19 gives us many details on how to help others and avoid hurting them and dishonoring the Lord. It is a very profitable portion of Scripture to study.

God’s Ceremonial Law

Leviticus 19:5 When you sacrifice a fellowship offering to the LORD, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted.

No further sacrifices are needed because Jesus Christ laid down His life for His people on the cross. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!5 When we put our faith and trust in Christ our Savior and Sin-bearer, Scripture says, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of Jesus’ body once for all.”6

God’s (Civil) Judicial Law

Leviticus 19:9-10 When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.

This law of gleanings commands us to be concerned for and share with poor and disadvantaged people, even foreigners! Jesus says, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Then at the resurrection, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.”7

God forbids sin not to prevent us from enjoying ourselves, but to prevent us destroying ourselves. The Lord’s law is a reflection of His own holy character. Not only does God’s law open my eyes to my guilt, it shuts my mouth when I try to excuse myself. The Lord’s law is like a mirror; it can reveal flaws, but not remove them. Only Jesus can wash our sins away….People who do not set themselves under God’s law set themself above it.8

Notes: 1 Adapted from David Gibson.     2 Psalm 19:7.     3 Adapted from Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 19, EPC Edition.    4 Matt 19:19, 22:37-39; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-37.     5 John 1:29,36.     6 Hebrews 10:10, see also 10:1-18.     7 Luke 14:13-14.     8 Adapted from John Blanchard.