A Catechism on God’s Law (Part 14)

Based on Greg Bahnsen’s “By This Standard,” (1991).

  1. What about legal provisions that seem to be out-dated?

…There are some legal provisions that seem culturally outdated or at least inapplicable in our modern world. How are we to accommodate that fact, without becoming judges of the law and without disregarding Christ’s declaration that every minor detail of the law has enduring validity?

The answer lies in recognising the nature of the various Old Testament laws, seeing the kind of categories into which they fall. That is, it is necessary to understand the laws of God according to their own character, purpose and function. Only in that way will the law be “lawfully used” (cf. I Tim.1:8).

The most fundamental distinction to be drawn between Old Testament laws is between moral laws and ceremonial laws… This is not an arbitrary or ad hoc division, for it manifests an underlying rationale or principle. Moral laws reflect the absolute righteousness and judgement of God, guiding man’s life into the paths of righteousness; such laws define holiness and sin, restrain evil through punishment of infractions, and drive the sinner to Christ for salvation.

On the other hand, ceremonial laws, or redemptive provisions, reflect the mercy of God in saving those who have violated His moral standards; such laws define the way of redemption, typify Christ’s saving economy, and maintain the holiness (or “separation”) of the redeemed community.

To illustrate the difference between these two kinds of law, the Old Testament prohibited stealing as a moral precept, but it also made the sacrificial system so that thieves could have their sins forgiven. When Christ came He obeyed perfectly every moral precept of God’s law, thereby qualifying as our sinless Saviour; in order to save us, He laid down His life as a sacrificial lamb in atonement for our transgressions, and thereby giving substance to the Old Testament foreshadows of redemption.

While the moral law set forth the perpetual obligation of all men if they are to be made perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect, the ceremonial law is “the gospel in figures,” proclaiming God’s way of redemption for imperfect sinners (p.135-136).

  1. Are the case laws relevant in the New Testament?

There is abundant evidence that the New Testament authoritatively cited and applied these case-law illustrations to current situations. To use examples mentioned above, the New Testament echoes the Old Testament law in prohibiting incest (I Cor.5:1), homosexuality (Ro.1:26-27, 32), defrauding employees (Mk.10:19), and muzzling the ox as he treads (I Tim.5:18). Many more examples of ethical injunctions outside the Decalogue being enforced in the New Testament are available. Therefore, we conclude that Jesus has forever confirmed the moral laws of God, their summary expressions as well as their case-law applications (p.138).

  1. Is there continuity between the Testaments?

The Commandments of God are not deemed a uniquely Mosaic administration but as obliging man from the beginning.

(1)Before man’s fall into sin, God delivered to him commandments which were his moral obligation, for instance the creation ordinances of marriage (Gen.2:24), labour (Gen.2:15), and the Sabbath (Gen.2:1-3), as well as the cultural mandate of dominion over creation (Gen.1:28). Paul too would view the standards of morality as in force from the very beginning, being constantly communicated through general revelation (Ro.1:18-21). In particular, the creation ordinances (for example, Mat.1:5), and cultural mandate (for example, I Cor.10:31) are applied in the New Testament.

(2) The Old Testament shows that, as the New Testament teaches (Ro.5:13-14), between Adam and Moses, law was in the world. The Adamic covenant established a marital order (Gen.3:16) and the requirement of labour (Gen.3:19) which are both authoritative in the New Testament (I Tim.2:12-14); II Thess.3:10). The Noahic covenant reaffirmed the cultural mandate (Gen. 9:1) and revealed God’s standard of retribution against murderers (Gen.9:6), which are again valid in the New Testament (for example, Ro.13:4). In the Abrahamic covenant, we see that Abraham had commandments, statutes and laws to keep (Gen.18:19; 26:5), and the New Testament commends to us Abraham’s obedient faith (James 2:21-23; Heb.11:8-19) (p.140).

  1. Are the principles of God’s law perpetual and thorough?

The principles of God’s law are perpetual because they reflect the character of God, who is unchanging…In the Old Testament God required His people to seek Him with all their hearts (Deut.4:29) and to circumcise their hearts (Deut.1:16), even as the New Testament continues to show that we are to love Him with all our hearts, attitudes, and intentions (for example, Mat.5:21-48).

The commandments of God called His people to love Him with everything they had (Deut.6:4-6), throughout the day (v.7), at home and away from home (v.9), whether in thought or deed (v.8). Indeed, man was to live by every word from God’s mouth (Deut.8:3, 6). Likewise the New Testament requires that every aspect of man’s life and being be given over to the love of God (Mat.22:37) and that God’s people demonstrate their holiness “in all manner of living” (I Pet.1:15-16).

Deuteronomy 4:6, 8 clearly taught that the commandments delivered by Moses to Israel were to be her wisdom in the sight of the nations, who would exclaim “what great nation is there that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law?” Similarly Paul indicates that the standards of God’s law are declared by through natural revelation and are binding upon all men (Ro.1:32; 2:14-15).

Because the nations occupying Canaan violated the standards of God’s law, God would punish them by expelling them from the land (Lev.18:24-27), even as He would expel Israel if she violated His laws (Deut.30:17-18). The moral standard and the judgement on disobedience were the same between Israel and the nations…Where the Old Testament taught that “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people,” (Prov.14:34), the New Testament teaches that whatever Christ has commanded is to be propagated to the nations (Mat.28:20). God’s law binds all men at all times in all places (p.142-143).

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