Moral Laws vs. Ceremonial Laws

Aggressive Sanctification (part 8)

The confusing of one’s view of justification with one’s view of sanctification is often aided by a failure to distinguish and/or rightly apply the New Testament passages which have the ceremonial law of the Old Testament in view, from those passages which are addressing the moral law of God.

For instance, in Jesus + Nothing = Everything consider Tchividjian’s use of Colossians 2:16-17 (“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ”). His discussion of this passage is set in a chapter entitled “Out of the Shadows”, which is intended by the author to help us avoid “legalism’s sinister threat” (p.105). This chapter serves to fortify his view of “gospel-centered sanctification” or “true life”, as he calls it, which “does not lay emphasis on anything we must do” (p.105).

After quoting Colossians 2:16-17, and appropriately categorizing its subject as “ceremonial law”, Tchividjian goes on to apply this text by saying, “Whenever we find ourselves focusing primarily (almost exclusively sometimes – at least, I’m guilty of that) on an expectation of rules and standards and values, and we’re imposing those things on others, then we’re building our life on shadows; we’re missing the substance” (p.114). The problem with the previous statement is that the Bible’s shadow/substance distinction, as well as the concern of this passage in Colossians, is unmistakably about God’s rescinding of the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, and his condemnation of those who were wrongly imposing them on New Testament Christians. Tchividjian can’t possibly be admitting that he sometimes “almost exclusively” focuses on the “shadowy” ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. No, as he quickly makes clear, he is employing this passage to reinforce his book’s theme that a focus on God’s moral law in Christian sanctification is “anti-gospel” (pp.46, 105, 119). He continues in the rest of the chapter to strongly downplay any focus or imposition of “moral renovation”, “piety”, “devotion” and “spiritual disciplines” (pp.117-122), not a focus or imposition of ceremonial rules regarding “foods”, “festivals” or the “Sabbath”.

By way of contrast, Paul continues on in the next two chapters of Colossians, not pulling the Christians’ focus away from moral renovation, piety, devotion and spiritual disciplines, but toward them (Col.3:5-4:6). This is not for the purpose of getting the Colossians to try to earn their justification, instead Paul “focuses on” and “imposes” God’s moral laws on the Colossian Christians for the purpose of advancement and progress in their spiritual growth and sanctification.

A Brief Primer on Types of Old Testament Laws

While much has been written on distinguishing types of Old Testament laws (with some modern scholars calling the whole effort into question), it doesn’t take much effort for the thoughtful reader of the Old Testament to perceive that not all Old Testament commands are of the same variety. They can easily be classified in at least three ways.

Many laws, which were given by God to the Israelites who had just “exited” out from under the governmental oversight of Egypt, were clearly directed to provide what was then missing – a judicial law code. This budding nation needed a civil, criminal and penal law code to adjudicate disputes, deal with thieves and murderers, and define the community’s property rights, taxation, and political affairs. If the Israelites were to be a nation living among nations, they needed a set of laws with which to function. And so God gave them. Traditionally this category of laws has been called the “civil law” of the Old Testament. At present, the church of Jesus Christ is not a nation among nations, but rather, an international organization called to function peaceably within whatever government it may be under, making the church’s adherence or enforcement of this Old Testament civil law code unexpected and largely obsolete (Rom.13:1-10).

The second category of laws, which God gave in the Old Testament, related to the prescribed form of worship, the practice of ceremonies, the participation in rituals, and the structure of a religious hierarchy, which we learn from the rest of the Bible was to be an instructive expression of how God was going to deal with the problem of sin. The laws of “clean and unclean”, the rules regarding food and animal sacrifices, the dietary restrictions, the requirements for priests and high priests, the establishment of a religious calendar, the monetary obligations to underwrite it all – these were all a part of God’s temporary plan to symbolize and ritualize the then forthcoming real and ultimate solution for people’s spiritual “uncleanness”, which would later be fully realized in Christ. Traditionally this category of laws has been called “ceremonial law.” A great deal of the New Testament is given to explaining why these rules are now “obsolete” and should be “set aside”, since they were only “a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Heb.7:18; 8:13 - 9:1; 10:1).

The third category of Old Testament rules is traditionally called “moral law.” These laws are not about religious calendars or criminal restitution. They do not contain the symbolism of “clean and unclean” foods or fibers. They are not about incarceration or the reign of earthly kings. These rules are expressed from Genesis to Malachi and teach us what is moral, ethical, honest, virtuous and righteous. Unlike the civil and ceremonial laws, we cannot look to just one passage to find them. They are not contained in one list or a single book of the Old Testament. They punctuate the narratives of Scripture and they can be extracted from the wise counsel that unfolds within each installment of God’s inspired library. Each of these rules reflects something of God’s good character. They are an expression of his moral virtue. They give us an articulated standard of what is right. These are laws we love because of what they embody and reflect. They are never obsolete and must never be put aside. And because these laws are the guide for Christian living, we find them repeated, emphasized, and reinforced on just about every page of the New Testament.

Why This is Helpful

Keeping this brief summary of the three distinguishable aspects of the Old Testament rules in mind, we can begin to see why it is possible to mistakenly downplay or even dismiss the moral rules of God when we read a New Testament passage without first determining which category of “law” the passage is talking about. And because moral laws and ceremonial laws are both abbreviated in in the New Testament by the word “law”, we must be careful to always examine the context. One cannot simply quote a New Testament passage about the law if one hasn’t clearly determined which kind of law the passage has in view.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches for instance, we find passages that are condemning the false teachers’ heresy of requiring an adherence to the ceremonial law of circumcision. In some situations described in this letter, the heresy is in the form of requiring the ceremonial law for one to be justified. (Whether it is moral law or ceremonial law, the Bible clearly teaches that there is no keeping of any laws which can justify someone before God.) In this letter we also find that Paul is condemning a return to the ceremonial law of circumcision as an act of sanctification. Whether it was to boost their religious reputation, avoid persecution, or to keep up appearances, Paul denounces any use of the obsolete ceremonial law as part of one’s sanctification.

This is the opposite of what he and the rest of the New Testament writers teach regarding the moral law and sanctification. The moral law does in fact serve a major role in our spiritual growth – the ceremonial law does not! Therefore, it is critical that we don’t quote passages that downplay or condemn “the law” in a Christian’s life until we carefully discover which “law” is in view. This distinction is crucial, and I find it is often missed in the discussion regarding “law” and sanctification.

-- Pastor Mike