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The Law of God, also known as the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), is not always easy to understand. A proper approach to the Law would emphasize that we can learn from all the laws of the Old Testament, even if we no longer observe some of them because they have been fulfilled in Christ. Several principles are given to help us understand this biblical genre.

1. There are three significant divisions of the law.

The threefold division of the Law is commonly defined as the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the civil law. The moral law is summarized by the Ten Commandments. They are absolute and universal statements that have no specific penalties attached to them and were written by the finger of God (Ex. 31:18). They are foundational for the rest of the laws in the Old Testament and are quoted by the Apostles as still binding on Christians today (Rom. 13:8–10; Eph. 6:1).

The ceremonial laws focus on the worship of Israel and the matter of being clean and unclean, because if someone is in a state of uncleanness, he or she is not able to worship at the tabernacle. They include the laws related to sacrifice (Lev. 1–7), to food (Lev. 11), and to various conditions that relate to being unclean (Lev. 12–15).

The civil laws focus on governing Israel and include laws that deal with judges who apply the law (Deut. 17:8–13), various social conditions such as slavery and indentured servitude (Ex. 21:1–11; Lev. 25:39–55), and other situations that require the regulation of human behavior (Ex. 21:12–26; Lev. 24:17–23; Deut. 19:1–22:8). Although the distinction between the moral, ceremonial, and civil laws is not absolute, it is a helpful teaching device that is affirmed in the New Testament by how the Apostles refer to the Old Testament laws.

2. There are three significant uses of the law.

A common way of explaining how the law relates to the lives of God’s people is often described as the “threefold use of the law.” The law has curses attached to it, which apply to God’s people when they do not trust God and when they persist in disobedience. This is known as the first use of the law, by which the law acts as a mirror and shows us our need for redemption. The second use of the law refers to the restraining function of the law that warns people of the civil consequences if they break the law. The third use of the law emphasizes the blessings of God’s law. The law is given to God’s people in the context of redemption (Ex. 20:2) so that God’s people know how to live in a way that is pleasing to Him. In this sense, the law functions in our sanctification to help us grow in our relationship with God.

As an example of the New Testament’s authorization of the threefold use of the law, we see how Paul uses the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” in all three uses: the first use in James 2:9–11, the second use in 1 Timothy 1:9–10, and the third use in Romans 13:9–10. We are condemned by the law because we have broken it, but the good news is that Christ has fulfilled the law for us by perfectly keeping it. As we stand before God our judge, He justifies us by declaring us righteous through faith in what Christ has accomplished for us. In sanctification we relate to God as our Father and the law is a blessing to strengthen our relationship with Him.

3. An Old Testament law must be understood in its relationship to the coming of Christ.

Certain changes took place when Christ fulfilled the law, which affects how the law relates to God’s people today.

Although the moral law is binding, even the moral law has ceremonial elements that are affected by the coming of Christ. For example, the day of rest and worship of the fourth commandment was the seventh day as a commemoration of creation and redemption (Ex. 20:8–11; Deut. 5:12–15). In the new covenant, believers worship on the first day because the resurrection of Christ inaugurated the new creation. We rejoice in His victory over sin and death and look forward to our final eschatological rest when He comes again (Rev. 1:10; Heb. 4:1–11).

The civil laws of the Old Testament relate to Israel as a nation. They establish principles of righteousness given by our righteous King that can be instructive to the rulers of the world and our lives as Christians, even if those exact laws do not need to be established today in the same way (see Westminster Confession of Faith 19.4 on the “general equity” of the civil law). The Apostles relate the death penalty of the civil laws to the possibility of excommunication in church discipline, which has the same effect of keeping the people of God pure (see 1 Cor. 5:13; Deut. 17:7).

The ceremonial law regulates sacrifices, principles of being clean and unclean, and ceremonies related to the temple. These laws are now abrogated and fulfilled by the work of Christ. He is the sacrifice offered to God so that we don’t bring sacrifices as part of our worship (Heb. 10:11–14). He is the temple bringing to us the reality of the presence of God so that we don’t worship in one geographical place but are scattered throughout the nations worshipping “in spirit and truth” (John 2:19; 4:24). Certain regulations related to food and blood no longer make God’s people unclean so that the Jews could take the gospel to the gentiles in fulfillment of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19–20; Acts 10:9–14). For those who are followers of Christ, the law is good:

O how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.” (Ps. 119:97)

This article is part of the Hermeneutics collection.