Almost inevitably when I write or speak about the law I experience the same curious response from at least someone. How can you say Christians are not under the law? How can you say that the law has been made obsolete, or abolished, because of the enactment of a better covenant? How can you say that the law is a burden that believers should not be required to bear? How can you say that when it comes to the Christian life the New Testament points its readers not to the law, but to putting on Jesus, the new man, and conforming to his image? Doesn’t all of this fly in the face of the third use of the law, of our confessions and catechisms, and of the weight our tradition has always placed on the Ten Commandments?
What is striking about this response, of course, is that all of the language my hearer or reader finds most objectionable (including the language identified above) is drawn directly from Scripture. Indeed, I determined some years ago to work as hard as I could to make sure that my preaching and ethics conforms as closely as possible not simply to the theological truths taught in Scripture, but to the language and emphasis of Scripture. And what I discovered when I did this is that the New Testament, including especially the writings of Paul, John, and Hebrews, almost uniformly talk about the law in a different way than is typical for Reformed Christians. Some of my readers and hearers find my language about the law baffling, therefore, because they don’t realize I’m not talking about the moral law.
When Reformed Christians speak of “the law” short hand, they usually mean the moral law. When Paul, on the other hand, uses the phrase “the law” short hand, he usually means the Mosaic Covenant or the Mosaic Law in general. When Christians talk about the law they usually emphasize its binding force on Christians. When Paul talks about the law he usually emphasizes the fact that it is no longer binding on Christians because they have died to it.
The fact is, it is anachronistic to read into Paul or other scriptural writings the threefold distinction between the moral, ceremonial, and judicial law. This threefold distinction is helpful theologically, but we need to recognize that it was developed by later theologians like Thomas Aquinas as a systematic category (not an exegetical category) to explain how it can be that Christians are no longer “under the law”, and yet that we are still called to obey the eternal moral principles to which it testifies. This does not, as the vast majority of biblical scholars recognize, give us the right to read this distinction into the texts of scripture. There is no evidence that Paul had a distinction between the ceremonial and moral law in his mind when he wrote his letters.
Yet we Reformed Christians read our systematic theological distinctions into the text all the time. Let me give an example.
In Ephesians 2:14-16 Paul writes of Jesus:
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
In my most recent article, this is precisely the emphasis I was trying to get at. The New Testament does not call Christians to follow the law, but to follow the new man, Jesus. In Ephesians this is particularly important because Paul’s point is that the law functioned to underline enmity or hostility between Israel and the nations. If Israel obeyed the law, it would be distinct from the nations and would be blessed with military and economic power over them. If Israel disobeyed the law, it would become like the nations, and eventually be conquered and exploited by them. For faithful Israelites, then, the law was vital to preserve their identity as God’s people against the temptations of a world under the domination of Satan. The law was like a massive fortress that segregated the people of God from the world. (Interestingly, the same pastor whom I heard proclaim from the pulpit that the Christian life can be summed up in terms of law-keeping claimed when preaching on this passage that the gospel is not about racial reconciliation. Yes, there is a connection.)
For Christians, as Paul makes clear, the situation has changed. In order that the gospel might go out to all nations, Christ in his body abolished the law. In his resurrection from the dead he became the new man, the new humanity, fit for the kingdom of God. Those who seek reconciliation from God no longer need to bind themselves to the law that underlined such hostility, but now must hold fast to Christ, conforming themselves to his image. In short, missions, evangelism, and the international unity of the church are all grounded in the assumption that the foundation of the church is Jesus, not the law. The Law came through Moses, as John says, but grace and truth come through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). If Christians are to communicate to the world the grace and truth of the gospel, rather than the law that kills and divides, they need to conform their lives and communities to the beloved Son whom God sent into the world because he loved it so much (John 3:16). We need to get out of our fortress and take up our cross.
Yet Reformed believers often miss this point because they assume that when Paul refers to the “law of commandments and ordinances” he simply means the “ceremonial law.” But there is zero evidence in the text to support this assumption, and it goes against everything that we know about how Paul ordinarily uses the term law (For example, Reformed believers are usually adamant that in Galatians Paul is not limiting the word law to the ceremonial law, as Roman Catholics often claim). To be sure, Paul is not saying that Jesus abolished God’s moral law. He is not talking about the moral law at all. He is talking about the Mosaic Law, or the Mosaic Covenant. That covenant or law can be and has been abolished, without the moral law changing one iota.
Similarly, when in Romans 6:14 Paul says to Christians that “you are not under law but under grace” he is making a covenantal statement directly in line with the prophecy of Jeremiah 31. You are no longer under the Mosaic Covenant, the covenant of Sinai, he is saying; you are now under the new covenant of grace.
None of this, then, has any bearing on whether or not Christians ought to obey God’s moral law. We always ought to do so, which is why Paul says that those who love their neighbors will not kill, steal, commit adultery, etc. But that’s not the issue here. The issue is whether or not believers remain bound to the law as a covenant. The Ten Commandments are in play not because most (though not all!) of what they include happens to be part of the moral law, but because in scripture the Ten Commandments serve as short hand, or as representative, of the Mosaic Covenant as a whole. The Ten Commandments are the “words of the covenant” that has been made obsolete (Exodus 34:28; Hebrews 8).
Emphasizing the Ten Commandments too much not only leads Christians to think of the Christian life through a legal paradigm, rather than through the paradigm of conformity to Jesus (a major problem in itself, insofar as it communicates that the Christian life is about judgment rather than grace), but it can also give the impression that believers are bound by the Mosaic Law in general. That many are under this impression is evidenced by arguments Christians have over theonomy, Christendom, the sabbath, tithing, or the Torah’s prohibitions of things like tattoos.
John Calvin would not have agreed with everything I write here, but he certainly agreed that when Paul uses the word ‘law’ he refers to its legal force as a binding covenant that kills. Calvin distinguished between the “narrow” law, which he identified with Sinai and with the works principle of “do this and you shall live,” and the “broad” law, which he identified with the Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace. The former, he suggested, is the ordinary use of Paul, while the latter is the ordinary use of the Old Testament in places like Psalm 119. Calvin also distinguished (sharply in practice; less so in rhetoric) between the moral law and the Ten Commandments, as evidenced by his rejection of the principle that Christians are bound to view one day in seven as a holy sabbath day. But I’ll take up Calvin’s views of the law in a future post.
Arguments over the two kingdoms doctrine in the conservative Reformed world often feature an exchange that runs something like this:
2k critic: Since Christ is lord of all of life, government is obligated to rule according to Scripture.
2k defender: But Scripture says little to nothing about contemporary politics.
2k critic: Well, Scripture offers us principles, and in any case, government is still under God’s moral law, bound to govern accordingly.
2k defender: You cannot simply translate God’s moral law to politics.2k critic: Actually, It’s easier than you think. And we are pretty convinced that our political convictions are in fact closely based on Scriptural principles and on God’s moral law.2k defender: Well you might be wrong. People often say their politics reflect God’s moral will, but they are deceived.2k critic: Well, then the problem is that they are deceived. We are not deceived.
And the debate goes on, often running in circles. For instance, in the comment thread of my last blog post we see this exchange:
2k defender: It is sad how often in history that a magistrate’s alleged adherence to God’s law has been used in the service of oppressive tyranny.
2k critic: “alleged” being the operative word.
What’s going on here? To me it suggests that much of the arguing that is purportedly over the two kingdoms doctrine is actually about the clarity of biblical instruction regarding politics, and the relative ease with which that teaching can be applied to contemporary American politics. Most of the time, those who take what we might call the Scripturalist position aren’t guilty of confusing the kingdoms per se. They simply have strong convictions about the specific political implications of Scriptural teaching. Those who take what we might call the Natural Law position don’t disagree that government should rule consistent with God’s moral law. They are simply skeptical that this tells us as much as the Scripturalists think.The debate may be less theological than exegetical or practical. Because classic Reformed theology, which both sides claim to confess, makes clear distinctions between God’s moral law and the judicial/civil law found in Scripture, and between divine law and human law. Jesus himself pointed out that the Mosaic Law permitted Israelite men to divorce their wives in circumstances in which such divorce violated God’s moral law. And if the law of Israel, given by God, legally authorizes practices that are immoral, without thereby approving them as moral, how much more the law of the United States? We can talk all we want about government ruling in accord with God’s moral law, but the question remains, what does this actually mean?
The reason why two kingdoms theologians emphasize the need for the church to be humble when it comes to politics is not that they think politics is an autonomous realm, outside of God’s law, but because they distinguish between God’s moral law and the practical governance of politics, which involves both divine and human law. Joel McDurmon’s critique of Horton’s two kingdoms theology at American Vision actually clarifies this point, but McDurmon goes on seemingly to reject the basic distinctions that have long been part of Reformed theology. He writes,
1) The natural law of the secular “kingdom” is based upon God’s moral law, or
2) It is not.
If it is based upon God’s moral law, then,
1) The natural law of the secular kingdom must be the same as that revealed in Scripture, and
2) The church should have a prophetic role in calling the civil government to adhere to Scripture in regard to law and punishment.
1) God and “God’s law” are divided and He speaks and governs man according to differing standards in each of the two realms, and
2) Civil rulers can justify anything as “God’s law” in their realm based on reason, nature, common sense, popular vote, expedience, or whatever, even if it contradicts Scripture.
By affirming the former sense (like Horton above), 2K proponents must ultimately look to Scripture to judge whether civil laws are righteous or unrighteous in God’s eyes. But where does Scripture give such content for civil laws? Only in the Old Testament civil laws. Here, the brake lights come on with smoke and tire marks and the whole bit. We are told these laws do not apply today…. We respond with the accusation that these R2K believers are pushing the civil realm outside of God’s rule and thereby giving license to ungodly laws in society.
So McDurmon admits that Horton believes the church has a prophetic role relative to the state, and that the church must preach whatever Scripture says about politics. But when Horton and others remind us that this is less easy than we often think, McDurmon returns to the simple accusation that “R2k believers are pushing the civil realm outside of God’s rule.” In short, McDurmon simply refuses to recognize the distinction between between the moral law and the civil law, between divine law and human law, as a good faith argument, let alone as legitimate. And that, certainly, is a conversation stopper.
But perhaps we all need to calm down a little. What would happen in these debates if some two kingdoms critics acknowledged that they actually agree with the fundamental distinction between the two kingdoms (i.e., between the kingdom of God and political government), and that their real disagreement with “R2k” is with its refusal to identify God’s moral will with their particular political convictions? What would happen if more two kingdoms advocates admitted that they do believe government should rule consistent with God’s moral law, but that their real difficulty is with what some “allege” this to mean?
[Note: One of my well-wishing critics pointed out to me that in this original post I unfairly implied that all two kingdoms critics are critical of the doctrine because of its refusal to identify God’s moral will with their political agenda. I’ve changed my language to clarify that this is not, in fact, the case. There are people who reject versions of the two kingdoms doctrine for better reasons, who actually affirm its refusal to identify the moral will of God with particular political agendas. Of course, I would argue that most of these critics actually hold to the two kingdoms doctrine in substance, but that is neither here nor there. I apologize for the unfair statement.]