The Division of Old Testament Law

The Division of Old Testament Law

Are believers in Christ required to obey any part of Old Testament law? Both Dispensationalists and proponents of New Covenant Theology, or Progressive Covenantalism, as one version of it has come to be called, simply say “no.” In their view, the laws of the Old Testament are fulfilled and abrogated in Christ. Believers are only required to obey the “law of Christ,” which is taught in the commands of the New Testament alone. That’s a simple hermeneutic that draws a sharp line between the testaments and tells believers they don’t have to obey any Old Testament law. One of the major problems with this perspective is that New Testament authors seem to assume the authority of the Old Testament in matters of certain kinds of law. Another problem is that in spite of objections to the contrary, the Old Testament doesn’t treat all of its laws the same way either. We often hear that “the Law” is a unit, that all of it is moral, and that if any of it is abrogated, then all of it must be. While the issues involved in this dispute among sincere brothers in Christ certainly require more than a simple blog post, I offer the following short critique of those views which teach that Old Testament law is monolithic and without any divisions.

Old Testament

1. Old Testament laws are divided into categories. Deuteronomy 4:13-14 says, “And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone. And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and rules, that you might do them in the land you are going to possess.” Notice that the “Ten Commandments” (lit. ten words) are distinct from the other designations of Old Testament law: “statutes” and “rules.” Similarly, Moses writes, “Now this is the commandment, the statutes, and the rules that the LORD your God commanded me to teach you” (Deut 6:1). These three kinds of laws: commandments, statutes, and rules, overlap in their semantic range, but they are not identical. Commandments (mitsvah) are “codes of law;” statutes (hoq) are “ordinances;” rules (mishpat) are “case laws.” Therefore, it’s far from correct to say the Old Testament does not divide its laws into various categories.

Furthermore, the order in which God gave the law in the book of Exodus implies the distinctivenesss of the Ten Commandments. God gave the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Then in Exodus 21-23, God reveals the civil laws. And then beginning in Exodus 25, God provides the ceremonial laws about the tabernacle. Thus, the Ten Commandments stand alone as distinct and primary, while all other laws in the Old Covenant are subsequent to them.

2. The Ten Commandments were revealed in a unique way. God gave the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai with loud thunder, flashes of lightning, a thick cloud, and a “very loud trumpet blast” (Ex 19:16). No other laws were revealed this way. It was a striking and emotional experience for those who were there. God wanted it to be memorable. He intended the Ten Commandments to stand out in the minds of His people above all other laws. He wanted to impact their senses so that they would never forget the distinctive importance of these ten words. Furthermore, only the Ten Commandments were spoken by God to the whole congregation (Deut 4:12-13). The other commands were spoken through Moses.

3. God wrote the Ten Commandments with His own finger. Exodus 31:18 says God gave Moses “tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” The other laws were written by the pen of Moses. The Ten Commandments were engraved on “stone” to communicate that they are fixed and permanent. God wrote the rest of the old covenant laws through Moses on paper.

4. The Ten Commandments are uniquely sufficient among all Old Testament laws. The Old Testament tells us that the Ten Commandments were a sufficient summary of God’s most central laws. We see this taught in Deuteronomy 5:22, which says that after God had spoken the Ten Commandments, “he added no more.” After God gave the Ten Commandments, there was no need to add any more. The Ten Commandments sufficiently summarized the way God’s people were to express their love to Him and to one another. If God’s people obeyed these laws, then they would be keeping the heart of the law, and all other obedience would follow from it.

5. The Ten Commandments alone were placed in the Ark of the Covenant. God told Moses to put the Ten Commandments inside the ark of the covenant, but to “Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant” (Deut 31:24-26). This shows how the Ten Commandments are at the heart of all the other Old Testament commandments. The civil and ceremonial laws were only to be kept in the land of Canaan (Deut 5:30-33), but the Ten Commandments were written on the hearts of OT believers, and were kept wherever the people went (Ps 37:31; 40:8; Is 51:7).

New Testament

The New Testament also makes distinctions among Old Testament laws. While it teaches that some Old Testament laws are abrogated, it shows that others are perpetually binding on the hearts and lives of believers.

1. Jesus teaches that the Ten Commandments are never to be abolished. He said, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not a dot will pass from the Law” (Matt 5:17). What law is Christ speaking about? He goes on to list laws from the Ten Commandments: do not murder (Matt 5:21-26); do not commit adultery (Matt 5:27-32); do not lie (Matt 5:33-37).

2. Adam, the first Gentile, had the Ten Commandments written on his heart. Romans 2:14-15 says, “For when the Gentiles who do not have the law, by nature, do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness.” What law was Paul writing about? Just a few verses later, Paul goes on to list some of the Ten Commandments: do not steal (Rom 2:21), do not commit adultery (Rom 2:22), do not commit idolatry (Rom 2:22). This same law is written on the consciences of all who bear the image of God. Ephesians 4:24 explicitly links being made in God’s “likeness” to “righteousness,” which means “lawfulness.”

This shows us that there is a natural law within a man, summarized by the Ten Commandments. Other laws are coventantal or positive (posited) laws, which come from outside of a man. For example, Abraham knew by nature, from within, not to murder, but he did not know to be circumcised from within. God had to reveal the command to be circumcised by covenant from without in the Abrahamic covenant. Natural law, written on the human heart, cuts across all covenants. But covenantal positive laws change with the covenant.

3. Paul says one can “keep the law” without obeying the command to be circumcised. Many argue that the Old Testament law can’t be divided. But if that were true, then it would be impossible to keep the law without also keeping the command to be circumcised. Paul writes, “So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” (Rom 2:26). Paul has a category for Gentiles who “keep the law” without obeying the Old Testament command to be circumcised. What law is Paul thinking about? Again, context shows, it’s the Ten Commandments (Rom 2:21-23).

4. Paul distinguishes between “the law of commandments” and its “ordinances.” Ephesians 2:15 says that when Christ died, He abolished “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” Notice that Christ didn’t abolish the law of commandments itself, only its expression in ordinances. “Ordinances” are the national “rules” or “decrees” of Israel that were based on moral law, but not identical to it.

5. In the new covenant, certain Old Testament “law” is written on our hearts. God blesses His new covenant people saying, “I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts” (Heb 8:10).  That’s a quotation from Jeremiah 31, in which the author had Old Testament law in mind. Literally, the words “write them” mean “carve them,” calling to mind how God carved the Ten Commandments into tablets of stone. While the whole Old Covenant has been abrogated in Christ (Heb 8:13), the moral law of the Old Covenant, the Ten Commandments, are written on the hearts of believers (2 Cor 3:3). Old Testament ceremonial laws relating to priesthood are abolished: “When there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well,” but the moral law is written on the hearts of the members of the new covenant: “I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts” (Heb 8:10).

Therefore, it seems clear from both testaments that there is a division among Old Testament laws. The Ten Commandments are unique because they are a reflection of God’s own character. Paul teaches us that the Ten Commandments are written on the consciences of Gentiles. They were given by God in a unique way and stand above all other ordinances. In Christ’s death, He abolished the expression of the Ten Commandments in ordinances, but He did not abolish the Ten Commandments themselves. They are written on the hearts of all members of the new covenant, which was established in His blood.

Tom serves as the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Clinton, LA. He’s married to Joy, and they have four children: Sophie, Karlie, Rebekah, and David. He received his MDiv and PhD degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with a major in Church History, emphasis on Baptists, and with a minor in Systematic Theology. Tom is the author of The Doctrine of Justification in the Theologies of Richard Baxter and Benjamin Keach (PhD diss, SBTS). He serves on the board of directors for Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary and is an adjunct professor of historical theology for the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies.
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