I’ve been told, “but the moral law still applies”. I’ve heard many times the Old Testament had moral law, ceremonial law, and civil or judicial law (punishment for sins). Judicial law is no longer needed because Jesus took the punishment on the cross. Ceremonial law is no longer needed because Jesus was the perfect offering, the sacrifice that took our place. Moral law is the same before and after the cross because God doesn’t change his mind on right from wrong. Have you been told this as well?
Did you know that this teaching is not from the bible? The belief that the Old Testament had moral, ceremonial, and judicial law is called the tripartite theology of law. It’s a medieval era Catholic Church teaching that is still taught in the Catholic Church today. It has carried over into many Protestant churches as well and is applied in social expectations throughout Christian culture (ex. “You’re not supposed to do _______ because Leviticus says _______.”). Introduced in the 1200s by famous theologian and highly influential Catholic priest, Thomas Aquinas, this theology was his personal opinion on the relevancy of the law and the different categories of law. Earlier theologians such as Augustine (354-430AD) had similar perspectives on the law being dividable and its relevancy for Christians as moral guidance. Martin Luther (1483-1546), John Calvin (1509-1564), and John Wesley (1703-1791) all brought similar theologies into Protestantism. This begs the question: Does this theology align with scripture?
The Old Testament made no division of moral, ceremonial, or civil/judicial when teaching the law. What does the New Testament say? What did Jesus say? What did the apostles teach in the early church? Let’s take a look at the scriptures.
“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (NASB)
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (NIV)
Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (NASB)
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (NIV)
“Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses. (NIV)
Acts chapter 15 particularly verses 5, 10-11, and 19
Verse 5: But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.” (NASB)
Verse 10-11: Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” (NASB)
Verse 19: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. (NIV)
For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (although it is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed— namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. (NET)
For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. (NASB)
For Christ is the end of the law [it leads to Him and its purpose is fulfilled in Him], for [granting] righteousness to everyone who believes [in Him as Savior]. (AMP)
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (NIV)
But the scripture imprisoned everything under sin so that the promise could be given—because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ—to those who believe. Now before faith came we were held in custody under the law, being kept as prisoners until the coming faith would be revealed. Thus the law had become our guardian until Christ, so that we could be declared righteous by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. (NET)
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (NIV)
The Old Testament promised a savior. Jesus came and bore the cross for us. He fulfilled the promise. He fulfilled what was spoken about him. We are under the law no more. We are under grace now, living in a new covenant. Commanded to love God and love others, this should be what we live out.
The Old Testament is still a sacred text. There is certainly wisdom in the Old Testament. There is the history of God’s people. There is encouragement and inspiration. I find it important to read and understand. There is right from wrong, good from bad. It is in the New Testament that we come to a greater understanding of righteousness and holiness. The commandments and the righteous guidelines of morality are summed up in the New Testament’s greatest commands to love God and love your neighbors. Do no harm. Love others. Such is righteousness. Love is our moral compass.
I do not remember when I was first taught this tripartite theology of law. I know it was early on after my conversion to Christianity. I accepted it as truth because it made sense in my youthful understanding of righteousness and grace. I was taught bondage. Christ revealed freedom to me. There is liberty to be had in letting Jesus cover what he is supposed to cover and staying on the path that is intended for those following Jesus. There is protection in not straying into olden ways. Random verses from the Old Testament books of the law, particularly Leviticus, are often still taught as mandates in conservative circles. These cherry picked verses are scattered among fields of gospel and New Testament principles, littering our walk with God and causing us to stumble. They are ball and chains we drag along as we pick up our cross and carry it. We consider these things sin and willingly take on extra yokes to carry on our necks as if more yokes award boasting rights of self-sacrifice and religious dedication. When these random verses are thrown at people like weapons, people justify it by calling it moral law. This does not match scripture.
Christians need to let go of Old Testament law. It’s legalism. It’s bondage. Unbound – that’s what we are intended to be when we are under the cross. Let go of legalism. Stop cherry picking from the books of the law. Stop chaining yourself with unnecessary yokes as religious dedication. Stop holding it over the head of anyone living exclusively in the New Testament that you don’t do x y z because blah blah blah. That’s the kind of thing the snobbish Pharisees would do. Stop threatening people with damnation if they commit an Old Testament abomination. Stop. This is not the liberty in Christ we are supposed to receive. This is not liberty. It’s legalism, and it needs to be called out. Walk away from it. Don’t be held in bondage to the law before Jesus took the cross. We are free in Christ. The teachings of the New Testament are enough. We need not add to it or take away from it or chain it down with yokes impossible to bear.
Faith . . . Grace . . . Righteousness . . . Liberty . . . Love . . .
Be free from legalism
In Christ alone