11: Other Views on the Christian and
Old Testament Law

Series: Delighting in the Old Testament: Through Christ and For Christ 

by Jason DeRouchie December 27, 2023

“We Uphold the Law” (Rom 3:31)

This post considers alternative proposals to how Moses’s law relates to Christians. It first tackles the common distinction between moral, civil, and ceremonial law, and then it confronts three dangerous approaches to the law that followers of Christ must avoid.

Assessing the Threefold Division of the Law

Historically, many evangelicals have identified three theological categories of laws when considering the contemporary importance of Moses’s instruction:

  • Moral laws—ethical principles that are eternally applicable, regardless of covenant
  • Civil laws—applications of the moral law to Israel’s political and social structures
  • Ceremonial laws—symbolic requirements related to religious rituals and cult worship

Many covenant theologians believe that the moral laws remain binding on Christians today, whereas the civil and ceremonial laws are no longer applicable. In contrast, Christian reconstructionists assert that, because civil laws apply moral laws situationally, they too carry over through Christ and are to guide all nations and states (not just the church).

While these approaches helpfully celebrate Christ as the substance of all OT shadows (Col 2:16–17; Heb 8:5–7) and that his coming alters some laws more than others, neither model satisfies the biblical testimony concerning Moses’s law. Against both approaches, the previous post argued that none of the Mosaic covenant is directly binding on Christians today (Rom 10:4; 1 Cor 9:20–21; Gal 3:24–25) but that all of it is still significant as revelation, prophecy, and wisdom when mediated through Christ (Matt 5:17–19). Furthermore, Scripture views all the law as a single entity, all the law to be moral in nature, and all the law to have devotional benefit for believers.

The Law as a Singular Entity

The OT identifies types of laws based on content, but it never distinguishes laws in the way the threefold division proposes. Leviticus 19, for example, shows little distinction between laws, mixing calls to love one’s neighbor (vv. 11–12, 17–18) with various commands related to family (vv. 3a, 29), worship (vv. 3b–8, 26–28, 30–31), business (vv. 9–10, 13b, 19a, 23–25, 34b–36), care (vv. 9–10, 13–14, 33–34), disputes (vv. 15–16, 35a), and rituals (v. 19b).

Furthermore, the NT regularly speaks of the law as a unit. In Romans 13:9, for instance, the call to love one’s neighbor synthesizes not just a group of moral laws but every commandment, including the proposed civil and ceremonial legislation. Jesus and James, too, spoke broadly of the law (Matt 5:19; Jas 2:10). Paul stressed that the law brought curse to all (Gal 3:10), that we are no longer under the law-covenant in Christ (3:24–25), and that “every man who accepts circumcision … is obligated to keep the whole law” (5:3). 

The “Moral” Nature of All Laws

Christian reconstructionists are correct to note that the “civil” laws illustrate moral principles worked out in Israelite culture. To this we can add that the “ceremonial” laws demonstrate moral elements through symbolism and that even the Ten Commandments, often deemed the premier example of moral law, contain many culturally bound features:

  • The prologue identifies Israel as a people redeemed from Egyptian slavery (Deut 5:6).
  • The idolatry command assumes a religious system including carved images (5:8).
  • The Sabbath command presumes ancient Near Eastern bond service, geographically limited animals, and cities with gates (5:14).

This list should caution those who want to distinguish civil or ceremonial laws from moral because of their temporal boundedness.

The Benefit of All OT Law

Most theologians espousing the threefold division of the law affirm the lasting value of all Scripture. However, this division has led many to see the Book of the Covenant (Exod 21–23) and Leviticus as having little lasting relevance. Yet Jesus and Paul affirmed Exodus’s prohibitions against reviling parents (Matt 15:4) and leaders (Acts 23:5), Paul drew pastoral insight from Leviticus’s instructions on temple service (1 Cor 9:13–14), and Peter called believers to holiness because God called for it in Leviticus (1 Pet 1:15–17). “All Scripture … is profitable” for Christians (2 Tim 3:16), and we align most closely with the Bible when we emphasize how the entire law still matters for Christians, though not all in the same way.

Dangerous Applications of OT Law

Before learning how to apply Moses’s law through Jesus and supplying some extended case studies (in future posts), we must consider three destructive approaches to OT law: (1) legalism, (2) antinomianism, and (3) anti-OT thought.


Legalism is operative when people trust in their own doing to enjoy right standing with God (Luke 18:9; Gal 3:3). Foundational to the very nature of the old-covenant law was Yahweh’s claim, “If a person does them [i.e., my statutes and rules], he shall live by them” (Lev 18:5). Because God gave the law to a mostly unregenerate people, their pursuit of righteousness by works and not by faith resulted in their ruin (Rom 7:10; 9:30–32).

Foundational to all Reformation doctrine is that justification before God comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And we become legalists if we ever ground our justification in anything other than Christ’s perfect obedience alone. “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (5:18–19).


In the NT, nomos is the Greek term for “law,” so antinomian means “no law.” Antinomians, then, are those who claim that God’s rules need not influence Christians’ daily ethics. In contrast, Paul stressed that he was not “outside the law of God but under the law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21) and that what counts is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision but “keeping the commandments of God” (7:19).

Long ago, the Westminster theologians highlighted, “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, is no dead faith, but worketh by love.” It is from this framework that, after forgiving the sin of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus commanded, “Go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11). Similarly, Peter urged, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet 1:14–16). Clearly, antinomianism is not an option for Christians.

Anti-OT Thought

In his book Irresistible, Andy Stanley claims that one of the church’s greatest problems today is “our incessant habit of reaching back into the old covenant concepts, teachings, sayings, and narratives.” He stresses that we should call the OT the “Hebrew Bible” and the NT the “Christian Bible,” even warning against too quickly finding Christ in the OT, lest we be among those who have “hijacked” the Jewish Scriptures by “ignoring the original context” and by “retrofitting them as Christian Scripture.” Stanley also assumes that none of Moses’s law matters today: “Thou shalt not obey the Ten Commandments,” he says.

Stanley rightly affirms that Christians are part of the new covenant, not the old, and that Christ stands as the end of old-covenant worship laws. Nevertheless, he overlooks the fact that Jesus maintains some laws and transforms others. Stanley also overlooks the facts that Jesus and Paul’s only Bible was what we call the OT, that they saw it pointing to the Messiah and his work (Luke 24:44–47; Acts 26:22–23), and that they recognized the whole OT to be Christian Scripture (Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:11; 1 Pet 1:12). Stanley treats the OT as if Jesus came to “abolish” rather than “fulfill” it (Matt 5:17), and he fails to help people understand how the initial three-fourths of Christian Scripture is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16).


Many Christians distinguish between moral, civil, and ceremonial laws and then view only the moral or only the moral and civil as applying to Christians. Both approaches miss that no old-covenant legislation directly binds believers today, that all of Moses’s law still serves Christians through Jesus, but only in so far as he maintains, transforms, or annuls the various laws. While principles of love and justice in Moses’s law also carry over into governments today, Christ’s law binds the church and not the state. Finally, legalism, antinomianism, and the view that the OT no longer applies to Christians are all dangerous teachings, for they compromise Christ’s saving work.


¹David A. Dorsey, “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34 (1991): 330.

²Westminster Confession of Faith 11.2.

Andy Stanley, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New That Jesus Unleashed for the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018), 90.

Stanley, Irresistible, 280.

Stanley, Irresistible, 156.

Stanley, Irresistible, 136.



This blog series summarizes Jason S. DeRouchie’s forthcoming book, Delighting in the Old Testament: Through Christ and for Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2024). You can pre-order your copy here.

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