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Baptists and the Law: Why the Tripartite Divide is For Baptists, Too

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I woke up and saw in my Feedly feed this morning, a post from Mike Bergman at SBC Voices entitled, Christians and the Law: A Friendly Response to Tim Keller’s ‘Making Sense of Scripture’s Inconsistency.‘ Like Douglas Wilson, who we’ve quoted and linked several times at Pulpit & Pen, Keller is admirable on several counts, but not without his problems. Keller is a supportor of theistic evolutionist group, BioLogos. Keller has given what appears to be pretty capitulating answers from time to time, on topics ranging from homosexuality to hell. Keller has a stellar intellect, his sermons are put together like aesthetically-pleasing pieces of art, he is academically engaging and has a knack at reaching the sophisticated “upper-class.” If Keller’s sermons were a cup of tea, you would drink it with your pinky stuck out.

He also says things that I don’t get. And, in fact, I don’t think hardly anybody gets. But he said it, so people like it. This is from yesterday.

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Our own Squirrel responded, and I think he speaks for most of us at P&P…

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To use an illustration that Keller’s highbrow New York City civilized repertoire probably wouldn’t recognize, he’s like eating fish; chew what’s good and spit the bones out. His essay in Westminster’s Theonomy: A Reformed Critique was stellar, he’s a profound thinker, bla bla bla.

Bergman’s post at SBC Voices (which could essentially be changed to SBC Echoes, as an echo chamber for everything positive and reaffirming of the SBC) went slightly off the rails in his criticism of Keller’s recent post, Making Sense of the Gospel’s Inconsistency. Bergman writes…

Keller sought to give a brief explanation as to why Christians still seem to hold to Old Testament teaching that condemn homosexuality yet “ignore lots of Old Testament texts—about not eating raw meat or pork or shellfish, not executing people for breaking the Sabbath,” etc. Keller addressed the charge that Christians seem to be inconsistent in what they accept from the Old Testament, and especially the Law, and what they do not.

As a staunch Presbyterian, Keller did not surprise in his explanation to divide the Law into the civil, the ceremonial, and the moral. As his and the typical “reformed” explanation goes: the church is not a theocratic nation-state so we are not bound by the civil, Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial as the great sacrifice so we are not bound by those either, but God’s ethic does not change so we are still bound by the moral.

Bergman seems to lay this three-fold distinction of the law at the feet of Keller’s Presbyterianism. As a Baptist who understands my own history, I recognize this distinction is not unique to Presbyterianism. From the 1689 London Baptist Confession (Article 19, chapters 3-5)…

3. Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties, all which ceremonial laws being appointed only to the time of reformation, are, by Jesus Christ the true Messiah and only law-giver, who was furnished with power from the Father for that end abrogated and taken away.
( Hebrews 10:1; Colossians 2:17; 1 Corinthians 5:7; Colossians 2:14, 16, 17; Ephesians 2:14, 16)

4.To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of moral use.
( 1 Corinthians 9:8-10 )

5. The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof, and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it; neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.
( Romans 13:8-10; James 2:8, 10-12; James 2:10, 11; Matthew 5:17-19; Romans 3:31 )

The first Baptist association in America, the famed Philadelphia Baptist Association, adopted almost identically the 2nd London Baptist Confession (1689) as its statement of faith, called “The Philadelphia Baptist Confession of Faith,” which was printed in 1742. With various divides between regional Baptist associations and the Regular and Separate Baptists came the creation of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith in 1833. Of this confession, Leroy Cole wrote,“In the context of its birth, background, and development, it is readily observed that this Confession is from the same spring from which flows the Philadelphia and London Confessions.” In 1925 came the Baptist Faith and Message, of which the committee that proposed the new confession claimed it was merely an adoption of the New Hampshire Confession, with a few minor edits, writing that the BF&M was “The New Hampshire Confession of Faith, revised at certain points, and with some additional articles growing out of certain needs…

Certainly, the three-fold distinction of God’s law is as much Baptist as it is Presbyterian. You would have to immerse yourself entirely into the anti-confessional Sandy Creek, Separatist tradition to find this distinction to be a foreign construct to Baptist belief. Bergman writes…

I agree with the line of thinking in this way: God is the same yesterday, today, and forever; in him there is no shifting of shadows; and his nature has defined the true north of the moral compass for all eternity.

However, being from the Show Me State I have to reply with a skeptical “show me” when it comes to the overarching argument itself: Where in Scripture do we ever find such a breakdown of the Law and how do we know what Laws belong where?

Well, the answer is found in plenty of places. And by the way, I’m also from the Show Me State, so I’m not offended that you would ask. I’d just ask that you not be as stubborn as a Missouri Mule in seeing what’s plainly evident in Scripture.

God himself divides the Moral Law from the Ceremonial and Civil Law.

  • God gives the Moral Law (the Decalogue) out-loud in his own voice (Exodus 20:1-21) directly to the people. The Civil Code, God gives not to the people by his own voice, but later to Moses, to explain at a later time to the people. Then, God gives the Ceremonial Law not to the people, but to the priests in their hand book, Leviticus.
  • God writes the Moral Law in his own finger (Exodus 31:18, Deuteronomy 9:10), but this is not so with the Civil Code or Ceremonial Law.
  • God places the Moral Law inside the Ark of the Covenant, but not the Civil Code or Ceremonial Law (1 Kings 8:1-9)
  • The Civil Code was given only for commonwealth Israel while they were in the land God had given them (Deuteronomy 4:5).
  • The Ceremonial law was given as a foreshadow of Christ, and has been fulfilled by Him (Galatians 3:23-24).
  • Finally, whenever the law is given in Scripture, the Moral Law is always mentioned first, with the Civil and Ceremonial to follow. Scripture is what makes the distinction between Moral, Civil and Ceremonial Law.

On the one hand, yes do not murder is clearly a moral issue; but what about that law from Deuteronomy 22:8 that says you must build a fence around your roof so you’re not guilty of bloodshed if someone falls off? That certainly seems like a moral issue, yet I don’t see too many roof fences around. Of course, some would say, “Well, the application of that principle today would be…”—fair enough, but it still shows a point: we can be kind of inconsistent with the “moral laws” as well.

Well, back to the concept of General Equity. As Calvin pointed out in Institutes of the Christian Religion, we should not think that because judicial or ceremonial laws have aspects of moral within them that they are to be considered Moral Law (this is what stumps the theonomist). The General Equity of putting a parapet on your roof is not necessarily putting a fence around your swimming pool. The General Equity of that part of Israel’s Civil Code is simple; love your neighbor. There’s nothing inconsistent is saying that the details or “jots and tittles” of the Civil Code given for the governance of ancient Israel or the Ceremonial Law meant to foreshadow Christ has aspects of moral principles within them that should be honored and obeyed. Bergman continues…

I would say that the Bible offers a better response than the standard Reformed breakdown, and that is: We are not under the Law at all. Some of you will surely agree, others of you just shared a collective gasp—hold that breath for a moment. To say that we are not under the Law at all is not necessarily to become an anything goes antinomian, as I’ll detail below. Like I said: God’s moral character is unchanging; but I believe the New Testament teaches that when Christ came the Law—the entire Law had served its purpose and no longer holds sway over us. Instead, we are remade in Christ with new hearts, new desires, and the Holy Spirit dwelling within us who leads us into a new kind of law, what Paul calls the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2) and James the law of liberty (James 1:25) and royal law (2:8). This law could be called the law of love as it was defined by Jesus in Matthew 22 as love God and love your neighbor.

As a Covenantal Theologian (like any historic Baptist would be), you can predict my disagreement. God’s Moral Law existed before the law was given at Sinai. It was against God’s Moral Law for Cain to kill Able – even though it had not been penned into tablets of stone. God’s Moral Law existed before Sinai and God’s Moral Law exists after Sinai, because God’s Moral Law – unlike the Civil or Ceremonial, is tied directly to God’s immutable nature. It has always been wrong to steal, kill, covet, lie, commit adultery, blaspheme and (yes, even to) break the Sabbath Day. It always will be wrong to steal, kill, covent, lie, commit adultery, blaspheme and break the Sabbath Day. These are all things that were wrong before Sinai, after Sinai, and forever.

In fact, Jesus taught this very thing in his Sermon on the Mount. Although Jesus has fulfilled the law for us, the Moral Law still exists and Jesus demonstrates that in the “antitheses” of Matthew 5. And so while we are under the “Law of Love” or the “Law of Christ” – or more simply put, to love God and neighbor – how we are to love God is demonstrated in the first four of the Ten Commandments and how we are to love man is demonstrated in the last six of the Ten Commandments. Without the Moral Law, which was abbreviated by Jesus into the two greatest commands (these were not new commands, but new expressions or abbreviations of the old, a summarizing of the Moral Law’s two tables), we have no idea how we are to love God and neighbor.

So, for example, we don’t ‘not murder’ because it was written on tablets of stone thou shalt not murder; we don’t murder because we love our neighbor and love always seeks the good of another.

While Bergman claims this isn’t antinomianism (unquoted in this post, but you can see the link above), this is precisely the antinomian argument. I would encourage you to read Baptists in America by Thomas Kidd. As Kidd points out, the antinomian struggle in the early days of Baptist history was the product of people believing the Spirit was sufficient to lead one to good behavior. Just “do as the spirit leads,” the antinomians argued. The problem is, the Spirit leads us to the knowledge of truth (John 16:13) not by esoteric or gnostic knowledge, but by the Scripture. We need “Thou Shalt Not Murder” and the Spirit’s conviction. We need them both, and we cannot abide by Spirit over Word, because the Spirit uses the Word in His divine work.

Then Paul weaved his way to the purpose of the Law. In 3:24-25 he called it a “guardian.” In other words, the Law kept watch over God’s people “until Christ came.” Since Christ has come, Paul argued, “We are no longer under a guardian.” That is about a clear of a statement on the issue one comes across: The Law was a guardian until Christ came; Christ came and we are no longer under the guardian; therefore, in Christ we are no longer under the Law.

Paul did not make a distinction between different types of law. He simply pointed back to the Law as a whole.

At this point, Bergman seems to be missing the overall narrative of Galatians. The schoolmaster who was a guardian, who has disappeared now that Christ has come, is not the Moral Law. Jesus taught the Moral Law in the Sermon on the Mount. The Apostles continue to teach the Moral Law. Paul’s letter to the Galatians was dealing with the Galatian judaizers. He was dealing with – ever so specifically – those who were demanding the Jews keep the ceremonial laws relating to diet and circumcision. Somehow, Bergman misses that point.

Oddly enough, Bergman then goes on to make the point that the Ten Commandments, or Moral Law, still exist to “prove we are sinners in need of a greater righteousness.” One wonders how the Ten Commandments teach us we need a Savior, when they do not inform us of our sin, because we are no longer under them. We are free from the Moral Law as the hope of our salvation. We are free from the Moral Law as the end of our righteousness. We are free from the spiritual consequences of having broken the Moral Law. We are not free from duties prescribed in the Moral Law as God’s standards of holiness.

Listen, I know that this post interests…well, practically nobody. We’ll get back to writing something about something stupid that Andy Stanley said or maybe a new Stephen Furtick coloring book being passed around or Rick Warren’s latest love-fest with the Pope any day now. But this issue, as seemingly disinteresting as it may be, is important to me. It’s important that Baptists understand that a tripartite distinction of the law isn’t just “a Presbyterian thing.” It is a Biblical, helpful, and necessary distinction to keep us from greater theological error.

I’ll end with the Baptist Catechism.

Question: What is the point of the Ten Commandments? Answer: To teach us our duty, make clear our condemnation, and show us our need of a Savior.


[Contributed by JD Hall]