A Study of Moral law


     In this study, we shall attempt to biblically explore the concept and reality of "moral law."  One often encountered objection is, "You never find the language ‘moral law’ in the scriptures; therefore, there is no such thing as ‘moral law’!" The Bible student must realize that there are terms often used that do not verbatim reside in the scriptures. Such, I admit, should indicate caution (cp. I Pet. 4: 11). However, how about such terms as "trinity"? While the word "trinity" is not found in most translations, the concept of a triune Godhead is observed (cp. 2 Cor. 13: 14). Let us, then, with open minds explore the scriptures to determine if the concept of moral law is present and if so, what does it mean. One wrote, "Moral Law is based on the premise that there is such a thing as right and wrong, and there are some things that you 'ought' to do, and some things that you 'ought not' to do." "Moral law," I submit, is axiomatic, inborn, ingrained, inherent, intrinsic, and of a truth, indigenous.  "Moral law" is static and always right; hence, not subject to culture, subjectivism, or any dispensational influence.

     In view of all the hatred for law (antinomianism) today and the popularity of such philosophies as situation ethics (laws are subject to circumstances and no law is inherently right, etc.), one can readily see how that with the foregoing definition for moral law, many will resist the concept that there is law that is right because it is intrinsically right and all that is contrary is automatically wrong.

     The existence of moral law. By virtue of definition, we must present law that stands on its own inherent rightness and is not subject to any external impetus or influence. We are looking for law that is not just axiomatically right, but law that is always right and cannot be circumvented by time, culture, or circumstances. Let us consider two simple, I am convinced, instances of moral law. First, Jesus emphatically taught:

"37: Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38: This is the first and great commandment" (Matt. 22).

     Jesus’ teaching relative love for God has always been true and will be forever true. What circumstance could possibly change or obviate what Jesus said? Let us appreciate that Jesus made this statement in reply to the question posed to him as to the "great commandment in the law" (v. 36). Does this, then, mean that Jesus’ teaching is limited to the Law of Moses? (Deut. 6: 5)

     Jesus continued in answering the question as to the great commandment in the law by not only providing one but two great laws:

     "39: And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40: On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22).

     These two laws are "eternal" in their essential nature and cannot be limited. They are applicable to all people for all time. Hence, they meet the criteria for "moral law." From this simple example, we learn that "moral law" can and does refer to man's relationship to God and we observed the degree to which we are to love God (cp. Matt. 22: 36-38, Deut. 6: 5). "Moral law" can and does refer to man's relationship with his fellow man (Matt. 22: 39-40, cp. Lev. 19: 18). "Jesus’ teaching regarding love of God and fellow man was stated under the Law of Moses and had specific reference to the commandments written in the Law and since we cannot clearly find the exact language in Acts through Revelation ("New Testament"), we cannot bind such today. To do so would be to bind the Law of Moses!" Can you imagine one making such a claim? (See the addendum.)

     How do we establish Matthew 22: 36-40 as "moral law" (indigenously right)? If we acknowledge God and our fellow man, it is axiomatically right.  What influence could change or seriously alter these two stated laws? Notice their essentially fundamental nature: Matthew 22: 40.

     We often quote and apply teaching that "resides" in the Law of Moses (simplistically viewed) and to do so is not necessarily wrong, all things understood. The New Testament ("Acts through Revelation") contains teaching about temptation (Jas. 1, I Cor. 10). Yet, how incomplete this teaching would be without the temptation of Jesus (Matt. 4: 1-11). From Jesus’ temptation, we learn how to resist temptation (cp. Matt. 4: 4/Deut. 8: 3; Matt. 4: 7/Deut. 6: 16; Matt. 4: 10/Deut. 10: 20, Prov. 23: 31f.). You will observe that Jesus’ temptation took place under the Law of Moses and in resisting this temptation, Jesus relied on teaching found in the Hebrew scriptures. This teaching, though, was not time, culture, or people dated truth. These truths meet the requisites for what we call "moral law."

     Rule for application: What "rule" should there be in applying principles residing in the Hebrew scriptures today? (Example, "If not explicitly taught in the New Testament, we cannot use.")  Consider the teaching regarding abstinence from blood found in Leviticus 17: 14. Is there anything "Mosaic" or peculiarly "Jewish" in this teaching? The stated reason for the abstinence is that "life is in the blood." The only direct teaching in the New Testament pertaining to blood ingestion is Acts 15: 29. Notice how naturally that this law seems to be applied in the circumstance of Acts 15 (I concede the influence of the Holy Spirit in this matter, v. 28). The astute Bible student must always notice the nature of the teaching residing in the Hebrew scriptures and then consider all that may be said in the New Testament on the subject (in case of specificity, is it congruous with what is taught in the New Testament?  Consider I Timothy 2: 9. Herein we find teaching pertaining to "decency" in attire. Exodus 28: 42 also contains teaching applicable to dress and decency. In the case of the Levitical Priests, their thighs were to be covered, down to their knees (Hebrew meaning). Must we avoid Exodus 28: 42 because it is "Old Testament" teaching and, therefore, inapplicable or should Exodus 28: 42 be allowed to augment such New Testament verses as I Timothy 2: 9? Even though Exodus 28: 42 pertains to a certain group that do not exist today (Mosaic Priests, cp. I Pet. 2: 5) and resides in the canopy of the Law of Moses, what is there in the decency instruction that would limit it in general for all people and all times?

     The Law of Moses has been abrogated and superseded. Less I be labeled as a false teacher who is, "…binding the Law of Moses unto salvation today," allow me to plainly say that the Law of Moses as a system has been abrogated and superseded.

     "14: Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; 15: And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it. 16: Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: 17: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ" (Col. 2).

     Moreover, there cannot be two current systems of salvation, salvation by perfect law keeping and salvation by grace: "6: And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work" (Rom. 11).

     In the case of Colossians 2: 14-17, it is noticeable to the serious Bible student that provided examples that help to define what Paul meant are types, shadows, and temporarily matters associated with the Law of Moses. However, even the moral laws found in the Hebrew scriptures underwent significant change (Rom. 7). I say this, first, because the climate in which these laws are seen in this dispensation (covenant of Jesus, Hebrews 7-10) is vastly superior, being the anti-type of the then type and, due to this, even the moral laws themselves take on fuller meaning. This is what Jesus meant when he said he was providing a "new commandment" (John 13: 34, 35). As seen, the Hebrew scriptures taught love for fellow-man and is observed as a moral law (Matt. 22: 39), but Jesus’ teaching provided the ultimate example of himself giving his life for all. Hence, in this new setting and with sublimated spiritual meaning, Jesus said it was a "new commandment." Even the moral codes or laws resident in the Law of Moses were viewed as limited, due to the legal climate in which they operated (Rom. 7). In this total sense, even they (moral laws) were "against us."

     In the matter of Romans 11: 6, the Law of Moses was a legal system that did not have any immediate provision of grace. Hence, to be justified by that system, the Jew had to sinlessly keep the Law, which no Jew ever did (Gal. 3, Jesus did flawlessly keep the law, Heb. 4: 15). In contrast, the gospel while having laws, is a system of grace (John 1: 17, Jas. 1: 25, Gal. 6: 2). Hence, again, all moral laws found in the Mosaic Code underwent "change" by virtue of the higher spiritual nature of the Covenant of Jesus Christ, a system established on better promises (Heb. 8: 6f.).

     We need to also realize, I might inject for further clarification, that the Law of Moses did not simply exist as a system of moral laws. Even many of the moral codes that were apparently universal were linked to facets of the system given by God to Israel (Deut. 5: 1, 3). For instance, the Law of Moses as a system included the Levitical Priesthood structure (core to the Law, Ex. 28); many food laws (Lev. 11, etc.); various offerings and taxation (Lev. 6); land or agrarian laws (Ex. 23, etc.); types and shadows (Ex. 20: 8, cp. Heb. 4: 1-9); and civil or theocratic legislation involving punitive provisions to be exercised by the government, Law of Moses (Ex. 22).

     Does all this "moral laws" concentration mean that there are laws making up the Law of Moses that were not "moral laws," as we have defined?  Yes!

     For instance, the Sabbath Day law was peculiar to Israel and is expressly shown as inapplicable to Christians today (Exodus 20: 8, compare Colossians 2: 14-17, Hebrews 4: 3-11, Sabbath law not bound before Exodus 20: 8, cp. ch. 16 and not binding today).

     In our study of moral law, let us take a closer, albeit brief look at some of the many laws comprising the Law of Moses. We shall consider the law, its nature and circumstance.

     Law regarding animal sacrifice (Ex. 20: 22-26).  Not a "moral law" in view of I Peter 2: 5, Rom. 12: 1, 2, Heb. 9: 24 - 10: 10.  Hence, "dispensational."

     Some laws are seen as axiomatic in view of the stated cause for their binding force (Gen. 9: 6, cp. Lev. 17: 13, 14, Acts 15: 29). Man is made in the image if God today and life remains in the blood, hence, the present need of capital punishment and abstinence from blood.

     Some laws appear stated in view of the then circumstance (Lev. 19: 27, Deut. 22: 11). Scholars believe that in some of the pagan nations, the men "rounded the corners of their beards" in honor of their pagan gods. Hence, the legislation regarding that the male Jew avoid such practices.

     Some laws manifestly humanitarian (Deut. 22: 4, 8, Ex. 23: 4, 5, cp. Matt. 7: 12). Why would the principles found in these laws not be generally applicable today?

     Some laws involved "ecology" (Deut. 22: 6, 7, cp. Deut. 22: 9). Ecology was a concept unknown to man until rather recently. Yet, what is there about these laws found in Hebrew scriptures to circumvent them to the Law of Moses in which they were originally stated?

     Some laws pertained to health (Ex. 22: 31). These laws are sound and are predicated on the premise of the potential presence of "germs," a medically concept not known by the means of man until not many decades ago.

     Some laws involved equitability (Ex. 22: 14, 15). While stated in an obvious climate and culture of agriculture, etc., why would this teaching not apply to how men treat one another today? Jesus’ "Golden Rule" is derived from, "…the law and the prophets? (Matt. 7: 12).

     Some laws peculiar and emblematic to the Nation of Israel (Lev. 19: 23-25). As one considers the teaching of Leviticus 19: 23 through 25, one sees instructions that would be peculiar to the Jews as a nation, under the government of the Law of Moses.

      Some laws theocratic (Ex. 22: 18, 19, 20). The gospel is designed to function outside of ruling government being a part of it. Hence, in matters of government, the second or third person is observed (Rom. 13: 1-7). Capital punishment was part of the Law of Moses, due to its essential theocratic and civil provisions and nature.

     Some Mosaic, theocratic laws with death penalty were not intrinsically binding, moral laws (Ex. 20: 8, Num. 15, Col. 2: 14-17). Hence, such laws were terminated or fulfilled in their anti-type (Heb. 4: 1-9).

     Some laws theocratic, are also seen as a moral law (Ex. 21: 22-25). The teaching found in Exodus 21: 22-25 regarding abortion certainly has application today. While there are features of this teaching that are Mosaic, the "judges," civil fines, capital punishment, the fact that the aborted child is considered a "human" and those who cause injury are to be commensurately punished, serve as vital and important teaching today in arriving at a proper position relative to abortion.

     Some laws pertained to a specific and limited practice, but contain appro- priateness and decency, hence, moral laws (Ex. 28: 42, I Tim. 2: 9). The mentality that, "covering the thigh down to the knee is Law of Moses teaching and to bind such today is to sinfully bind the Law of Moses" is shallow thinking in the extreme.

     To reiterate, moral law is a universal law that applies to all peoples and is without any dispensational, cultural, or time limitation.  It is right because it is right, intrinsically, axiomatically, inherently, and of a truth.  It may have attached to it a cultural, national, dispensational, or indigenous "add on," but the core moral law remains static (cp. Ex. 21: 22).

Teaching to consider:

"14: For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves" (Rom. 2).

     Moses Lard, one of the intellectual giants at the beginning of the Restoration Movement, wrote thus regarding Romans 2: 14:

     "…True, the deeds done were such as the law of Moses did require, provided the reference be to it; or such as the unrevealed law would have required, provided the reference be to it.  The reference, however, in tou nomou is to the law of Moses, while the ta ("deeds," dm) refers to the moral duties which it enjoined.. For example, they loved the truth and spoke it, they hated theft, adultery, and the like, and avoided them.  The reference in ta is to such things as these" (A Commentary on Romans, pg. 87, Moses Lard, Romans 2: 14, see Romans 2: 21, 22).

     These Gentiles to whom allusion is made by Paul, while not formally under and a part of the system of the Law of Moses were still held accountable to moral law. This is because moral law is not limited to any peoples, time, culture, or circumstance.

     While there is effort required to ascertain the nature of a particular law and an admitted danger when we are considering a teaching found in the Hebrew scriptures binding today, we must not discount law or teaching that is of a truth, indigenous. As far as this is concerned, the student of the Bible must employ judgment as to what teaching in the New Testament is universally binding and what may constitute "add on" that may not be binding, having peculiar and limited application (cp. I Cor. 11: 3-16).

     What lessons and truths can be drawn from this study of moral law?  First, I believe we have established the concept of moral law. God's moral laws must be determined by a careful study of the law itself (nature and circumstance), and how impacted by the New Testament.  Moral laws are indigenously right; therefore, static and not subject to dissolution, as such.  Even axiomatic laws such as "thou shalt not kill" (Ex. 20: 13), are observed in the New Testament in a spiritually elevated climate, having greater consequences in terms of disobedience (Heb. 10: 26f.). The Law of Moses as a system was superseded by the covenant of Christ. The position, "We cannot use a Hebrew scripture teaching unless it is in the New Testament" is simplistic.   There can be and are "add on" teachings attached to a moral enunciation that must be separately considered, but such do not negate or obviate the core moral law (Ex. 21: 21-25).  Less a faulty conclusion be drawn, "moral laws" alone do not equate to salvation. Man must believe and accept (obey) the gospel of Jesus Christ and conform to its teaching (Rom. 1: 16, 17, ch. 10: 16, Acts 10). I shall close this treatment of moral law with a passage that is seldom considered in its totality, 2 Timothy 3: 15-17. Please observe that the "scriptures" that can make one "wise unto salvation," the scriptures to which Paul alludes, are the Hebrews scriptures (universal truths):

     "15: And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16: All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: 17: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works" (the "all scripture" obviously refers to Genesis through Revelation, understanding that they must be "handled aright," 2 Tim. 2: 15, cp. Rom. 15: 4).

     Addendum: It is, indeed, simplistic to contend that Acts 2 through Revelation 22 constitute the today binding teaching of God on all men and everything anterior to Acts 2 is the antiquated and inapplicable Law of Moses. The most famous and spiritually affluent three chapters found in the Bible are Matthew five, six, and seven, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Yet, according to the immediately above rationale, this sermon must be relegated to out-of-date teaching. Upon casual examination, though, it is apparent that this sermon contains many truths such as we are calling moral laws, teaching that knows no restriction. Jesus’ teaching, for instance, on divorce and marriage to another, based on fornication, cannot be duplicated in detail in Acts 2 through Revelation 22 (Matt. 5: 31, 32, 19: 9). Are we, therefore, expected to reject Jesus’ sermon and this specific teaching? Such teaching has all of the requisite vestiges of teaching that is axiomatically true and meant to be universally applied (see Matt. 19: 4f. and, "The Sermon on the Mount").