Understanding the 3 Types of Laws in the Old Testament

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A theology divides God’s laws into three parts: Moral, civil, and ceremonial, and it’s said only the moral laws focused around the Ten Commandments remain in effect for Christians today. Here’s what you should know.

3 types of laws found in the Old Testament

Many people do not realize the laws in the Old Testament of the Bible have different intentions and purposes and, therefore, can be divided into three different categories.

According to the Christian Institute, traditional reformed theology divides God’s laws into three parts: Moral, civil (or judicial), and ceremonial.

The biblical laws are found in the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Exodus.

These laws are often referred to as Mosaic Law, named after the biblical figure of Moses who delivered them. According to Bible Gateway, there are over 600 regulations Moses passed on to people in the aforementioned books.

Not all laws apply to Christians today

According to this view of three types of laws, you might also be surprised to learn that not all Old Testament laws apply to Christians today. Ceremonial and civil were only applicable to the Israelites.

Today, Christians are only expected to observe moral laws from the Old Testament.

Overview of the 3 different types of laws in the Old Testament

According to the Christian view, as influenced by the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), traditional reformed theology divides the Mosaic laws into moral, civil, and ceremonial laws.

Moral laws

Moral laws or principles are the major laws found in the Ten Commandments and more. These are still binding today for Jews and Christians.

Moral laws had to do with “our perpetual duties towards God and our neighbors,” wrote the successor to John Calvin, Francis Turretin, in the middle years of the 17 century.

Civil laws

These were directed at daily living for the Israelites. These laws regulated things such as marriage, divorce, property rights, contracts, negligence resulting in death, property damage, defamation (including libel and slander), etc. They are a guide for proper conduct, according to Trusting in Jesus. These were laws for the Israelites and are not binding for Christians today.

These civil laws were only a model of legal arrangements for any society but were only for the duration of the Old Testament, obsolete after Christ came. According to the Christian Institute, the laws were also not intended to be a status demanding exact replication.

And of course, today, every society and its governments, states, communities, and municipalities have their various civil laws that transcend religion and which citizens must follow.

Ceremonial laws

These laws are related to how the Israelites worshiped God. They define rituals, festivals, and more. Many of these had to do with avoiding becoming “unclean,” either through contact with a dead body, blood or consuming certain types of food. They still apply to the religion of Judaism today. They do not apply to Christians.

“From Calvin’s perspective…the law reveals to us what is pleasing to God,” writes R.C. Sproul. “Technically speaking, Christians are not under the old covenant and its stipulations. Yet, at the same time, we are called to imitate Christ and to live as people who seek to please the living God.”

Bible scholar and ancient languages expert Dr. Michael Heiser addresses the topic in a YouTube video, where he references examples from Leviticus 19:26-29 and Leviticus 21.

“The practices listed are all associated in some way with religious practices practiced by pagans,” Dr. Heiser says, referencing a reading of “the context was…We don’t do this as a follower of Yahweh [God]…[or] as a priest of Yahweh.”

Heiser wants us to notice that this group of rules and comments all “have a religious flavor and context for these laws.” These were viewed as things other civilizations did, but not the Israelites, people who were loyal to God.