Divisions of The Law

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series The Law and The Believer

Divisions of The Law

Being that it is impossible for modern day believers to adhere to certain parts of the law, such as the legal portions, which cannot be enforced, then if one attempts to render the law operational today, one must divide the law into the part(s) which are obeyed by believers and the part(s) which are not.

The Ten Commandment Division

Some have concluded that only the ten commandments are to be upheld by believers today, while the other 603 commands of the law are canceled by the rule of Grace through faith.

There are at least two difficult issues with this position, however.

First, there is the issue of scriptural authority.  New Testament believers do not simply “decide” a practice and call it biblical.  For a practice to be “biblical,” it must be prescribed by the Bible as a practice.  No biblical text defines the practice of keeping the ten commandments while omitting the other 603 commands of the Law.

Second, there is an issue of the fourth commandment; to honor the Sabbath. 

Exodus 20:10 (NIV)
10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.

Very few modern Christians practice the fourth commandment.  One issue with the fourth commandment, is that the modern day “convocation to the Lord” is held on Sundays, rather than Saturdays (the Jewish Sabbath) for most.  As this practice was begun by the early church, and is recorded in scripture, some accept this Sabbath “switch” to Sunday without issue.  Yet, the biblical practice of honoring the Sabbath is more than which day of the week one worships on.  It is also to be a day of rest, with a prohibition of work. 

God defines the practice of a Sabbath in Exodus 16:23

Exodus 16:23 (NIV)
23 He said to them, “This is what the Lord commanded: ‘Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.'”

A holy Sabbath to the Lord was a day of complete rest.  This rest was so thorough that one could not even cook.  Perhaps some believers today choose not to cook on the Sabbath, but as a normative practice, abstention from cooking has never been creedalized in any modern Christian group to the author’s knowledge.  What’s more, for most, whether they cook or not, the Sabbath is not a day of rest.  Some work in the yard.  Some play tag football.  Some go to the golf course or gym to work up a sweat.  Customary modern practice has no similarity in appearance to the biblical practice of Sabbath rest, where one does not even leave their home but for so many steps.

Clearly the Sabbath is another issue with the Ten Commandment theory of Law division.


Divisional Theory

Some theorize that the law is divided into several categories; usually three.  Once categorized, the assertion is that only certain “categories” of the complete law are subject to obedience by modern believers.

The three usual categories are:

  • The Ceremonial Commandments
    • These include those commandments instructing Israel to observe various ceremonial activities, such as Passover, The Day of Atonement, New Moon celebrations, etc.
    • Also included would be those commandments given which indicate ceremonial cleanliness, such as an “unclean” period after touching a dead body or helping the sick during which one is to have no contact with others.
    • Other various ceremonial commands would fit into this category, theoretically, as well; each of which has to do with observances- either in celebration or abstention – of various practices relating to ceremonial cleanliness.
  • The Legal Commandments
    • This category includes those commandments which specify the legal practice of the Jewish nation, such as the prescription of penalties for various crimes.
    • Also, of course, are those commandments which specify sociological actions which should be rendered illegal- such as the taking of another’s property by coercion, or stated another way, the very definition of what is illegal.
  • The Moral Commandments
    • This category would include those commandments which teach what is right and what is wrong, such as not stealing, not coveting, or not participating in idolatry.  While it is difficult to disassociate some of these moral commandments from legal commandments, that line has been devised, none-the-less.

Most who attempt to use divisional theory of the law to explain how we observe the law today believe that we are currently bound to the moral commandments, but not to the legal or ceremonial commandments of the law.

In practice, the divisional theory does at least uphold the understanding of the law as a picture of God’s righteousness.  It comes dangerously close to being biblically feasible, though not biblically inspired.  Yet, there are problems even with this theory; primarily scriptural teaching concerning the unity of the law, which is unwavering.


The Unity of The Law

In the Old Testament, when the law is referenced it is frequently referenced with the Hebrew term, Torah.  Throughout the Old Testament, the Torah is always listed singularly in tense and purpose.  It is never broken into categories.

Numbers 19:2 (NIV)
2 “This is a requirement of the law
(Torah) that the Lord has commanded: Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke.

Deuteronomy 31:9 (NIV)
9 So Moses wrote down this law
(Torah) and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel.

While categorizing the law is a valid and useful practice for theological study, such categorizations are humanly produced and uninspired biblically.  It is both helpful and memorable to categorize the law into categories of legal, ceremonial and moral categories for purposes of study.  Yet, the Bible itself never makes such distinctions, which limits such distinctions to categorical study rather than to biblical practice.  To that end, using theological categories to define one’s faith is tantamount to worshipping the theologian who created the memorable division rather than the God who created the actual whole.

Even though there are 613 commands of Moses, the Old Testament – in every case – refers to the Torah in the singular.  When the law is referred to, it is referred to as “the” law; “one” law, comprised of 613 commandments.

In the New Testament, the law of Moses is rendered with the Greek term nomos.  Similarly, nomos is always used singularly as well. 

Matthew 5:17 (NIV)
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Matthew 12:5 (NIV)
5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent?

Here, Jesus references a specific point of the law, yet notes the compilation containing the point singularly: “haven’t you read in the Law….”

The strongest case, however, for a singular law is found in the book of James.

James 2:10 (NIV)
10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.

In this text, James states that whoever keeps the “whole law” (holos nomos in Gk.) but fails on just one point is guilty of breaking all of the law – because of that one broken point.  

James uses several key terms which overcompensate his position.  He then does not divide the law, but instead uses the phrase “stumbles at just one point” to establish the law as a unified whole, though it consists of many points.  James’ clear contention is that the law is completely broken (“all of it”) by the failure of just one element of it.

The law perhaps could be viewed in light of James’ comment as a huge house made of cards.  As a whole, the house stands up.  But, if only one card is moved the entire structure fails.

James removes any doubt as to the law being one unified set.  He is clearly indicating that all 613 points make up one unified whole, which is easily broken.

In conclusion, there is no biblical allowance for a divisional approach to obeying the law.  There is no biblical model of such a division, and worse, the Bible stipulates clearly that the law cannot be divided.  It is a wholly unified entity.

The Law is one.

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