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Ask the Pastor: On Christ and the Law

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Question:

Dear Pastor Josh, 

In your Sunday School class, Christ in the Commandments, you used the word "abrogate" in regard to Christ and the law. I've always thought of what Christ did in regard to the law as fulfilling the law, not abrogating or voiding the law. Did Christ have to fulfill the ceremonial law, or did his obedience to the moral law void the need for the ceremonial law?

Answer:

The word abrogate is not in the Bible.  It is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith in 19.3:

..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 are now abrogated, under the New Testament.

In this last line, the Westminster assembly tried to capture the spirit of several passages in the New Testament that demonstrate that the ceremonial laws are no longer binding on the church. 

Colossians 2:16-17 "Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.  These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ."   These ordinances namely food laws, festivals, etc. were mere shadows that pointed to Christ.  They have no power in judgment on the present believer.  We are morally free to not observe them because Jesus fulfilled them perfectly.  They were ceremonial laws. 

Ephesians 2:14-16 "For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility."  The Greek word for "abolished" here means to "do away...destroy...put an end to."  Which law was abolished?  The law expressed in ordinances.  This most certainly refers to the ceremonial law, for we know that Jesus taught that the moral law has not been put an end to (cf. Matthew 22:36-40).

So the Westminster assembly used the word abrogate (repeal, annul, abolish) in order to try and capture what these and other passages meant when they speak about the ceremonial law not merely in terms of fulfillment but also being done away.

There is a big difference between fulfill and abrogate.  Fulfill (cf. Matthew 5:17-19) means to accomplish or to do.  Jesus fulfilled the entire three fold law: 1) He fulfilled the sacrifices and rituals of the ceremonial law (because they all pointed to Him); 2) He fulfilled the penalty of the judicial law (because He was perfectly punished on our behalf); and 3) He fulfilled the perfect righteousness and holiness of the moral law (because He obeyed it perfectly). So all three classes of laws: the ceremonial, judicial and moral laws, were all fulfilled by Christ. 

The difference is that the ceremonial laws and the judicial laws were abrogated while the moral law was not abrogated.  The former were not abrogated because there was anything wrong with them or because God changed His mind, but rather they had a specific design.  The ceremonial law was never meant to be binding on all of God's people for all time.  The ceremonial law was a teacher that instructed the ancient church what the Messiah would "look" like.  The apostle says, "So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian," (Galatians 3:24-25). Meaning God intended for the ceremonial law to come to an end when Christ came.  That was its design from the beginning.  The judicial laws, although different in nature, also came to an end when the theocracy ended in Israel. They served as Israel's political laws while they existed in that particular state.  Those political laws can still be used where there is a common "general equity" (cf. WCF 19.4), but what is expressly required for the Christian is to submit to our own nation's laws (2 Peter 2:12-13) 

The Ceremonial Law:  Jesus both fulfilled and abrogated.
The Judicial Law:  Jesus both fulfilled and abrogated.
The Moral Law:  Jesus fulfilled but did not abrogate.

The moral law is in a different class altogether.   The moral law reflects God's character.  Jesus did fulfill the moral law perfectly on our behalf.  But the moral law can never be abrogated because to do so would be to violate God's own nature.  God must uphold the laws to love Him and honor His name. He must refuse us permission to serve other gods, to disobey Him, to believe lies about Him etc.  As Francis Turretin says, if God were to abrogate the moral law then  “..the most horrible sins (hatred of God, atheism, blasphemy and the like) would become praiseworthy for…[they] would be changed and they would no longer be sins.”

*This question and answer session was from the Sunday School class, Christ in the Commandments, Week 2, which you can find HERE.*

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