Tag Archives: theological distinctions

We Distinguish…(Part 6) — Moral/Ceremonial/Civil


In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

The Internet can be one of the most frustrating places to witness someone trying to discredit the Christian faith. It’s so frustrating because it’s almost impossible to have a civil and reasonable exchange. One of the most common tactics has to do with our Christian opposition to same-sex “marriage.” Somewhere online a Christian will mention the Bible texts that condemn homosexual lusts and behaviour. Not long afterwards, the unbeliever comes along and asks the Christian whether he eats shellfish or wears a garment made of two kinds of material. Because, after all, the Bible speaks against these things too! So obviously the Christian is inconsistent – he says he believes what the Bible says, but he only picks and chooses what he’s going to obey. Gotcha!

The unbeliever doesn’t understand the Bible. He may know a few Bible texts, but he probably doesn’t understand how they work together. Many non-Christians think that all biblical commands should be equally applicable. If you’re going to forbid homosexuality, you must also forbid eating bacon. The Bible speaks against both and that settles it.

What the unbeliever doesn’t understand, and what every believer must understand, is a basic distinction between three different types of laws in the Bible. The moral law is God’s permanent will for humanity and it’s summarized in the Ten Commandments. The ceremonial law was God’s will for Old Testament Israel and it partly involved various forms of worship, including the sacrificial system which pointed ahead to Christ. It also included the laws of clean and unclean and more. Under the New Testament, all the ceremonial law has been set aside – fulfilled in Christ, it is not binding on Christians. The civil law was God’s will for the Old Testament nation of Israel. It was largely the application of the moral law to Israel’s particular civil context. While there may be and often are lessons to be learned from the civil law, it too is no longer binding upon Christians as it was upon the Jews in the Old Testament.

So to go back to our example above, the unbeliever equates laws concerning shellfish and garments with what God says about homosexuality. From a Christian perspective, what he is doing is confusing the ceremonial law with the moral law. Christians regard the laws about clean and unclean as part of the ceremonial law – in fact, in Mark 7:19 we read that Jesus explicitly set these laws aside. The Seventh Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” has not been set aside – it is part of God’s moral law. This commandment not only forbids the breaking of one’s marriage vows, but all unchastity, indeed, all forms of sin which undermine God’s good original plan for men and women. Homosexual lusts and behaviours therefore fall under the moral law. No one should be surprised that both the Old and New Testament condemn these things equally (see, for example, Leviticus 19:22, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Cor.6:9-10, Jude 7). This is part of God’s permanent and abiding moral law.

In previous installments of this series, we’ve looked at other distinctions involving the law: specifically, law/gospel (see here) and active/passive obedience (see here). When we speak about the law in those contexts (under the rubric of justification), we’re always speaking about the moral law. So, the law/gospel distinction reminds us that we cannot earn our salvation through our obedience to the moral law. The distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience reminds us that he has earned righteousness for us through his obedience to the moral law. Things would become very messy theologically, even dangerously messy, if we were to substitute one of the other categories. Therefore, this distinction is important not only for our discussions with unbelievers, but also for properly understanding how key parts of our salvation fit together.

This distinction between moral/ceremonial/civil law is clearly made in the Westminster Confession, chapter 19. It can also be found, albeit not quite as obviously, in article 25 of the Belgic Confession: “We believe that the ceremonies and symbols of the law have ceased with the coming of Christ, and that all shadows have been fulfilled, so that the use of them ought to be abolished among Christians.” Ceremonies are clearly identified here, but civil laws of the Old Testament appear under the less technical terms, “symbols” and “shadows.” Article 25 has always been understood to teach and affirm this distinction. It is a distinction with a long historical pedigree. The Reformation did not discover it, rather it was first articulated in the early church, and then later reaffirmed by theologians in the Middle Ages. Reformed theologians simply restated what had already been correctly formulated – this distinction provides a good example where there was no need for reform. This part of the Christian tradition is solidly biblical.

There is far more that could be said about this distinction. I could elaborate on several points, but my goal here is to keep things as short and simple as possible. The Bible includes many commands from Genesis to Revelation. I simply want you to understand that not all these commands apply to us in the same way they applied to their first readers. Good students of the Bible recognize this and use the above distinction to properly understand the Word of God, defend it, and live according to it.

We Distinguish…(Part 5) — Active/Passive Obedience


In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

On the first of January, 1937, a dying J. Gresham Machen mustered up the strength to send one last telegram to his friend John Murray: “I’m so thankful for active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” One of the founding fathers of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church made a point of stressing Christ’s active obedience in his last hours on this earth. It would be, however, a grave mistake to assume that this doctrine is uniquely Presbyterian. Not only is it found in the Three Forms of Unity, it’s also shared with confessional Lutherans (as I’ve demonstrated here).

We speak of a distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience. We need to carefully define the terms, because they have sometimes been misunderstood as opposites. In normal English conversation, “active” and “passive” usually are opposites. “Passive” is typically denotes inactivity. However, in the context of Reformed theology, the word “passive” is derived from the Latin passio and it refers to Christ’s suffering – something in which he was definitely not inactive. Passive obedience, therefore, refers to Christ’s obedience in suffering the wrath of God against our sins. Christ’s active obedience speaks of his obeying the law of God perfectly in our place throughout his life – an active, positive righteousness that is imputed or accounted to believers. In Christ’s passive obedience we have the payment demanded so that our sins can be fully forgiven. In his active obedience we have the perfect conformity to God’s law demanded of all human beings. These must be taken together, and when they are, they form the basis of our justification (our being declared right with God as Judge).

This distinction is valuable because it points up how good the good news really is. We are not just promised forgiveness in Christ. In our Saviour, we are promised and given perfect righteousness in the sight of God. As God looks at us in Jesus Christ, he sees people who have been perfectly and consistently obedient to his law. Because of Christ’s active obedience imputed to us, God sees us as flawlessly obeying him not just in the externals, but also 100% from and in the heart.

When it comes to biblical support, there’s really no debating the passive obedience of Christ. The Bible is clear that he suffered in obedience to God’s will so that we can be forgiven all our trespasses (e.g. Hebrews 2:10-18). But what about the active obedience of Christ?   According to Romans 2:13, “doers of the law will be justified.” Galatians 3:10 reminds us that if you do not do everything written in the law, you are under a curse. God demands perfect obedience to his moral law. Romans 5 is one of the clearest places speaking to the fulfillment of this demand in Christ. There Adam and Jesus are contrasted in their disobedience and obedience. Says the Holy Spirit in Rom. 5:19, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” The “one man’s obedience” there refers to Christ’s work on our behalf, including and especially his obedience to all of God’s law. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 reminds us, all our sins were imputed to Christ, and all his righteousness is imputed to us.

Since it’s found in Scripture, it’s no surprise to find it in the Three Forms of Unity. For example, it’s implied in chapter 2 of the Canons of Dort, in the Rejection of Errors #4. The Arminians taught that God had “revoked the demand of perfect obedience to the law.” The Synod of Dort said that this contradicted the Bible and was part of “a new and strange justification of man before God.” At the bare minimum, the Canons of Dort maintain that God still does demand perfect obedience to his law. However, the Canons do not explicitly say how this demand is to be met.

But that is not to say that the Synod of Dort ignored this issue. Far from it! In fact, the denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ was an issue amongst the Reformed churches of that period. As a result, the Synod of Dort edited article 22 of the Belgic Confession on this point to clarify that Christ’s active obedience is essential to Reformed orthodoxy. The revised article 22 reads (the underlined words were added by Dort): [God] “imputes to us all [Christ’s] merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.” This result brought the Dutch Reformed churches into line with the English and the French – they had also previously ruled that Christ’s active obedience was a non-negotiable point of Reformed doctrine. Later, in 1693, the Walcheren Articles appeared in the Netherlands and these were even more resolute on this question. Denying the imputation of the active obedience of Christ is not an option for Reformed confessors.

Unfortunately, in our day there have been some who have either denied or minimized this point of doctrine. I’m thinking especially of some figures associated with the Federal Vision movement. I’ve briefly addressed their teachings in a booklet (which you can find here). Suffice it to say that attempting to sideline this doctrine: 1) requires a dishonest handling of the Reformed confessions, 2) requires a reconfiguration of the biblical doctrine of justification, and 3) robs Reformed believers of comfort, joy, and strength in Christ.  This is not making a mountain out of a doctrinal molehill.

For those who would like to read more on this important topic, Dr. N. H. Gootjes has an excellent essay entitled “Christ’s Obedience and Covenant Obedience.” It’s in chapter 4 of his book Teaching and Preaching the Word. I also have a copy available online here.


We Distinguish…(Part 4) — Law/Gospel


In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

Despite being found in the Three Forms of Unity, today’s distinction has fallen on hard times. I have lost track of the number of times that I’ve heard Reformed ministers speak disparagingly of the distinction between law and gospel. I think I understand why it happens. Imagine if someone were to say, “Oh, covenant theology makes people into legalists. It’s good that we’ve broken free from the doctrine of the covenant. That doctrine has caused nothing but trouble – it just makes people self-righteous.” It’s true that the doctrine of the covenant has been abused by some and badly taught/misunderstood by others to such an extent that it became a legalistic undermining of the gospel. So do we throw out the doctrine of the covenant? We recognize that there’s a difference between the abuse/bad teaching of a doctrine and an orthodox biblical formulation of a doctrine. We don’t throw out a doctrine simply because it has been mishandled. Similarly, the distinction between law and gospel has sometimes been mishandled or misunderstood. Does that automatically mean we toss it aside? What if there were grave consequences in doing so?

At the outset the context in which this distinction functions has to be laid out. We distinguish between law and gospel in the realm of justification. Justification, if you recall, is God’s one-time declaration that we are right with him solely on account of the merits of Jesus Christ. How law and gospel relate to this doctrine is what we’re concerned with here. When it comes to sanctification (the process of growth in holiness), there is overlap and interplay between law and gospel, but when it comes to justification, they must be distinguished.

Let me illustrate how the law/gospel distinction appears in the Heidelberg Catechism. I could mention the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort as well, but in the interests of brevity, we’ll just stick with the Catechism. In Lord’s Day 2, we confess that the law of God reveals our sin and misery. The law evidently has the character of demand: God orders you to do this or else. Through its demands, the law drives us to Christ. From where do we learn about the Saviour? Lord’s Day 6 tells us the biblical answer: from the gospel. Everything promised us in the gospel is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed, says Lord’s Day 7. There we discover the character of the gospel: it promises us glad tidings and rich blessings. So between Lord’s Day 2 and Lord’s Days 6 and 7, we learn the different characteristics of law and gospel. The law is God’s demand and the gospel is God’s promise for our salvation. Should there be any doubt that this is the intention and meaning of the Catechism, I would refer readers to Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (page 2), and Olevianus’ A Firm Foundation (pages 9-10).

As mentioned at the beginning, this distinction functions within the context of justification. Sinners are facing the judge. They are accused of failing to meet God’s demands – breaking his law. In the context of justification, the law points out not merely empty hands, but treasonous hands. In the words of the Catechism in Lord’s Day 23, the sinner has “grievously sinned against all of God’s commandments, has never kept any of them, and is still inclined to all evil.” That’s what the law announces in the context of justification: you are guilty and you have nothing with which to save yourself from the Judge.

The gospel throws endangered sinners a lifeline. There is a way to leave the courtroom without the Judge as your enemy – in fact, you can leave the courtroom with the Judge as your Father. That way is through what the gospel promises in Jesus Christ. The gospel holds out to you reconciliation with the Holy Judge, if only you will take hold of Jesus Christ by faith and trust that he has lived a perfect life for you and has offered the perfect sacrifice in your place. The gospel promises peace and fellowship with God. You don’t need to work for it, all you need to do is turn from your sins, look to Christ, and accept the promise. That’s what the gospel announces in the context of justification: in Christ you have everything you need to be declared right with God.

By now perhaps you can sense the danger in fudging with this distinction. The law/gospel distinction in justification insists that in ourselves we bring nothing to our salvation except the sin which makes it necessary. On the flip side, it insists that in Christ we have everything we need for our salvation. How could any Bible-believing Christian deny this? Isn’t this exactly the point Paul was making in Galatians 3:11, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Faith in the gospel promises is God’s instrument for justification. The law, on the other hand, says, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them” (Gal. 3:10). If you rely on the law and your obedience to it for your justification, then you are self-deceived and damned. Paul works with a distinction between law and gospel – so our Catechism didn’t invent this distinction, it was drawn from Scripture.

Allow me to add two important clarifications.

First, no one should understand the law/gospel distinction as pitting the Old Testament against the New Testament. The law is found in both in Old and New Testament, and so is the gospel. Law demands and gospel promises are together found throughout the 66 books of the Bible.

Second, the law/gospel distinction, properly understood, does not lead Reformed believers to antinomianism – having a negative attitude towards the law of God. Remember, the law has three uses. The first use pertains to justification – pointing out our sin and misery. The second use is for civil society. The third use of the law is as our rule of thankfulness. Maintaining a law/gospel distinction in justification does not mean that we throw out the law for our sanctification. No! Quite the opposite. As thankful believers united to Christ, we embrace the law as our friend and we sing with the Psalmist in Psalm 119 of how we love God’s law and strive to follow it.

The law/gospel distinction is crucially important because it appears at the roots of our salvation. If the roots are not healthy, then the tree is not going to be healthy either, and any possibility of real fruit may also come into question. We have to strive for precision, especially in foundational doctrines like justification. No, we are not saved by doctrinal precision. Someone could be confused on this, unable to express it properly, and still be saved. Nevertheless, the danger of trusting in yourself and what you do instead of Christ is far greater if you do not understand this distinction. We must always have it clear in minds the very last words Martin Luther supposedly uttered: “We are beggars. This is true.” The law/gospel distinction reinforces this biblical truth.

We Distinguish…(Part 1) — A Brief Defense of Distinctions

Clay and Potter

I will never forget my first sermon proposal at seminary. I was in my second year and petrified of the outcome. Our homiletics professor had a reputation for brutal sermon critiques. The students in the other years comforted me with the fact that no one did well: “If you get a 72%, that’s basically as good as anyone has ever gotten. Most of us score in the mid-60s. No one ever scores lower than 60.” That only made me feel more rotten when I got my mark and it just scraped past 50%! The sermon proposal was a mess. I soon learned why. The fundamental problem was that I missed an important theological distinction in the background of the text. By missing that distinction, everything else went off the rails in the sermon. This was when I learned that the medieval theologians were right when they said that the one who would teach well must learn to distinguish well.

Good distinctions are at the heart of sound theology. Moreover, as has often been pointed out, all Christians are theologians. No, not in the sense of academics who study and teach full time, but in the sense of reflecting on God and his Word (see, I just made a distinction!). Since we should all be striving to be better theologians, we also all need to learn to make good distinctions. In this series of blog posts, I want to lay out several important Reformed theological distinctions.

Before we get to those, however, it would be good to comment a bit further on the importance of theological distinctions.

The Biblical Basis for Making Distinctions

Not surprisingly, distinctions are found throughout the Bible. Let me just mention three examples. In Psalm 1, two men are distinguished from one another. One is like a tree planted by streams of water, the other is like chaff in the wind. In Mark 4, our Saviour tells the parable of the sower. In that parable, Jesus distinguishes between four different types of soil. This represents a distinction between four types of people who hear the gospel. Finally, in James 1, the apostle distinguishes between those who merely listen to the Word and those who both listen to the Word and do what it says.

It’s not surprising that distinctions are found in Scripture because distinctions are foundational to human communication and existence. No one can function in this world apart from distinctions. For instance, if you don’t distinguish yourself as separate from the people around you, you’ll soon find yourself facing squinty-eyed looks from other folks. As another example, if you can’t distinguish between past, present, and future tense in your speaking, it will definitely hinder your communication abilities. To be human is to distinguish.

The Necessity for Making Sound Distinctions

History has proven that sound distinctions are necessary in theology. While the doctrine of the Trinity was revealed in Scripture, it took the early church several years to make the distinctions necessary to properly describe and defend this doctrine. So, for instance, the Athanasian Creed distinguishes between the persons and the substance of the Triune God. If one doesn’t uphold such a time-tested distinction, one always runs the risk of repeating the mistakes of the past, if not the outright heresies.

To take another example, Scripture teaches us to distinguish between the Creator and the creature (Isaiah 29:16 and other places). If we fail to make a fundamental distinction like that, it has enormous consequences. You run the risk of becoming an idolater. You need to make sound distinctions in theology such as that between the Creator and the creature.

The Obligation to Make Biblical Distinctions

 When we make distinctions in theology, they must be biblical distinctions. By “biblical,” I mean that they must be defensible from Scripture. Some Reformed theological distinctions are obviously and explicitly taught in certain passages. Other distinctions are derived from a number of passages or the teaching of Scripture taken as a whole. It is not necessarily the case that you have to be able to point to one specific Bible passage as a “proof-text” for a particular distinction. The important thing is that our distinctions are based on or deducted from Scripture.

In the history of theology, not all distinctions have been biblically defensible. As a classic example, when it came to worship, the medieval Catholic church distinguished between latria, doulia, and hyper-doulia. They recognized and acknowledged the First Commandment – worship God alone. But they said that was only speaking of latria, worship properly understood. There is another type of worship which we can also offer to saints: doulia, which is honour. There is also another type of worship which we offer to Mary the Mother of God, hyper-doulia or veneration.   However, Reformers like John Calvin pointed out that this distinction was biblically indefensible. The Reformers had a name for this type of distinguishing: sophistry. Sophistry is using clever arguments to rationalize something that can’t properly be defended. Rather than that, we want our distinctions to be biblically grounded – indeed, they must be.


If you were to survey Reformed theology textbooks (like Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology), you would find theological distinctions absolutely everywhere. They’re also throughout the Three Forms of Unity – in Lord’s Day 13, for example, the eternal natural Son of God is distinguished from the children of God by adoption. To be faithful and true in our understanding of who God is and what he has done, is doing, and will do, all believers need to make sound distinctions. Over the next while, we’ll explore some of those together and see if we can sharpen our theology.