The Threefold Division of the Law
By Nicholas J. Mattei
The doctrine of the threefold division of the law is central to a correct understanding of theology proper, protology, ethics, and soteriology. The threefold division of the law was, for most of church history, an agreed upon doctrine, as Phillip Ross points out, “Not uniquely Eastern or Western; Roman Catholic or Protestant; conservative or liberal; Patristic or Puritan; Thomist, Calvinist, or anything else; the threefold division of the law is catholic doctrine.” However, today, it is a highly questioned and debated doctrine among modern Christians. The threefold division of the law is, in fact, biblical and it needs to be reaffirmed and reasserted.
The doctrine of the threefold division of the law teaches that God’s law, as revealed and given to the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai, can be and should be divided into three elements. These are the moral law, ceremonial law and judicial law. Within this doctrine it is further taught that the moral law, as revealed in the Ten Commandments, is perpetually binding and it existed before Sinai and continues to be the ethical standard for all people, including Christians. Our study, therefore, will begin not in the book of Exodus at Mount Sinai, but in the book of Genesis at the creation of the world.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen.1:1). Before anything in our cosmos existed, before time and space, God was. He creates the world and all that is in it in six days for His glory. As the apex of His creation, God creates Man on day six. “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created Him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:26-27). Commenting on this verse Richard Barcellos states that, “In this text, whatever ‘image of God’ means, it is what man is, not what man possesses.” So what does it mean to be created in the image of God? Subsequent divine revelation on this topic will be of much help. Ecclesiastes 7:29 says, “Behold, I have found only this, that God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices.” This is helpful as it shows that, “Man was originally holy. He had integrity of soul. He was righteous… Creation imago Dei included moral integrity.” So, Man is created morally perfect but to what standard of morality? Again, further subsequent divine revelation will be of aid in answering this question. Romans 2:14-15 says, “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.” God’s law is the standard. This is where the terms “moral law,” “natural law” and “positive law” become crucial in our discussion on this topic.
The moral law of God is “God’s bedrock standard of morality and holiness, that is a reflection of his moral character, therefore unchanging.” As Herman Bavinck has said,
The moral law as such is not an arbitrary positive law but law grounded in the nature of God himself…In maintaining the law, God maintains himself and vice versa. It is therefore unbreakable and inviolable. It bears this character throughout the Scriptures; our Own conscience bears witness to it; and the entire so-called moral world order, with its phenomena of responsibility, sense of duty, guilt, repentance, dread, remorse, punishment, and so on, is based on this inviolability.
God’s moral law is a reflection of His character and we as humans, created in his image, are to live in accordance to that. This is where natural law comes in and it is defined as, “In substance the same as the Moral Law of God, but specifically refers to the work of God’s moral law impressed upon the heart of mankind, and is related to his being made in God’s image.” Finally, the last definition to consider is that of positive law. Positive law is “laws that God adds, out of His own free will, that aren’t inherently good or evil, and tied to a specific covenant.” We see all of these laws playing out in the first few chapters of Genesis. The infinite triune personal God creates the universe in six days and rests on the seventh day and blesses and sanctifies it. He also writes His perfect moral law on the heart of His human image bearer and then places him in the Garden of Eden and gives him a positive law to obey on top of the natural law. This positive law was the command found in Genesis 2:16-17 which says, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” When Adam disobeys God and eats of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, not only does he disobey God’s positive law but also his moral law.
As we will see, this moral law is summed up in the Ten Commandments given at Mount Sinai and each one of them was broken in the fall as Adam transgressed and ate the fruit. The 1st commandment was broken in the eating of the fruit because Adam was unbelieving and self-seeking. The 2nd was broken because he tolerated false religion coming from the serpent. The 3rd was broken because Adam did not reverently uphold God’s words. The 4th was broken because his violation kept him from entering his eternal Sabbath rest. The 5th was broken because Adam dishonored God his Father. The 6th was broken because he caused the curse of death to fall upon himself and his wife and all those who would come after him. The 7th was broken because he did not protect his marriage from harm and was spiritually adulterous towards God. The 8th was broken because he permitted his wife to steal the fruit. The 9th was broken when he failed to speak the truth about God when God’s goodness was questioned. The 10th was broken when he coveted the fruit. Even after the Fall, we see the Ten Commandments repeated or broken and judged in some way even before Mount Sinai. The 1st (Gen. 15:7, Gn. 17:1, Ex. 3:6) the 2nd (Gen. 35:2,4, Job 31:27-28) the 3rd (Gen. 12:3, Job 1:5) 4th (Exod. 16:23,30) the 5th (Gen. 9:18-29, Gen. 27:43) the 6th (Gen. 4:8,10, Exod. 1:15-17) the 7th (Gen. 19:24-25, Job 31:1) the 8th (Gen. 30:33, Gen. 44:8-9) the 9th (Gen. 4:9, Job 24:25) and the 10th (Gen. 20:18, Exod. 18:21).
As we move on to Mount Sinai and the Mosaic law, a summary from Ross on what was just discussed above would be helpful. He states that, “From the beginning, law was written on the heart of man. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature.” This is in line with what the Apostle John says in 1 John 3:4 where he says, “sin is the transgression of the law.” When God delivers the Israelites from bondage in Egypt and brings them to Mount Sinai to make a covenant with them, He gives them the Mosaic Law, which contains the moral law, in order to govern and set apart his holy nation. As we will see, this law was added “because of transgression, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator” (Gal. 3:19).
In Exodus chapter 19 the people of Israel approach Mount Sinai and the LORD comes down and then in Exodus 20 thunders out the Ten Commandments to them. Ross remarks,
Unlike other ancient societies where the law is ‘a human construct,’ Israel’s law is divine speech. This, according to Nicholson, gives ‘theological and apologetic significance to the direct transmission of the Decalogue to Israel… It was a testimony also to his holiness and wholly otherness.
This is important, as the Decalogue clearly is placed in a separate category from the rest of the laws given to Israel in the Mosaic Law. It is placed first amongst the rest of the ordinances given, it alone is written by the finger of God on stone tablets, it is also placed in the ark of the covenant distinct from the other laws, and it is the basis for all the other laws that come after it. In Exodus 21-23 the judicial laws are given, and then in Exodus 25 and onward the ceremonial laws are added. It is interesting to note that “the Decalogue is distinctive from the rest of the Mosaic Code by virtue of its antecedence. It is distinctive because it is not a distinct historical development.” This is what we have seen above. The Decalogue, though not totally identical with the moral law, is a codified summary of that universal law which reflects God’s nature and is binding on all His creatures before the fall, after the fall, and before Sinai and after Sinai. Again, by what standard would God be using before the flood when He rightly judges that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5)?
The remaining laws given in the Pentateuch, according to the doctrine of the threefold division of the law, can be classified as ceremonial or judicial. We see these distinctions clearly in two places in Deuteronomy, the first in chapter 4 verses 13 to 14 and secondly in chapter 6 in verse 1. The first section says,
So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone. The Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might perform them in the land where you are going over to possess it (Dt. 4:13-14).
Here we see the distinction between the Ten Commandments and the “statues and judgments.”
And in Deuteronomy 6:1 we read, “Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the Lord your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it.” Thomas Aquinas sees in these three words; commandment, statute and judgment; the division of the law into moral, civil and ceremonial. The ceremonial laws, or statutes, were about purity and sacrifice and the ritual aspects of the worship of God and the building and functioning of the tabernacle which were patterned after heavenly realities. Whereas the civil laws, or judgements, were “to be observed ‘within the land’ (Deut. 4:5, 14; 5:31, 6:1; 12:1). No such qualifications apply to the laws about sacrifice or purity.” These civil and ceremonial laws are positive laws and they are attached to Israel’s life in the land and their tabernacle/temple worship. There is, however, a needed and helpful qualification given by Ross when he says, “There may be overlap between those categories in the Pentateuch, but the threefold division allows such overlap and broadly reflects those distinguishing features.”
When we come to the New Testament, we see similar distinctions made within the Mosaic Law by Jesus and His Apostles. Jesus Himself seems to primarily equate commandments with the Decalogue (Matt. 15:1-20; Lk. 19:16-30; Lk. 18:18-30). He emphasizes mercy and not sacrifice (Matt. 9:13), and in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, in the sermon on the mount, Jesus provides a deeper and broader application of the Decalogue. In this section Jesus says, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” There is much to discuss with this statement and it is beyond the scope of this paper to deal with the debate surrounding this verse, however, I agree with Ross’ view of Jesus fulfilling the law when he says, “Jesus fulfils the law and the prophets in his person and teaching, by his obedience, and in all that he does to actualize them in his followers. His fulfilment is eschatological, soteriological, and moral…” This is a fulfilment of the prophecy in Jeremiah 31 of the coming new covenant. By his active obedience Jesus perfectly obeys the whole law and produces a perfect righteousness which he is able to impute to His people. By His passive obedience He dies the death and pays the debt He did not owe, being the sacrificial lamb that takes away the sin of the world, thereby procuring forgiveness of sins. He raises from the dead on the third day and ascends on high and pours out the Holy Spirit on His people. The Spirit enables His people to walk in newness of life and with the law written on their hearts, they walk in Spirit-filled obedience to it, bearing fruit unto God.
In light of all of this, we see the Apostles bring further clarity to the subject of the threefold division of the law. As regards to ceremonial laws, they have been fulfilled in Christ and are not something Christians are to continue to observe. We see this clearly in the book of Hebrews, Colossians, Ephesians and Galatians, where the ceremonial laws are referred to as copies and shadows and ordinances that Christ has abolished in his flesh. As Robert Reymond comments concerning Galatians and 1 Corinthians:
Here Paul exhorts Christians to understand that ‘circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts [ἀλλὰ τήρησις ἐντολῶν θεοῦ]’. He says essentially the same thing in Galatians 5:6 when he writes: ‘In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love,’ love being viewed here as active obedience to God’s commandments. Contrary to what most studies have concluded, by setting circumcision, which was itself a ceremonial command of God, in contrast to the ‘commandments of God’ (ἐντολῶν θεοῦ), as he does in 1 Corinthians 7:19, Paul distinguishes here between the ethical and the ceremonial, that is, between the permanent and the temporary aspects of the Law, insisting on the essentiality of keeping God’s moral law while at the same time insisting on the non-essentiality and insignificance of keeping the ceremonial law.
Christ has obeyed the ceremonial law for us as our federal head, so as a Christian, in regard to the ceremonial law I agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones when declares, “But seeing it all fulfilled and carried out in Him, I say I am fulling it all by believing in Him and by subjecting myself to Him. That is the position with regard to the ceremonial law.”
When it comes to the judicial/civil laws, the NT teaching on ceremonial and moral law produces by default this category of civil law for the remaining parts of the Mosaic code. These, too, have been changed in a sense. Christ fulfils the prophesy in Genesis 49, which says, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes,” the Messiah’s coming had an impact on Judah’s status as lawgiver and ruler. Ross adds more helpful commentary by adding,
When Emmanual causes the law to be written on the hearts of ‘disciples of all nations’, then the law has now permanently breached the borders of Israel. Unless the Messiah had defined his reign as rule over a new global super-state, then whatever portion of the law specifically regulated Judah’s body politic no longer had the same function…the ‘statues and ordinances’ that were to be obeyed ‘in the land’ had now fulfilled what Galatians describes as their protective and tutelary role (Gal. 3:19, 24). This approach is reflected throughout the epistles in three ways: submission to secular authorities, memorial and foretoken in judicial laws, and the application of general equity.
We see this in Paul and Peter’s commands to obey rulers and all those that are in authority (Rom. 13; 1 Pet. 2), for the gospel had to go into a multitude of different cultures and contexts and the church had to be able to function under different governments and societies without demanding political change. We also see this general equity principle in 1 Corinthians 9 and 1 Timothy 5:18-19 where Paul applies the principles behind animal husbandry laws and criminal witness laws to the church in terms of providing for elders and protecting them from false witness. In addition to all of this we see the Decalogue (the moral law) reaffirmed and assumed by the Apostles to be still in force and still the ethical standard for Christians, as Reymond points out:
Paul and the other New Testament writers also allude to every commandment in some one place or other in their letters to the churches: the first, second, and third commandments lie behind many of the statements in Romans 1:21–30, 2:22, 1 Corinthians 6:9, Ephesians 5:5, Colossians 3:5, James 2:7, 19, and Revelation 21:7; the fourth commandment lies behind the designation of the first day of the week—the Christian’s day of worship—as ‘the Lord’s day’ (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor 16:2, and Rev 1:10; cf. Isa 58:13);the fifth commandment lies behind statements in Romans 1:30, Ephesians 6:2–3, Colossians 3:20, and 1 Timothy 1:9;the sixth commandment lies behind statements in Romans 1:29, 13:9, 1 Timothy 1:9–10, James 2:11, 1 John 3:15, and Revelation 21:8;the seventh commandment lies behind statements in Romans 2:22, 13:9, 1 Corinthians 6:9, Ephesians 5:3, 1 Thessalonians 4:3, 1 Timothy 1:10, James 2:11, Revelation 21:8; the eighth commandment lies behind statements in Romans 2:21, 13:9, 1 Corinthians 6:10, Ephesians 4:28, 1 Timothy 1:10;the ninth commandment lies behind statements in Romans 13:9, Ephesians 4:25, Colossians 3:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, and Revelation 21:8; and the tenth commandment lies behind statements in Romans 1:29; 7:7–8, 13:9, 1 Corinthians 6:10, Galatians 5:26, Ephesians 5:5, Colossians 3:5, and Hebrews 13:5.
From the Old testament to the New Testament we see God’s moral law as the foundation for ethics, and in the plan of redemption further laws were added to bring about the nation which would produce the Messiah who would redeem people from every nation, tribe and tongue. The doctrine of the three-fold division of the law is essential in understanding how God’s moral requirements for His creatures are applied throughout the history of redemption. As we have seen the Mosaic Law is not one indivisible unit that is totally done away with, but it is actually tripartite and it was made so for God’s plan of redemption, and His antecedent universal law moral law was the foundation for it and that moral law continues to bind all.
 Phillip S. Ross, From the Finder of God (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications Ltd, 2010), 1.
 Richard C. Barcellos, Getting the Garden Right (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2017), 120.
 Ibid, 121.
 Jon English Lee, “The Decalogue & Sabbath in Redemptive History” (Lectures given at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, Owensboro, KY, May 22-26th, 2020).
 Phillip S. Ross, From the Finder of God (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications Ltd, 2010), 6.
 Ibid, 82.
 Samuel E. Waldron A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Welwyn Garden City, UK: EP Books, 1989), 282.
 Phillip S. Ross, From the Finder of God (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications Ltd, 2010), 80.
 Ibid, 106-107.
 Ibid, 113.
 Ibid, 114.
 Ibid, 115.
 Ibid, 193.
 Ibid, 202.
 R. L. Reymond, Paul, Missionary Theologian (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2000), 477.
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 170.
 Phillip S. Ross, From the Finder of God (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications Ltd, 2010), 297.
 Ibid, 298.
 R. L. Reymond, Paul, Missionary Theologian (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2000), 479.
Barcellos, Richard C. Getting the Garden Right. Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2017.
Lee, Jon English. “The Decalogue & Sabbath in Redemptive History.” Lectures given at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, Owensboro, KY, May 22-26th, 2020.
Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.
Reymond, R. L. Paul, Missionary Theologian. Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2000.
Ross, Phillip S. From the Finder of God. Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications Ltd, 2010.
Waldron, Samuel E. A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. Welwyn Garden City, UK: EP Books, 1989.