Grace and the law

grace-and-gods-law_472_265_80There is an apparent misconception in United Methodism that we are a people of grace and grace alone. This could perhaps be true if we ignore our founders and their teachings as well as our doctrinal standards, but as I am not wont to do this, we should examine what our beliefs actually are, as well as what the beliefs of the fathers who came before us were.

Some have claimed that a distinction in the law of Moses, namely that there is a moral law inherent there, is artificial and false.

Thomas Aquinas may have been the first, or at least most popular, to articulate a division in the law as moral, ceremonial and judicial. 

We must therefore distinguish three kinds of precept in the Old Law; viz. ‘moral’ precepts, which are dictated by the natural law; ‘ceremonial’ precepts, which are determinations of the Divine worship; and ‘judicial’ precepts, which are determinations of the justice to be maintained (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2a, Question 99, Article 4)

This idea goes back further and is alluded to by the likes of Tertullian who at one point  seems to recognize the difference between what would later come to be known as the moral and civil parts of the law when he distinguishes the

prime counsels of innocence, chastity, and justice, and piety’ from the ‘prescriptions of humanity’ (Tertullian, Five Books Against Marcion, 2.17)


For example, ‘Thou shalt not covet’ is a moral precept; ‘Thou shalt circumcise every male on the eighth day’ is a symbolical precept (Augustine, Contra Faustum Manichaeum, 6.2)

Justin Martyr:

Justin too distinguishes three types of material in the Law, ‘one which was ordained for piety and the practice of righteousness’, and another which was instituted ‘either to be a mystery of the Messiah or because of the hardness of heart of your people’ (Daniélou, J, Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1973)

…and others to some varying degree. It was popularized (again) with the reformers and reformation theology, though certainly did not originate there by any means. If you disagree with this idea, let me for a moment direct you toward the 10 commandments as an example. How can we say that thou shalt not kill, or thou shalt not commit adultery is anything but a moral command delivered by God to His people? How can we say with any integrity that those are somehow isolated to just a certain group at a certain time? The moral laws of God are nothing more or less than His pedagogy, that is to say His method of teaching us, as any loving Father would do. It is the conduct that leads us toward Him. This is not to say that we are saved by our action, quite the contrary, our salvation is an act of grace and grace alone. Our sanctification however is another story. God is working to conform us continually to the likeness of Christ. The moral law is one way that occurs. God has, in essence said to us, “this manner of behavior is a way that I have provided to lead you closer to me and what I would have you do.” It is little different, and indeed the exact same thing, as when we speak of following Christ’s example as it is simply a real world application of the moral law of God.

Lest we think that this is a specifically Christian construction, let me refer you to Jewish sources who, again to some degree, have recognized the distinction.

The mid-twentieth century Jewish writer, Boaz Cohen, notes that the divine law consists ‘of ceremonialism, jurisprudence and ethics’, and finds this threefold division indicated in the words ‘commandment’ (mizvah), ‘statutes’ (hoqim) and ‘judgements’ (mispatim) in Deuteronomy 6:1, and in verse 20, where ‘commandment’ is replaced by ‘testimonies’ (edah). Cohen’s terms are recognisably equivalent to the traditional Christian vocabulary. Moreover, Cohen, like the Christian Reformed tradition, describes the Decalogue as moral principles (Cohen, B, Law and Tradition in Judaism, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1959, pages 188-189)

Samuel Holdheim, a 19th century Jewish Rabbi also saw at least a distinction between ceremonial and moral aspects of the law.

The observation of the moral laws laid down in Mosaic Revelation is an unconditional obligation for every Jew. Holdheim defines the moral laws as those laws which are eternally true and not bound to the particular mentality of the Jews at the time of Moses. As to the ritual laws, their purpose is to stimulate devotion … According to Holdheim, the ritual laws are to be regarded as mere “crutches”, helping man to develop deep inner devotion. They are the form of Jewish religion, whereas ethics are its substance. They make up the outer appearance, whereas ethics constitutes the core. (Bisschops R, ‘Metaphor as the Internalisation of a Ritual. With a Case Study on Samuel Holdheim (1806-1860)’, in Francis, J and Bisschops, R (Eds.), Metaphor, Canon, and Community: Jewish, Christian and Islamic Approaches, Religions and Discourse, 1,1999, page 291)

The point here being that there is a tradition of this understanding that transcends Christianity.

So what the would encompass the moral law? I would imagine that the 10 commandments should be a simple and not controversial opinion. They probably are not, but I am going to make that assumption anyway. For other examples of what may, we should indeed refer to the doctrinal standards of the church, in our case the UMC. Wesley speaks to the matter often and examples may be found here, here, and here. The general focus of this, and indeed Wesley’s thinking on the matter, is that it is not a choice between law or grace as some such as Luther would have proposed, but rather the law and grace.

While, yet again, it is true that we are saved by grace through faith, a proper Wesleyan understanding is that this is the beginning of the journey toward God, not the end of it. The moral law then works with the gospel as a guide in our conduct toward personal holiness. Peter notes this in one of his epistles reminds us of this by bringing the repeated command of God in the Old Testament to be holy because God is holy. To put it bluntly, while some speak of freedom from the law, Wesley speaks always of the law established through faith. Wesley understood that the moral law was established long before Moses as he describes Noah teaching it as well as Enoch before him.

I shall, first, endeavour to show the original of the moral law, often called “the law,” by way of eminence. Now this is not, as some may have possibly imagined, of so late an institution as the time of Moses. Noah declared it to men long before that time, and Enoch before him. But we may trace its original higher still, even beyond the foundation of the world: to that period, unknown indeed to men, but doubtless enrolled in the annals of eternity, when “the morning stars” first “sang together,” being newly called into existence. It pleased the great Creator to make these, his first-born sons, intelligent beings, that they might know him that created them. For this end he endued them with understanding, to discern truth from falsehood, good from evil; and, as a necessary result of this, with liberty, — a capacity of choosing the one and refusing the other. By this they were, likewise, enabled to offer him a free and willing service; a service rewardable in itself, as well as most acceptable to their gracious Master.” (sermon 34). 

I have, as is normal, gone on longer than I intended at the start, so I will wrap up here. Our articles of religion confirm we are not released by commands of God called moral. The sermons of Wesley establish that there is indeed a moral law established before Moses that was transmitted, and still is transmitted, to all believers. The history of both the Christian faith and the Jewish faith provide us with evidence that the concept of separation of aspects of the law (moral, ceremonial, civil) are not indeed new concepts, but concepts that go to the Apostolic age itself. These ideas can be easily supported through scripture. We are failing as we debate if there is a moral law at all. We fail to understand our doctrine, our standards of faith and really our history. We hear “law” and immediately jump to legalism as if God never commanded behaviors from his followers. For that matter Christ Himself commanded actions of His followers. We are seemingly afraid of actually admitting that we have a Lord who maintains expectations of our behavior. While it is good and right that we puzzle over what may indeed encompass the moral law as that is the path to personal holiness and indeed being holy because God is holy, but we should not doubt that such a thing does indeed exist. Our history as Methodists affirms this. Our history as Christians includes this, and even our history as branching off from the Jews entertains this…why then is it that we are not embracing this?

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9 Replies to “Grace and the law”

    1. Regarding Matthew 5:19.

      As a reality check, I like to check Bart Ehrman – check left, to balance right, then make a judgement somewhere in between. (Yeah, I know, some people don’t like Ehrman. But…so what?)

      “Jesus Before the Gospels”, rather tedious, and repetitive (especially the memory discussions). Main point, however; oral stories floating around for more that 40 plus years after Jesus. Past memories change, to reflect current environment. Authors write down oral stories, with spin, many years later, to reflect their own current situation.

      “Matthew’s memories of Jesus are fundamentally different from Paul’s in yet another way. Whereas Paul was opposed to the followers of Jesus (at least Gentiles) keeping the Jewish law, in Matthew Jesus is remembered as a Jew who himself perfectly kept that law and insisted that his followers do likewise. For Matthew, Jesus was the Jewish messiah sent from the Jewish God to the Jewish people in fulfillment of the Jewish law. Following Jesus meant patterning one’s life on that of (the Jewish) Jesus and, therefore, adhering to the law – adhering to it, in fact, even better than the most religious Jewish leaders (see Matt 5:17-20)…
      Thus, whereas for Paul Christ brought an “end to the law” (Rom 10:4), for Matthew he is remembered as urging the continued observance of the law. Doing so is mandatory.”

      1. “For Messiah is the goal (Or end purpose; not termination) of the ‘Torah unto righteousness’ to everyone who believes.” Romans 10:4

        “O Timothy! Watch over that which has been entrusted to you, turning aside from the profane and empty babblings and contradictions of the falsely called ‘knowledge,’ which some, having professed it, have missed the goal concerning the belief, Favor be with you. Amen. 1 Timothy 6:20-21

        Yeshua was and is the Lawgiver who is able to save and to destroy. James 4:12
        Israel sought their own ways “their own righteousness” and would not subject themselves to (obey) the righteousness of Elohim. Romans 10:3

        Paul was reiterating Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32, Proverbs 30:5-6.
        “Do not add to the Word which I command you, and do not take away from it..”

        Yeshua has made the Torah complete. He is the beginning of it and the end of it.
        Psalms 19:7-11, James 1:25

        From Torah a righteous man (not self-righteous) can make right-rulings in all matters of life.


        1. Shalom!
          Matt 12 “Have ye not read what David did, when he was hungry, and they that were with him; 4how he entered into the house of God, and ate the showbread, which it was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them that were with him, but only for the priests? 5Or have ye not read in the law, that on the sabbath day the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless? 6But I say unto you, that one greater than the temple is here. 7But if ye had known what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. 8For the Son of man is lord of the sabbath.”

          My commentary on Matt 12:8 says “Lord of the sabbath, Jesus’ authority exceeds even that of divinely established institutions.”

          So….compare that with Matt 5:19, “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…”

          So… Jesus trumps Paul, Torah, Bishop, Pope, Wesley. So, the REAL question, WWJD? If you know, let me know. I have no idea. Matthew’s oral stories, put down in writing, seem to contradict each other. Maybe memory is fuzzy.

          1. Weightier matters of the Torah.

            “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you tithe the mint and the anise and the cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the Torah: the right-ruling and the compassion and the belief. These need to have been done, without neglecting the others.” Matthew 23:23

            “But woe to you Pharisees, because you tithe the mint and the rue and every plant, and pass by the right-ruling and the love of Elohim. These you should have done, without leaving the others undone.” Luke 11:42

            Torah has always been about LIFE.
            Yeshua who is the living Torah, (“And the Word became flesh and pitched His tent among us…” John 1:14) came to “teach fully” how to live out the Torah and to truly have an abundant life.

            “DO NOT THINK that I came to destroy the Torah or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to complete.” (teach fully) Matthew 5:17

            What are the weightier-matters?
            How do I make right rulings?

            “Teacher, which is the great command in the Torah?”
            “And Yeshua said to him, “You shall love YHVH your Elohim with all your heart, and with all your being, and with all your mind.’
            “This is the first and great command..
            “And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’
            “On these two commands hang all the Torah and the Prophets.”
            Matthew 22:36-40

            The other 611 instructions in the Torah uphold and support the fulfillment of these two even if we do not know how.
            “Your word (Torah) is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path.”
            Psalms 119:105

            “Owe no one any matter except to love one another, for he who loves another has filled the Torah.
            For this, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is
            ANY OTHER COMMAND, it is summed up in this word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
            Love does no evil to a neighbor. Therefore, love is completion of the Torah.
            Romans 13:8-10

            “The sum of Your word is Truth, And all Your righteous right-rulings are forever.”
            Psalms 119:160

            “Do we then nullify the Torah through the belief? Let it not be! On the contrary,
            Romans 3:31

            “By this we know that we love the children of Elohim, when we love Elohim and guard His commands. (Torah)
            For this is the love for Elohim, that we guard His commands, and His commands are not heavy.”
            1 John 5:2-3

            “And this is the love, that we walk according to His commands. (Torah) This is the command, that as you have heard from the beginning, you should walk in it.
            2 John 1:6

            “If you love Me, you shall guard My commands.”
            John 14:15

            “If you guard My commands, you shall stay in My love, even as I have guarded My Father’s commands and stay in His love.”
            John 15:10

            “No one has greater love than this: that one should lay down his life for his friends.
            You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.”
            John 15:13-14

            Examples of weightier-matters;

            -The showbread in the Temple is important and set aside for the priests but if one is hungry and cannot find any food, it is a weightier-matter to feed the hungry.

            -Rest on the Sabbath is important but people are troubled all the time and need to be ministered to so the Priests work on the Sabbath.

            -Also, it is good to rest on the Sabbath, but if your ox falls in a ditch on the Sabbath, you should pull him out.

            -To bring a sacrifice or an offering to Yah is good but understanding mercy is a weightier-matter.

            -Is it right to heal on the Sabbath? Yes! It is a weightier-matter then to rest.

            -You shall not steel, but if you have nothing to give and steel a loaf of bread to give to your brothers son who is starving to death. This is a weightier-matter.

            -You shall not lie, but if one steels your silver from you and is caught, and you lie and say that you gave the silver to the thief so that the thief might realize that the lie about the silver just redeemed his life. This is a weightier-matter.

            Again, obey the Word (Torah) and make righteous right-rulings from it.
            Know the weightier-matters of Yah’s heart.

            “He has declared to you, O man, what is good.
            And what does YHVH require of you but
            -to do right,
            -to love mercy,
            -to walk humbly with your Elohim.

            It’s all about redeeming and preserving Life.

            Blessings and Shalom!

          2. Thanks for all the scriptures! I think my take on the entirety of the discussions, boiling it down in Matthew 23:23, is that it is not good to be scribes and Pharisees! Which to me, translates to not using the law to judge others (that would be God’s job), not to use my interpretation of the law to judge others (that would be God’s job again). My job, assuming I am a good Christian (which might be debatable), is to love God and my neighbors, regardless of the situation. Shalom again.

          3. Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Chief Priests, Elders. All mixed seed. Some good, some bad. Nicdemus, Gamaliel, and Paul himself were good Pharisees.
            The Pharisees and Sadducees questioned and argued with Yeshua a lot but were not around during the capture and trial of Yeshua. It was the Chief Priests, Scribes, and Elders who did this.
            The warning that Yeshua gave was to beware of the yeast or leaven of them.
            “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy”. Luke 12:1
            Understand the woes that Yeshua spoke to against them
            Matthew 23:13-39, Luke 11:39-54

            Ever wonder what the “seat of Moses” is?
            Whenever a Scribe or a Pharisee sat in Moses seat to teach, while seated could only read and speak words from the Torah with no commentary. If they wanted to give commentary they would have to stand up so the people would know the words now spoken are their opinion on what was just read.

            “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses.
            “Therefore, whatever they say to you to guard, guard and do. (Torah)
            But do not do according to their works, for they say, and do not do. (Hypocrisy)
            “For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders, but with their finger they do not wish to move them.
            “And they do all their works to be seen by men, and they make their t’fillen wide and lengthen the tzitzit of their garments, and they love the best place at feasts, and the best seats in the congregations, and the greetings in the market-places, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ (Pastor, Pastor)
            Matthew 23:2-7

            They love their commentaries and traditions more then the words of YHVH.

            Matthew 15:1-9
            “…So you have nullified the command of Elohim by your tradition, Hypocrites!…
            “…teaching as teachings the commands of men.”

            Mark 7:5-13
            “…nullifying the Word of Elohim through your tradition…”

            Passover and Unleavened Bread is coming up on Friday. And as Paul wrote;

            “So then let us celebrate the festival, not with old leaven (hypocrisy), nor with the leaven of evil and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (Torah)
            1 Cor 5:8


  1. Thank you for posting this. I’ve had some conversations with my UMC pastor and fellow congregants on this topic, but never got a clear answer. This is very helpful. But I think the next question is, outside of the 10 Commandments, how do you differentiate between moral, ceremonial, and judicial? I realize some are obvious, but I’ve also heard some folks make the argument that OT law regarding homosexuality was not “moral,” but rather to distinguish Jews from their pagan neighbors (so, ceremonial???). The “answer” I’ve received thus far is more or less that each individual must pray/discern on it, but that really doesn’t make it objective. In fact, it makes the analysis fairly susceptible to the weakness of my human reason. My prayer and reflection has lead me to an orthodox view (a significant shift from where I was a few years ago before I really prayed on it). But, like high school geometry, I like to see some of the how/why in arriving in that conclusion. Thoughts?

    1. Sorry that it took me so long to reply and great question. The laws of the sacrifice are obviously not applicable to a Christian. (Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of lessens there, but we are not required to keep them.)On a very basic level the distinction is as follows I believe. The ceremonial law tell how to worship properly, including sacrifice. The civil law provided the legal structure for the nation of Israel. The moral law declares how a person is to live. For the Levitican passages specifically, and even into Deuteronomy when it is mentioned again. there is some ambiguity in the language and that can not be denied, What can be said definitively is that there is no example in scripture that ever describes the act of sex between two people of the same gender as acceptable to God under any circumstances. The passages in Leviticus are found in a section widely referred to as the purity or holiness code. (Chapters 17-26) To me the over riding theme expressed here is one of separation. The purpose of much of what is written here is establishing us as a holy people before God that exists simultaneously with others (the world if you will) much like the ancient Israelites were called to do. It should be noted that the love your neighbor command is originally found in this same section of scripture. (Lev 19:18). This seems to indicate that the laws about sexual purity did not exist in opposition to things like love of neighbor, but were to be lived out in accordance with such laws. Again, the idea here is separation, that is to say a people set apart for God. The things listed that we refer to as moral law are the way in which that people is established. As to the command about homosexuality referring to idolatry specifically, it seems rather odd to me that this would be the case. Idolatry had already been dealt with as not appropriate numerous times and places (10 commandments, golden calf) so anything associated with idolatrous behavior would then also be a sin against God. As with all things, this needs to be read and viewed in the narrative of the whole of scripture. It is my contention that, when considered within the whole of scripture, that sex between two of the same gender is treated as an act that is displeasing to God, that is to say sinful. The sacred tradition of the church as it applies to biblical interpretation concurs with this as well. Our doctrine as the UMC agrees with this as well. While there is indeed some ambiguity to be found in the language of certain passages, I do not find that ambiguity enough evidence to ignore the teachings of the church through it’s doctrine and tradition.
      Hopefully this to long response answered your questions. If not let me know and I shall attempt to do a better job.

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