There 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 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?