As with any person serving in a pastoral/teaching capacity within the local church, I am frequently asked questions by saints who long to gain a clearer understanding of God’s Word, the gospel, and varied aspects of living the Christian life. Several months ago I was forwarded an email from a woman who recently had a discussion with a person regarding the nature of obedience to God’s commands in the life of a follower of Christ. When discussing the question of the Christian’s relationship to and obedience of the law, this person informed the woman that the law had no place in a believer’s life. The law was something that only concerned the people of God under the old covenant, but now the Christian was completely free from the law in every respect. Is that really the case?
To be sure, there are a plethora of questions that arise when we consider the place of the law within a new covenant context. What is the place of the law in the life of the Christian? Is the Christian bound by the Mosaic law? Was the law believed to contain within itself any categories of distinction, and does Scripture verify those distinctions? If so, what about those laws that regulated matters of civil or ceremonial practice before the new covenant; is the Christian to be concerned with them in any way? Hasn’t Christ fulfilled the law so as to allow the believer to be unconcerned with matters of old covenant practice? These questions are profoundly important in the life of the Christian, and thus they must be responsibly researched and carefully considered.
Philip S. Ross, in his masterful work, From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law (Christian Focus, 2010), aims to provide the Christian with comprehensive answers to the aforementioned questions. In terms of a sweeping overview, From the Finger of God is an investigatory monograph on the biblical and theological basis for the classical division of biblical law into moral, civil, and ceremonial distinctions. Interacting with a tremendous amount of historic and contemporary biblical scholarship, Ross engages both critique and consensus as to classical division of the law. Additionally, Ross cites some of the most pertinent implications of this division on one’s understanding of sin and Christ’s atoning work, ultimately concluding that theologians have been correct to see the classical distinction as rooted in Scripture and the Ten Commandments as “ever-binding.”
At the outset of the work, Ross examines and defends the catholicity of the classical distinction of the law noting, “Throughout history, the church’s most prominent theologians expounded, maintained, and defended its teaching.” This is important because out of this distinction arises the answer to the question, “Is the Christian still bound by the Mosaic Law?” In light of the distinction, the answer is both ‘Yes and No.’ Ross explains that “One part of the law is non-binding, another binding in its underlying principles, and another ever-binding.” Ross concludes the following:
These laws are those that pertained to the Israelite sacrificial system and ceremonial cleanliness. Though there are moral duties related to these laws, “they were typical of Christ’s sacrifice and since he has fulfilled all that they typified, they are abrogated and non-binding upon all those who follow Christ.”
These laws are those pertaining to everyday civil matters within the Israelite community. These laws then are “binding in their underlying principles.” Thus, it is the heart of the civil laws that are to bind the Christian in their community life.
Ross notes, “The only laws that are, without exception, ever-binding are the laws of the Decalogue. Those Ten Commandments reveal the demands of God upon all people, not just those in ancient Israel. From the beginning they were the basis upon which God judged all mankind.” Christ’s incarnation did not annul the binding nature of the Decalogue upon all people, everywhere.
Ross initiates his theological engagement by referring to The Westminster Confession of Faith as the exemplar for the division because “it represents one of the most recent and expansive confessional restatements of the threefold division,” it is largely representative of the theology that molded early Reformed Protestantism, and because it remains the confessional standard for many Reformed denominations throughout the world. Ross goes on to provide the reader with an overall contextual background for the study of the division which addresses further the theological, methodological, and historical environment for the study.
In chapter 2, “What Would Moses Think?”, Ross notes that “Theologians and churchmen in centuries past held that Scripture was the source of the threefold division.” Engaging chiefly the critiques that the laws of Moses are “one indivisible whole,” or Christopher Wright’s more elaborate position of a fivefold distinction, Ross aptly demonstrates from Scripture that both of the aforesaid critiques are unsupported by the Penteteuch. Rather it is the Decalogue’s “self-understood, divinely-uttered, lapidary [stone-engraved], apodictic [indisputable], and constitutional status [that] marks it out as a distinctive collection of laws that in the Pentateuch ‘for ever bind all.’”
After a brief chapter examining the place of the law within Israel’s juridical process, Ross moves forward to Jesus’ relationship to the law. Perhaps the most engaging section of the book (chapters 4 & 5), Ross demonstrates that the Gospel set forth a Christ who lives in conformity to the Mosaic laws. He effectively engages anti-Sabbatarians concluding, “Sabbath-keeping is not a Puritan invention, but a catholic tradition.” As well Ross makes mention, here and after, of Christ’s subjected position to the law and his active obedience as the source of the righteousness imputed to the believer.
My favorite chapter, chapter 5, deals with the role of the law within the teaching and preaching ministry of Christ. This chapter, in particular, provides a great deal of helpful content and study for pastoral preaching. Straightforward teaching on how Christ fulfills the law and prophets in his person, fulfills the four major new covenant promises [law written on hearts, God’s presence, knowledge of God, and forgiveness of sins], and how Christ preaches a consistent ethic with old covenant law in his Sermon on the Mount characterizes Ross’ writing in this section.
Before concluding, Ross examines the place of the law in the book of Acts and in the Apostolic epistles. Immediately after, Ross includes an incredibly concise conclusion summarizing the whole of the book. Concluding ultimately that while no specific Scripture explicitly states a threefold division of the law, the whole of Scripture clearly testifies to its reality. Historically then, theologians and churchman alike were completely justified in putting the division forward as the orthodox position. All in all, “The threefold division of the law was a practical-theological framework that briefly expounded this whole duty of man in the Christian era and affirmed the standard by which God would judge every deed good or evil.”
Overall, Ross’ work could easily be heralded as the tour de force on the topic of the threefold division of the law and its place in the life of the believer in Christ. As a caution to the person looking for a treatment of the topic in layman’s terms, From the Finger of God is packed full of [exemplary, thorough, and helpful] biblical scholarship. While not a negative criticism, it may be quite overwhelming to any person who is just beginning a study of the topic. However, for any pastor or scholar, it is a work that deserves a thorough reading and that reading will be undoubtedly a rewarding exercise.
From the Finger of God is a book I enthusiastically recommend! It will surely deepen one’s appreciation for the revealed majesty of God in the law, the glorious active obedience of Christ in fulfilling it, and evoke a doxological response in the person who has helplessly received the imputed righteousness of Christ upon believing the good news of the gospel! May we, in light of Christ’s finished work and the full acceptance the believer has found therein, joyfully submit to God and exclaim with the psalmist, “Your law is my delight” (Ps. 119:77).
Read inside (PDFs): Sample Chapter
*As a part of the Christian Focus Blog Tour, the publisher, at no charge, for the purpose of review, provided a copy of this book. I was under no obligation to write a favorable review.