Yet, as we have seen, the New Testament also clearly states that God’s law continues in the New Testament era. We have also seen the relationship between love and law, as well as the place Jesus gives to the teaching and upholding the law in the kingdom. Jesus said He came to “fulfill” but not to “abolish” (Matt. 5:17) the law. Some, we have now seen, were fulfilled and brought to a terminus which was predetermined (see here and here). These were fulfilled in such a way that we no longer observe their earthly expressions. Others, however, He has fulfilled in such a way that their observance is expected and commanded. These He upholds as standards of righteousness, love, and justice. Christians, therefore, need to develop a view of the abiding validity of those standards of the law that still apply.
We can develop this view simply by studying the law and excluding those parts that the New Testament teaches no longer continue. When we do this, we arrive at a distinction outlined but earlier Reformed theologians. A second-generation Reformer, Johannes Piscator, related his argument for the abiding validity of the Mosaic judicial laws this way:
[T]he magistrate is obliged to those judicial laws which teach concerning matters which are immutable and universally applicable to all nations, but not to those which teach concerning matters which are mutable and peculiar to the Jewish or Israelite nations for the times when those governments remained in existence.
He then outlines briefly which is which:
Things common to all nations (that is, which befall all) and are immutable with respect to their own nature and merits are moral offenses, that is, against the Decalogue, such as murder, adultery, theft, seduction from the true God, blasphemy, and smiting of parents.
Those laws which are mutable and which were peculiar to the Jews for that time are things such as the emancipation of Hebrew slaves in the seventh year, Levirate marriage, releasing of debts in the appointed year, marriage with a woman from one’s own tribe, and if there were any other of the same sort. Likewise, these include ceremonial offenses such as touching a dead body, touching a woman suffering her menstrual cycle, and others of the same sort.
As you can see, his distinction is simple: that which is particular to the Jews, and that which is general for all nations and people. His applications of that distinction are in line with what we have studied regarding separation laws, Sabbath laws, land laws, etc.
Piscator’s distinction was picked up by some of the Puritan theologians (such as William Perkins) and some of the Westminster Divines (George Gillespie among them). They used the traditional legal term “equity” to describe the application of laws. They then discussed which parts of the law had “particular equity” (applied to Israel only) and those that had “general equity.” They did not all agree on which parts of the law fit into which category, and debate ensued. When the Divines finished debating, they settled on a compromise statement that left room for them all to interpret the abiding validity of individual laws however they chose. The Westminster Confession chapter 19 section 4 says,
To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.
This statement leaves it an open question as to exactly what this “general equity” is and where and how it applies. Many theologians have assumed it to mean some kind of spiritualized, church-only application of these laws, but that any civil or state application of them has expired. But this misunderstanding is uninformed of the history behind the term “general equity.” It is unfortunate, in fact, that the companion term “particular equity” did not make it in to the Confession, but it does exist, and knowing its history changes the contextual meaning of the Confession’s statement.
The “general equity” is not a spiritualized ecclesiastical application of judicial law, but rather that part of the law that reveals standards of righteousness, love, and justice not particular to Israel only, but generally applicable to all of mankind—including the civil state and civil justice. The Confession was written, however, as a compromise on this point, and its vagueness is therefore unhelpful to understanding it. As history has moved on and the historical context of the language was lost, the prevailing view of our day has moved to impose its narrow and uninformed understanding upon language that was originally written to accommodate a spectrum of views.
The point here is not argue over the interpretation of the Confession, for Scripture is our ultimate standard. The point is to return to Piscator’s type of argumentation which was based squarely on Scripture. That is why I have rehearsed the biblical aspects of discontinuity of the law above (here and here). Once we get back to these, we will naturally arrive back at the same distinctions of particular and general applications of the law. We will then read our Confessions in that light, too.
We certainly do not have the space to review every law in detail in order to say whether it continues or not (this book is just an introduction, after all). Instead, you now have the categories by which to discern for yourself. Read the law. In each case, ask yourself: does this law, or part of it, pertain to the old temple rites, calendar, priesthood, sacrifices, etc? Does this law pertain to the old land boundaries? Does it pertain to the bloodline separations or “seed” laws? Does it pertain to any of those aspects of the Old covenant administration that the New Testament demonstrates changed with Jesus? Does it pertain to First Table offenses, special devotion to destruction, or stoning penalties? If so, that law, or part of a law, is vanished away.
If not, then you can safely assume that law expresses an abiding principle of righteousness, love, and justice. It will have applications to individuals, families, churches, and possibly even state (assuming it is a state-focused law to begin with). You need to start studying it in this light, asking questions, having discussions, and applying it where you can. In doing so, you will be using the law lawfully (1 Tim. 1:8).
I would, however, like to address a matter over which the Puritans and Divines were divided: the penal sanctions of the judicial laws. In the next chapter, I will give you my argument for why the penal sanctions (excepting, of course, the ones already discussed as discontinued in this chapter) are an aspect of the general equity and remain obligatory for civil governments today.
Next section: The Abiding Moral Principle for Penal Sanctions