The Law: Its Kinds and Uses
When discussing the Law of God it is helpful to make distinctions for the sake of clarification. To that end, we will discuss here the “types of law” and the “uses of the law.”
The types of law given to us in the Old Testament are three fold: ceremonial, civil, and moral. The civil laws are those laws given to Israel as a political institution. These include laws for how Israel is to carry out her social affairs, including instances of justice. These laws were a shadow of Christ as the eschatological King of his people, and have therefore been fulfilled and abrogated. That means that the civil laws given to Israel do not apply to us under the New Covenant. The exception to this would be the principles of justice (relative to retribution, for instance) which – as principles – do have similar application today. The second type of laws are ceremonial in nature. These laws have to do with the worship of Israel, and should be understood as pictures of the Christ to come in his role as the eschatological priest of the people of God. He is the great high priest of the people of God, and the lamb of God who takes our sin away. These laws, as shadows of the Christ to come have also been fulfilled in Christ and therefore abrogated. Lastly, there is the moral law of God. These are summarized for instance in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17, Deuteronomy 5). These laws are universal and therefore apply to all people everywhere. They are also fulfilled by Christ who, as the eschatological prophet of God, was perfectly obedient to the will of his Father. These laws are not abrogated, however, but continue under the New Covenant.
The three different uses of the law are as follows. First, there is the use of the law which we may regard as our conscience. This is the law of God written on the human heart. It is part and parcel of the image of God in man, even after the fall. This law serves to guide fallen humanity in society to keep in check man's natural depravity, keeping him from being as evil as he can be. This is a common grace use of the law in which all men are kept in check, even those who are not believers. The second use of the law is to convict man of his sin and to drive him to seek forgiveness in a redeemer. The law shows the sinner that he is in fact guilty before God and therefore is intended to show him his need for Christ. The third use of the law is as a guide for the Christian life. The law of God is a delight to our hearts and light to our path (Psalm 19, 119). It is intended to show us how we are to live our lives before a holy and righteous God.
The law of God is often feared by Christians today. Many believe that the law is bad and that it can only place us back under its tyrannical rule rather than grace. It is true the law can be used legalistically. But when the law is used in the ways above and we understand the law revealed to us in its own setting, context, and intended usage we can see something of the glory, majesty, and holiness of our great triune God.