Interpreting and Applying the Law

Dear Church Family,

In our adult Sunday school class, we are in the midst of a series of lessons on “The Word of God Interpreted and Applied.” In this series, we are using video lessons from Richard Pratt called “He Gave Us Scripture: Foundations of Interpretation” augmented by teaching and discussion. In our lesson from this past Sunday, we talked about how we ought to apply the Old Testament Scriptures to our modern day lives as Christians. Particularly, we talked about how we ought to interpret and apply the Law of God as given in the Old Testament. This coming Sunday, we will talk about how to apply the narratives (or stories) of the Old Testament.

These lessons about how to interpret and apply the Scriptures of the Old Testament help us in getting the most out of our reading and studying of Scripture. I’ve also found that these principles of interpretation – concerning the Law of God and Old Testament stories – are helpful when trying to clarify and explain to unbelievers what the Bible says and how we actually apply it to our lives as Christians. There is a lot of confusion out there (among Christians and non-Christians, alike). Hopefully, these principles will be of some help to reduce some of that confusion.

Interpreting and Applying the Law of God

There are two things that we need to keep in mind when applying the passages of the Old Testament which contain the Law of God: the three differentiations of the law and the three uses of the moral law. By the way, there is a handout that we used in the class, which is available online here.

1. The Three Differentiations of the Law of God

Chapter 19 of the Westminster Confession of Faith explains for us how there are three different kinds of Law given in the Scriptures:

(1) The Moral Law (Ten Commandments) – This law, the ten commandments, was written upon the heart of Adam in the garden before the fall and was delivered by God on Mount Sinai in ten commandments. It is the perfect rule of righteousness containing our duty towards God and our duty to man. The ten commandments are forever binding upon all mankind, believer and unbeliever alike.

(2) The Ceremonial Law (Worship Regulations) – God gave to the people of Israel ceremonial laws, as well. These ceremonial laws contained commands and instructions for worship as well as for moral duties for Israel as a church under age. All of these laws prefigured Christ and His final sacrifice; as such, these ceremonial laws are not abrogated (repealed or done away with) in the new covenant.

(3) The Judicial Law (Civil Regulations) – God also gave to Israel, as a political body, various judicial laws which applied to the people of God before Christ as a theocratic nation. These judicial or civil laws expired with the state of the people of Israel, and are applicable to the new covenant church only in the sense that we may learn certain principles from them; they are no longer applicable to any people today.

2. The Three Uses of the Moral Law

Within that first category (the moral law), we may speak of three uses of the ten commandments. (What follows is taken from Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, and is also summarized in chapter 19 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, paragraphs 2, 5, 6, and 7.)

(1) Civic Use – Goad to civil righteousness (usus politicus or civilus)

The law serves the purpose of restraining sin and promoting righteousness. Considered from this point of view, the law presupposes sin and is necessary on account of sin. It serves the purpose of God’s common grace in the world at large. This means that from this point of view it cannot be regarded as a means of grace in the technical sense of the word. (e.g. Romans 2:14-15)

(2) Pedagogical Use – Tutor to drive us to Christ (usus elenchticus or pedagogicus)

In this capacity the law serves the purpose of bringing man under conviction of sin, and of making him conscious of his inability to meet the demands of the law. In that way, the law becomes his tutor to lead him unto Christ, and thus becomes subservient to God’s gracious purpose of redemption. (e.g. Galatians 3:23-24)

(3) Teaching Use – Rule of life (usus didacticus or normativus)

This is the so-called tertius usus legis, the third use of the law. The law is a rule of life for believers, reminding them of their duties and leading them in the way of life and salvation. This third use of the law is denied by the Antinomians. (e.g. 1 Corinthians 7:19)

If you’re interested in better understanding these three uses of the law, I’ve written before, and in a bit greater detail, about it here.

Conclusion

As I mentioned, there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about how to interpret and apply the Old Testament. When it comes to the law passages of the Old Testament, the two sets of principles above are very helpful. In the adult Sunday school class this coming Sunday, we will review and talk about how to interpret and apply the narratives or stories of the Old Testament as believers in Christ. I hope you’ll join us.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch