The Ceremonial Laws as Catechism

              The Law of God is one of the thorniest topics in the Christian life.  The Westminster Standards have long been recognized as one of the most mature expositions of the Law of God in its various relations.  In Chapter 19 of the Confession, we have the classic division of the Law into Moral, Ceremonial, and Civil.  Because of the finished work of Christ, the ceremonial law is perhaps the most neglected of these three.  Many often think little of it since, indeed, Christ has fulfilled all of its demands.  This, in turn, leads to a neglect of the Old Testament by many Christians.  But, paragraph 3 of Chapter 19 in the Confession gives us several clues indicating that we should view the ceremonial law, not as an annihilated holiness code to which we owe no attention.  Rather these clues indicate that we should view the ceremonial law as a catechism, a guide for the ignorant which teaches us the principles of holiness and gives practical examples of living as God’s holy people.

              The Confession begins by stating that the ceremonial law was given “to the people of Israel, as a church under age.”  This is our first clue.  The object of the ceremonial law was the childlike state of the church, the nation of Israel.  Catechisms are written for “such as are of weaker capacity”[1] or “such as have made some proficiency in the knowledge of the grounds of religion.”[2]  In either case, those who have more progress to make in the one true religion.  This is all of us, for none of us has arrived in the heavenly Canaan.  That the ceremonial law was given to Israel as a church under age teaches us that its primary purpose was to teach them the ways of God in our redemption.  It had a pedagogical purpose.   It was not given to enable them to earn their salvation, as a covenant of works, through the ceremonies.  Rather, the ceremonies, themselves, were a living catechism, a visible answer to the grand question “What must I do to be saved?” 

              One objection to the above paragraph arises from a faulty view of God’s Covenants.  As Westminster teaches, the first covenant God made was a covenant of works wherein man was required to obey, given power to do so, and promised the reward of eternal life as a result (WCF 19.1).  Since the fall, however, man has lost the ability to obey and hence is incapable of obtaining life through his own obedience.  And yet, God gave more Law after the fall.  According to the covenant of grace, man’s hope is found, not in himself, but in the Seed of the Woman (Gen. 3:15).  And the addenda to the Proto-evangelion, the Laws of Moses, were, it stands to reason, the catechetical exposition of what that Seed would do and how man was to live by faith in Him. 

              This leads to the second clue in WCF 19.3.  The paragraph goes on to say that this ceremonial law contained “several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ…and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties.”  What we see here is a division in the content of the ceremonial law between what man is to believe and what duty God requires of man.  This is the same division we find in the early questions of both the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of Westminster (WLC Q. 5; WSC Q. 3).  By describing the ceremonial law in this manner, the divines at Westminster were showing us how they viewed those laws.  And the way they viewed them was according to the division between faith and practice, belief and obedience, exactly the same way they organized their own catechisms when put to the task. 

              The paragraph ends with a statement that since Christ has come, the ceremonial laws are now abrogated.  Abrogation is to nullify something as to its legal force.  It does not mean, however, to vacate it of all value or meaning.  The 12 Tables of Roman law have been abrogated in the West, but they are still instructive for historians of western legal codes.  Likewise, the ceremonial laws have been abrogated, but that does not mean they are invaluable for your walk with Christ.  They, in fact, teach you things about Christ and his benefits that you can only find therein. 

              One practical use of this insight from the Confession is to study the ceremonial laws of Moses more prayerfully.  Often, Christians find reading Leviticus a chore with no immediate application for their daily walk.  This should not be the case.  In Leviticus we find the one sacrifice of Christ presented to us under the various sacrifices of Moses.  And each of those sacrifices tells us some unique aspect of the one final sacrifice of Christ and the benefits that we derive from it.  For instance, the major sacrifices of Leviticus are the burnt, sin, and peace offering.  In the burnt offering the animal was completely burned up.  In the sin offering, the animal was burned outside the camp.  In the peace offering, the animal was burned and part of it was eaten by the priest and part by the Israelite who brought it.  Each of these sacrifices point to the body and blood of Christ and each teaches us some unique benefit that we derive from his sacrifice.  In the burnt offering, we are taught that through the body of Christ, we are completely dedicated to God and ascend into his presence as a pleasing aroma.  In the sin offering, we are taught that our sins are removed from us through the body of Christ.  Through the peace offering, we are taught that through the body and blood of Christ, we have peace with God and enjoy his fellowship over a meal at His table.  These are just a few of the practical benefits we derive from being catechized by the ceremonial law.  I trust that as you study them, the Spirit of God will teach you more and more about what you are to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of you as you walk with Him.    


[1] Westminster Confession of Faith., Free Presbyterian Publications, 2003 (Glasgow), 285.

[2] Westminster Confession of Faith., 127.

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