The Westminster Larger Catechism famously states, “The moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments.” 1 As we have seen, this assertion cannot be sustained by exegesis. God indeed has “an eternal moral law,” but it cannot be the Ten Commandments since they are bound up with a temporary covenant. What then is this moral law? Wells and Zaspel define moral law as “the law that has its source in the unchanging moral character of God with the result that it is intrinsically right and therefore binds all men of every era and every land to whom it comes.” 2 Due to the baggage the term “moral law” brings, I prefer to call it the “natural law” (following Luther) although it is not without its baggage as well. Such is the case in theology this side of the parousia. Moo refers to this truth as “God’s eternal moral will.” 3 New Covenant Theologian Gary Long calls it “absolute law.” 4 The natural law is written on the heart of all people by nature.5 In Romans 1, Paul writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (18-19). “Though they know God’s decree (dikaiōma) that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (32). In Romans 2:26, Paul uses this same word “dikaiōma”: “So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts (dikaiōmata) of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” In Romans 2:14-15, Paul writes, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” God’s decree is known to all. All have the work of the law written on their hearts. Natural law is grounded in creation and expresses God’s character.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (Atlanta: Committee for Christian Education & Publications, 1990), 54; Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology, 178. Wells and Zaspel, New Covenant Theology, 162. Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses,” 370. Long writes, “God’s absolute law ethically and morally binds all mankind as individuals whether before or after the cross,” in Biblical Law and Ethics: Absolute and Covenantal, 85-86. Luther, “How Christians Should Regard Moses,” 138.

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The heart of natural law, just like the heart of the Mosaic law and the law of Christ is love. This is why the so-called “Golden Rule” is universal. 6 Matthew 7:12 says, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” One can find some form of it in every religion. People know by nature they should love God and neighbor, but because they are in Adam they suppress it. This natural law comes from God in various forms. 7 It comes through conscience and the created order, through the law of Moses in the old covenant, and through the Law of Christ in the new covenant.8 We see this from our important passage 1 Corinthians 9:20-21: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.” Paul is not under the Mosaic law, but he is under the law of God, which is now the law of Christ. This is quite clear. The natural law was once enshrined in the law of Moses, but now is enshrined in the law of Christ. C.H. Dodd writes,
I would suggest that the various forms of expression would be consistent with a conception of the ‘law of God’ as something wider and more inclusive than the ‘law’ simpliciter, in the sense of Torah. At one stage and on one level this law of God is presented by the Torah, and on that level a man’s response to the Torah is, quite genuinely, a response to the law of God; … At another stage and upon a different level the law of God may be mediated in some other, perhaps some more adequate form, in which it may be obeyed by one who is no longer subject to Torah…The law of God, which at one stage and on one level finds expression in the Torah, may at another stage and on a different level find expression in the ‘law of Christ.’ 9

Charles Leiter, “The Law – Its Essence vs. Its Implications,” Calvin wrote, “We render to our neighbors what belongs to them and observe the natural law of not doing anything to anyone unless we would want them to do the same to us,” The Soul of Life: The Piety of John Calvin ed. by Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009), 205. John Reisinger helpfully writes, “First, even though the law, as codified covenant terms, has a historical beginning at Sinai, the underlying principles of all those laws, except the sabbath, were already revealed to man through the original creation. Neither knowledge of God and his character nor the reality of known sin began at Sinai. Secondly, even though the law, viewed as a covenant document, ended when Christ established the New Covenant, the unchanging ethical elements that underlie the commandments written on the tables of stone are just as binding on us today as they were on an Israelite,” Tablets of Stone, 105. Gentry writes similarly, “What we can say to represent accurately the teaching of Scripture is that the righteousness of God codified, enshrined, and encapsulated in the old covenant has not changed and that this same righteousness is now codified and enshrined in the new,” “The Covenant at Sinai,” 60. Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses,” 368 Dodd, More New Testament Studies, 137.


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This natural law is eternally normative, as it reflects the will and character of God. It consists of transcendent moral principles. 10 We are only bound to those parts of the Mosaic law which are part of natural law, which is repeated in the law of Christ. As Luther puts it, “We will regard Moses as a teacher, but we will not regard him as our lawgiver-unless he agrees with both the New Testament and the natural law…we are not to follow [Moses] except so far as he agrees with the natural law. Moses is a teacher and a doctor of the Jews. We have our own master, Christ, and he has set before us what we are to know, do, and leave undone.” 11

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Schreiner, 40 Questions, 104. Luther, “How Christians Should Regard Moses,” 139, 147-48. Ethicist Michael Hill writes, “True, Christians are not under the old package called the ‘Law’, but the framework of creation that surrounds both packages provides for some continuity,” The How and Why of Love, 188.

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