“We believe, that the ceremonies and figures of the law ceased at the coming of Christ, and that all the shadows are accomplished; so that the use of them must be abolished amongst Christians; yet the truth and substance of them remain with us in Jesus Christ, in whom they have their completion. In the meantime, we still use the testimonies taken out of the law and the prophets, to confirm us in the doctrine of the gospel, and to regulate our life in all honesty, to the glory of God, according to his will.”
The Belgic Confession Article XXV
The title of this article, “Of the abolishing of the Ceremonial Law,” is not quite correct and a bit misleading. It speaks of the fact that the ceremonial law has been abolished; while the article itself speaks not only of the ceremonial law, but of the entire law. And, the article does not teach that the law has been abolished, but rather that the use of it is abolished, while the truth and substance of it remain with us in Jesus Christ.
One might also wonder at the point of this brief article. Why does the Confession, in the middle of a discussion of the Person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, suddenly speak of the law and its ceremonies? There is good reason. But, one cannot understand the significance of this article without an appreciation of the historical setting in which it was written. In the Apostolic era and the years immediately following, the worship of the church was very simple. Gradually the church separated itself from the elaborate ceremonies of the Jews. The worship service consisted of the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, prayers, and the singing of Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. The emphasis lay on preaching, and there was very little if any ritual or ceremony. Slowly but surely during the ensuing centuries, that simple worship service was exchanged for an elaborate liturgy with new rites and ceremonies. Stress was laid on the sacraments as the vehicles of grace. The spontaneous prayers of the early church were replaced by fixed prayers, spoken and sometimes sung by the clergy. Pictures and images were introduced as “books to the laity.” And the preaching of the Word lost its central place in the worship. So bad was it that by the time of the Reformation the gospel was buried under a mass of symbols and ceremonies. To defend these ways of worship the Roman hierarchy continually appealed to the ritual of Old Testament worship.
With the sixteenth century Reformation came three reactions to Roman liturgy. The Anabaptists virtually repudiated the position that the Old Testament was significant for the development of Christian doctrine, worship, and practice. For these the New Testament was of paramount authority. Others, the Lutherans and especially the Anglicans, retained as many of the ancient rites as were, in their opinion, not forbidden by the gospel. Thus in these churches altars, vestments, and the liturgical year were preserved. The Calvinistic or Reformed branch of the Reformation followed a different course. Among these the general rule was adopted that whatever the Scriptures plainly enjoined was obligatory. All other rites and ceremonies were to be banished. Therefore, while much of the simplicity of the early church’s worship was restored, the underlying argument for this differed sharply from the Anabaptists. The Reformed church has always strenuously defended the unity of the two Testaments. Although recognizing the differences of administration (the typical character of the Old Testament), the essential unity between the two testaments is preserved. In this light we can understand Article XXV of Confession. The “ceremonies and figures” of the law ceased with the coming of Christ, all the shadows are accomplished so that the “use of them must be abolished among christians”; yet “the truth and substance of them remain with us in Jesus Christ, in whom they have their completion.” And thus we “still use the testimonies taken out of the law and the prophets, to confirm us in the doctrine of the gospel, and to regulate our life in all honesty, to the glory of God, according to his will.”
We may also note that the error of Premillennialism stands condemned by this article. The basic error of Pre-millennialism is that it separates between the Old and New Dispensations, finding no, continuity .or relationship between them. Our Confessionemphasizes that the law and the prophets have all been fulfilled in Christ, and thus, while their use for Christians has been abolished, their truth and substance remain for the church of all ages.
The article does not specifically mention it but does clearly imply that the entire law is meant. In fact by “the law and the prophets”, is meant the entire Old Testament. That law is usually divided into three parts. There was the moral law which is briefly summed in the ten commandments. The ceremonial law directed Israel’s life as a church. This law included all the laws concerning sacrifices, feast days, cleansings, etc. Finally there was the civil law which governed Israel’s life as a nation. This law included regulations concerning crimes, family rights, property rights, etc.
As to its purpose, the Law served to form Israel into a separate nation and the people of God. Christ had not yet come and the blood of atonement had not yet been shed. The Lord had not yet been raised from the dead and exalted at the Father’s right hand. And the Spirit of Christ had not yet been poured out into the church. Yet God would have a people also in the Old Dispensation who would walk before Him as His own chosen people in the midst of the world. Thus at Mount Sinai, in faithfulness to His covenant promise, after having delivered Israel from the bondage of Egypt and before leading them into the promised land, God gave them His Law and said: “Be ye holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” By that law Israel was distinguished sharply from the nations of the world around them and they were indelibly marked as God’s church, the typical manifestation of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the world.
But Israel could never keep the law. The law, after all, demanded perfect obedience in every respect. Simple, outward conformity to the external principles and stipulations of the law was never sufficient. God Himself repeatedly warned the people that He was weary of their sacrifices because they were externally offered and not accompanied by broken spirits and contrite hearts. “This people honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” That means that the law not only said, “Do this and thou shalt live,” but also, “Cursed is everyone that does not abide in all that is written in the book of the law to do it.” For this reason the law led to slavery, and the true people of God groaned under the burden of the law. For this reason the law was also intended to be a schoolmaster to lead the people to Christ. There could be no justification by the works of the law. That could only be by faith in Christ. (Galatians 3:21-29) Israel in the Old Dispensation was as .a child who had not yet come to maturity. They were children under tutors and governors until the fulness of time was come, when God sent His Son into the world. (Galatians 4:1-5) Thus Israel, the child; had to be led by the hand of the law until the, time of, maturity when they could receive their inheritance through the redeeming work of Christ and the outpouring of His Spirit.
With the coming of Christ, that whole law was fulfilled. Christ came as the only One Who could keep the law of God, not only in its outward stipulations, but especially with respect to its inner reality. At His coming the Savior said: “I come to do thy will O God.” Thus all through His earthly sojourn our Lord was bent on keeping every jot and tittle of the law, while at the same time, He scorned the mere outward observance and damned the Pharisees for their work righteousness. Thus at the coming of Christ the shadows of the law fled away. The whole law pointed to Christ. He was the reality. When He came as the eternal High Priest and as the perfect Lamb of God to offer the perfect sacrifice for sin, the shadows of the law had no more place or purpose. When Christ died, that moment marked the end of all that pertained to the economy of the Old Dispensation.
But as the Confession puts it, “the truth and substance” of the law remained in Jesus Christ. Christ is the real substance of all the law. That is exactly why Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17-20) That same truth is found in Romans 10:4 where we read “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth.” Christ is the purposeful end or goal of the law for righteousness. In Christ, therefore, the law finds its fulfillment. Its truth and substance remain in Jesus Christ. That could never perish. Israel still is, but no more is it the Jewish nation; it is the true Israel of God, the natural branches of the olive tree of God’s church (cf. Romans 11). Jerusalem still is, but not as an earthly city; it is the spiritual city of God. Canaan still is, but not in the land of Palestine; it is the inheritance of the people of God in the new heavens and earth. God’s temple and tabernacle still are, but they are the covenant fellowship of God with His people in Christ. Christ is our Prophet, Priest, and King and we are a royal priesthood in Him (I Peter 2:9). He is the fulfillment of all the sacrifices. Washings and cleansings still exist, but in the sanctified heart of the elect child of God. Tithes and firstfruits still have their place, but are now the true sacrifices of our thanksgiving. Fasting is changed in Christ to the real sorrow of a contrite heart. All the inward substance of the whole law is written upon the hearts of God’s people by sovereign grace through the perfect sacrifice of Christ.
All of this certainly does not mean that we have nothing to do with the law or the Old Dispensation anymore. We do. It has a very real purpose for us who live in the end of the ages. The law and the prophets are for our instruction. In as far as they show that the Lord fulfills His promises, they confirm our faith and help us to understand the reality. In the substance of the law there are also eternal principles of truth and righteousness which regulate our lives in the midst of the world. The law reveals sin to us, points us to the cross, and it is the rule for our life of gratitude to the praise of God Who gave us His only begotten Son to, redeem us from the curse of the law.