Reformed Baptist Fellowship

IRBS Continuing Education Program – Lecture Notes

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on June 17, 2014 at 3:15 pm


Definition of Key Terms and Phrases

Doing theology involves utilizing terms and phrases that have evolved over time which attempt to encapsulate crucial biblical teaching. Technical terms and phrases are used to accommodate wide swaths of biblical truth into brief, theological short-hand. Before we embark upon a survey of Reformed theologians and the Confession of Faith on the law of God, it may be helpful to acquaint ourselves with the theological nomenclature typically utilized in such discussions. We will lean heavily upon Richard A. Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, which I highly recommend.

Key Terms and Phrases

  • Natural Law

lex naturalis: natural law; also lex naturae; law of nature; the universal moral law either impressed by God upon the mind of all people or immediately discerned by the reason in its encounter with the order of nature. The natural law was therefore available even to those pagans who did not have the advantage of the Sinaitic revelation and the lex Mosaica [i.e., Mosaic law, which includes the natural law, though in a different form] with the result that they were left without excuse in their sins… The scholastics argue the identity of the lex naturalis with the lex Mosaica…according to substance, and distinguish them…according to form. The lex naturalis is inward, written on the heart and therefore obscure [due to sin], whereas the lex Mosacia is revealed externally and written on tablets and thus of greater clarity.[1]

The natural law is universal because God is the creator of all men. Natural laws are “founded on the natural right of God…(being founded on the very holiness and wisdom of God).”[2] They are “just and good antecedently to the command of God…”[3] They are commanded because just and good in light of who God is and what man is as His image bearer. It is “the practical rule of moral duties to which men are bound by nature.”[4] Due to man’s created constitution, this law is written on his heart, though now obscured by sin. Natural law is not acquired by tradition or formal instruction. This law was, however, promulgated (i.e., formally published) on Sinai, which differs from the natural law in form though identical to it in substance. Protestant Scholasticism taught that the Decalogue summarily contains the Moral Law and is the inscripturated form of the natural law, as to its substance. A distinction was made between substance and form. Substance is one; form (and function) may vary. For example, when the Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 98 says, “The moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments,” it refers to the fact that the substance (i.e., the underlying essence) of the Moral Law is assumed and articulated in the propositions of the Decalogue as contained in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The form (and function) fits the redemptive-historical circumstances in which it was given. The substance, or underlying principles, are always relevant and applicable to man because he is created in the image of God. The application may shift based on redemptive-historical changes, such as the inauguration of the New Covenant, but its substance and utility never changes.

  • Moral Law

Richard Muller defines Moral Law in Protestant scholastic thought as follows:

[S]pecifically and predominantly, the Decalogus, or Ten Commandments; also called the lex Mosaica …, as distinct from the lex ceremonialis …and the lex civilis, or civil law. The lex moralis, which is primarily intended to regulate morals, is known to the synderesis [the innate habit of understanding basic principles of moral law] and is the basis of the acts of conscientia [conscience–the application of the innate habit above]. In substance, the lex moralis is identical with the lex naturalis …but, unlike the natural law, it is given by revelation in a form which is clearer and fuller than that otherwise known to the reason.[5]

 As noted above, the Moral Law is summarily comprehended in the Decalogue, not exhausted by it. Though the formal promulgation of the Decalogue had a unique redemptive-historical context and use, it is nothing other than the Natural Law incorporated into the Mosaic Covenant. This is one of its uses in the Bible but not all of its uses.

  • Positive Law

Positive laws are those laws added to the Natural or Moral Law. They are dependent upon the will of God. These laws are “good because God commands them.”[6] They become just because commanded. The first Positive Laws were given to Adam in the Garden (Gen. 1:28; 2:17), as far as we know. Subsequent Positive Laws are spread throughout the Old and New Testaments. Positive laws can be abrogated for various reasons. They are not necessarily universal or perpetual. Some obvious illustrations of Positive Law in the Old Testament are circumcision and animal sacrifices and two New Testament illustrations are baptism and the Lord’s Supper under the New Covenant. Neither circumcision, animal sacrifices, baptism, or the Lord’s Supper are either universal or perpetual.

  • Ceremonial Law

Muller says:

lex ceremonialis: ceremonial law; specifically, the ceremonial or religious regulations given to Israel under the Old Covenant, alongside the moral law of the Decalogue and the civil law of the Jewish nation, such as the Levitical Code. Whereas the lex moralis…remains in force after the coming of Christ, the lex ceremonialis has been abrogated by the gospel.[7]

 This aspect of biblical law is not based on creation but conditioned upon God’s purpose to remedy the plight of man due to sin. It is Positive Law, law added to the Natural or Moral Law and, in this case, for the purposes of redemption.

  • Judicial Law

The civil or political laws revealed through Moses for ancient Israel as God’s nation in the land of promise. Though the underlying principles of these laws (i.e., their general equity) are sill of moral use, the laws as stated have expired along with the theocracy.

  • Three-Fold Division of Law

This concept sees the Moral Law as based on creation and, therefore, perpetually binding on all men (though in differing ways) and the Ceremonial and Judicial Law of the Mosaic Covenant as supplemental to the Decalogue under that covenant. The Ceremonial and Judicial Law of the Mosaic Covenant is Positive Law, law added to the Moral Law for temporary redemptive-historical purposes. The three-fold division is based on the fact that the Bible makes distinctions between different types of law functioning under the Mosaic Covenant and views the principles of the Decalogue pre-dating its formal promulgation.

  • Three-Fold Use of Law

Muller says:

 usus legis: use of the law; as distinguished by the Protestant scholastics, both Lutheran and Reformed, there are three uses of the lex moralis. (1) …the political or civil use, according to which the law serves the commonwealth, or body politic, as a force for the restraint of sin. The first usus stands completely apart from any relation to the work of salvation and functions much as revelatio generalis…in bringing some knowledge of God’s will to all mankind. (2) …the elenctical or pedagogical use; i.e., the use of the law for the confrontation and refutation of sin and for the purpose of pointing the way to Christ. …(3) …the tertius usus legis, the third use of the law. This final use of the law pertains to believers in Christ who have been saved through faith apart from works. In the regenerate life, the law no longer functions to condemn, since it no longer stands elenctically over against man as the unreachable basis for salvation, but acts as a norm of dconduct, freely accepted by those in whom the grace of God works the good. This normative use is also didactic inasmuch as the law now teaches, without condemnation, the way of righteousness.[8]

The first use applies to all men. The second use applies to all men who come in contact with the written Word of God. The third use applies to believers alone.

Concluding Thoughts

This section has been devoted to defining our terms. No attempt was made to prove all the assertions of the definitions. It is simply offered to help us as we enter the thought-world of many theologians who have gone before us. In the pages that follow, we will come in contact with the terms noted above and the concepts they seek to embody. An attempt will be made in the biblical section to show how these concepts actually come from the text of Scripture.

 Richard Barcellos
IRBS Continuing Education Program 


[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 175.

[2] Turretin, Elenctic Theology, II:2.

[3] Turretin, Elenctic Theology, II:2.

[4] Turretin, Elenctic Theology, II:2.

[5] Muller, Dictionary, 173-174.

[6] Turretin, Elenctic Theology, II:2.

[7] Muller, Dictionary, 173.

[8] Muller, Dictionary, 320-21.

  1. These notes are excellent! They will make the most reserved want to stomp and shout! 🙂

  2. Mike, can you supply a video of you stomping and shouting?

  3. […] Definition of Key Terms and Phrases […]

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