Article 25 - Christ, the Fulfilment of the Law
CHRIST, THE FULFILMENT OF THE LAW
We believe that the ceremonies and symbols of the law have ceased with the coming of Christ, and that all shadows have been fulfilled, so that the use of them ought to be abolished among Christians. Yet their truth and substance remain for us in Jesus Christ, in whom they have been fulfilled.
In the meantime we still use the testimonies taken from the law and the prophets, both to confirm us in the doctrine of the gospel and to order our life in all honour, according to God's will and to His glory.
Articles 22 and 23 confessed Christ’s work of justification and Article 24 Christ’s work of sanctification. DeBres continues his confession concerning Christ in Article 26 by mentioning His intercessory work at God’s right hand. Yet deBres saw a need to insert within this sequence of articles dealing with the work of Christ an article concerning the Old Testament laws and ceremonies. One wonders why. Why would deBres wish to interrupt his confession concerning Christ’s work with an article devoted to the law of the Old Testament? DeBres saw a need to state clearly that the work of Christ on the cross was so complete that the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Old Testament law had been fulfilled.
ROMAN CATHOLICS: CONTINUE TO SACRIFICE CHRIST DAILY
The Belgic Confession was completed in 1561, not long after the Great Reformation had passed through Roman Catholic Europe. In deBres’ day the Roman Catholic Church taught that though the ritual cleansings as prescribed in the Old Testament were no longer required, we still need to keep the Old Testament ceremonial laws. The daily forgiveness of sins, they said, can only be obtained through the daily sacrificing of Christ. Hence the Roman Catholic Church maintained the sacrament of the Eucharist, in which the priest offered Christ daily to God (cf Lord’s Day 30.80). DeBres and his congregation had been brought up from childhood with this teaching. The Reformers, though, had opened the Scriptures and learned that daily sacrifices for sin were no longer required because Christ had already fully paid for sin – as deBres gratefully confessed in Articles 22 and 23. But if Christ has indeed fully paid for sin and reconciled the sinner to God, there was simply no need for the sinner still to keep the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. This is the conviction deBres expressed in Article 25.
CHRIST: THE FULFILMENT OF THE LAW
DeBres writes in this article that the Old Testament laws have been “fulfilled”. This sentiment echoed Christ’s instruction in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). In Article 5 we saw how the Old and New Testaments complemented each other. The Old Testament looked forward to the Cross of Calvary, while the New Testament reflects back on that cross. Well now, Jesus did not destroy the Law and the Prophets that foreshadowed His coming, but rather accomplished perfectly what the Law foretold concerning Him.
Should New Testament believers now keep the Old Testament ceremonies? No, says deBres, “We believe that the ceremonies and symbols of the law have ceased with the coming of Christ, and that all shadows have been fulfilled, so that the use of them ought to be abolished among Christians.” This means that if we should become aware of any sin against the law on our part, we no longer have to take an animal to the priest and make a sacrifice to atone for that sin (see Leviticus 4). As the apostle to the Hebrews wrote, “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood (Christ) entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). Christ has fulfilled the law’s requirement for blood so that we no longer need to sacrifice blood to atone for our sins.
The Old Testament laws, ceremonies, and feasts were “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:17). “The law was our tutor to bring us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24), writes Paul, and we learn from that that the ceremonies of the tabernacle foreshadowed Christ’s work and directed Israel’s attention to the work He would do. So “Christ is the end,” the purpose and goal “of the law” (Romans 10:4). Now that His work on the cross is complete, Christ has fulfilled the ceremonies of the law so that the New Testament church needs no longer perform those ceremonies as the people of Israel did.
ANABAPTISTS: A FULFILLED LAW IS AN OBSOLETE LAW
While the Roman Catholics in deBres’ day maintained that the ceremonies of the law should still be performed in New Testament worship, the Anabaptists on the other hand (they were the Protestants who swung too far to the other extreme) claimed that in having fulfilled the ceremonies of the law, Christ made them obsolete and hence they have no role at all any more in the New Testament dispensation. In turn, the law (and with it much more of the Old Testament) could safely be ignored. This thought is still alive today, and explains why much preaching (in the Western world) is drawn solely from the New Testament. This thinking is also behind the printing of New Testament Bibles, without the Old Testament.
DeBres could not agree with this sentiment of the Anabaptists, and saw distinct value in the Old Testament law for the New Testament church. Back in Article 5 deBres repeated after God what He had revealed in His Word about the authority of Holy Scripture. He (and we with him) said, “we receive all these books, (including books as Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, focused as they are on the ceremonies and symbols of the law), ... as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith.” We find these words echoed in Article 25, “In the meantime we still use the testimonies taken from the law and the prophets, both to confirm us in the doctrine of the gospel and to order our life in all honour, according to God’s will and to His glory.”
The point is that the Old Testament explains what the Lord teaches us in the New Testament. It is not only the New Testament that reveals the gospel of the forgiveness of sins, but the law and the prophets do this too. Those ceremonies of the Old Testament law are vivid pictures of how it is that the Lord has obtained salvation for us in Jesus Christ. One need but recall the action of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, when he had to lay his hand on the goat, confess over it the sins of the people, and then send the goat away into the wilderness to perish. Here is a clear picture of how our sins were transferred onto Jesus Christ so that He perished in our place. When the priests and Levites of the Old Testament dispensation explained the ceremonies of the tabernacle (see Leviticus 10:11; Deuteronomy 33:10), they were in fact preaching the gospel of redemption in Jesus’ blood.
Furthermore, the Ten Commandments teach us to “order our life in all honour according to God’s will and to His glory.” The New Testament certainly promotes and reinforces a lifestyle in obedience to God’s Ten Commandments as recorded for us in the Old Testament. But it is to the Old Testament that we ought to turn to learn how saints as Abraham and Joseph, Moses and David, lived a life of trust in God and obedience to His commands. It is not for us to cast aside as obsolete the Old Testament revelation God preserved for us; our obligation instead is to read these Scriptures, to familiarize ourselves with them and to treasure them.
Christ has finished the work the Father gave Him to do. The Father’s mandate for the Son was written in detail in the ceremonies and symbols of the Old Testament law. So the church does not offer sacrifices for sin today. Yet the Lord has preserved for us in His Word what He required in these ceremonies so that we might the more fully understand and appreciate the righteousness Christ attained for us and thereby be confirmed in our faith. So the Old Testament remains a source of rich instruction as New Testament saints delight in the completed work of Jesus Christ.
Points for Discussion:
- Why did deBres include at this point in his confession an article about the Old Testament ceremonial law?
- Why does the Christian no longer need to keep the Old Testament ceremonial law?
- Why does Christ no longer need to be sacrificed for us?
- What does it mean that Christ “fulfilled” the law?
- What role do the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament play today? What value does the rest of the Old Testament have? Is it necessary for Christians today to read the book of Leviticus? Why?
- What function does the Moral Law have today?