Moses proscribed the death penalty for idolatry under the Mosaic Law (Deut 13:9; 17:5). Few, if any Christians today, would advocate for the same. The reason is because when there is a change of priesthood, so also is there a change in law (Heb 7:11–12). Jesus our high priest instituted a new law, which is non-coercive and has neighbourly love as its fulfillment (Gal 5:14). This is largely because the church does not exist under a particular civil administration as a nation-state.
Given that this is so, how should Christians understand the civil law of Moses today?
The Law Is Good
While Christians believe that the whole Bible remains authoritative, they distinguish between the old and new covenants. Under the old covenant, Moses gave the law to Israel which ordered their civil, ceremonial, and moral life. When Christ came, he fulfilled the roles of prophet, priest, and king which these institutions pointed to. So we are not under the Mosaic Law anymore but the law of Christ.
The law in its entirety, as reformed thinkers will note, led to Israel’s good (Rom 7:12). Some laws like “do not murder” represent an obvious moral command. Other laws like do not mix materials together represent particular laws for Israel to aid their growth in holiness (or the like). Still other types of laws shaped their civil life in ways particular to historical Israel. For this reason, Christians generally maintain that the moral law (e.g., the Ten Commandments republish God’s eternal law or correspond to natural law), while the ceremonial and civil aspects represent a temporary arrangement for Israel’s good.
Michael Horton: for example, writes “What then are we to say about Moses’ status in the church today? Reformed theology has traditionally insisted that the moral law (that is, the Ten Commandments) remains in force, while the ceremonial and civil laws of the old covenant are now obsolete along with that covenant itself.”
This observation matches the pattern of how the New Testament cites and applies the Old Testament. Generally, it does so to point to Christ (1 Cor 10:4) or to reinforce ethical instruction (1 Cor 9:8–12). Also, Jesus uniquely enacts the story of Israel to show that in his person he fulfills the law (Matt 5:17 with 2:15, 17, 23; 3:15; 4:4).
The Civil Law Is no Longer in Effect
To cite one important reformed thinker, John Calvin will affirm that the whole law is good but can distinguish how the law of Moses applies to Israel and to the church. Speaking of the civil or juridical law, Calvin explains, “The judicial law, given [Israel] as a kind of polity, delivered certain forms of equity and justice, by which they might live together innocently and quietly” (Inst. 4.20.15).
While this law did contribute to Israel’s preservation of charity or love, the civil law “was still something distinct from the precept of love itself,” explains Calvin. So he concludes, “Therefore, as ceremonies might be abrogated without at all interfering with piety, so, also, when these judicial arrangements are removed, the duties and precepts of charity can still remain perpetual.”
Calvin’s intuition here follows Christian practice. Today, we do not institute, for example, the death penalty for idolatry (Deut 13:9; 17:5). In Israel’s particular time and place, such law contributed to its maintenance of piety and charity. Their situation differs from any nation today since no nation is a kingdom of priests meant to draw the nations to itself to hear the promised hope of the Saviour (e.g, Exod 19:4–6; Isa 43:10).
The Mosaic civil law has been abrogated as law over Israel. The civil law, nevertheless, applies to us today as authoritative Scripture which points to Christ and as a guide to help us live wisely.