If you were to ask the average Reformed Christian to name the three uses of the law, there is a decent chance that the answer might be the moral, the civil, and the ceremonial. In short, some Christians confuse the threefold division of the law with the three uses of the law. The threefold division of the law has to do with the different kinds of laws that we find in the Mosaic covenant—namely, the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the civil law. The three uses of the law are something different. But before we get to that, let us briefly look at the threefold division of the law, commonly delineated as the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the civil law. This is necessary because the three uses pertain to only one of those divisions.
The moral law is contained in its most concise written form in the Ten Commandments, which concern our duties toward God and man. The ceremonial laws, such as those concerning the priests and the sacrifices, were typical ordinances that prefigured the person and work of Christ. These ceremonial laws are now abrogated since Christ offered the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Himself on the cross (see Heb. 7–10). Few today (outside certain strands of Messianic Judaism) argue for any continuing use of the ceremonial law, and even then, such arguments typically contend only for things such as the observation of Jewish festivals.
The civil law consists of those laws given to Israel as a unique political state (for example, the cities of refuge in Josh. 20:7–9). As the Westminster Confession of Faith explains, these laws “expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other, now, further than the general equity thereof may require” (19.4). The civil law has expired because it had to do with Israel in its unique place under the Mosaic covenant. Within the Reformed churches, however, there are some who argue for a continuing use of the civil law that goes beyond the “general equity” mentioned in the Westminster Confession. Those who hold to the view known as theonomy have often argued for an essentially twofold division of the law rather than threefold. In this twofold division, the civil law is effectively a subset of the moral law. Proponents of theonomy argue that the civil law should be enforced by every nation on earth (with qualifications related to different times, places, and cultures). There are a number of serious problems with theonomy, but the most serious has always been a failure to come to grips with the absolute uniqueness of Old Testament Israel within redemptive history.
The ceremonial laws prefigured Christ and His work, and we are still able to learn much about Him by studying these laws even though they have been abrogated. Furthermore, we can still make use of the general equity of the civil law even though it has expired. To say that the ceremonial laws are abrogated and the civil law has expired is not to say that these laws are worthless. When we discuss the three uses of the law in a technical sense, however, it is important to understand that we are specifically talking about the three uses of the moral law. We are not discussing the ceremonial law, and we are not discussing the civil law.