The Principle & Expression Framework
Here is an interesting conundrum. Scripture is full of passages that teach us to delight in the Law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night (Ps 1:2), that God’s law is perfect, right, and pure (Ps 19:7-8), and that it is eternal (Ps 119:111-113). Yet, other passages in the Bible teach things like “Now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Rom 7:6), and “[Jesus] abolished the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (Eph 2:15), and “you are not under law but under grace” (Rom 6:14). As Bible-believing Christians who accept all of Scripture as true, how can we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory positions on God’s law? Allow me to introduce a biblical framework called Principle & Expression. It is a lens for viewing Scripture that offers a significant degree of explanatory power and can be a helpful key for unlocking difficult passages about the law.
The concept behind the P&E framework is nothing new. It is based on the distinction between a general principle and a specific expression of that principle.
For example, consider the moral principle “murder is wrong.” All nations and cultures at all times have regarded murder—the unlawful killing of one human being by another—to be immoral. However, the way countries and cultures express this principle varies. For example, prior to 2005, a husband in Haiti who killed his wife while discovering her in the act of committing adultery was not guilty of murder.1 Then, in 2005, the Haitian government abolished that right. Murdering one’s wife under adulterous circumstances was no longer tolerated.
So, while the moral principle “murder is wrong” never changed, there was a clear change in the Haitian legal expression of this principle before and after 2005. What was allowed under one expression became prohibited under the next. Yet, the general principle that “murder is wrong” held true. Further, while the Haitian government changed the law that addressed killing an unfaithful wife, the rest of their murder laws were left untouched. Thus, (1.) the new expression did not wipe out or replace the previous expression, and (2.) the two expressions—before 2005 and after 2005—are far more alike than different. This is because both expressions are grounded in the same unchanging principle: “murder is wrong.”
When it comes to Scripture, the premise of the Principle & Expression framework is this: There exists a set of perfect principles grounded in God that never change. And God has expressed these unchanging principles to His people differently at different times in history. Every commandment given by Yahweh in every expression across time is grounded in one or more of His unchanging principles. And although Scripture reveals that the expressions have changed, they each reflect the unchanging heart of God and, as such, are vastly more alike than different.
Before we continue, let’s establish our terminology. In this article, we will use the phrase Law of God to refer to the unchanging, universal principles God set for mankind from the very beginning. And it is important to note that this definition may not always correspond to the definition of the “Law of God” intended by the biblical authors. Each use of this phrase in Scripture has to be understood in its own context.
The Law of God (as we’re defining it) has been in effect and unchanging since creation. However, it has been expressed in different ways throughout history. The most prominent and formal expression occurred at Mount Sinai. Over the course of a year, God gave Israel a set of holy commands through Moses, which the Bible refers to as the Law of Moses.2 So we will use that phrase to refer to the body of mitzvot (commandments) given at Sinai as recorded in the Torah.3 We will alternately refer to the Law of Moses as the Mosaic Expression since it was the specific way God expressed His unchanging universal principles to Israel through Moses.
Scripture later explains that this Mosaic Expression was given to Israel as a tutor or guardian to help guide God’s people until Christ came.
So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.Galatians 3:24-25
This passage offers an excellent opportunity to try an application of the Principle & Expression framework, under which we might understand it as saying something like:
The Mosaic expression of the Law of God was our guardian until Christ came. And now that Christ has come, we no longer live by that expression but rather by a New Expression of the same Law of God.
In other words, God’s people always have been—and always will be—under the Law of God. The New Covenant did not change that. But because of the work of Christ, it is now expressed differently. So we can refer to the Law of God as expressed under the New Covenant as the New Expression. Thus, we have a Mosaic Expression and a New Expression of the same unchanging Law of God. And it’s important to remember the two observations from the example of Haitian murder laws. (1.) The new expression did not wipe out the previous expression, and (2.) the two expressions are far more alike than different. This is because each expression is grounded in the same unchanging Law of God.
Applying the P&E lens can help harmonize the passages in Scripture that tell us about God’s perfect unchanging law with those passages that say we are no longer under the law. This tension is at the heart of the debate between Torahism and mainstream Christianity. And the P&E framework reveals that the running disagreement between these two theologies occurs at the level of expression rather than principle. And it allows us to affirm two seemingly paradoxical truths at the same time: The Law of God is unchanging, and yet Christians are not required to keep the Law of Moses.
Why Change it?
A common question arises at this point. If God has a universal Law or set of principles grounded in Himself, why would He ever change how He expresses them to mankind? It is not because He has changed, but because His people have, in two significant ways.
First, throughout history, like a maturing child, God’s people have grown in their knowledge of Him. He first spoke directly to individuals; men like Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Then at Sinai, the Law of God was expressed in writing for an entire nation. He gave Israel stone tablets with the Ten Commandments. Then came the Torah and the prophets and the writings of the Tanakh. Mankind’s knowledge of God grew continually as God’s revelation about Himself increased. And centuries later, God gave His people a new revelation through Jesus and the New Testament authors. The author of Hebrews describes His progressive revelation in this way.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.Hebrews 1:1-2
The second reason for the change in expressions is that Yahweh has stepped into history over time to affect change in the world. As a result, the circumstances of His people have changed dramatically throughout history. Many acts of God brought with them a new expression of His same, unchanging principles. At one point, it was just God and the first two humans living in the Garden together. Later, God’s people spent four centuries enslaved in Egypt, where they grew from a small tribe into a large people group. And Yahweh eventually stepped in. He rescued them, brought them to the mountain, and gave them the Law of Moses. That Law was given to grow His people from a band of slaves into an orderly nation that would serve Him and show the world His greatness. And later, God sent His only Son to inaugurate His New Covenant and redeem His people from sin and death. Scripture unmistakably reveals that God moves and acts in the timeline of history.
Of course, God’s plan for all of this was established from the very beginning. But in His sovereignty, He choses to enact it sequentially, little by little, over thousands of years. Yahweh does not tell us everything He plans to do all at once. Rather He reveals His will to us on a need-to-know basis. So while God himself is outside of time—indeed, He is the creator of time!—He choses to condescend to humanity by stepping into our timeline of history and working out his plan of redemption there.
For reasons we cannot know, God did not choose to send Jesus to save His people at Mount Sinai. Instead, He made a covenant with Israel and gave them a set of laws to serve as its terms. If Israel obeyed the laws, she would be blessed. If she disobeyed, she would be cursed (Deut 28). God chose Moses to present this law to Israel. And, as Yahweh would later reveal, many aspects of this Mosaic Law were given as foreshadowing of the New Covenant He would eventually make with His people through Christ.
Testing a Principle
To demonstrate this framework, let us examine the unchanging principle in the Law of God that “atonement for sin comes through the shedding of blood.” By tracing this principle through Scripture its various expressions become evident. The principle is first hinted at in the Garden when, as a result of their sin, Adam and Eve suddenly became aware of their nakedness. What did God do in response to this first sin? He instituted the first shedding of blood in history.
And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.Genesis 3:21
The phrase “garments of skins” suggests the original institution of blood sacrifice. Ross explains it this way,
An animal was sacrificed to provide garments of skin, and later all Israel’s animal sacrifices would be part of God’s provision to remedy the curse—a life for a life. The sinner shall die! (Ezek. 18:20; Rom. 6:23) Yet he will live if he places his faith in the LORD, who has provided a Substitute. The skin with which God clothed Adam and Eve perpetually reminded them of God’s provision. Similarly in the fullness of time, God accepted the sacrifice of Christ, and on the basis of that atonement. He clothes believers in righteousness (Rom. 3:21–26).Ross, A. P. (1985), “Genesis.” In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 1, p. 33).
Centuries after being ejected from Eden, just prior to the giving of the Mosaic Law, God’s unchanging principle of blood atonement becomes even more apparent. While His people were still in slavery in Egypt, God gave the commandment to sacrifice the Passover lamb. And here we first explicitly see the shedding of blood secure the salvation of God’s people.
The whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it . . . The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.Exodus 12:6b–7, 13
This first Passover was a foreshadowing of the blood of Christ. Fifteen centuries later, Jesus would be explicitly referred to as “our Passover Lamb” (1 Cor 5:7). God’s principle is clear; it is blood that saves His sinful people from His wrath. Then, shortly after that first Passover, which led to Israel’s great exodus out of Egypt, God’s people arrived at Mount Sinai. There they received the Mosaic expression of the Law of God, and Yahweh revealed more about the nature of His principle of blood atonement.
For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.Leviticus 17:11
The Passover sacrifice that ended Israel’s slavery in Egypt marked the beginning of ritual sacrifice. Under the Mosaic Law, Yahweh expressed His unchanging principle of blood atonement in the form of animal sacrifices at the tabernacle. He instituted a new requirement to atone for sin, the blood of bulls and goats (Lev 16). His universal principle was now expressed as a continual ceremony in the temple services. And then, centuries later, under the New Covenant, things changed dramatically. The author of Hebrews wrote:
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!Hebrews 9:13-14
Scripture reveals that God’s principle of blood atonement remains under the New Expression. It was not abolished, and it did not come to an end. But the specific expression of this principle changed significantly. Atonement was now to be found in the blood of Christ.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.Romans 3:23-25
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.Ephesians 1:7
For by a single offering [Jesus] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.Hebrews 10:14
So, on the issue of blood atonement, we can clearly trace the evolution of the various expressions of the Law of God. His unchanging principle was first expressed in the Garden through the skins of animals. This was a shadow of Christ’s sacrifice (Heb 10:1-5). The shadow took on more detail in the Passover sacrifice and the ritual sacrifice of bulls and goats under the Mosaic Expression. And finally, under the New Covenant, the shadow gave way to the real thing. God’s principle of blood atonement was ultimately expressed in Christ, “whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Rom 3:25 NRSV).
Do Christians today still have a sacrifice? Yes, we do! Christ is our sacrifice. Under the New Covenant, “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10:10). The blood sacrifice required by the unchanging Law of God is now fulfilled in the sacrifice of Jesus, and the animal sacrifices required under the Mosaic expression are no longer necessary.
The Principle & Expression framework offers a significant degree of explanatory power in reconciling difficult and seemingly contradictory passages in Scripture. It allows us to affirm God’s unchanging nature while accounting for the apparent changes we see regarding the law.
2 Joshua 8:31-32, 23:6; Judges 4:11; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 23:35; 2 Chronicles 23:18, 30:16; Ezra 3:2, 7:6, Nehemiah 8:1; Daniel 9:13; Luke 2:22, 24:44; John 7:23; Acts 13:39, 15:5, 28:23; 1 Corinthians 9:9; Hebrews 10:28.
3 The Bible doesn’t provide an exact number of laws given to Israel, but Jewish tradition holds there were 613.