By Andrew V. Ste. Marie
The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
This statement is used by many to excuse their disobedience to the words of Jesus and the Apostles – what they would call the “letter.” Anyone who insists on literal obedience to the commandments of God Almighty is accused of making too much of the “letter” which “kills.” The accusers, in their disobedience, are supposedly enjoying “freedom” of the “Spirit” and think they have spiritual life which their “legalist” friend lacks.
What are we to make of such arguments? They may sound intimidating and credible when they are put forward. After all, why be concerned about actually obeying Christ if you do not have to – or if obedience can actually tend to spiritual death? We certainly do not want that! But are our “spiritual” friends using the Scriptures correctly?
There is only one Scripture which uses an expression similar to that at the head of this article. In II Corinthians 3:6, the Apostle Paul writes that God “also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” A similar expression is found in Romans 7:6: “But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter” (cf. Romans 2:27, 29).
What is “the Letter”?
The question should immediately rise in our minds, “what letter is Paul referring to?” An examination of the contexts of the above references will reveal the answer.
Notice what Paul is referring to in the first part of II Corinthians 3:6: He is pointing out that he and his coworkers had been made “able ministers of the new testament.” The context, then, is the distinction between the two covenants – the New Covenant of Christ and the Old Covenant under Moses. The “letter” being referred to, then, is the old letter of the Mosaic Covenant.
That this is so is confirmed by a look at the broader context.
Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth. For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious (II Corinthians 3:5-11).
Notice what is being contrasted throughout this passage – the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. (To emphasize this, I have bolded that which refers to the New Covenant and underlined what refers to the Old Covenant.) Notice the back and forth contrast between the two which Paul is making – it goes all throughout this passage. Notice also that he later uses the spirit to refer to the New Covenant – “shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious?”
Thus we see that in II Corinthians 3, the “letter” does not refer to the New Testament commands of Jesus and the Apostles, but to the Old Testament commands of Moses. What about the other passages where “letter” is used?
Here is the context for the quotation from Romans 7:
Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth? For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man. Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter. What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet (Romans 7:1-7).
Notice again that the context is “the law.” Paul points out that we have died to the Law so that we are no longer under its dominion; instead, we can be married to Christ and bring forth fruit unto God. In verse 6, he restates this principle, saying that we are delivered from the Law, so that we could serve in the “newness of spirit” and not in “the oldness of the letter.” How do we know the “law” in this passage is referring to Moses’ law? Throughout Romans, this has been the predominant usage of the term “law,” although there are exceptions – even later on in this very chapter. However, notice in verse 7 how Paul reveals how he is using the term “law.” It was “the law” which said, “Thou shalt not covet.” What law is this? The Law of Moses (Exodus 20:17).
There is one more passage of Scripture in which “letter” is used in this context, and that is in Romans 2.
Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, And knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law…For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God (Romans 2:17-18, 25-29).
Notice again the context of the reference to the “letter.” The Law of Moses is that which instructs the Jews. Circumcision, an ordinance of the Law of Moses, is included in the context. The “letter,” then, appears to mean a literal fulfillment or obedience to the details of the Law of Moses. For instance, in verse 29, Paul points out that the true circumcision is that which is in heart and spirit – “putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:11b) – not the actual operation on the body, i.e., “not in the letter.”
What is the Death which the Letter Brings?
We have noticed from the context of Paul’s usages of the theological term “letter” that it refers to the Mosaic Law. In our search to understand Paul’s meaning, we must now investigate what the death is which this “letter” brings. The answer to this question is clearly given in Romans 7.
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful (Romans 7:7-13).
Romans 7 is a controversial chapter, but it appears that Paul is explaining the nature of the Law of Moses and its work in a man’s heart – that is, bringing the sinner to Christ – by his own experience before his conversion. This is particularly clear in this section of the chapter. Paul points out first that the Law is not sin; rather, it reveals sin, such as covetousness. Sin, however, takes the opportunity afforded by a commandment to take action in a man’s heart and life. It is human nature to want that which is forbidden. A preacher who is also a painter said that he used to put up “Wet Paint” signs when he would paint in restaurants. People who came through would inevitably touch the walls, just to see if it really was wet – and of course, would find that it was. When he stopped putting up “Wet Paint” signs, the wall-touching stopped. People want what is forbidden. The Law, rather than restraining sin, actually stirs it up and causes it to increase in strength.
Paul goes on to say that “without the law sin was dead.” Just like the people walking right past un-posted wet paint, evil did not have much appeal for Paul when he had not yet heard the law forbidding evil. He then says that he was alive without the law once. It seems that he is referring to his state as a young boy, before he learned the Law. Yes, Paul was probably a naughty boy at times, but having not yet learned God’s righteous standard nor having made a conscious, mature decision to accept or reject it, he was, in a sense, spiritually alive. However, the day came when Paul learned the Law of Moses. When “the commandment came,” that is, when he learned about it and became conscious of God’s standard for life, “sin revived.” The Law actually produced sin in his life! The result? “I died.” Paul’s entrance into the state of spiritual death occurred when he became a conscious sinner, knowing the Law of God and failing to live up to it. Paul points out that God ordained the Law to be “unto life.”
I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live: That thou mayest love the LORD thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him: for he is thy life, and the length of thy days: that thou mayest dwell in the land which the LORD sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
Although God ordained the Law for life, Paul in his experience found it to lead to death. Why? Sin took the opportunity which the Law gave, and it was sin which deceived and spiritually killed young Paul. Paul goes on to vindicate the Law of being evil; on the other hand, it is “holy, and just, and good.” How could something good lead to death? Paul points out that sin, so that it could be revealed for what it was, took the Law in its hands like a sword and killed Paul. Sin took the Law and did with it what it had not been intended for. In this way, the Law revealed the true nature of sin – that it was “exceeding sinful,” in that it could take that which was good and use it to produce death.
So how does this relate to “the letter” mentioned by Paul? Remember that “the letter” refers to the Old Covenant, the Law of Moses. This passage reveals what kind of death “the letter” works when it “killeth.” It gives an opportunity for sin to stir itself up and revive in a man’s heart, which then uses the Law to produce spiritual death. That this is a correct understanding of Paul’s testimony in Romans 7 is confirmed by verse 5: “For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.” The killing which the letter performs is done by producing sin in a man’s life; this sin works in our body to “bring forth fruit unto death.”
This is all directly contrary to our friends’ understanding, who insist that the “letter” is the New Testament commands of Jesus and the Apostles, and the “death” is brought about by the “legalism” of those who insist that Christians must obey God. The “letter” does not kill by driving to obedience, but by driving to sin!
What is the “Spirit”?
What is the “spirit” referred to in these passages? This is not made explicitly clear. One meaning which fits the contexts is that it is the spirit or intention behind the Law. Remember that God ordained the Law for life, but in practical experience, it leads to death. The spirit, then, could be God’s intention for man to have life – the heavenly life of God revealed in man’s everyday, practical experience. As Paul discovered, the carnal, unregenerated man cannot possibly keep God’s Law. A practical attainment (or surpassing) of the righteousness of the Law requires an indwelling of the Holy Spirit – God Himself. “Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his” (Romans 8:9b). This Spirit is only given to those who obey God. “And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him” (Acts 5:32).
Let us return again to our friends, who insist that insistence upon obedience is bondage to the “letter” which “killeth.” We have seen that the New Covenant commands of Jesus are not what Paul had in mind when he wrote about the “letter.” Such an interpretation would contradict Jesus’ own words: “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). Jesus’ words are spirit, and they are life! They are not the letter which kills.
Originally published in The Witness 13(11) November 2015.