The Letter & The Spirit

Have you ever heard someone say, “we should be concerned with the spirit and not the letter of the law”?  They are advocating that instead of being so concerned with carrying out the details of the law of Christ, which they would consider harshness, we ought to be more concerned with what they call the “spirit of the law”.  The “spirit of the law” for them is some subjective, more general feeling about what God wants.  Such a view is not scriptural and is not the meaning of the phrases “letter of the law” and “the spirit” that Paul contrasted multiple times in his epistles.  Let us consider the Scriptures where Paul contrasts these phrases.

Romans 2:29

“…But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.”  Speaking to Jews who wanted to rest their righteousness upon their physical circumcision, which was an ordinance given to that once-chosen nation, Paul tells them that throughout that Mosaical dispensation the Jew who was approved of God was the one whose heart and thus his resulting behavior showed high regard and obedience to the law of Moses.  Is this not the message of the prophets sent time and again to Israel, telling them to “rend your heart and not your garments” (Joel 2:13)?  This verse then is not promoting the idea that Christians ought to be concerned with some subjective feeling about what God meant and not with the details of God’s law.

Romans 7:6

“But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.”  In this context, Paul is making it abundantly clear that the Jew had “become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another” (verse 4) – who is Christ.  The Jew who obeyed Christ was delivered from the law of Moses, and that is the “oldness of the letter” in verse 6.  Now, that Jew could serve God in the “newness of the Spirit,” described later in chapter 8 as “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:2).  The contrast of “oldness of the letter” and “newness of the Spirit” is clearly a contrast between the law of Moses and the law of Christ, not a contrast between a feeling about the law of God versus the details of the law of God.

2 Corinthians 3:5b-6

“But our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”  In this context, Paul describes the letter as “the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones” for the children of Israel (verse 7), and that is the “Old Testament” of verse 14.  And he describes the Spirit as “the ministry of the Spirit” (verse 8).  He even says “the Lord is the Spirit” (verse 17), and he is speaking of Christ (verse 14).  Again, the contrast of letter and Spirit is between the law of Moses and the law of Christ.

Over and over again from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible shows that God is pleased when man gives attention to the details of His word, and He is displeased when man fudges the word to some general, subjective feeling about what God might want.

There was a Jewish man David, a man after God’s own heart, who loved the law of the Lord, a law which is described by Paul as the “oldness of the letter” and a “ministry of death.”  “Oh, how I love your law” (Psalm 119:97).  “The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever” (Psalm 119:160).  David loved all of God’s word, and desired to perform it all: “I have restrained my feet from every evil way, that I may keep Your word” (Psalm 119:101).  How much more should we be concerned with keeping every word of God in the gospel of Christ, described as a “ministry of the Spirit” that is “more glorious” and “gives life” (2 Corinthians 7:6, 8)?

  • Larry Jones