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Paul wrote, “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” (2 Corinthians 3: 6). The apostle didn’t teach that we should not keep the “letter” of the law. For if we don’t keep the letter of law, then we may kill, steal, and commit adultery (Exodus 20). The truth is the spirit of the law tells us how we may keep the law.
The law is good
The Law of God was given to promote life (Rom. 7:10, 11). It is “holy, and just, and good” (v. 12). God had intended that the “letter,” of the law, to be only a way to reach the nobler goal of creating the “spirit” of the law in the hearts of the believers. Thus, the “letter” and the “spirit” of the law support each other. The “letter” of the law is useless to only those who depend on it as a means of salvation.
The Jews kept the letter of the law not its spirit
The religion of the Jews had become dry and meaningless (Mark 2:21, 22; John 1:17). For they obeyed the law externally to gain salvation, and not because they loved God and their fellow neighbor. The exercise of faith became a dry “form of godliness” without “the power thereof” (2 Tim. 3:5).
For this reason, Jesus said to them, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matthew 23:23).
Later, Paul explained to them that the external sign of circumcision didn’t save them: “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; 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 “ (Romans 2:27–29).
Paul didn’t belittle obedience to the Ten Commandments
Some claim that Paul belittled obedience to the Ten Commandments by his statement in 2 Corinthians 3: 6. But that is not true for he repeatedly confirmed the binding force of the law upon the believers in the NT (Rom. 8:1–4; 2 Tim. 3:15–17). Paul simply affirmed what Christ had already established in the sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matt. 5:17–19).
The right obedience of the letter and the spirit of the law
External obedience of the letter to God’s law is useless. Only when obedience is based on love for God that it becomes meaningful and right (Matt. 19:16–30). And obedience to the spirit doesn’t cancel obedience to the letter either. For example, Jesus commanded the believers not to be “angry” with one another based on the sixth commandment (Matt. 5:22). But He didn’t give them the permission to break the “letter” of the commandment by taking someone else’s life. The “spirit” of the sixth commandment clearly does not change its “letter.” Rather it magnifies it (Isa. 42:21). The same may be said of each one of the Ten Commandments (Isa. 58:13; Mark 2:28).
Paul set forth the superior ministration of the “spirit,” in an effort to disprove the Judaizers at Corinth (2 Cor. 11:22), who were stressing obedience to the “letter” of the law. Although the “letter” was good, it was not enough for salvation (Eze. 18:4, 20; Rom. 6:23). God desires a living relationship with him. This connection with Him empowers the believer to obey the law both by letter and the spirit (Romans 8:1–3, Ps. 51). That, “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Romans 8:4).
In His service,