What does the Bible mean by the phrase “the letter kills”?

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The letter kills

Paul taught the Corinthians saying, “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 explained to them that before his conversion, he was educated to be a minister “of the letter” that is to externally keep the law (Acts 22:3; Philippians 3:4–6).

But God taught the apostle to be a minister “of the spirit” of all His law. The spirit of life in Christ had liberated him from that superficial external obedience of rules (Romans 8:2). And instead, taught him to seek an internal obedience of the law which involves the motives of the heart. Thus, the apostle was called to abandon the hypocritical observance “of the letter” of the law for that “of the spirit” (Romans 8:1, 2; 2 Corinthians 5:17).

The apostle Paul gave the same message to the church in Rome when he wrote, “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” (Romans 7:6). In this passage Paul described the legalistic obedience of people who try to gain salvation by works of law.

And he corrected their thinking saying, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9). It is through grace on God’s part and faith and surrender on man’s part that anyone can be saved.

External verses Internal obedience

The Pharisees gave a surface empty obedience to God. For they were diligent to “pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin” but at the same time omitted the “weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith” (Matthew 23:23). These religious leaders magnified and honored their own laws of Judaism, listing them as being of greater importance than God’s moral law (Matthew 22:36). They gave great weight to the man-made ordinances and to the external forms observances of the law (Mark 7:3–13).

Heart religion – love to God and love to man

The religious leaders forgot almost completely the accurate spirit of the law itself which is a heart religion that consists of love toward God and toward men (Matthew 22:37, 39). This love is translated in a heart obedience to God’s moral law – the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17). The first four commandments deal with man’s relationship with God and the last six deal with man’s relationship with his brothers (Mark 12:30-31).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that man’s actions or outward works should be motivated by an inward divine love (Matthew 5:17–22). People thought they can be saved by external obedience to the law but Christ taught that obedience must stem from the heart. And He focused on the “weightier matters” which are mercy, justice and truth.

Service and obedience “in oldness of letter” can lead only to sin and death (Romans 7:5). For the unconverted life, has its main goal the gratification of the appetites of the flesh. But life “in the Spirit” is the opposite of that (Romans 8:9).

God’s grace renews the heart

The gospel of Christ teaches of God’s grace that enables people to offer spiritual obedience to God from pure and undefiled hearts (Acts 15:11). To be converted of the Holy Spirit means the creation of a sanctified heart and the renewal of a right spirit (Psalms 51:10). Thus, the believer no longer obeys God from a sense of legal bondage and fear, but he obeys Him in a new spirit of freedom moved by love (John 4:23).

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

This answer is also available in: العربية हिन्दी Español

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