What is the letter and the spirit of the law? 


By BibleAsk Team

The Letter and the Spirit of the Law

The apostle Paul makes a clear differentiation between the letter and the spirit of the law in the New Testament. He writes, “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 2:28–29; 7:6).

The letter is outward conformity to the law but the spirit is inward or heart conformity to the law. Both Jews and Christians are in danger of stressing the letter over the spirit. God planned that both Judaism and Christianity would have both the letter and spirit (John 4:23, 24). He intended that the letter of the law, to be only a tool to the higher end of living the spirit of the law in the life.

For the Jew or the Christian, the literal keeping of the law “kills.” Only the spirit of the law can successfully give “life.” The practice of Christianity can turn into a mere “form of godliness” without “the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5), so that the letter of Christianitykills” those who depend on it for salvation. As a system it had lost the strength to give life to its followers (Mark 2:21, 22; John 1:17).  

God’s Moral Law (Exodus 20:2-17)

Paul repeatedly confirmed the binding force of God’s moral law – Ten Commandments – and the righteous principles of the Old Testament upon Christians (Romans 8:1–4; 2 Timothy 3:15–17; Matthew 19:16-19). Outward obedience to its laws to earn salvation is pointless. Only when obedience is stirred by love to God and man is it of any worth in the sight of heaven (Matthew 19:16–30). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that obedience to the letter of the law without the spirit of obedience fails short of God’s will (Matthew 5:17–22).  

Christ and the apostles had no other “scriptures” than that (John 5:39). The Heroes of faith mentioned in Hebrews 11, and the thousands of believers in Old Testament times, experienced the transforming change of the Holy Spirit in their lives, just as others did in New Testament times. What God asks of His children is not merely right action, but right action moved by a right relationship with God.

To minimize the Christian life of obedience to a system of rules, rather than loving obedience to our heavenly Father, is to depend upon the ministry of the letter. The ceremonies of religion, whether Jewish or Christian, are only a means to an end. If dealt with as ends in themselves, they instantly become a hindrance to a true spiritual experience. 

The Spirit Doesn’t Annul the Letter

Contrary to the teaching of some liberal ministers today, the “spirit” of the law does not abolish its “letter.” For instance, Jesus urged believers, according to the sixth commandment, not to be “angry” with their brethren (Matthew 5:22), but He did not grant a man the license to violate the letter of the commandment by ending his brother’s life. The “spirit” of the sixth commandment clearly does not substitute its “letter” but tends to “magnify” it (Isaiah 42:21); the same is true with adultery, lying, theft, and the rest of the other commandments

The Letter Kills But the Spirit Saves 

The “letter” was good, but it had no strength to save the sinner from the judgment of death. Rather, it sentenced him to death. The law was designed to promote life (Romans 7:10, 11). And it is “holy, and just, and good” (verse 12). Life came with obedience, and death with disobedience. The law, thus, puts the sinner to death (Ezekiel 18:4, 20; Romans 6:23). But the gospel is designed to forgive him and give him a transformed life through God’s enabling power (Romans 8:1–3; Psalms 51; Philippians 4:13). 

In His service,
BibleAsk Team 

Categories Law

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