The Letter and Spirit of the Law
Some teach that believers in the New Testament don’t need to keep the letter of the law but only the spirit of it, which is love. Those quote Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:6 as a basis for their teaching when he said, “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.”
The Lord had intended that the “letter,” the written record of the law, to be only a means to the higher end of establishing the “spirit” of the law in the hearts of the Jews. But the Israelites failed to translate the “letter” of the law into the “spirit” of the law, which is a living experience of personal salvation from sin by faith in the atonement of Christ. God intended Judaism to have both “letter” and “spirit”—a record of God’s will which is manifested in the life (John 4:23, 24).
The same is true of Christianity. The practice of Christianity can easily degenerate into a mere “form of godliness” without “the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5), so that the “letter” of Christianity “kills” those who rely on it for salvation. The literal observance, alone, of the law “kills.” Only the “spirit” of love can give “life,” whether it be to Jew or to Christian.
Logically, a person can’t keep the spirit of the commandment thou shalt not kill (hate without reason), yet be free from the letter of this commandment and commits murder. And one can’t keep the spirit for the commandment thou shalt not commit adultery (lust) and yet be free from the letter of this commandment and commits adultery. Keeping the letter first is as essential as keeping the spirit of the law.
Thus, the argument of some that Paul, in 2 Corinthians 3:6, disregarded obedience to the Ten Commandments is not correct. Paul wrote to the gentile Christians and affirmed the biding force of the Ten Commandments law upon the believers. He said, “that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1–4; also 2 Timothy 3:15–17). And he stressed, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31).
Jesus came to this earth to magnify the law (Isaiah 42:21) and to reveal by His life of perfect obedience that Christians can, through the empowering grace of God, give obedience to His law. He declared, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
Check out our Bible Answers page for more information on a variety of topics.
In His service,