The Letter and the Spirit

Not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory (2 Corinthians 3:6b-9).

One of the marvels of Paul’s writings is the way he is able to powerfully construct his arguments, and those skills are on display as he writes to the Corinthians. 2 Corinthians seems to indicate that the Corinthians are being influenced by a group of Jewish believers who are attempting to discredit Paul. Having declared that the Corinthians themselves are living “letters of Christ,” sufficient testimony in and of themselves of the work that Paul does in the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:1-3), and that Paul would not dream of imagining that he is sufficient of himself, but that his sufficiency is in God through Christ (2 Corinthians 3:4-6b), he then moves on to show the insufficiencies and challenges of the basis of the arguments of the “Judaizers.” It is something he will do as well in the Roman and Galatian letters; it is a hallmark of Paul’s theology and writings. In 2 Corinthians 3:6c-11, he makes this argument with contrasting images: the letter (of stone) and the (ministry of the) Spirit.

He has been leading up to this argument in what he has written before. He has already spoken of the Corinthians as a letter written not with ink or on tablets of stone but with the Spirit on their hearts (2 Corinthians 3:3). The argument is also introduced on the basis of Paul having been made competent by God to be a minister of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:6a). Everything that follows is an explanation of this idea. What does Paul mean that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life?

The contrast Paul has in mind is between the two covenants: the covenant between God and Israel as indicated in the Law of Moses, and the covenant between God and all mankind through Jesus Christ. The covenant between God and Israel is described as the “ministry of death, carved in letters of stone,” a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:7, 9). Paul makes reference to Moses’ face which shone with the reflected glory of being in the presence of the glory of God (2 Corinthians 3:7; cf. Exodus 34:29-34). He compares that reflected glory with the full glory of God as made evident in the ministry of the Spirit, deemed the “ministry of righteousness,” indicating how much more superior the new is to the old (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). The glory of the new covenant in the Spirit is so superior, in fact, that the glory of the old covenant is now no glory at all, for it is brought to an end, whereas the new is permanent (2 Corinthians 3:7-11).

This is strong language indeed! How can Paul speak of God’s revelation to Israel as death and condemnation? Is this not impious?

Whereas the language is stronger, the substantive message is not much different than what can be found in Romans 7:1-25 and really throughout Romans 1-8. The Law of Moses is the ministry of death and condemnation not because the law itself had some flaw or was wrong; the Law is the ministry of death and condemnation because it declares what is right and wrong and fixes rewards and penalties. If one were to follow the Law perfectly, doing the right and avoiding the wrong, the Law would not condemn. Yet, as Paul has made evident in Romans 3:23, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; therefore, the Law can only declare them to be transgressors. Thus, no one can be justified by works of the law (Romans 3:20). No one– no Jewish person, no Gentile, no one then, no one now– can make the Law their confidence and put their trust in it to be justified. Instead, then as now, we must place our confidence in God who can forgive our transgressions (cf. Galatians 3:11).

The Law, therefore, by declaring right from wrong, exposes our sinfulness. But it, by itself, cannot save or rescue from that sinfulness. Hence, it is a ministry of death and condemnation. It did have its reflected glory, but as a reflection is never as excellent as the reality, neither can the reflected glory be seen as superior or even equal to the actual glory of God in Christ revealed through the Spirit!

The new covenant is described in terms of the ministry of the Spirit. The Spirit is said to give life and to be righteousness (2 Corinthians 3:6, 9). But what does this mean?

Much violence has been done to this passage by people who have taken it out of its context and have distorted it to serve their own ends. It is imagined that the contrast in the passage is between what is written down in Scripture with the promptings of the Spirit, and therefore this passage is cited to justify why sometimes we can ignore the “details” of Scripture in the name of following the Spirit. Thus, any time that a person takes issue with what Scripture has said at one point or another, he or she thinks that on the basis of 2 Corinthians 3 they can subvert that message by claiming the promptings of the Spirit, “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

Paul is not making that kind of contrast, and people who make such an argument are missing part of the delicious irony of the passage. Paul is communicating a message about how the “letter kills” but the “Spirit gives life” by writing it down on papyrus with ink and sending it to believers. Paul is not contrasting what is written from what comes from the Spirit; he would argue that the Spirit has directed what has been written (2 Timothy 3:16-17)!

Paul is contrasting covenants, not the Bible and the Spirit. The new covenant in Christ is superior and of greater glory because the prominent feature of the covenant is not a cold law code that just calls out balls and strikes (right behavior and wrong behavior). Instead, the new covenant features the work of the promised Immanuel, God with us in Christ Jesus, our following after Him and our quest to be conformed to His image (cf. 1 John 2:3-6, Romans 8:29). The Spirit has declared this message through the Apostles; we have the recording of that message in the New Testament. The Spirit places emphasis on manifesting the qualities of the fruit that bears His name and has His role in the sanctification of the believer (Galatians 5:17-24, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 Peter 1:2). However the Spirit may work with the believer, we can be sure that He is not going to contradict Himself; He is not going to abandon the message He directed the Apostles and their associates to declare and write (1 John 4:1-6)!

The new covenant provides the hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ; the old covenant declared sin. Thus, the ministry of the Spirit in the proclamation of the new covenant provides life; the ministry of the Law of Moses declared death. The letters written on the stone tablets were cold and unfeeling; the Spirit provides the message of eternal life through Jesus and our trust in Him to be the Lord and Shepherd of our souls. Thus Paul speaks rightly, declaring that the letter of the old Law kills, but the Spirit in the revelation of the new covenant gives life. Let us praise God for the hope of life through Jesus, seeking to be conformed to His image, thankful for the revelation of the Spirit and His work with mankind!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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