The Letter Kills But The Spirit Gives Life

 

2 Corinthians 3:6

“The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

Quite frequently we have heard this passage quoted to “prove” that it is unspiritual and displeasing to God to take the literal meaning of Scripture and seek to obey it.  Recently, I was speaking to a zealous woman who was trying to establish the point that God is not interested in literal water baptism or a communion with literal bread and cup.  She contended that the Lord is not at all interested in literal fasting and is not concerned with the clothes that a Christian wears.  All of these “external” things are following the “letter of the law,” but truly spiritual Christians are only interested in the Spirit, for He is the one who gives life!  God is only interested in a “spiritual” interpretation of things today, the inner meaning of things, and all external matters are of no consequence.  In fact, if one is concerned about obeying the “literal” words of the New Testament, he is Pharisaical in his spirit!  Is this a proper interpretation of this verse?

The entire chapter of 2 Corinthians 3 is Paul’s contrast between the old covenant system and the new covenant of Christ.  The old covenant was the “ministry of death” and the “ministry of condemnation,” whereas the new covenant is the “ministry of righteousness” (vv. 7, 9).  The old covenant fades away, whereas the new covenant remains (v. 11).  The old covenant was written on “tablets of stone,” whereas the new covenant is written on “tablets of human hearts” (v. 3).

In this context, Paul says that he was a “servant of the new covenant” (not the old covenant) (v. 6a).  Paul then inserts the text we are considering: “. . . not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (v. 6b).  We can see that the “letter” refers to the old covenant (with its ministry of death), and this is the letter that “kills.”  On the other hand, Paul’s servanthood of the new covenant was of the Spirit—the Spirit that gives life, rather than death.  The “letter” of the old covenant and the Law of Moses “kills”—whereas the Spirit of the new covenant (along with all of the instructions of Christ and the apostles, given through the Holy Spirit) gives life, both life now and life eternal.

No one should ever use this portion of 2 Corinthians 3:6 to disparage or denigrate the literal words of Jesus Christ our Lord.  His words are eternal (Matt. 24:35), His words are the foundation of our life (Matt. 7:24-27), His words will face us in judgment (vv. 21-23; John 12:48), and His words are meant to be taken seriously and obeyed (see 1 Corinthians 14:37), thereby demonstrating our love for Him (John 14:15, 21, 23-24).  Sadly, some who are “untaught and unstable” go so far as to “distort” and “twist” the words of Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles, to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16, NASB, ESV).

Richard Hollerman

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