Q371 : The Letter Kills, but the Spirit Gives Life

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Q371 : The Letter Kills, but the Spirit Gives Life

I was wondering what you think about 2 Corinthians 3:6 regarding the letter/spirit distinction Paul creates.

5 Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 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)

I have seen this used so many times to justify why a literal interpretation of Scriptures cannot be insisted on. In fact, when we insist on taking Scriptures literally, we are often charged with being concerned with “letters.” I do strongly feel that that’s certainly not what Paul had in mind. I would appreciate your detailed explanation of the passage.

A371 : by Tony Garland

Your conclusion is spot-on: 2 Corinthians 3:6 has absolutely nothing to say concerning interpretation: literal or otherwise.

To use it in that manner is a good example of much questionable preaching/teaching in our day which is characterized by first decided what point one is out to make and then “fishing” around through biblical passages to find a phrase which can be twisted in support of the that goal. This is nothing other than the abuse of Scripture.

Instead, the passage is drawing upon a number of Old Testament themes to contrast the Old and New Covenants.

One such theme is the contrast between a stony heart and a heart of flesh, such as found in Ezekiel. In Ezekiel's passage (Eze. 11:17-20), God emphasizes the need for divine intervention in order to produce a people who are responsive to “walk in my statues, and keep my ordinances, and do them...” (Eze. 11:20). This will not be the result of a list of external do's and do not's (even a divine list of 613 such rules). Because the people, in their sinful state, are unable to lift themselves up in righteousness to do that which is right. Instead, God prophesies through Ezekiel, “I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh” (Eze. 11:19). This is the precondition for their motivation and ability to walk in his statutes... and do.

This passage in Ezekiel is a clear prediction that the law of Moses, as divine and glorious as it may be (2Cor. 3:7, 9) will be found insufficient to bring out the needed conversion of sinful behavior (Rom. 8:3-7). Not through any fault of its own, but simply because the condition of man renders it incapable of that task. The law is theoretically keepable (indeed, it was kept by the only perfect man—Jesus), but in practicality the depth of man's sin prevents this result (Ps. 119:136; John 7:19; Acts 7:53; 15:10). Even though the law is holy, even spiritual, Paul laments “I am carnal” and concludes “how to perform that which is good I find not.” This also leads to the startling conclusion that the law must eventually be supplanted as a means to motivate and enable men to holy living (Heb. 7:18).

Paul is drawing upon all these themes in his letter to the church at Corinth.

The contrasts he makes are intended to emphasize the distinctions between the Old Covenant, based upon the Law of Moses, and the New Covenant. The contrasts between the two are significant:

Mosaic Covenant New Covenant
written on tablets of stone written on hearts of flesh
mandated as a lengthy set of external rules motivating as a brief set of internal principles
communicated by cutting, engraving written (breathed) by God's Spirit
temporary, passing away permanent
condemning life-giving
glorious more glorious

We need to look at the context of the entire passage when considering the use of the word “letter” in the verse in question: 6 Who also has made us able 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)

Paul's use of “letter” here has nothing to do with “literal.” Instead, it is a stand-in for the concept of the “law.” Similarly, the use of “spirit” in the verse is a stand-in for the concept of faith-based renewal by the Spirit in accord with the New Covenant. We would lose little of the meaning if we were to make such a substitute (not that I am advocating ANY adjustment to God's divine presentation—but for the sake of making a point): Who also has made us able ministers of the new covenant; not of [the law], but [by faith]: for the [law] kills, but [faith] gives life.

Paul's use of the term “letter” describes the law in the sense that the law is a written mandate for righteous behavior which was externally visible (written on stone)—in opposition to internal writing on hearts of flesh—which can only be read through the external behavior of those written upon by the Spirit.

“Letter” does not denote “literalism” , but “that which was (externally) written and (externally) visible” as a set of rules which we could not keep. This is why he also refers to it as “the ministry of death.” This is also why Jesus (Mat. 7:12), Paul (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal 5:14), and James (Jas. 2:8) all conclude that the “royal law” of love “is the fulfilling of the law.”

The 613 rules of the externally-imposed law could not bring about the reformation which only the internally-motivated divinely-instituted reformation by the Spirit could achieve. To regulate man by external law in every possible situation would require an infinitely-long list of do's and do not's — and even then we could not measure up to their demands (we can't even keep 613 or even 10!). The divine law of Christ supplants an external set of rules with an internal—Spirit-motivated and empowered—set of principles which are universal: apply in every possible life situation in every geographical setting in every age.

As to jettisoning a literal interpretation of what which is written: that would be immensely foolhardy, because it would also denigrate the entire New Testament: written revelation concerning all the Biblical Covenants, but especially the New. If we take this verse as license to “go non-literal” with the text, then we also lose the ability to determine carefully what Paul means in this very passage! We then would enter the realm of circular logic: departing from literal interpretation in this passage to derive a meaning we suppose gives us license to interpret non-literally.

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