BLOG POST

by Phillip Vanwinkle
JULY 24, 2015

Spirit of the Law vs. Letter of the Law

What is meant by “The Spirit of the Law vs. The Letter of the Law?

The denominational world is one of the biggest problems that the Lord’s church has ever faced. There are many reasons for it. One reason is because denominations teach some truth, and some lies.

Most teach that Jesus is God- that is truth. They then teach that we are ‘lost’ or ‘saved’ as God wills, and through no action of our own at all. That is a lie.

Then, there are other lies that are not so easily seen. These lies tend to put a false interpretation on a scripture, call it truth, then all of a sudden, to them, it is true.

Eventually those ideas, work their way into the Lord’s church.

One such idea is the misrepresentation of 2 Corinthians 3:4-18 particularly vs 6

Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

 The denominational idea is this: “We need not be overly concerned with keeping every single thing God says, it is more important that we keep the ‘spirit’ of the law.”

Does "letter" refer to the actual wording of Scripture and "spirit" to an unwritten message behind the words, as some teach?

 No! If it did, then there could be no objective truth.

 Before we discuss what the Bible actually says according to this passage, let us look at a couple of logical problems with this idea.

One problem with claiming this idea concerning the “spirit vs. letter of the law” is this: it leads to the practice of anything, and everything. And in short it says, ‘as long as you FEEL it is right, then it is right.” Again, truth would be subjective.

Basically it does away with listening to what God said and replaces it with what man thinks about what God said.

It says “Regardless of what God said, just do what you FEEL like the spirit of what He said actually means.”

For instance, if one person says “God established marriage when he said let a man leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife…” He makes the point that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

The person who says, “Well, let’s look at the ‘spirit’ of the law, and not the ‘letter’ of the law,” could easily argue- “God was simply saying be monogamous with your spouse, he was simply meaning, it is not okay to be married to multiple spouses at the same time.”

The only argument that a person could make, if they disagree with his conclusion yet agree with this faulty idea of the spirit vs. the letter of the law is, “No, that’s not right.”

But, there could not possibly be ANY true defense, if a person believed in this idea.

So, while you might think the “spirit of the law” is that homosexuality would be condemned, another might equally conclude that this was not really the “spirit’ of the law” at all.

Who gets to decide who is right? Me? You? … No, the only one who decides what is right is God. But, when you do away with the letter of the law (as expressed by this faulty theory) then there is no way to determine what is right or what is wrong.

If you and I cannot determine what is right and what is wrong according the Bible, then there is no need for a Bible.

Logical Implications

Let us see how this works logically, supposing this idea to be true:

If the Spirit of the Law is what we determine as God’s truth, then the Spirit of the Law is God’s Truth.

The spirit of the law is what we determine as God’s truth,

Therefore, the spirit of the Law is God’s truth.

 

If the Bible does not explain precisely what the “spirit” of a certain law is, then man must decide what the ‘spirit’ of the law is.

The Bible does not explain precisely what the “spirit” of a certain law is,

Therefore, man must decide what the ‘spirit’ of the law is.

 

If man decides what the ‘spirit of the law’ is, then the spirit of the law is determined by man’s feelings.

Man decides what the spirit of the law is,

Therefore, the spirit of the law is determined by mans’ feelings.

 

If the spirit of the law is determined by man’s feelings, then God’s truth is determined by man’s feelings.

The spirit of the law is determined by man’s feelings,

Therefore, God’s truth is determined by man’s feelings.

 

If God’s truth is determined by man’s feelings, then there is no objective truth.

God’s truth is determined by man’s feelings,

Therefore, there is no objective truth.

 

If there is no objective truth, then each person may do as they wish and still be pleasing to God.

There is no objective truth.

Therefore, each person may do as they wish and still be pleasing to God.

 This conclusion is the problem with this dangerous doctrine.

 

Scripture is clear, man does not determine what God’s truth is. Man is not the authority on God’s law. (Jer. 10:23; Isa 55:9 etc…) Jesus said my words will judge you, not “you will be judged by your ‘feelings’ about my words.”

So… let us continue:

 

If man is not the authority on God’s law, then man may not determine what the ‘spirit’ of God’s law is.

Man is not authority on God’s law.

Therefore Man may not determine what the ‘spirit’ of God’s law is.


The Logical Conclusion

Therefore, either this interpretation of ‘spirit vs. letter of the law’ is wrong, or there is no way to determine what God wants.

If there is no way to determine what God wants, then we are all gods unto ourselves.

If we are all gods unto ourselves, then there is no God in Heaven. If there is no God in Heaven, it does not matter whether you obey the ‘spirit of His law’ or not.

The fact is, unless God’s word specifically explained that “this is the spirit of what this certain law means” how could we know what the ‘spirit’ of that law was? Therefore, we would have to - by our own feelings, decide what the ‘spirit’ of the law was.

Which, as we have shown, is foolishness.

But, if the Bible did explain- “this is the spirit of what this certain law means”- then according to this theory, we could do away with it, because it would then be ‘written’ and we would have to try to figure out what the ‘spirit’ behind this ‘written law’ actually was.

So, it really is a self-defeating argument in the end analysis.

 

The Meaning of the Text

In order to understand many of Paul’s writings we need to see what is going on in his world. He was facing objections from the Jews in practically every place that he went.

The Jews wanted to force the Law of Moses upon the Gentiles. Over and over in Paul’s messages, Paul explained that the Old Law (the Law of Moses) could not save.  (Rom. 7:1-7; Eph. 2:11-20; Col. 2:12-17)

The Hebrews writer says the same in Hebrews chapters 6-10.

The "letter" (from Grk. gramma, "that which is written") alludes to the body of law given at Mt. Sinai when the Ten Commandments were passed from God into the hands of the Old Testament lawgiver, Moses. The "letter," or old law, is said to kill because it pronounces Divine condemnation on men for their sins without providing a means of true justification in its animal sacrifices (Gal. 3:10ff; Acts 13:39; Heb. 10:4).

 While it is true that faithful Jews living under Moses' law were saved, the end and final action of their salvation was in the redemptive death of Jesus who fulfilled the sacrificial types of the old law (Heb. 9:15-17; Matt. 5:17).

 Paul is showing a contrast in where the Old Law ended and where the New Law was to lead. While one led to death, the other lead to life.

 The contrast of what Paul is preaching can be easily seen in the following chart.

  

2 CORINTHIANS 3

Old Covenant

New Covenant

 

Ministers of the new covenant (vs. 6)

Of the letter (vs. 6)

Of the Spirit (vs. 6)

The letter kills (vs. 6)

The Spirit gives life (vs. 6)

Ministry of death (vs. 7)

Ministry of the Spirit (vs. 8)

Written/engraved on stones (vs. 7)  

 

Ministry of condemnation (vs. 9)

Ministry of righteousness (vs. 9)

Glorious (vss. 7,9)

Much more glorious (vss. 8,9)

Passing away (vs. 7)

Remains (vs. 11)

Veil on Moses’ face (vs. 13)  

Great boldness of speech (vs. 12)

Veil remains in reading O.T. (vs. 14)

Veil taken away in Christ (vs. 14)

Veil lies on their heart (vs. 15)

Veil taken away when heart turned
to the Lord (vs. 16)

Chart courtesy of Apologetics press. For a full discussion on this passage please visit. https://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=11&article=1225

 

People living in Paul’s day (and ours), if they choose to go back under the Jewish law, will not be saved.  It only leads to death. This is the law referred to as the ‘letter.’

 The one that saves, is the Spirit, the New Testament… it is what gives life. (see John 6:63)

 One thing we know for sure, is what Jesus said, that we will be judged by his word. He did not say we would be judged by what we feel like the ‘spirit’ of what his word meant.

 If this error is not defeated it will not be long before the Bible is pointed out as a book which really has no purpose. Because in the end, we are all free to practice whatever we choose so long as we ‘feel’ that the ‘spirit’ of the law is whatever we want it to be.

 The end result of the idea that the "letter" refers to the actual wording of Scripture and "spirit" to an unwritten message behind the words - ends up with God’s word being subjective. In the end analysis, this idea would have us believe there is no objective truth and we are all free to practice whatever we choose.

 

 

 

 


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