“We need to follow the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law.”
Have you heard that phrase before?
I have, often enough, and typically from someone who was in the middle of a situation in which the following were both true: 1) the situation was directly addressed by the Bible, and 2) following the Bible’s instruction would prove to be difficult and/or costly to them.
I think of parents whose adult children had embraced openly sinful lifestyles while still claiming allegiance to Jesus, spouses who were looking for a way out of their difficult marriages, or even a choir director who wanted to make copies of the rehearsal CDs instead of paying hundreds of dollars to acquire them legally.
In these kinds of situations, God’s instruction in Scripture is not in question; our resolve to obey Him, no matter the cost, certainly is.
And so we pull out one of our great Evangelical magic tricks. “Oh, but you see, even though the Bible makes this certain statement very clearly, we aren’t supposed to be legalistic, you know. We need to follow the spirit of the law, not the letter.” And— poof!—the difficult text undergoes a stunning transformation. The need for hard obedience vanishes into thin air, and we’re left to fill in the blank with whatever we think the “spirit of the law” actually is. Which, most of the time, seems to look like “whatever is most convenient to me.”
This sleight of hand is deceptively effective because it sounds biblical at first blush. Doesn’t the Bible itself tell us to follow the spirit, not the letter? Isn’t that what we find in 2 Corinthians 3:6, which says “…not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”?
This is yet another place where context is so important. When we read the whole passage, we can see that 2 Corinthians 3 is not taking about anything remotely similar to how that phrase is commonly understood. Starting in verse 5, here’s what the whole passage actually says:
Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, 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. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.”2 Corinthians 3:5–11, ESV
In this passage, “the letter” refers to the Old Covenant, the law of Moses—”the ministry of death, carved letters on stone” (v. 7). That “letter” brought death because that’s what the law did—it condemned us (v. 9).
On the other hand, “the Spirit” (note the capital “S”) refers to the “new covenant” (see verse 6), the Holy Spirit-empowered, life-giving, righteousness-bringing, freedom-giving good news of the gospel (cf. 4:3-6).
So “letter” = Old Covenant. “Spirit” = New Covenant.
And the irony here is that the life-giving Spirit described by 2 Corinthians is Himself the one responsible for the specific words of Scripture. “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). See also 1 Corinthians 2:11, where Paul attributes his very words to the teaching of the Holy Spirit, or 2 Timothy 1:13-14, where he makes another close connection between the specific words of his teaching and the power of the Holy Spirit.
All of this shows us that “the spirit” and “the letter” are not two competing ways of reading the Bible—as if “the letter” is the words of Scripture, and “the spirit” is some deeper or softer meaning that is somehow different from what it actually says. Not only is such a view extra-biblical, not being taught by 2 Corinthians 3 or any other passage for that matter, but it’s actually unbiblical: it directly contradicts what the Bible tells us about the way its specific words were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
And so when God, in His word, directs us to obey Him in a difficult manner, let’s give up the search for spiritual-sounding loopholes. In the end, those are just avenues for disobedience. If Jesus is Lord, we who have counted the cost and taken up our crosses will follow His word, regardless of how difficult it is.