3:1-11 Even the appearance of self-praise and courting human applause, is painful to the humble and spiritual mind. Nothing is more delightful to faithful ministers, or more to their praise, than the success of their ministry, as shown in the spirits and lives of those among whom they labour. The law of Christ was written in their hearts, and the love of Christ shed abroad there. Nor was it written in tables of stone, as the law of God given to Moses, but on the fleshy (not fleshly, as fleshliness denotes sensuality) tables of the heart, Eze 36:26. Their hearts were humbled and softened to receive this impression, by the new-creating power of the Holy Spirit. He ascribes all the glory to God. And remember, as our whole dependence is upon the Lord, so the whole glory belongs to him alone. The letter killeth: the letter of the law is the ministration of death; and if we rest only in the letter of the gospel, we shall not be the better for so doing: but the Holy Spirit gives life spiritual, and life eternal. The Old Testament dispensation was the ministration of death, but the New Testament of life. The law made known sin, and the wrath and curse of God; it showed us a God above us, and a God against us; but the gospel makes known grace, and Emmanuel, God with us. Therein the righteousness of God by faith is revealed; and this shows us that the just shall live by his faith; this makes known the grace and mercy of God through Jesus Christ, for obtaining the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. The gospel so much exceeds the law in glory, that it eclipses the glory of the legal dispensation. But even the New Testament will be a killing letter, if shown as a mere system or form, and without dependence on God the Holy Spirit, to give it a quickening power.
6. able—rather, as the Greek is the same, corresponding to 2Co 3:5, translate, "sufficient as ministers" (Eph 3:7; Col 1:23).
the new testament—"the new covenant" as contrasted with the Old Testament or covenant (1Co 11:25; Ga 4:24). He reverts here again to the contrast between the law on "tables of stone," and that "written by the Spirit on fleshly tables of the heart" (2Co 3:3).
not of the letter—joined with "ministers"; ministers not of the mere literal precept, in which the old law, as then understood, consisted; "but of the Spirit," that is, the spiritual holiness which lay under the old law, and which the new covenant brings to light (Mt 5:17-48) with new motives added, and a new power of obedience imparted, namely, the Holy Spirit (Ro 7:6). Even in writing the letter of the New Testament, Paul and the other sacred writers were ministers not of the letter, but of the spirit. No piety of spirit could exempt a man from the yoke of the letter of each legal ordinance under the Old Testament; for God had appointed this as the way in which He chose a devout Jew to express his state of mind towards God. Christianity, on the other hand, makes the spirit of our outward observances everything, and the letter a secondary consideration (Joh 4:24). Still the moral law of the ten commandments, being written by the finger of God, is as obligatory now as ever; but put more on the Gospel spirit of "love," than on the letter of a servile obedience, and in a deeper and fuller spirituality (Mt 5:17-48; Ro 13:9). No literal precepts could fully comprehend the wide range of holiness which LOVE, the work of the Holy Spirit, under the Gospel, suggests to the believer's heart instinctively from the word understood in its deep spirituality.
letter killeth—by bringing home the knowledge of guilt and its punishment, death; 2Co 3:7, "ministration of death" (Ro 7:9).
spirit giveth life—The spirit of the Gospel when brought home to the heart by the Holy Spirit, gives new spiritual life to a man (Ro 6:4, 11). This "spirit of life" is for us in Christ Jesus (Ro 8:2, 10), who dwells in the believer as a "quickening" or "life-giving Spirit" (1Co 15:45). Note, the spiritualism of rationalists is very different. It would admit no "stereotyped revelation," except so much as man's own inner instrument of revelation, the conscience and reason, can approve of: thus making the conscience judge of the written word, whereas the apostles make the written word the judge of the conscience (Ac 17:11; 1Pe 4:1). True spirituality rests on the whole written word, applied to the soul by the Holy Spirit as the only infallible interpreter of its far-reaching spirituality. The letter is nothing without the spirit, in a subject essentially spiritual. The spirit is nothing without the letter, in a record substantially historical.