The Letter and the Spirit
2 Corinthians 3:6
Who also has made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter kills…

The contrast between letter and spirit is in Scripture peculiar to the pages of St. Paul (see Romans 2:29; Romans 7:6). The subject specially occupied him, as the champion of Christian liberty and a profound thinker on the relations of the Old and New Testaments.

I. THE CONTRASTED TERMS - LETTER AND SPIRIT. A more frequent opposition is between flesh and spirit (see John 3:6; John 6:63; Romans 8:1-13; Galatians 5:16-25). The distinction is obvious between a fleshly and a spiritual disposition, and the alternative is shown to be one of life or death. "To be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace." But, by letter and spirit must be intended things of which it is possible for men to be ministers. St. Paul was a minister, not of the letter, but of the spirit; and the context shows that by letter he meant the old covenant, and by spirit the new. Not that there was nothing but letter in the one and nothing but spirit in the other. The contrast is between predominant characteristics; and characteristically, though not exclusively, the old covenant was letter and the new covenant was spirit. Therefore the latter excelled in glory. The old economy, or testament, is not spoken of with disrespect. It was adapted in the wisdom of God to the training of the Hebrew people as his chosen nation. It was not a mere dead writing, but had a meaning in it which was Divine. The very term "letter" implies some import or significance. And there was enough in the Old Testament to educate the minds of men in religious ideas, and bring home sacred obligations and hopes to their hearts. But it is called "the letter" because that which bulked largely in it was a code of law and a handwriting of ordinances. In its prescription of law it was to sinful men a ministration of death; and in its ritual of worship it was inferior to that holy liberty which we now enjoy in everywhere worshipping the Father in spirit and in truth. The old covenant had shadows, the new has substance; the old had rudiments and elements, the new has perfection; the old had patterns of heavenly things, the new has heavenly things themselves; the old was a dispensation of dimness as of light seen through a veil, the new is one of unveiled faces and God's marvellous light. The new economy, or testament, while characteristically one of "spirit," is not altogether without letter. As every soul must have a body, and every essence a form, in order to be known among men, so has the spirit of the New Testament embodiment and exact expression. But here lies the contrast. Pre-Christian religion contained a small proportion of spirit and life in a large bulk of letter and ordinance. Christianity has a large proportion of spirit and life in a bulk of law and form as small and light as possible. The teachings of Christianity are facts and principles, not propositions and restrictions; its institutions are simple outlines, not precise ceremonies; and its laws are moral sentiments, not minute mechanical directions.

II. THE EFFECTS WHICH FLESH AND SPIRIT SEVERALLY PRODUCE. The letter, void of spirit, kills. The spirit, in whatever form or letter conveyed, gives life. We must still be on our guard against making that absolute which is intended only as a strong comparative. We must not say or suppose that under the Mosaic economy there was nothing but condemnation, bondage, and death. Beneath and within the letter which had such prominence, there was spirit; and men who knew how to penetrate the letter got the spirit, and with it got life. But the more that men made of mere traditional letter and form, the less they knew of the spirit of liberty and the power of godliness. Most apparent was the killing power of the letter in that generation of Hebrews to which Paul himself belonged. They gloried in circumcision, but had it in the flesh only, and not in the heart. They sought life by the law of works, and fell under its condemnation. The more devoted they were to religious peculiarities and ceremonial restrictions, the more did a shadow of death cover them. They clung to the types and would not recognize the Antitype. They trusted to a covenant which had exhausted its use and was passing away. So this letter worship destroyed spiritual life. Israel after the flesh fell under a ministration of death. On the other hand, in that new dispensation, of which St. Paul was such an earnest minister, and in which spirit predominates, there is abundance of the grace of life. True that, under this dispensation also, a formalist or one who is self-righteous may turn the life into death. Externalism and traditionalism are as powerless as ever to make alive. But, when the letter which in some manner is indispensable to mortal worshippers is kept in due subordination, the spirit gives life, and the ministration of righteousness is exceeding glorious. And the Lord is that Spirit. The Lord is the Life giver and the Life.


1. On the interpretation and use of certain precepts and usages mentioned in Scripture. Reverence for antiquity is good, is in some degree essential to historical Christianity; but there is a pedantry about the forms of things which is unintelligent and unspiritual. To correct this we must always distinguish between letter and spirit, and bear in mind that, in the long course of time and in altered conditions of society, there not only may be but must be circumstantial changes of form and expression in order to the conservation of spirit and truth. Apply this to

(1) the precept of turning the cheek to the smiter;

(2) that of washing one:mother's feet;

(3) the forbiddal of lawsuits between Christians;

(4) the salutation with a holy kiss.

2. On the corruptions of Christianity. Some harm, no doubt, has been done by the endeavour to abstract the spirit of the gospel too much from its letter, and to dispense altogether with definite forms of doctrine and service. But a greater danger has shown itself on the opposite side. The most formidable corruptions of Christianity have resulted from magnifying letter over spirit, and giving to our religion an imposing exterior while its heart fainted and all but perished. The great bane of the Church has been in the direction of exaggerated ceremonial and tyrannical insistence on outward usage and form.

3. On the propagation of the gospel. The old dispensation was not intended for world wide diffusion; but the new has a gospel for all nations, and is meant to live in every climate and among all the tribes and races of mankind. But of its ever reaching its consummation we should despair if it were a religion of unbending, unelastic literalism, and committed itself to the maintenance of dry and rigid forms. We take courage when we remember that "the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power;" that the emphasis in Christianity lies on its active, spiritual, penetrating force; and that the Lord himself "is that Spirit." We do not set Christian form against heathen form, but preach Christ Jesus the Lord. The letter and the ritual will appear quickly enough, and may be expected to vary in a Church of all nations. What we should be most concerned about is the world wide proclamation el him in whom all nations of the earth are to be blessed. - F.

Parallel Verses
KJV: 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.

WEB: who also made us sufficient as servants of a new covenant; not of the letter, but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

The Letter and the Spirit
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