Published on March 5th, 2012 | by Dustin Schledewitz
2 Corinthians 3:6
I have heard the phrase, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” tossed around somewhat frequently, and like any phrase used apart from original context and explanation, I have thought it important to study that phrase in order to use it accurately and confidently.
That phrase is tucked away in 2 Corinthian 3:6, which reads in the NIV, “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
So, what does “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” mean? I have heard the phrase, “the letter kills,” used negatively by people to refer to things such as a literal reading of Scripture or even any moral rules. In doing so, they put down these things, saying that they “kill.”
Laws of Nature
Within the context and the discussion of the new covenant in the following verses, it appears that Paul’s main concern in this statement has to do with the nature of the law itself (the old covenant) versus the nature of the new covenant of the Spirit. The contrast is between two periods of time in salvation history…what the letter resulted in, and what the Spirit resulted in. The law is indeed good and a reflection of God’s holy character, but it kills because it does not give the power to keep the mandates. Gleason says, “It kills because it declares what God demands without giving sufficient power to fulfill it, and then declares death on those who don’t keep it.” There was literally nothing in those chiseled stones that helped the follower. On the other hand, the Spirit is internal, and Paul’s point is that the ability to minister does not depend on obedience to the law, but on the Spirit working in the believer, bring him to conformity to Christ (from one glory to another).
You can think of this difference through the illustration of a speed limit sign. On a speed limit sign, “55 mph,” is chiseled. However, nothing in that sign gives you the ability to keep that command. In fact, when many people see it, they actually decide to go just a little bit faster. That can be compared to the letter. There is nothing that provides internal motivation and enablement for obedience.
So, in this passage, we see that Paul’s concern is about the nature of the law itself. The new covenant is internal…the Spirit of God now internally motivates us to obey. The point is that the law is internalized. Under the old covenant, this was not so.
As followers of Christ, we can rejoice in the fact that we live during a time in salvation history during which we don’t just have lists and lists of laws to keep, but we have God’s Word plus the Spirit of God living in us and motivating us to live a life that honors the living God. Keep studying and keep walking empowered to obey in the Spirit under this new covenant!