The Letter Kills,
But the Spirit Gives Life

By Chris Good

This phrase from 2 Corinthians 3:6 is perhaps one of the most misused in Scripture. Regularly those who test claims for special manifestations of the Spirit by the Word are charged with allowing the 'letter' of Scripture to kill the 'Spirit'. However - what is this passage saying - and is this a correct way to apply it? To understand this phrase we must first see it in context:
2 Corinthians 3
1Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? 2You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. 3You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
4Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. 5Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. 6He 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.
7Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, 8will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 9If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts! . . .

1) Background

From the context, we can see that the subject being dealt with is not charismatic gifts or the nature of a special revelation of the Spirit. Rather Paul is talking about false teachers who have been coming along with 'letters of recommendation' and causing dissension in the church and undermining his Apostolic authority (v1). Paul stresses that the Corinthians themselves are his 'letter' of recommendation (v2) - for they were saved by his ministry through the Spirit applying the Word by writing it on their hearts (v3). This is not due to Paul's cleverness or ability - but God's grace and promise found in the New Covenant - that he would write His Word/Law on the hearts of His people by His Spirit - thereby bringing them eternal life and forgiveness of sins (v 4-11 cf Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8).

2) Meaning of the Phrase

The phrase "the letter kills, but the spirit gives life" refers in the context to the fact that under the Old Covenant, the law/letter given on Sinai brought condemnation and death as no one could obey it perfectly and be saved. However, now that Christ has come and perfectly obeyed the Law as mediator for His people - the Spirit brings life by using the same 'letter' and writing onto our hearts. In other words the letter/law/Word alone brings condemnation to the unregenerate person who rejects it - but where this same Word is accompanied by the work of the Spirit in someone's heart, it brings life and salvation. Far from teaching that the Word and Spirit are opposed, this passage reaffirms the essential connection between the two.

3) Misunderstandings Rejected
Conclusion: The Spirit Works Through the Letter to Bring Life

From the above - it follows that the Spirit works through the letter/law to bring life. Word & Spirit belong together and are NOT to be separated. Although the letter/law/Word alone condemns the sinner - when the Spirit writes that Law on our heart through the Gospel that same letter/law/Word brings eternal life. We are not to separate the two. Those who contrast letter and Spirit are in danger of rejecting the letter, and thereby losing the means of gaining and maintaining true life in the Spirit, and avoiding deception.

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Page last updated:
Friday, 19 January 2007