The Spirit Or The Letter

Ryan Goodwin




          Members of the church of Christ are often criticized by the religious world for what is perceived as a dependence on the letter of the law. Supposedly, as some argue, we hurt ourselves religiously by focusing too heavily on obedience to written commands and neglecting the weightier matters of Christianity such as faith, love, hope, mercy, etc. One writer puts it well in the following account, “During the course of that discussion, [my opponent] implied rather strongly that I was a Pharisee and that I had ‘lost the spirit of the law’. His belief is that the Pharisees were condemned because they had followed the law too closely, and that I stood condemned for doing the same. The ‘spirit of the law’, in his mind, refers to the underlying intent of the law that is never directly expressed in scripture. One comes to understand this ‘spirit’ by reading between the lines of God's word or by looking at the scriptures as a whole (but not in detail)” (“The Spirit and Letter of the Law”, Daniel Gatlin, Gospel Anchor, November 1992, p. 2 [42]).

          So is obedience to the exact letter of the New Testament God’s desire for mankind? Does He desire disobedience but with righteous motives? Or does the Bible actually teach that God’s desire is a combination of the best of both worlds: precise obedience with the impetus being pure motives? Some initial observations:


·        It is interesting that the only people who seem to argue that precise obedience is not necessary are those who advocate doctrines not promoted by the Bible.

·        Also, proponents of “spirit of the law only” tend to lose interest and proficiency in the Bible. It is as if as long as you have righteous motives and a pure heart, Bible study does not matter at all!

·        If motive is the only thing that is important, then why study? Why have the Bible?

·        This failure to respect the authority of the Word leads to poor Biblical scholarship, taking some verses out of context while totally ignoring others.


Key “Spirit” and “Letter” Verses


2 Corinthians 3:6“Who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”


          Of course, the argument is that “pharisaical” overexposure to Bible study leads to spiritual death – as if depending on the letter of a law stunts spiritual maturation. However, this passage and its context have nothing to do with an outward and inward meaning of God’s law. There is nothing here that should lead us to believe that the “intent” of a Bible verse is somewhere hidden, or deeper than the words of that verse. And what a confusing religion Christianity would be if this was true! If every verse had a spirit and a letter that were different and led the reader to contradictory conclusions, we would all believe something different, and the Bible would speak to each of us uniquely. But this verse is taken out of context. The “Spirit” here actually applies to the New Covenant, and the verse is written in such a way that the connection if obvious. The “letter’ applies to the Old Covenant, which is described elsewhere. “For the letter kills… If the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones” (2 Corinthians 3:7). Paul does not divide the New Testament into a “letter” and a “spirit”, but asserts that the New Testament is based on more spiritual characteristics than the Old Testament, which could not save (Hebrews 10:1-4).


Romans 2:29“But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”


          The contrast here is not between what the way words are written and their actual meaning, or obedience versus a good heart. The person spoken of in this verse is already somebody who is obedient (Romans 2:26). The real contrast is between one man who keeps the ordinances out of pure duty or ritual and another man who keeps the ordinances because he believes in them, values them, and sees their importance to God. Obedience is not ignored, but the stress is on obedience for the right reasons.


Romans 7:6“But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.”


          It is unfortunate that so many people want verses like this to say what they do not. The “Law” under consideration is not “law” in general, but the specific Law of Moses (7:7). Serving in “newness of spirit” does not rule out obedience, because even the word “serve” demands it. The Old Testament passed away when the New Testament was given, and other verses confirm this idea. “When He said, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear” (Hebrews 8:13). How do people honestly make the jump from what the Bible actually says to what many affirm: “See? These verses teach that righteous motives negate disobedience. God wants us to follow the spirit of the Bible, and not the letter of the Bible.” So does that not make God a liar? How can the intended meaning of a verse be something other than what it states in words? How deceptive does it get? How are we supposed to interpret any verse if the letter and the spirit are not the same thing? How can we trust the Bible if God said, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16), but actually meant, “He who believes only shall be saved”?


Why did Jesus condemn the Pharisees?


          We are accused of being “pharisaical” because we teach the necessity of obedience as well as righteous motives. However, much of the misapplication of the “letter and the spirit of the Law” debate is based on a misunderstanding of what was wrong with the Pharisees. Some would say that Jesus condemned them because they obeyed the Law of God too strictly or too closely. But where does Jesus ever say that? Where does God ever condemn people for being too good? What verse leads us to believe that obedience is a bad thing? When did God say to the Pharisees, “Hey! Loosen up, guys. If you keep taking my words so seriously you’re going to end up lost”? So what are the reasons that are actually given in the Bible for their condemnation?


·        They were condemned for blatant hypocrisy (Matthew 23:3).

·        They placed their human traditions and customs ahead of scriptures, in violation of them (Matthew 15:3).

·        They were self-righteous (Luke 18:9).

·        They served God for human praise and recognition (Matthew 6:1).

·        They were murderers, and sinned by putting Jesus to death (John 19:11).

·        They were condemned for a failure to recognize truth (Matthew 21:27).

·        Pharisees wielded their power to hinder the faith of others (John 12:42).

·        Far from being condemned for obeying the Law too closely, they were actually called by Jesus for not obeying the Law correctly. A part of His condemnation was due to the fact that they chose to ignore certain areas of the Law (justice, mercy, and faith in Matthew 23:23). Jesus considered every part of the Law to be important, even tithing.


Reading Between the Lines?


         There are a number of problems with the belief that there is more to the Bible than meets the eye. Are we missing something just because we try to follow scriptures closely, or “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent”? Or should we speak where the Bible is silent because it is in silence that the Bible says the most? The most profound flaw in thinking that a hidden “intent of the law” is between the lines of scripture is that the Pharisees did not have to read between the lines to know that God demanded “mercy, justice and faith”. To accuse us of being pharisaical because we do not obey the mysterious hidden intent of the law is missing the application. The Pharisees were condemned because the weightier provisions of the law were already written, and were not hidden between the lines (Exodus 23:1-3, Leviticus 19:9-10, Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

          This idea that the New Testament is a book that is best read “between the lines” smacks of arrogance and presumption. The attitude that says, “Ignore what God has clearly said, but listen to what He has not said” seems to be that of a man who thinks he can read God’s mind (1 Corinthians 2:11, Isaiah 55:8-9). How can we know what God wants us to do unless He has clearly and obviously stated it in our human language? “The secret things belong to the Lord, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of the law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

         Also consider Ephesians 3:3-4, “That by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief; and by referring to this when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ.” If reading the written word of apostles and inspired men is insight into the mystery, how much more mystery is there between the lines? We fully understand God’s will for us by studying the Bible and obeying it (2 Peter 1:3, “everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Christ”).  


Vague Principles


          The “spirit of the law” theory rests on the idea that the New Testament is not a book of laws, like the Old Testament, but a book of vague principles. Those who live by the principles, as we are being told, are the true Christians. But while the New Testament does contain very powerful principles, it also includes equally powerful commands, most of which are complimented by very precise and detailed instructions for obedience.


·        Commands to be baptized (Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38).

·        Lord’s supper protocol (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

·        Qualifications of elders (Titus 1:6-9).

·        Moral codes of conduct (Romans 13:8-10, Ephesians 4:25-32).

·        Even the principle of love is not left in a vague, undefined state (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

·        There are dozens of others rules and regulations that are expected of the Christian, so to say that Christianity is best summed up by an undefined, amorphous ethical code is not Biblical.

·        Let us also never forget that the New Testament itself is a law, and it is self-described as such (Hebrews 8:10, James 1:25, etc.). “The law will go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3). Of the “new covenant” God says, “I will put my law within them” (Jeremiah 31:33).

·        Jesus Christ Himself believed that without obedience salvation was impossible (Matthew 7:21);

·        And that without obedience, love of God did not exist (John 14:15).

·        He also taught that one needs to keep the commands of God (Matthew 19:17).

·        Finally, always remember 1 John 2:3-6, which makes it clear that obedience to the exact letter of the law is necessary. Those who have not kept His commandments do not know God, and are not of Him. And there is nothing between those lines.