On the meaning of the phrases ‘the Spirit’ and ‘the letter’ in 2 Corinthians 3:6–8 and Romans 7:6
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Much has been written about “the spirit of the law” and “the letter of the law”. Through that, many people have been caused to believe that those phrases and concepts are biblical. But, they are not found in the Bible. – A few English bible-translators have put into one or two New Testament passages the words “the letter of the law”, but that does not have any basis in the Greek text.
2 Corinthians 3:6–9 is the perhaps most relevant passage in connection with this matter. Please note that it does not contain the word “law”. The apostle was not talking about two ways to apply the rules of the Old Covenant. He was talking about two separate and different covenants, an old one and a new. By the phrase “the Spirit”, he referred to the Holy Spirit and the New Covenant. By the phrase “the letter”, he referred to the Old Covenant and its rules.
2 Corinthians 3:6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 7 Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, 8 how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory! 10 Indeed, what once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory; 11 for if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory! (NRSV)
As you can see, by the phrase “the letter” the apostle referred to the Old Covenant and its rules – verse 6, “the letter kills” and verse 7, “the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets”. And, by the phrase “the Spirit”, he referred to the Holy Spirit and the New Covenant – “the Spirit gives life”, verse 7.
Romans 7:6 does contain the word law – the apostle noted that the (Jewish) saints had been released from the Law (the Old Covenant). We read:
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. (NASB77)
This article takes a closer look at those passages and some related ones, including Jeremiah 31:33. Also Matthew 5:17–18 will be considered here.
The following contains a number of clarifying notes on 2 Corinthians 3:6–8.
2 Corinthians 3:6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter [a] kills, but the Spirit gives life. 7 Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, [c] came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, 8 how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification [b] abound in glory! 10 Indeed, what once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory; 11 for if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory! (NRSV, note signs added)
As you can see, it was not a matter of a “spirit of the law” versus a “letter of the law”. Instead, it was a matter of the Spirit as opposed to the letter. That is, the Holy Spirit and the New Covenant, versus the Old Covenant and its rules.
a What in verse 6 is translated as “letter”, is in the Greek text gramma, related to the verb graphô which was also used of engraving. The context shows that the apostle used the two tablets of stone as a symbol for the Old Covenant.
b Verse 9, “justification”: Some translations have “righteousness”, but it appears that here, the apostle was contrasting condemnation with justification. In this verse, where the above-quoted NRSV has “justification”, the Greek text has dikaiosunê (cf. dikaios, “just”, and dikaioô, “to justify”). That word could refer to justness (“righteousness”), but it is quite clear that in this case the apostle used it in the meaning “justification”, as opposed to condemnation, same verse. (This with the saints’ justification must not be misunderstood in any way. They were justified – their sins were forgiven – but they were not to continue in sin.)
c Verse 7, “the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets” – the apostle used the two tablets of stone as a symbol for the Old Covenant in its entirety. Many writers have caused people to think that the Decalogue was something separate, and some have even claimed that it “pre-dated Sinai”, but those who have carefully checked how things really are, know that that is not correct. There is more on the matter of the Decalogue in the article nca051.htm, but here are some shorter notes:
The word “decalogue” comes from the Greek text of the Septuagint version (LXX). It has in Exodus 34:28 the phrase tous deka logous, “the ten words”. Here is an English translation of the Hebrew text of that verse:
Exodus 34:28 And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten words. (JPS1917, highlighting added)
The highlighted words above are a correct translation of the Hebrew text.
The point here is that the “words of the covenant, the ten words” which that verse refers to, were words of the covenant that was made by Mount Sinai. They were an integral and inseparable part of the Old Covenant.
A note: This matter must not be misunderstood in any way. Those who have studied the New Testament with care, know that the saints were repeatedly reminded that they were to live in a just, righteous manner. Much more was expected, in the way of righteousness, of the saints who were under the New Covenant, than was ever demanded of the Israelites when they were under the Old Covenant.
Again, the article nca051.htm has more on the matter of the Decalogue.
The Old Covenant’s “ten words” were written on tablets of stone, but the New Covenant’s “writing” is done by placing the Holy Spirit in humans. It is written,
“not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3, NRSV).
That is what even Jeremiah 31:33 refers to.
Jeremiah 31:31 “The day is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord. 33 “But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions [d] deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” (NLT04, highlighting and note sign added)
d In verse 33, the above-quoted NLT04 correctly translates the old Hebrew noun torah in its literal meaning “instruction”. (The noun torah was related to the verb yarah which meant “to teach”, “to instruct”.) ‘Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament’ by Harris, Archer and Waltke states:
The word tôrâ means basically ‘teaching’ whether it is the wise man instructing his son or God instructing Israel.
The meaning of Jeremiah 31:33 is that the Lord promised that at a future time he would place (“write”) his Holy Spirit in men’s inner being, to guide and instruct them, so that they will know the right way to live and act.
Many bible-translators have put into that verse such wordings as “I will write my law”. That has caused many people to misunderstand that passage. But, the “writing” which Jeremiah 31:33 foretold is not a “law text”. Again, the Holy Spirit is the New Covenant’s “writing” and its “torah” (guidance, instruction).
The above-quoted Jeremiah 31 refers to a new covenant, verse 31, which is not like the one that was made by Mount Sinai, verse 32. It is not a matter of “helping people to remember the rules of the Old Covenant”, as some have claimed. Nor is it a matter of the Holy Spirit “helping people to understand the rules of the Old Covenant in a spiritual way”. Jeremiah 31 refers to a new and different covenant, where God dwells in people and teaches and guides them, through his Spirit.
(The saints – those who received the Holy Spirit in biblical times, first century CE or earlier – were a “first-fruits” fulfílment of that prophetic promise. The larger fulfilment of it has not begun yet but is still a matter of the future.)
The article nca061.htm has more on the Holy Spirit as the New Covenant’s “writing”.
2 Corinthians 3:6 and 7 contain the words “the letter kills” and “the ministry of death” (NRSV). – There was nothing bad or “deadly” with the Old Covenant’s “ten words” (the Decalogue). But, the covenant which those words belonged to, did not provide the Israelites a way to everlasting life. Perhaps that is why the apostle wrote, “the letter kills”. In contrast to that, “the Spirit gives life” – that refers to the Holy Spirit and the New Covenant.
Again, in that passage the apostle used the two tablets of stone as a symbol for the Old Covenant in its entirety. He was comparing the Old Covenant and its writing (“the letter”), with the New Covenant and its “writing” (the Holy Spirit who is to be placed in humans, to instruct and guide them).
That is also what the in Jeremiah 31:33 recorded promise refers to.
In several passages in his letters, the apostle Paul made it clear that the saints were not under the Old Covenant or its rules. Instead, they were to be led by the Holy Spirit. That did not lead to “lawlessness”. It was the very opposite, of course: Those who are led by the Holy Spirit, will live in a just and morally upright manner.
(The article nga081.htm has some notes on what new-covenantal righteousness is and consists of.)
The apostle Paul wrote, as a Jew who had been under the Old Covenant:
Romans 7:1 Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? […] 6 But now we [e] have been released from the Law, [f] 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. (NASB77, note signs added)
A side-note: In verse 6, there are certain differences between Greek manuscripts, and consequently also between English translations. But, that does not change anything this way or that, in regard to things on the practical level.
e Romans 7:6, “we” – Paul wrote these words to and regarding Jewish saints in Rome, from the Jewish point of view, see verse 1, “I am speaking to those who know the law”. The Jewish saints had been under the Old Covenant, but they no longer were that but had instead been joined to the New Covenant.
f Regarding the phrase “the Law” in Romans 7:6 – in the Bible, it can refer to different things. Sometimes it refers to the Old Testament section which consists of the five books of Moses, but dsometimes, as in this case, it refers to the Old Covenant with its rules.
Was the apostle saying, as some have claimed, that those saints were now to apply “the Law” (the Old Covenant and its rules), in a “spiritual” manner? No. That passage records how he stated that they were no longer under that covenant but had been released (freed) from it. He noted that now, they did not serve God “in the letter” (that is, no longer according to the Old Covenant and its rules). Instead, the saints served God “in the newness of the Spirit” – that is, they were under the New Covenant whose “writing” (guidance and instruction) consisted of the Holy Spirit whom God had placed in them.
In both 2 Corinthians 3:6 and Romans 7:6, the phrase “the Spirit” is a reference to the Holy Spirit and the New Covenant, while the phrase “the letter” is a reference to the Old Covenant with its rules. The Holy Spirit is the New Covenant’s “writing”. That refers to God dwelling in humans, guiding and instructing them through his Spirit.
Romans 7:7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” (ESV01)
It appears that here, Paul used the phrase “the Law” in a narrower sense, referring specifically to “the words of the covenant, the ten words”, those which had been written on the two tablets of stone. He rhetorically noted that those things were not “sin”. That is, they were not bad. But, there was a problem with that covenant – it did not provide a way to everlasting life. With the New Covenant, things are different.
The saints were told that they must live in a holy, righteous manner. In that connection, it is good to keep in mind that new-covenantal righteousness is not defined by the rules of the Old Covenant. The articles nga081.htm has more on the matter of righteousness.
Because of certain translation-related and other problems, many have misunderstood what Jesus meant here:
Matthew 5:17 Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the Law till all is fulfilled. (VW06, highlighting added)
In that passage, the phrases “the Law” and “the Prophets” refer to specific sections in the Old Testament. Note also the words “fulfill”, verse 17, and “till all is fulfilled”, verse 18. Here is a passage which clarifies what Matthew 5:17–18 is all about:
Luke 24:44 Then He said to them, These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me. (VW06, highlighting added)
“All things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning me.” That is what Matthew 5:17–18 refers to. Jesus was not talking about fulfilling the demands of the Old Covenant. It is obvious that he meant that certain prophecies which are recorded in “the Law”, “the Prophets” and “the Psalms” – in the Old Testament – were not to become void but were indeed to be fulfilled, down to the smallest details, “jot and tittle”.
A note: The verses that follow Matthew 5:17–18 could easily confuse casual bible-readers who have not studied all of the New Testament in depth. The article nca011.htm has more on Matthew 5:17–18 and 19–20.
Many translators have twisted 1 John 3:4, by changing things in that verse and by adding to it words, such as “law”. But, the apostle John did not mention “the Law” in that passage. The meaning of the Greek text in that verse is something like this: “Everyone practising sin also practises wickedness, and sin is wickedness”. The article nca121.htm has more on 1 John 3:4.
See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa091.htm
On the Decalogue, “the words of the covenant, the ten words”. → nca051.htm
Where can one find the rules of the New Covenant, in written form? → nca061.htm
What does the word “righteous” really mean? What does the Bible say about righteousness? → nga081.htm
What does the Bible say about the matter of resurrection? → nba080.htm
The New Covenant versus the Old Covenant. Also, some notes on Matthew 5:17–18 and 19–20. → nca011.htm
On 1 John 3:4 and its translation and meaning. → nca121.htm
Other articles on the matter of the two covenants, old and new. → Look under the heading “Covenants” of the page key12.htm.
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