The Letter Killeth, But the Spirit Giveth Life
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…

By the letter is meant the moral law. Note —


1. By its manifestation of that disruption which lay concealed under the happy outflow of young and brimming life. That strong energy, which is the core of our human nature, is brought up sharp by a relentless voice that refuses it its unhindered joy. It clashes against the obstinate resistance which bars its road with its terrible negative, "Thou shalt not covet"; and, in the recoil from that clashing, it knows itself to be subject to a divided mastery. It knows itself to be capable of violent variance with God, to be somehow spoilt, disordered, corrupt. The unity of sound organic health has suffered rupture. It has in it the evidences of a disorganisation and a dissolution, which is death. "I was alive without the law once; but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died."

2. And the law not only declared sin to be there, but it also provoked the sin, which fretted at its checks, into a more abundant and domineering extravagance. "Sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence." Curiosity, imagination, vanity, impulsiveness — all are set astir to overleap the barrier, to defeat the obstacle that so sharply traverses its instinctive inclinations. "The law entered that offence might abound," and where offence abounded, death reigned, for the end of sin is death.

3. And the letter killed also by convicting. Over against the very men whom it irritated into revolt it stood as a judgment which could not be gainsaid nor denied. And they knew the sting of its terrible truth. Its wrath unnerved them, and-its presence confounded. They were shut up within the prison-house of a criminal doom, and that justly. It killed, and this by God's own intention. "Yea, sin, that it might appear sin, worked death by that which is good, that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful." Better far that the secret poison should be brought out into violent action. Its sickness, its pain — these are, after all, proofs of capacity to struggle; these are methods of liberation. The body is releasing itself from disease through these bitter experiences; and let, then, the letter kill. Let death dig in its fangs. Let the doom deepen and darken. So only shall at the last the spirit of the resurrection quicken.

II. Through sin the letter slew, and what is more, THERE WAS NO HOPE OF RELIEF OR ESCAPE THROUGH MAN'S SPIRITUAL ADVANCE, FOR THE HIGHER THE LAW THE SHARPER ITS SWORD OF JUDGEMENT. As man's apprehension grew more spiritual, the discovery of his fall become more desperate. The law slew because it was just and pure and holy, and the quickened spiritual instincts would but learn the touch of a more biting terror; so that when at the last hour of that old covenant there stood upon the earth a Jew greater than Moses or Abraham, who accepted the hereditary law and promulgated it anew, with all the infinite and delicate subtlety which the mind of One who was one with the Giver of the law could convey into its edicts, so that it comprehended the entire man in its grip, why, such a gospel, if that Sermon of the Mount had been all, would have struck the very chill of the last death into the despairing soul, who listened and learned that not one jot or tittle of that law could fail. The sermon that some lightly affect to be the whole gospel of Christ would be by itself but a message of doom.

III. MAN LIES THERE DEAD BEFORE HIS GOD — DEAD, UNTIL — WHAT IS IT, THIS SWEET AND SECRET CHANGE? What is it, this breaking and stirring within his bones, as when the force of the spring pricks and works within the wintry trunks of dry and naked trees? As he lies stung and despairing, there is a change, there is an arrival. Far, far within, deeper than his deepest sin, behind the most secret workings of his bad and broken will, there is a breaking and a stir, there is a motion and a quiver and a gleam, there is a check and a pause in his decay, a quickening is felt as of live flame. What is it? He cannot tell; only he knows that something is there and at work, strong and fresh and young; and as it pushes and presses and makes way, a sense of blessing steals into his veins, and peace is upon his hunted soul, and the sweet soundness of health creeps over his bruises and his sores; and he who has faith just suffers all the strange change to pass over him and to work its goodwill, as he lies there, feeding on its blessedness, wondering at its goodness, sending up his heart in silent breaths of unutterable thanks. So it is come. St. Paul saw those lame and impotent men rise and leap and sing at the coming of the new force, under the handlings of the new ministry; and, so seeing, he knew the full meaning of the Lord's promise that the Spirit should come, and that every one born of the Spirit should be even as the Spirit. And the essence of the change is this — that God, Who in His manifestation of the letter stood there over against man, has now passed over on to the side of the men whom His appeal has overwhelmed. He, the good Father, is bending over the sinner, and entering within his human spirit by the power of His own Holy Spirit, is inspiring him with His own breath. God Himself in us fulfils His own demands on us. God Himself moves over to our side to satisfy the urgency of His own will and word. In Him we do what we do, and we are not afraid, though the Son of God has come "not to destroy that law, but to fulfil it " — yea, even though from us is required a righteousness exceeding that of Scribe and Pharisee. We are not afraid for "the Spirit giveth life." God has come over to our side, but He has not ceased to stand over there against us. There He still stands as of old, and His demands are the same; still it is true as ever that without holiness no man shall see the Lord. The revelation of the letter of the moral law holds good for us as much as for the Jew; and it is because that letter inevitably holds good that God has Himself entered within us, and striven for its fulfilment.

(Canon Scott-Holland.)

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 Killeth, But the Spirit Giveth Life
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