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Doctrinal Matters: Situation Ethics

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The Spirit and Letter of the Law

by  Dave Miller, Ph.D.

All erroneous systems of belief share in common the fact that several “props” are necessary to support them. The fact that the belief system is false, necessarily implies that one or more of the props are false. But the mere presence of an array of props gives the appearance and the impression that the belief system has much “evidence” to support it. One of the props that is marshaled to support the concept known as “situationism” is the notion that a legitimate distinction may be made between the “letter of the law” and the “spirit of the law.” It is argued that sometimes it is necessary, even mandatory, to violate the “letter of the law” in order to act in harmony with the “spirit of the law.” According to this line of thinking, those who insist that obedience to God’s law always is required—without exception—are “hung up on the letter of the law” instead of being led by the “spirit of the law.”

Of course, this kind of thinking naturally breeds and nurtures a relaxed attitude toward obedience. It militates against a desire to be precise and careful in conformity to Bible teaching. One individual explained how his feelings of devotion to Jesus made him feel that as long as he maintained a close sense of nearness to Him, he did not have to fret over “nitpicky” concerns, like whether he was staying within the speed limit when he drove his car. Another person avowed that she did not “sweat the small stuff,” since she was living her life in recognition of God’s grace, and felt certain that Jesus would “cut her some slack.” The “small stuff ” to which she referred included such things as whether God would approve of unscriptural divorce and remarriage, whether God would accept instrumental music in worship to Him, and whether one church was as good as another.

2 CORINTHIANS 3:4-18

The primary passage in the New Testament that is marshaled in an effort to support the “spirit vs. letter” antithesis is Paul’s remarks to the church of Christ in Corinth. The reader is urged to pause and read the third chapter of second Corinthians before reading the analysis that follows. Two phrases typically are excised from the context and used as proof-texts to support a notion contrary to the chapter: “not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (vs. 6), and “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (vs. 17). These phrases are set forth as proof that Christians ought not to be too meticulous in conforming strictly to New Testament directives. Those who take such a position assume that “letter” refers to the commands of God—the written statements of Scripture that specify and regulate human behavior. They also assume that “spirit” refers to one’s attitude or feelings. Hence, if the individual feels devoted, concerned, and sincere, he or she is deemed in line with “the spirit of the law.” On the other hand, the individual who appears inflexible and rigid, or overly concerned with strict obedience, is perceived to lack “compassion” and “sensitivity,” and too concerned with “the letter of the law.”

Incredibly, if one would take the time to study God’s Word and refrain from mishandling its intended meaning (Acts 17:11; 2 Corinthians 4:2; 1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 2:15), one would see that neither Paul nor any other inspired writer agreed with such thinking. In a pericope dealing with his apostolic ministry, Paul crafted a beautiful allegory—what D.R. Dungan called “the most perfect antithesis to be found in the whole Bible” (1888, p. 349). By arranging the contrasting phrases of the antithesis into two columns, one is able more easily to grasp Paul’s intended meaning:

2 CORINTHIANS 3
Old Covenant New Covenant
  Ministers of the new covenant (vs. 6)
Of the letter (vs. 6) Of the Spirit (vs. 6)
The letter kills (vs. 6) The Spirit gives life (vs. 6)
Ministry of death (vs. 7) Ministry of the Spirit (vs. 8)
Written/engraved on stones (vs. 7)    
Ministry of condemnation (vs. 9) Ministry of righteousness (vs. 9)
Glorious (vss. 7,9) Much more glorious (vss. 8,9)
Passing away (vs. 7) Remains (vs. 11)
Veil on Moses’ face (vs. 13)   Great boldness of speech (vs. 12)
Veil remains in reading O.T. (vs. 14) Veil taken away in Christ (vs. 14)
Veil lies on their heart (vs. 15) Veil taken away when heart turned
to the Lord (vs. 16)

It should be immediately evident to the unbiased observer “that the two legs of the antithesis are the New Covenant in contrast with the Old Covenant” (Dungan, p. 268). Precisely the same meaning is conveyed by the same terminology in Paul’s letter to the Romans (2:29; 7:6). The Old Testament legal system, though an excellent system for what God had in mind (Romans 7:12), was unable to provide ultimate forgiveness for violations of law and, in that sense, “kills.” It took Jesus dying on the cross to make “life” possible (i.e., actual cleansing from sin).

When one recognizes the contextual meaning, it becomes apparent that these verses have absolutely nothing to do with the alleged “spirit vs. letter” contention! In fact, the Bible nowhere postulates such a thing. Like all liberal thinking, one must refrain from thinking too much about it if one does not wish to see the absurdity and nonsensical nature of it. The “spirit vs. letter” contrast is gobbledygook that is “better felt than told.” It makes no sense. On April 3, 1897, J.W. McGarvey responded to just this type of thinking in an article titled, “The Letter That Killeth”:

Just once in the course of his writings Paul makes the declaration that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Corinthians 3:7); and no remark that he ever made has been applied in a greater number of unlicensed ways. If a man insists upon preserving some ordinance in the very form of its original appointment, such an ordinance as baptism or the Lord’s Supper, for example, he is accused of contending for the letter that killeth, while the man who makes the charge, and who changes the ordinance, claims that he is following the spirit that giveth life. All of that large class of writers who make free with the Scriptures while claiming to reverence their authority, employ this device to excuse their departures from the word of God, while those who remonstrate with them for their license are denounced as literalists, or sticklers for the letter that killeth. In all these instances it seems to be claimed that if you stick close to the ordinance as Christ gave it, you will kill somebody. The last example that attracted my attention was in connection with the number of elders that should be appointed in a church. The writer says: “It has been thought to be a greater evil to have a congregation without a plurality of elders than to have an eldership without the requisite qualifications;” and he adds: “This is to do violence to the spirit of the New Testament in an effort to be loyal to its letter.” But which, in this case, is the letter, and which is the spirit? To have a plurality of elders is certainly the letter of the New Testament; that is, it is the literal requirement; and the literal requirement also is to have elders of prescribed qualifications. Where, then, is the spirit as distinguished from the letter? Echo answers, Where? The writer was so in the habit of using this favorite expression where he wished to justify a departure from Scripture precedent that he evidently applied it in this instance from pure habit and without thought. The watchful reader will have seen many examples of the kind (1910, pp. 160-161).

Indeed, redefining the biblical expressions “spirit of the law” and “letter of the law” enables the situationist to promote his agenda under the cloak of Bible backing.

If one wishes to use the expression “the spirit of the law” to refer to a proper attitude, and “the letter of the law” to refer to compliance with the explicit dictates of Scripture, it certainly is true that a person can distort or disregard “the spirit of the law” while following carefully “the letter of the law.” A person may engage in external, rote compliance without heartfelt, genuine love for God and His will. But it is impossible to represent faithfully “the spirit of the law” (i.e., to have the right attitude) while acting out of harmony with the specific details of the law. When Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commands” (John 14:15), He pinpointed the fact that “love” for Him includes “obedience.” It is possible to obey and not love; but it is not possible to love and not obey. One may have good intentions in one’s religious pursuits, but if those religious actions are contrary to God’s specified will, the activity is unacceptable to God. The situationist’s claim that sincerity and feelings of “love” legitimize whatever action “love” takes, is in direct contradiction to Bible teaching.

The fact of the matter is that God always has required that people approach him “in truth”—i.e., according to the divine directives that He revealed to man. The only worship that has ever been acceptable to God has been that worship which has been undertaken with (1) a proper attitude, frame of mind, and disposition conducive to spirituality, and (2) faithfulness to the specific items that God pinpointed as the proper external acts to be performed. Jesus made this fact very clear in His encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4:23-24). God never has accepted one without the other. He always has required both. He always has required two facets of response to His will: the right action with the right attitude. Notice the following chart of scriptures:

PASSAGE ATTITUDE ACTION
John 4:24 spirit truth
Joshua 24:14 sincerity truth
Ecclesiastes 12:13 fear God keep commands
Acts 10:35 fear Him work righteous
James 2:17 faith works
1 John 3:18 word/tongue deed/truth
Deuteronomy 10:12-13   fear/love—heart   walk/ways
Romans 1:9 with my spirit in the gospel

To emphasize one dimension of obedience over the other is to hamper one’s acceptance by God. Bible history is replete with instances of those who possessed one without the other, and thus were unacceptable to God. The Pharisees (Matthew 23:3), Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:2-4), and the people of Amos’ day (Amos 5:21-24) engaged in the external forms, but were unacceptable because of their insincerity. Paul (Acts 22:3; 23:1), Cornelius (Acts 10:1-2), and Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:6) all demonstrated genuine motives, but were unacceptable to God because of their failure to observe the right forms.

Think for a moment of the many people in biblical history who failed to approach God “in truth”—that is, they approached God, but did so without sufficient attention to complying with the details and guidelines that God had articulated. Adam and Eve, regardless of the condition of their attitude, were condemned by God for the external act of eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 2:17; 3:11). Likewise, Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3), the Sabbath breaker (Numbers 15:32-36), Moses (Numbers 20:11,12), Achan (Joshua 7), Saul (1 Samuel 13:13,14; 15:19-23), Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:1-7; 1 Chronicles 15:12,13), King Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:16-18), and Ezra’s contemporaries (Ezra 10)—all experienced the displeasure of God for their deviation from divine directions.

God has not changed in His insistence upon man’s loving obedience to His instructions (John 14:15; 15:14; 1 John 5:3). The Old Testament was written, among other reasons, in order for Christians to learn from the example of those who departed from God’s way (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:11). New Testament faith, the kind of faith that Christians must possess if they wish to be pleasing and acceptable to God, is obedient trust—trust that conforms to God’s will (Hebrews 11; James 2).

The psalmist understood that God’s truth consisted of God’s written words (cf. Psalm 119:30,43,142,151,160). So did Jesus when He said, “Thy word is truth,” and declared that the basis of judgment would be the words that He spoke (John 17:17; 12:47-48). Worshipping God “in truth” is equivalent to “doing truth,” which entails “deeds” or external actions which are prescribed by God (John 3:19-21; cf. loving “in truth” in 1 John 3:18). When Jesus taught the way of God “in truth” (Matthew 22:16), He related information that accurately represented God’s will. When the Colossians heard “the word of the truth of the gospel” (Colossians 1:5), they heard the specific tenets, doctrines, requirements, and teachings to which they had to conform their lives.

Situationism, antinomianism, and liberalism share in common their mutual aversion to law keeping. Christians must not fall prey to these sinister forces that attempt to soften and obscure the clear call from God to render obedience to His directives. All He seeks from people is conformity to His laws out of hearts full of sincerity, earnestness, and love.

REFERENCES

Dungan, D.R. (1888), Hermeneutics (Delight, AR: Gospel Light).

McGarvey, J.W. (1910), Biblical Criticism (Cincinnati, OH: Standard).




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