In 2 Corinthians 3:6 we read, “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.” What do these words mean?
The reference in a context concerns a comparison between the Old and New Testaments. The “letter” has nothing to do with the New Testament. The reference is to what Moses set before the people “written and engraven in stones” (2 Corinthians 3:7). The Old Testament had its beginning upon tablets of stone (Exodus 31:18; 32:19; 34:1, 4). The New Testament had its start from the Spirit (Acts 2). The word “letter” is a reference to the coming of the New Testament.
“The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” Three thousand were killed when the Old Testament came forth (Exodus 32:26-28). Three thousand were saved on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38-41). The Old Testament is said to kill because it provided condemnation without a means of true justification (Galatians 3:10-ff; Acts 13:39; Hebrews 10:4). Through the New Testament life is again possible (John 3:16; 6:63, 68; 10:10; Hebrews 10:4, 10). Only through the blood shed for the New Testament (Matthew 26:28) may those of Old have a chance of salvation (Hebrews 9:15-16; 11:16; 11:39-40; Romans 3:25; Galatians 4:4).
This chapter is set forth to show how much better the New Testament is. Note this chart:
- Ministration of death (v. 7), And condemnation (v. 9)
- Had glory (v. 9)
- Done away (v. 11)
Old (v. 14) cf. Hebrews 8:13
Ministration of the Spirit (v. 8), And righteousness (v. 9)
More glorious (v. 9-11)
Remained (v. 11)
New (v. 6) cf. Hebrews 8:13
Similar word occur in Romans 7:6. The passage reads, “But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.” To what does this passage refer?
It seems to me that the reference is the same. The teaching is that we are under a New Testament which was initially received by the Spirit. We are not under the previous Testament which initially came forth to the people by letter upon tablets of stone.
Some believe that a little more is being taught herein. Clearly, the term “letter” refers to the Old Testament. But, some think that the term “spirit” refers to the human spirit (John 4:24; Romans 1:9) revitalized under the New Testament. God always expected more than external obedience (Deuteronomy 6:5; Isaiah 29:13). But, it is the teachings of the New Testament that especially stirs us inwardly (John 13:34; 1 John 3:16; 4:10, 11, 19; 2 Corinthians 5:14a, etc.).
The last passage we’ll mention is also found in the book of Romans. It also uses similar wording. Romans 2:28-29 reads: “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”
It seems to me that again the reference is the same. The Jews were to be externally circumcised. Many Jews (though they shouldn’t have) put all their trust in externals. But Paul is saying that it is not that type of circumcision that God demands today. What God demands is an internal circumcision of the heart – a pure heart [God circumcises our hearts from sin at the point of baptism (Colossians 2:11-13)]. Again, the contrast is between the Old Testament and the New Testament.
These passages do not teach: (1) that we should follow our feelings and not the “letter” of the New Testament (John 12:48). The term “letter” refers to the Old Testament. (2) Nor do they teach that we should follow some original intent not written in the scriptures. If the original intent is not written in scriptures how could we possibly know what the original intent was? (3) Listen to Bob Berard’s comments: “’Spirit’ is put in contrast with ‘letter’ only so far as ‘letter’ stands for the Old Testament in part or in whole. Patently false is the notion that ‘spirit’ describes God’s instructions communicated by some means other than the words of the Holy Spirit, the words now completely and finally recorded in God’s book (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 1 Corinthians 13:8-10; 2 Peter 1:3; Jude 3). God’s intentions, the thoughts He has seen fit to reveal to direct men in the current age, are now conveyed by and only by, the words written in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 2:7-13; John 12:48; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 1 Corinthians 4:6). To conclude otherwise is to deny the all sufficiency of the scriptures and to open the flood gates of subjectivism… that which is called ’spirit’ is put in contrast with the Mosaical law or ’letter’ and is equated with the words of the New Testament” (Editor Dub Mcclish, Studies in 2 Corinthians, p. 97, Denton Lectureship)