The Letter Kills, But The Spirit Gives Life: The Contrast Between The Old And The New Covenant

(All Bible quotations, except otherwise stated, are from the New King James Version).

2 Corinthians 3:5 Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God,

2 Corinthians 3:6 who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Oftentimes, we hear Christians quoting the phrase “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (as recorded in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians) to prove the point that the written word, without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, kills spiritually, instead of edifying. In as much as the inspiration of the Holy Spirit quickens and refreshes, that phrase does not refer to the fact that the written word devoid of revelation brings death! Far from it, Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, was not comparing the written word with the revealed word. What Paul was highlighting here instead was the difference between the law and grace. Paul used the word ‘letter‘ as an Hebriasm for the Law of Moses, while he used the ‘Spirit‘ to refer to the ministry of grace in Christ Jesus. Thus, Paul was contrasting the law with grace, and the ministry of Moses with the ministry of Jesus Christ! The Apostle to the Gentiles was drawing a contrast between the old covenant and the new covenant here. This point is too easily missed by a lot of Christians, and we will do well to read the entirety of the third chapter of 2 Corinthians to understand the true meaning of the phrase: “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”.

2 Corinthians 3:1 Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or do we need, as some others, epistles of commendation to you or letters of commendation from you?

2 Corinthians 3:2 You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men;

2 Corinthians 3:3 clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.

2 Corinthians 3:4 And we have such trust through Christ toward God.

2 Corinthians 3:5 Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God,

2 Corinthians 3:6 who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Romans 7:5 For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death.

Romans 7:6 But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.

In his comparison of the ministry of the law with the ministry of grace, Paul described the Mosaic law as letters written upon tablets of stone, while the believer in Christ is a living epistle, with God’s word written in his heart by the Holy Spirit. That’s a direct contrast between the old and the new covenant. The reason the old covenant wasn’t effective was that the law was written on tablets of stone and not in the hearts of the people. In contrast, in the new covenant, the Holy Spirit engraves his words in the hearts of believers, making it unnecessary for each to teach his neighbour to know God, for all with his Spirit in their hearts (sons and daughters of God) know him, from the least to the greatest. No one needs to teach his neighbour to fear God in the new covenant, for the Spirit within each teaches us the fear of God from within.

Hebrews 8:7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second.

Hebrews 8:8 Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—

Hebrews 8:9 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord.

Hebrews 8:10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.

Hebrews 8:11 None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.

Hebrews 8:12 For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”

Hebrews 8:13 In that He says, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

The ‘letter kills’ simply means the law of Moses kills! The law was not designed to provide eternal life for people because the law doesn’t contain life in itself! The law only brings wrath, not life. By the knowledge of the law is sin and death, not life. The law does not make righteous, but only makes us realise how unrighteous we are. It makes us aware of sin and makes sin exceedingly sinful. The law is for the unrighteous and sinners, to convict and imprison them for their sins. The law came through Moses to condemn all mankind and shut all mouths before God, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ, to set men free from the bondage and wrath of the law. Death came through the law, for the law revives sinfulness in people and kills them with their knowledge of sin. The law makes us wretched with our knowledge of sin. Truly, the letter (the law) kills!

Romans 4:13 For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.

Romans 4:14 For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect,

Romans 4:15 because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression.

Romans 3:19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.

Romans 3:20 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.

Romans 7:7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”

Romans 7:8 But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead.

Romans 7:9 I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died.

Romans 7:10 And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death.

Romans 7:11 For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me.

Romans 7:12 Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.

Romans 7:13 Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful.

Romans 7:14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.

Romans 7:15 For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.

Romans 7:16 If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good.

Romans 7:17 But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.

Romans 7:18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find.

Romans 7:19 For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.

Romans 7:20 Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.

Romans 7:21 I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good.

Romans 7:22 For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man.

Romans 7:23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.

Romans 7:24 O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

Romans 7:25 I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.

Galatians 2:21 I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”

1 Timothy 1:8 But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully,

1 Timothy 1:9 knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,

1 Timothy 1:10 for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine,

1 Timothy 1:11 according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.

Galatians 3:19 What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator.

Galatians 3:20 Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one.

Galatians 3:21 Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law.

Galatians 3:22 But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

Galatians 3:23 But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed.

Galatians 3:24 Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.

Galatians 3:25 But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

John 1:17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

But even the law (the letter) that kills had some glory in it, as reflected by the shining glow on Moses’s face, who represents the law. However, the glory of the law had to be veiled, because it was a fading glory, one that was passing away and wasn’t meant to be permanent. Moses covered his face when he came down from the mountain with the shining glory on his face because he didn’t want the people to behold the blinding glory of the law that could not transform the people, but only kill them. That transient, fading glory represents the transient nature of the law. The law was only intended to be a stopgap measure in the first place. It was to be operational only until the coming of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. Now that grace has come, the law is to be done away with. Now that the Spirit has come, the letter (the law) is to be discarded. As long as people remain under the law, the veil on Moses’s face remains in their hearts, to prevent them from accessing life. The veil of the law (the letter) is taken away when people turn to Christ for salvation. In Christ Jesus, there is liberty which was lacking in the law. In Christ Jesus, with an unveiled face, we behold the true and unfading glory of God, and are transformed from glory unto glory, by the Spirit of the Lord! Hallelujah!

2 Corinthians 3:7 But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away,

2 Corinthians 3:8 how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious?

2 Corinthians 3:9 For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory.

2 Corinthians 3:10 For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels.

2 Corinthians 3:11 For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious.

2 Corinthians 3:12 Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech—

2 Corinthians 3:13 unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away.

2 Corinthians 3:14 But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ.

2 Corinthians 3:15 But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart.

2 Corinthians 3:16 Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

2 Corinthians 3:17 Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

2 Corinthians 3:18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.

In conclusion, “the letter kills” refers to the deadly nature of the Mosaic law, while “the Spirit gives life” refers to the life-giving nature of the gospel of grace. Paul used the above expression to highlight the contrast between the law and grace, showing why we must not go back to the bondage of the law, now that the grace of God has appeared in Christ Jesus. To seek to be justified or made righteous by the keeping of the law is to seek death over life and bondage over liberty. The law blinds and covers men’s hearts with a veil, preventing them from beholding the glory of God. That blinding veil over the heart is removed when one comes to Christ Jesus, where the believer receives grace to grow from glory to glory, even as we behold the glory of the Lord. Let us then flee from the death of the law (the letter), and embrace the life of the Spirit!

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Published by Dr. Ndubuisi Emmanuel Ojo

Dr Ojo is a Biblical scholar and teacher who believes firmly in the original Apostolic faith as the only authentic version of Christianity, and the only legitimate basis for Christian doctrine and conduct.

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