Letter and Spirit
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…


1. A letter is a sign of a certain sound; an integral pert of a word, with no meaning out of a word; and if one should occupy himself with any one letter, even all the letters in succession, and never form the word, he misses the purport for which the letters exist. On the other hand, if you take away the letters of a word, thinking them nothing, you find yourself at last without the word. The vocable is gone, and what comes of the meaning?

2. Everything that God has made has a letter and a spirit. The sun, stars, flowers, brooks, and the great sea itself are letters. And God has taken care to keep us from looking at these things as only letters. He has surrounded them with a certain glory which is continually reminding us that they are intended to be formed into words and sentences to express great truths regarding God. What idea would infinitude convey to me unless I had the picture in the great vault of heaven or the wide sea? Yet there are some who go through the world and recognise only one letter and another. To them a tree is only a tree, the sea only a body of water, and the sky a great concave in which the stars appear to be. Others perceive a connection between the different facts. Others go farther and observe law. Others, however, see the grand truth which the whole was made to teach regarding the character of God and His will, and the natural and moral history of man. He only sees the spirit who sees this.

3. As opposed to spirit, then, the letter means(1) Outwardness. He who confines himself to form, whether as to the world, the Bible, worship or conduct, is a man of the letter. The Pharisees were such, and failed utterly to see the spirit, and lost all wish for it. All O.T. worshippers who saw nothing in the ceremonial higher than the ceremony; those who imagine that a mere outward observance of God's laws is all; those who think their presence in the church, or their bodily communicating at the Lord's table is all that is required, all belong to the letter. Extreme partisans of the spirit are perhaps not more exempt from this danger than others. The cry for spirit may be a phrase by which painfully solid things are made nebulous, and little left strong and certain but self. The last degradation of the word is reached when it indicates a superfine way of making things that are too real — thin, hazy, and uncertain.

(2) Isolation.

(a) Take a letter of a word and place it out by itself. It was more than a letter while in the word, but now it is only letter. So with a word taken out of a sentence, a sentence out of a paragraph era passage out of a book. The meaning of each separate part is that which is intended to be expressed by the whole.

(b) This holds in the book of nature. Take a tree, e.g. Can it be understood without reference to air and light and soil? But its meaning is visible when placed in the general economy of nature. So it is with the stream that runs down the hillside, the bird that sports in the air, etc. There is no object so small that you can grasp it by itself. For the understanding of a blade of grass you require a knowledge of all the sciences.

(c) The principle holds, too, as to the Bible. No word, or phrase, or chapter of it has its true meaning looked at apart from the rest. The spirit of the Bible is the meaning of the whole Bible. The spirit of Christianity is its grand central idea and purpose of bringing men to God's likeness and fellowship, and glorifying God in the salvation of men. In this gospel there are many parts, and all are needed, but all have only one end and aim, and that one end and aim is the spirit; and if the separate parts are taken away from this one end and aim, they become letter. Hence, if any one part is contemplated habitually apart from the great aim, it becomes letter. If a man take up any promise, commandment, doctrine, or ceremony, and think of it as if it were the be all and the end all, he is making it letter. Any attribute of God by itself is letter, for God's attributes are not separate existences, but each is in reference to all. It is doubt, less to guard us against this ever-pressing danger that the Word of God mixes up ideas in a way almost unparalleled in human literature. Doctrines are intertwined with duties, and so blended with facts that it is often a task of difficulty to sunder them and look at one by itself.

4. The way to reach the spirit is not by destroying or making light of the letter — or any letter. It is by the letter and all the letters that we reach the spirit; and our concern ought to be to know what is genuine letter, and to keep every letter in constant connection with the central spirit. Suppose a scholar spend his time on the mere words of his lesson, without trying to grasp the meaning, would the remedy be to erase the words? Or because some might dwell exclusively on pictures in the book, meant to illustrate the text, and never think of the meaning — would that be a good reason for taking out the pictures? And yet this minimising process forms nearly the whole plan of many for getting at spirit. Their recipe is short and simple — destroy the letter. Let them apply this to the study of human institutions, to the study of botany or astronomy, and see what wealth of insight into law and principle will accrue. Do the millions of stars, the multiplicity of herbs and flowers, seem intended for such a formula?

5. All the letters of a word are, or ought to be, needful to the word. Sometimes the only difference between two words that mean very different things is found in one letter. And no letter, nor any number of letters, will ever be anything without the grand spirit of the whole; but no letter, however trivial it look, is poor with the spirit in it. The greatest truths shine in a single rite or word when filled with the spirit of the whole, as the laws of light and gravitation are shown in a single drop of dew. The little creek, so insignificant and even unseemly when the sea has ebbed, is a fine sight when it is filled and brimming with the swelling tide. That is the water of the great sea that floods it, and there, too, great ships that have crossed the ocean can float.


1. "The letter killeth," not, of course, in virtue of its being letter, for God made the letter, which was never intended by Him to kill, but to give life by leading to the spirit. But —

(1) Letter kills when men take it as the whole and never go beyond it, or when they are so much occupied about it as to have no thought for the spirit. Thus, the very grandeur of the material universe leads some men to rest in it. Many are so occupied with the arrangements and laws of nature that they never think of its spirit. And many more are so engrossed in the material business of the world that they seldom think of any significance in it at all. Some are killed by the beauty of the letter, some by the wonderful shape and order of the letters, others by the immediate utility they find in the letter. Do not imagine that it is only the letter of God's Word that kills; the letter of His works kills also. And the letter of other books often kills men mentally. When men read without thinking, or for amusement, or for the sake of reading, or, worst of all, of being able to say that they have read; they will certainly by and by have the capacity of thought dwarfed or quite killed out. It is known even that men have been intellectually killed by a liberal education. The faculties are so gorged with facts and words, which remain only facts and words, that they never play spontaneously and naturally again. So, men are killed by the letter in a far more serious sense when they look merely to the beauty of the Bible, or when they dwell on some other external aspects of it, or when they lose themselves in forms and ceremonies and outward observances. Sometimes they cherish hostility to the truths that dare to seem to rival their favourite doctrines, or come in the least competition with them. Whenever men arrive at this they are in process of being killed.

(2) The abundance of letter kills. It is well known how dangerous to the spirit a multitude of Ceremonies is. And a great number of doctrines marked off with minute logic, and pressed upon the soul, has the like effect.

(3) The letter kills with certainty when formally installed in room of the spirit, as it was in our Lord's time. The Jews, as a whole, clung so fondly to the letter that they hated the spirit.

(4) The letter kills by being made hostile to the spirit through disproportion and caricature, as when the doctrine of the Divine Sovereignty is so held as to be in actual opposition to the grand revelation that God "willeth not that any should perish," etc. If God is love, what can His Sovereignty mean, but the reign of love? The letter kills, when the doctrine of Justification by faith is so held as to clash with the imperative and absolute obligation on all to obey always all the commandments of God.

2. The spirit gives life.

(1) It alone mingles with our spirits. This is the great reason. We live on meaning, not on form or husks. And it is not any partial sense, but the central idea of the whole that sustains. The Spirit of God does not use the mere outward observance, but the drift or object of it.

(2) The spirit of the Bible gives life, for the spirit is Christ. "The Lord is that spirit." The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of the Bible; and the spirit of the Bible gives life, because when one imbibes the spirit of the Bible he embraces Christ. Let our idea of Christ be drawn from all parts of the Bible, and let the idea of Christ in turn illuminate and vivify all; thus only, and thus surely, shall we escape from the letter that killeth to the spirit that giveth life.

(3) The spirit gives life by awakening love to God, which is life.

(J. Leckie, D. D.)

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.

An Able Minister of the New Testament
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