The Letter and the Spirit in the Ministry of Christianity
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. The New Testament means God's revelation through Christ, in contradistinction to His revelation through Moses. Though both are admitted to be "glorious," the latter is shown to be "more glorious"; for the one is the dispensation of "righteousness," the other of "condemnation"; the one is permanent, the other is "done away"; the one so opens the spiritual faculties that the mind can look at it "with open face," the other through the prejudices of the Jewish people was concealed by a "veil."

2. This Christianity is the grand subject of all true ministry.

(1) Not naturalism. Had man retained his primitive innocence nature would have been his grand text. But since the Fall men cannot reach the spiritual significance of nature, and if they could, it would not meet their spiritual exigencies.

(2) Not Judaism. Judaism, it is true, came to meet man's fallen condition; it worked on for centuries and rendered high services. But it had its day, and is no more; it is "done away." Note —

I. THE TWOFOLD MINISTRY. I do not think that Mosaism and Christianity are here contrasted. It would scarcely be fair to denominate Judaism a "letter." There was spirit in every part; think of the revelations of Sinai and of the prophets. Christianity itself has "letter" and "spirit." If it had no "letter," it would be unrevealed, and if it had "letter" only, it would be empty jargon. All essences, principles, spirits, are invisible, they are only revealed through letters or forms. The spirit of a nation expresses itself in its institutions; the spirit of the creation expresses itself in its phenomena; the spirit of Jesus in His wonderful biography. The text therefore refers to two methods of teaching Christianity.

1. The technical. The technical teachers are —

(1) The verbalizes, who deal mainly in terminologies. In the Corinthian Church there were those who thought much of the "words of man's wisdom."(2) The theorists. I underrate not the importance of systematising the ideas we derive from the Bible; but he who exalts his system of thought, and makes it a standard of truth, is a minister of the "letter." Can a nutshell contain the Atlantic?

(3) The Ritualists. Men must have ritualism of some kind. What is logic but the ritualism of thought? What is art but the ritualism of beauty? What is rhetorical imagery but the ritualism of ideas? Civilisation is but the ritualising of the thoughts of ages. But when the religious teacher regards rites, signs, and symbols as some mystic media of saving grace, he is a minister of the "letter."

2. The spiritual. To be a minister of the spirit is not to neglect the letter. The material universe is a "letter." Letter is the key that lets you into the great empire of spiritual realities. To be a minister of the spirit is to be more alive to the grace than the grammar, the substances than the symbols of the book. A minister of the "spirit" requires —

(1) A comprehensive knowledge of the whole Scriptures. To reach the spirit of Christianity it will not do to study isolated passages, or live in detached portions. We must compare "spiritual things with spiritual," and, by a just induction, reach its universal truths. Can you get botany from a few flowers, or astronomy from a few stars, or geology from a few fossils? No more can you get the spirit of Christianity from a few isolated texts.

(2) A practical sympathy with the spirit of Christ. We must have love to understand love. The faculty of interpreting the Bible is of the heart rather than the intellect. Christianity must be in us, not merely as a system of ideas, but as a life, if we would extend its empire.


1. The result of the technical ministry of Christianity.

(1) The verbalist "kills." "Words are the counters of wise men, but the money of fools." Words in religion, when they are taken for things, kill inquiry, freedom, sensibility, earnestness, enthusiasm, moral manhood.

(2) The theorist kills. The Jews formulated a theory of the Messiah; He did not answer to their theory; so they rejected Him. Souls cannot feed upon our dogmas. The smallest seed requires all the elements of nature to feed on and grow to perfection; and can souls live and grow on the few dogmas of an antiquated creed?

(3) The Ritualist kills. The ceremonial Church has ever been a dead Church. "Letter teaching" reduced the Jewish people to a "valley of dry bones."

2. The result of the spiritual ministry of Christianity. "It giveth life." "It is the Spirit," said Christ, "that quickeneth," etc. He who in his teaching and life brings out most of the spirit of the gospel will be most successful in giving life to souls. His ministry will be like the breath of siring, quickening all it touches into life. Such a ministry was that of Peter's on the day of Pentecost. Words, theories, rites, to him were nothing. Divine facts and their spirit were the all in all of his discourse, and dead souls bounded into life as he spoke

(D. Thomas, 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.

Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday After Trinity
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