The Letter Killeth, the Spirit Giveth Life
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…

The text teaches —

I. THE POWERLESSNESS OF DIVINE COMMANDS ALONE TO PRODUCE OBEDIENCE. This does not prove any imperfection in the law, which, being Divine, is perfect. The failure of obedience is due to the imperfection of human nature, which does not yield to the obligation. The conscience, indeed, is on the law's side, but such is the strength of the lower nature that the man is hurried by animal impulse to sin.

1. Then one of two things happens. Either the habitual failure of the conscience produces habitual wretchedness, in a consciousness of powerlessness against evil, which may well be named death, or the law becomes the occasion of sin. The appearance of prohibition provokes the lower nature and irritates it to impatience of restraint. Now the consciousness of sin renders the man reckless, and to get rid of the uneasiness, the rider is thrown. When conscience thus loses dominion and ceases resistance, the man is given over to the licence of self-will and undergoes moral death.

2. On the other hand, the Spirit which characterises Christianity has a quickening power. The Spirit of Christ quickens —

(1) By means of a perfect and most moving instance of obedience. In the Old Testament we do not meet with any such instance. Christ not only obeyed the law as it was intended to be obeyed, but opened it in a new and sublimer meaning, so that the imitation of Him is a new command. His example is presented in a form most intimate and intelligible, and it is the example of One who, in His very obedience, binds us to Himself by the tie of the tenderest and mightiest gratitude. And then, since Christ is God, and the revelation of the Father, the gratitude which He inspires becomes Divine love, and throws its full strength into obedience to the Divine commands.

(2) By a secret influence on the heart. He is the Creator, and His noblest creative work is the moral regeneration of the human soul. He renders the heart perceptive of the beauty of Christ's character, and sensitive of the proper impressions. Thus our higher nature receives an incalculable increase of power. Conscience is re-enthroned and governs, but the law is obeyed not so much because it is obligatory, as because it is loved.


1. As a vehicle of meaning, writing is immeasurably inferior to a living presence. The correspondence of distant friends is but a poor comfort in their separation. It is often obscure, and is liable to misunderstanding. If the writing in question is holy writing, the evil arising from ignorance or misunderstanding is augmented. To receive a falsehood as God's word is intellectual and moral death. Spiritual death is sometimes the effect of the letter of theological system. Technical terms are regarded by many with a reverence as great as are the words of Scripture. There are congregations to whom a man may preach with living eloquence the very truths which kindled the zeal of St. Paul and St. John, but his audience, not hearing the familiar dialect, are deaf to the music, blind to the glory, and dead to the spirit of the discourse.

2. Knowledge of the author, and sympathy with him, is indispensable to the understanding of his writings. Unless we had something in common with writers, not a line of the literature of the world would be intelligible. By the human nature, common to all ages, we understand the writings of Greece and Rome; but a higher than the spirit of man is necessary to the reading of Holy Scripture, even the living Spirit of truth and holiness, by whom it is inspired.


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.

The Letter Killeth, But the Spirit Giveth Life
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