The Letter Kills but the Spirit Gives Life

by Mike Ratliff

For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2:25-29 ESV)

I often receive requests from dear brethren who are desperate for assurance, but as I attempt to “dig into” their spiritual background, so to speak, those with the most dire sense of of that desperation also seem to be mired in a works righteousness type of understanding of salvation. It’s not their fault and we cannot help them if we approach the solution from that angle. Whenever I get a request like this, and they are all different, I think of Luther. He was a monk who was desperate to be right with God, but no matter how hard he worked at being righteous, he was continually confessing his sins to his confessor. It was only as God opened his heart to the wonderful truth of justification by faith alone as he studied the book of Romans that Sola Fide became a reality in his heart and so the spark of the Protestant Reformation was ignited.

Before we go any further let’s be sure to make it clear that there is nothing wrong with God’s Law.

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. (Romans 7:7-12 ESV)

The problem with the Law is that it is a teacher, but not a Saviour. I have never made it a secret that one of my heros of the faith is William Tyndale. In all of his writings around and about the Word of God, he never failed to link the Law of God and the Gospel. It is the Law that shows the sinner their need of a Saviour. It is the work of the Holy Spirit that does this. This is why it is so tragic that the post-modern infected church in our time is so afraid to offend anyone so it leaves out the Law and just preaches grace. It is an incomplete Gospel my brethren that does not save.

Ministers of the Gospel are just that, they preach the Gospel of life. They do not stop at the Law, but that does not mean they do not preach it.

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:4-6 ESV)

Πεποίθησιν δὲ τοιαύτην ἔχομεν διὰ τοῦ Χριστοῦ πρὸς τὸν Θεόν. οὐχ ὅτι ἱκανοί ἐσμεν ἀφ᾿ ἑαυτῶν λογίσασθαί τι ὡς ἐξ ἑαυτῶν, ἀλλ᾿ ἡ ἱκανότης ἡμῶν ἐκ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ὃς καὶ ἱκάνωσεν ἡμᾶς διακόνους καινῆς διαθήκης, οὐ γράμματος, ἀλλὰ πνεύματος· τὸ γὰρ γράμμα ἀποκτέννει, τὸ δὲ πνεῦμα ζῳοποιεῖ.

Persuasion but such we have through the Christ to the God. Not that from ourselves enough we are to reason some as from ourselves, but the sufficiency of us from the God, who also made competent us servants of new agreement, not of letter but of spirit; the for letter kills, the but spirit makes alive. (word-for-word translation of 2 Corinthians 3:4-6 from Koine Greek to English)

This passage is rich in meaning and we could spend a great deal of time on the various parts of it, but I want to concentrate on the last part of v6, which says, “οὐ γράμματος, ἀλλὰ πνεύματος· τὸ γὰρ γράμμα ἀποκτέννει, τὸ δὲ πνεῦμα ζῳοποιεῖ” or not of letter but of spirit; the for letter kills, the but spirit makes alive.

What is it that kills or ἀποκτέννει? In this passage, Paul says that γράμμα ἀποκτέννει or the letter kills. However, if we go back and look at Romans 7:7-12 (above) we see that Paul was saying that the Law (the letter) is not what is the cause of the killing, but it was sin becoming alive when the Law revealed it in him that brought death. Therefore, the letter does, in a sense kill, but it is doing what is supposed to do when it does that. That is why we then follow up the exposition of the fact of all of us being hopelessly depraved sinners who cannot save ourselves in desperate need of a Saviour with the Good News of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, which ζῳοποιεῖ because of the work of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of both the Law and the Gospel.

Are you in Christ? Are you alive in Christ? Has the letter of God’s Law brought you to the point of death that you saw your desperate need for a Saviour? Have you heard the Good News? Have you believed that our Lord Jesus Christ died on the Cross to save sinners and all who believe this to be true and turn in repentance from their wicked self-focused life by faith to Him for Salvation, trusting in Him alone, will be saved? (Ephesians 2:1-10)

Soli Deo Gloria!

10 thoughts on “The Letter Kills but the Spirit Gives Life

  1. Dear Mike,

    Yes, people do not want to hear the guidance and direction offered by God in the Bible.
    In the account of the adulterous woman in John 8, there is an interesting exchange. “Straightening up, Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘I do not condemn you, either, Go. From now on sin no more.’ John 8:10&11 *Critical point being Yes, Jesus was mericiful and forgave her sins, BUT Jesus said “sin no more”. We have to know precisely WHAT the law is to know what sin is and what our boundaries are and if we love Him we will keep His commandments.
    Likewise in John 5 the man who was lame and Jesus made him walk. “Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.'” John 5:14 This verse should give us a healthy FEAR of the Lord.

    Yes, Jesus is gracious and did a miracle for this man, but it was not without a price. We are bought, purchased by the blood of Christ so we should desire to serve Him because of what He accomplished for us on the cross. We can not and praise God will never have to fathom what Jesus had to suffer on our behalf, but it should bring us to our knees in thankfulness and lead us to living in righteousness to bring glory to God. Thanks for this post may we never be so brazen as to think we are above the law.
    Kept only by His grace, Charisse


  2. Been spending a lot of time digging into verses like this one here lately, as I’ve been engaged in dialogue with a friend who has come under the teaching of a guy named Steve Moutria, who teaches that we are still compelled to follow the Letter of the Law…. What is so crazy, is that he takes all the verses that speak about Law vs. Spirit, and flips them on their head, claiming that he isn’t preaching legalism, because he’s not advocating that following the Law is what achieves salvation (the cross does that), but then, he teaches that we still have to turn around and follow the entirety of the Mosaic Law (primarily keeping the Sabbath, feast days, and only eating “clean” foods)…

    It’s a weird kind of legalism, which tries to pass itself off as embracing grace too with a type of semantic loophole. I’ve exhausted myself trying to point my friend to all the scriptures which deal with this, but at this stage, his heart has hardened itself, and he refuses to see. He (and Moutria, the source of the teaching) make an argument that basically goes, “Just because Jesus died on the cross, it didn’t negate the command not to lie, or steal or commit adultery”. So they equate those kinds of sins with breaking the laws on ceremonial foods and such. They love quoting where Jesus says, “I did not come to abolish the Law, but fulfill it”, although they twist this saying into meaning something totally different… It’s really pretty bizarre, and my heart is heavy after going round and round. I tried explaining how the Law is given to reveal our sinfulness, but not every piece of it is a description of sin, but that much of it is meant to teach us about Christ, and the cross, (like the sacrifices made at the temple…) but he just will not hear.

    Anyways, thanks for the encouragement I found here, as you faithfully adhere to the Word, and teach on the proper understanding of Law and Spirit….

    Peace to you.


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