The Letter Kills but the Spirit Gives Life

by Mike Ratliff

25 For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? 28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. Romans 2:25-29 (NASB) 

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 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.

7 What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; 10 and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; 11 for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Romans 7:7-12 (NASB) 

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. My brethren, it is an incomplete Gospel 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.

4 Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, 6 who also made us adequate as servants 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 (NASB) 

4 Πεποίθησιν δὲ τοιαύτην ἔχομεν διὰ τοῦ Χριστοῦ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. 5 οὐχ ὅτι ἀφʼ ἑαυτῶν ἱκανοί ἐσμεν λογίσασθαί τι ὡς ἐξ ἑαυτῶν, ἀλλʼ ἡ ἱκανότης ἡμῶν ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ, 6 ὃς καὶ ἱκάνωσεν ἡμᾶς διακόνους καινῆς διαθήκης, οὐ γράμματος ἀλλὰ πνεύματος· τὸ γὰρ γράμμα ἀποκτέννει, τὸ δὲ πνεῦμα ζῳοποιεῖ. 2 Corinthians 3:4-6 (NA28)

4 Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that from ourselves we are competent to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from the God, 6 who also made us competent as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the spirit; the for letter kills, the but spirit gives life. 2 Corinthians 3:4-6 (translated from the NA28 Greek Text)

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 the letter but of the spirit; the for letter kills, the but spirit gives life.”

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 it 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!

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

  1. Exodus 32:28
    And the sons of Levi did according to the word of MOSES. And ‘that day’ about THREE THOUSAND men of the people FELL.

    Acts 2:41
    So those who RECEIVED HIS WORD were baptized, and there were ADDED ‘that day’ about THREE THOUSAND souls.

    …for the LETTER ‘kills’ but the SPIRIT gives ‘life’…

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