From time to time I hear people say “We should follow the spirit, not the letter of the law.” This has a deceptive ring of scripture to it. This is a misuse of 2 Corinthians 3. ”The letter” is made to mean the strict wording of scripture, and “the spirit” is made to mean “what one thinks the scripture really means personally.” Many seem to think “the letter”(what the words actually say) versus “the spirit” (how the words make one feel inside) is what 2 Corinthians 3 is all about. However, 2 Corinthians 3 is actually contrasting “the letter” (the already-written Old Testament) with “the Spirit”(the New Testament, being at that time, revealed through the Spirit to Jesus’ apostles and prophets). Read the context carefully and the spirit of the New Testament will show that this is the case. The letter they had was the Old Testament, and the Spirit was now leading them under the authority and covenant of Jesus Christ. Thus, in context, “the letter” was the Old Covenant from Sinai and “the Spirit” was the New Covenant now being revealed through the apostles and prophets (Heb.2:1-4; Eph.1:22; 3:3-5) by the Holy Spirit.
Going back to the misuse of 2 Corinthians 3, how does one determine what the spirit of a law is? The Scripture says “do not commit adultery”, but what is the “spirit” of that command? It uses letters to condemn homosexual activity, but what is the actual “spirit” we should get instead of following the letter of the law? Doesn’t this reasoning, in essence, wind up telling people to follow their own imaginations and desires above God’s law? Each person gets to bend the actual words and imagine a certain “spirit” that is more important than the actual law demands. Thus, we can always overrule something by appealing to spirit over letter.
Was the question of circumcision settled by an appeal to “the spirit of the law” (Acts 15)? Could the Judaizing teachers have justified this innovation by saying the spirit of God’s law is to not get so technical about what the apostles had commanded or not commanded?
Instead of insisting on taking literal unleavened bread (in observing the Lord’s Supper) in harmony with the “letter of the law,” can we just observe “the spirit of what it’s about”? Can we treat everything else in this way? Baptism? Confession? Assembling? Church organization? WHO determines what the spirit of the law actually is? HOW is this determined? This is not by reasoning upon the evidence of the words available in scripture, but rather it becomes handy to claim a more spiritual attitude while ignoring the responsibility spelled out in God’s revealed word. I hear people say, “You are just concerned about the letter of the law, while I am more concerned about the spirit of the law.” It is actually another form of pride that tries to act superior when their errors are pointed out. Beware of this misuse of 2 Corinthians 3.
There is also the matter of “proving what is acceptable to the Lord” (Romans 12:2-3; Ephesians 5:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:21). How would one prove something is acceptable to the Lord? You will have to begin with stated principles and commands, examples, and what you can rightly infer from what the scriptures actually say. You cannot pull it out of thin air and call it “the spirit of the law.”
–Terry W. Benton