Spirit Versus Letter

Opinions presented here are intended to stimulate objective thinking, and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors.

EDWIN R. GANE, Professor of English. Australasian Missionary College

Chapter 3 of 2 Corinthi­ans is one that has been consistently employed by cer­tain of the theological op­ponents of Seventh-day Ad­ventists to discredit our em­phasis on the law and the Sab­bath. The argument against us amounts to this: The "ink" and "tables of stone" of verse 3 correspond with the "letter" of verse 6, the "ministration of death" of verse 7, and the "ministration of condemnation" of verse 9. These are simple references, we are told, to the ten-com­mandment law. The "tables of stone" of verse 3 are obviously a reference to such. The "ministration of death" of verse 7 is said to have been "written and engraven. in stones," an obvious allusion to the writ­ing of the Ten Commandments at Sinai. The reference to the glory of Moses' face (verse 7) points unmistakably to the sec­ond writing of the Ten Commandments and the historical incident associated with it (Ex. 34:1-7). But the "ink" and "tables of stone" (verse 3), the "letter" (verse 6), the "ministration of death" (verse 7), and the "ministration of condemnation" (verse 9) are all abolished in verse 11. They are replaced by "the Spirit of the living God," the "fleshy tables of the heart" (verse 3), the "spirit" (verse 6), the "ministration of the spirit" (verse 8), and the "ministration of righteousness" (verse 9). "That which is done away" in verse 11 is a clear reference to the "ministration of death," rather than to the "glory," which is super­seded in verses 7 to 10. Therefore, the Ten Commandments, which may be called the "letter," the "ministration of death," or "condemnation," are abolished, they say, having been replaced by the "spirit," the "ministration of righteousness."

The argument is carried further. Paul and his colleagues are "ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit" (verse 6). Therefore the "letter" and all the other terms used in the chapter to refer to the Ten Commandments are characteristic of the old covenant. But this old covenant was "done away in Christ" (verse 14). That is to say, it was replaced by the new, at Calvary. This, we are told, agrees with Paul's other utterances in re­spect to the old covenant. Hebrews 9:1 is a clear reference to the old covenant as the entire period during which the ceremonial law was in vogue, the period up to the cross. Verse 15 of the same chapter again refers to the period before the cross as the "first testament" and that since Calvary, the "new testament" of covenant.

This line of reasoning leads to dispensa­tionalism, the conception of a period of law prior to Calvary superseded by a dis­pensation of spirit since then. And we are reminded by our critics that Moses agrees with Paul, for he specifically equates the old covenant with the Ten Commandments. "And he declared unto you his cov­enant, which he commanded you to per­form, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone" (Deut. 4:13). Therefore, according to our theological opposition, Paul in 2 Corin­thians 3 is teaching the abolition of the old covenant, the Ten Commandments, the letter, the ministration of death, at Calvary, and glorying in the new covenant, the spirit, the glorious gospel freedom made possible in Christ.

If this is so, then our emphasis on the Ten Commandments is incorrect. But is this so? What is Paul actually abolishing in 2 Corinthians 3? What does he mean by "letter" and "spirit," "ministration of death" and "ministration of righteous­ness," "old covenant" and "new covenant"? Let us examine the more important verses of the chapter in turn in an endeavor to arrive at the truth.

In verse 3 Paul speaks of the Corinthian believers as the "epistle of Christ." Christ is the author; they are the epistle itself. Paul and the apostles are the amanuenses. The Holy Spirit is the material of writing, in lieu of ink, and the epistle is written not on tables of stone but in the fleshy tables of the heart. But why should Paul contrast "tables of stone" and "fleshy tables of the heart" in this way? Is there anything wrong with having the letter of the law written on stones, or on paper? Of course not. God Himself on two occasions wrote the letter of the Ten Commandments on stones (Ex. 24:12; 31:18; 34:28; Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 366). And the myriad other commands of God were written by prophets under divine inspiration (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20, 21). Under the new covenant the law is written on the heart of the genuine believer (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10; 10:16). Who is to say that this is any different law from that given at Sinai? Surely the Jews to whom Jeremiah ad­dressed himself could not possibly have in­terpreted his words to mean that the period of law in which they were living was to be replaced by a period of grace, or spirit. The law was to them as to us, who read Hebrews 8 and 10, a specific reference primarily to the Ten Commandments, which under the new covenant are to be written on our hearts.

God intended the Ten Commandments to be written on the heart of the faith­ful Jew (Deut. 6:4-6; 30:10-14). The law was never to become a dead letter writ­ten on stones merely, but was to be indel­ibly imprinted on the living heart. Then the Jew before Calvary could enjoy the new covenant experience. In fact, it was ex­pected of him. Tables of stone in 2 Co­rinthians 3:3 therefore do not symbolize a dispensation of law prior to the cross in contrast to a dispensation of Spirit since then, as represented by the "fleshy tables of the heart." Obviously then, Paul is using the "tables of stone" as a symbol of re­ligion without Christ. It was necessary and helpful to have the law written on tables of stone and later on parchments, but it was indispensable to have the same law written on the heart if the new covenant expe­rience were to be entered into. This was only possible to the Jew who saw the glory of Christ reflected and foreshadowed in the laws of God.

We come now to verse 6: "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." The new covenant corresponds to the ministry of the spirit and the old covenant to the ministry of the letter. Undoubtedly "letter" here corresponds to "tables of stone" in verse 3, and spirit to the "fleshy tables of the heart." What does Paul mean by "letter"? "Letter" may be defined as the verbal statement of God's requirements. But there is nothing wrong with "letter" in this sense. God originated this. We are ex­pected to obey the letter of the law in this sense (James 2:10-12; Rom. 7:7). And as we have seen, the law written on our hearts under the new covenant, is that which finds verbal expression in the Old Testa­ment. The letter in the sense of the verbal statement of God's requirements condemns the sinner to death (Rom. 7:10-13; 1 Cor. 15:56). This is the proper function of the law. But Paul is repudiating the letter. Clearly then, he does not intend us to define "letter" in 2 Corinthians 3 as the verbal statement of God's requirements. To do so would be to argue that "letter" in the sense of God's verbally stated re­quirements, and the spirit, are mutually exclusive. To do so is to teach that the law was abolished at the cross, and there­fore to concede the dispensationalist posi­tion. "Letter" in this sense, and "spirit" are not mutually exclusive. They are com­plementary. Jesus in Matthew 5 gives a spiritual interpretation to the law, but this does not authorize the breaking of the let­ter of the law. For instance, Jesus regarded the sixth commandment as teaching that it is unlawful to be angry with a brother Without cause. But that didn't invalidate the letter of the law, so that the life of the brother may now be taken.

Then what does Paul mean by "letter" in 2 Corinthians 3:6? Let us examine his use of the term elsewhere. In Romans 2:27 Paul speaks of circumcised Jews who are keeping the letter of the law, but who are nonetheless transgressors of the law. Paul's point in the passage (Rom. 2:25-29) is that outward observances have real point if they are accompanied by heart surrender, but are otherwise quite superfluous. Cir­cumcision of the heart is essential (Rom. 2:29) for the life to be "in the spirit, and not in the letter." We hasten to add that circumcision of the heart was essential to the Jew prior to the cross (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; 9:26; Eze. 44:9). Paul refers to this as "the circumcision of Christ," "the putting off the body of the sins of the flesh" (Col. 2:11). This change occurs at con­version, and it is wrought for the genuine believer in Christ whether before or after the cross. The Jew before Calvary was ex­pected to observe the letter of the law in the sense of the verbal statement of God's requirements, but an attempt to obey be­fore having experienced circumcision of the heart was repudiated by Heaven. Such a legalistic attempt to observe the com­mandments of God, associated with a fail­ure to recognize the gospel as reflected in the law, is what Paul means by the "letter" in Romans 2:27, 29.

Again, in Romans 7:6, Paul contrasts "oldness of the letter" and "newness of spirit." It is possible, he says, for us to serve "in newness of spirit," "that being dead wherein we were held." But what is it that is dead? In verses 1-5 Paul speaks of a woman who is married to a husband and thereby bound by the law to him as long as he lives. Only when he dies does she have the legal right to marry another. The individual is represented by the wife, the first husband is the old man of sin, which dies when we accept Christ (cf. Rom. 6:6), and the second husband is Christ. Then, according to Romans 7:6, service "in new­ness of spirit" is possible to those in whom the first husband, the old man of sin, has died. In other words, possible to those who have entered into the experience of con­version.

It is clear therefore that service in "oldness of the letter" is characteristic of the unconverted, whose first spiritual hus­band, the old man of sin, still lives. Then Paul means by "oldness of the letter" all that is involved in the unregenerate carnal existence of the man who is aware of con­demnation, but unaware of the power of Christ (cf. Rom. 7:5). Paul in no way abolishes the letter in the sense of the ver­bal expression of God's requirements, for the very next verse, Romans 7:7, under­lines the continuing existence and function of the Ten Commandments. The law points out sin. "I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, ex­cept the law had said, Thou shalt not covet." And unless we should be in doubt as to the immutability of the Ten Com­mandments from which he has quoted, he says, "Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good" (verse 12), and "For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin" (verse 14).

The passage from verse 7 to 25 effectively dramatizes the experience of a man who is serving in "oldness of the letter." He is aware of the condemnation of the law, but instead of relying on Christ he is trying in his own strength. It is only when he leans on Jesus (verses 24, 25) that the victory is his. That is to say, service in "oldness of the letter" refers to an attitude toward the law; a legalistic use of the law in the absence of Christ.

We now return to 2 Corinthians 3:6 and notice that the ministry of the letter is here contrasted with the ministry of the spirit, and in the light of the passages we have examined we are able to define the min­istry of the letter as the legalistic attempt to observe the commandments of God, as­sociated with a failure to recognize the gos­pel as reflected in the law. The ministry of the letter was a perversion of the gospel revealed to Moses and the prophets. We are told:

"Through heathenism, Satan had for ages turned men away from God; but he won his great triumph in perverting the faith of Israel. By contemplating and wor­shiping their own conceptions, the heathen had lost a knowledge of God, and had be­come more and more corrupt. So it was with Israel. The principle that man can save himself by his own works lay at the foundation of every heathen religion; it had now become the principle of the Jew­ish religion. Satan had implanted this prin­ciple. Wherever it is held, men have no bar­rier against sin."—The Desire of Ages, pp. 35, 36.

(To be continued)

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EDWIN R. GANE, Professor of English. Australasian Missionary College

October 1962

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