letter-killsIn Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he writes:

“[God] has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

This verse is commonly used to argue that “spiritual” things like prayer, fasting, and spiritual gifts are more important than reading the Bible.  I’ve often heard it quoted to me by people who are opposed to formal theological education.  After all, Paul said too much focus on the “letter” will kill you spiritually.  Is this right?

One doesn’t even need to examine the context to know that this cannot be the meaning of the passage.  First, doesn’t it seem a bit odd that one should appeal to the Bible to support their view that the Bible is not as important as “spiritual” things?  Second, the verse doesn’t say that the “Spirit” is more important than the “letter,” but that the letter kills!  If the Bible is responsible for killing us spiritually, why would anyone want to read it?  And yet the preachers who interpret it this way continue to preach from the same killing machine week after week!  Indeed, even the reading of this passage in support of one’s view is killing people’s spirituality, so the person is doing them a disservice by even quoting it.

When we look at the context, our initial suspicions of this interpretation are confirmed:

And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. 4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. 10 Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. 11 For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. (2 Cor 3:4-11)

The context makes it clear that “the letter” refers to the Mosaic Covenant, while “the Spirit” refers to the New Covenant (because it is characterized by the activity of the Holy Spirit).  That is why Paul, after penning the verse in question, immediately went on to speak of the “ministry of death, carved in letters on stone” – a clear reference to the 10 Commandments, which was the centerpiece of the Mosaic legislation.  This is consistent with what Paul says regarding the Mosaic Covenant elsewhere: The covenant brought about the knowledge of sin, increased our desire to commit sin, and that sin brought spiritual death (Rom 3:19-20; 5:13,20-21; 7:5-14).  In contrast, the New Covenant (“the Spirit”) brings us spiritual life.  Paul’s point is to show the superiority of the New Covenant over the old, not to argue that prayer is more important than Bible reading.

Keep it in context….

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