2 Corinthians 3:6:

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. [KJV]
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. [NASB]
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. [ESV]

  1. What is meant by spirit here? The Holy Spirit (a concrete being) or 'the spirit of the law' (an abstract concept)?
  2. What does it mean that the spirit gives life? What is meant by life?
  • I’m considering a response. But first, a quick Q. When did Adam die? Immediately after eating? Or, some 900 or so years after eating?
    – Dave
    Commented Apr 22, 2021 at 1:21

4 Answers 4


To get a deeper understanding of what Paul really meant by 'the letter kills, but the spirit gives life', I think two good places to start are Romans chapters 7 and 8.

the letter kills [...]

In Romans chapter 7, Paul explains at length how the law, though holy, turns out counterproductive and a source of condemnation to those who are in the flesh, incapable of obeying it, as it exposes the evil of their sinful nature. We find evidence of this reality in the following quote from Romans:

5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. [Romans 7:5-6, ESV]

Notice that verse 5 states very clearly that death is the fruit of the flesh (or sinful nature), triggered / aroused by the law. This sheds light on the phrase 'the letter kills' from 2 Cor 3:6 in the OP: the letter of the law kills because it exposes and condemns the sins of those who are in the flesh. In other words, when someone who is dominated by their sinful nature reads the letter of the law, this creates a sense of guilt, condemnation and hopelessness in them, because through the letter they become aware of their sin, but are offered no solution. Simply acquiring intellectual knowledge about the letter of the law produces no power to overcome sin.

Paul depicts this hopelessness very eloquently in verses 21 to 24:

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? [Romans 7:21-24, ESV]

Also, notice that the concept of death appears again in verse 24: 'who will deliver me from this body of death?'. It's the same idea again: a person trapped in their sinful nature, unable to escape the assurance of their eternal condemnation. Romans 6:23 provides further confirmation: "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord".

[...] but the spirit gives life

In contrast, Paul makes multiple mentions of the solution to the problem of the sinful nature: the Spirit. Let's see this in Paul's own words:

Romans 7:6 (ESV):

6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

Romans 8:1-17 (ESV):

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

As you may have already realized, Romans 8 is a chapter overloaded with references to the Spirit. We have evidence from the chapter that the Spirit:

  • gives life (v2, v10-12)
  • dwells in the believer (v9, v11)
  • is received by the believer (v15)
  • bears witness with our spirit (v16)
  • raised Christ from the dead (v11)

Galatians 5 is another very popular chapter by Paul that provides additional insights to the discussion. Let's see what it has to say:

Galatians 5:16-25 (ESV):

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do[e] such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

Here Paul is once again contrasting the Spirit and the flesh, following a pattern similar to that in chapters 7 and 8 of Romans. Galatians 5 shows that the Spirit that gives life is also known for:

  • guiding the believer (walk by the Spirit, desires of the Spirit)
  • producing fruit (but the fruit of the Spirit is [...])

And according to Paul, one can be filled with the Spirit too:

18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

[Ephesians 5:18-21, ESV]


I think the scriptural evidence by the multiple writings of Paul makes a compelling case: Paul understood the Spirit not as an abstract idea or concept, but as a real and concrete being that indwells the believer, guides the believer, gives them life, empowers them to overcome sin, makes them produce fruit, witnesses with their spirit that they are children of God, fills them, and many other things. This perfectly matches with the promised Holy Spirit that Jesus said would come to assist and empower believers (John 14:26, Acts 1:8). It also perfectly matches with the promised spirit that gives life in Ezekiel 37:14:

14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”

As for what is meant by life, this can be understood as the opposite of death (that comes from sin) in a twofold fashion: (1) here on Earth, Christians can enjoy victorious lives, free from the bondage to sin, by the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, but also, and most importantly, (2) they have the assurance of their eternal salvation in Christ Jesus, that is revealed to them by the Spirit witnessing with their spirit that they are Children of God.

  • 1
    Though we came to different conclusions, I find this very thoughtfully argued. Upvoted +1 Commented Apr 22, 2021 at 21:20

Ezekiel 36 prophecies a new relationship between spirit and laws:

26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

Not to just keep the letters of the laws but to keep the spirit of the laws by the Holy Spirit. This is consistent with 2 Corinthians 3:6

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant--not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

The word for "life" here is actually a verb:

gives life
ζωοποιεῖ (zōopoiei)
Verb - Present Indicative Active - 3rd Person Singular
Strong's 2227: To make that which was dead to live, cause to live, quicken. From the same as zoon and poieo; tovitalize.

Young's Literal Translation

who also made us sufficient to be ministrants of a new covenant, not of letter, but of spirit; for the letter doth kill, and the spirit doth make alive.

What is meant by life?

John 6:63

The Spirit gives life [ζωοποιοῦν 2227]; the flesh profits nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life [ζωή zóé G2222].

Thayer's Greek Lexicon

STRONGS NT 2222: ζωή

  1. universally, life, i. e. the state of one who is possessed of vitality or is animate
  2. used emphatically,
    a. "of the absolute fullness of life, both essential and ethical, which belongs to God, and through him both to the hypostatic λόγος and to Christ" in whom the λόγος put on human nature

What is meant by “the spirit gives life” in 2 Corinthians 3:6?

The Holy Spirit gives us divine life.


This is a challenging passage--I've endeavored to approach it with what historians call charity: I won't immediately assume contradiction on the part of the writer when the message is unclear, but will first explore what non-contradictory interpretations are available.

This is a long post, so I broke it up into pieces to create the illusion that it isn't as long.



The Greek word πνεῦμα (“pneuma”) and the English word spirit are not exact equivalents. Lexicons provide a variety of meanings/usages of pneuma; a useful electronic resource is found here, focusing on 3 principal English words to capture the essence of what is meant by pneuma: wind, breath, spirit.

The Greco-Roman writers did not have a concept of the element oxygen, nor a solid handle on the relationships among the states of matter. But they knew that pneuma was necessary to life and without it a person would die very quickly. This may have facilitated the mythology (in some places) that a less compassionate deity ruled the waters—there was no pneuma there (as far as they knew).

The Hebrew scriptures have a very similar concept of spirit (rûach). Genesis speaks of the breath of life; multiple families of religion believe that a spirit was supplied to flesh to make a living human being. Without the pneuma supplied by God, the body was just inanimate clay.

In English we now have several words to convey what is supplied by a single word in Hebrew & Greek. In addition to accepting that oxygen is necessary for life, many believers in the Bible hold that God supplied a spirit—which conveys the idea of the essence of one’s person but is never explicitly defined in the Bible. That individuals have their own spirit is stated by Paul himself (e.g. 2 Cor. 2:13, 7:13).


The Holy Spirit

In addition to pneuma representing “the breath or essence of life”, Jesus, Paul, and others speak of one very specific pneuma, the pneuma that is ἅγιον (holy). One of the best descriptions of this specific use of pneuma is John 14:26

But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.

Since Paul uses pneuma in multiple ways in his writings, he frequently (but not always!) disambiguates what spirit he is referring to (several examples cited above). When he refers to the Spirit of the Lord, the Spirit of God, or the Holy Spirit, it is possible to consistently interpret these as references to the Holy Ghost without running into hermeneutic difficulties.

But when he doesn’t disambiguate, we’re left to resolve the referent from context. In fairness to Paul, I find that he usually makes this pretty clear. I’ve acknowledged in a separate post that the first usage of pneuma in 2 Cor. 3:17 is less clear…and I’ll expand upon my thoughts there based on my latest reflections.


The Spirit gives life

That pneuma gives life, in Paul’s world, is a tautology—its like saying that electricity powers electronics or pie is delicious. Of course pneuma gives life, that’s precisely what Genesis 2:7 teaches. But in 2 Corinthians 3 what is being given life?

Paul is contrasting covenants. In the law given to Moses there were numerous outward actions, and it won’t do to say they were unimportant—they were commanded by God—but they were no more an end in themselves than was the clay of Adam without rûach/pneuma. Paul compares the Law to the clay of man and the new covenant through Christ to the pneuma that brought life to the clay. Except in this case the creation is not of mortal life, but eternal life (see below).


Process vs. Purpose

It is important to note what the old & new covenants have in common.

the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ (Galatians 3:24)

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden (Matthew 11:28)

The jots & tittles of how to get there may have been updated, but the destination--and the overarching purpose God has for His children--remains exactly the same.


The Lord is that Spirit

What then does Paul mean by “the Lord is [that] Spirit” in verse 17?

  • “The Lord” is a reference to Christ (see here)
  • The pneuma is not disambiguated
  • Paul is contrasting covenants
  • Paul has already told the Corinthians quite definitively that Jesus has a body (see discussion here)

I conclude that Paul is saying that it is Christ that brings life to the laws and ordinances of God’s covenants. Without the Lord, everything Paul talked about in verses 3-16 would be dead clay. Or to use Paul’s own words, without Christ we are left with “dead works”.

Because in the latter part of verse 17 Paul uses pneuma in a different way, he must now disambiguate it from the previous usage, and he specifies that he’s talking about the Holy Ghost—something he hasn’t done in the last 3 uses of pneuma.


Letter vs. Spirit in verses 6-8

Circling back to verse 6-8, Paul talks about what we today colloquially refer to as “the letter of the law” and “the spirit of the law”. I believe the Shakespearean (and indeed the modern) use of these ideas does reflect Paul’s teaching here…but may not fully capture in cultural context what Paul is saying.

The letter of the law—the jots & tittles, the detailed instructions in the Torah—are not an end in themselves. On their own they are dead clay. The broader purpose God has in mind explains why the Torah was given, and not the other way around. This is what is meant by “the spirit of the law”, and I submit it is why Jesus focused so much more on who we are becoming inside than what is visible outside.

But Paul goes further than that--the new testament he’s teaching, centered on the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, breaths life into the law, the ordinances, the plan, and the people who are transformed by it—past, present, and future.

The letter of the law is what’s visible on the outside. The spirit of the law is what one is becoming inside. The new covenant is giving life through the changes that are happening on the inside. These changes are the intent of the covenants.


Disambiguating verse 17

Jesus gives life to the Law—many of the faithful obeyed the Law for generations. Jesus gives life to the covenants, old and new; He gives life to the ordinances, He gives life to the plan.

Thus it is entirely appropriate, after discussing how the new testament breathes life into humanity, to affirm that it is ultimately the Lord Jesus Christ—through whom the new covenant is given—that is that breath of life.

I do not believe Paul is stating that Jesus is spirit (see here); nor do verses 6, 8, or 17a refer to the specific Holy Spirit (17b & 18 do), but Paul is using pneuma in the entirely culturally appropriate sense of the word—it is that which gives life.

(I won’t attempt to disambiguate Romans 8 here but concede that very similar questions could be asked of it)


What is Life

God wants to grant life. If Paul has in mind here just ordinary, mortal life, his statement is bland to the point of irrelevance—we noted above that “pneuma gives life” is a tautology.

Paul isn’t telling people how to live long, healthy mortal lives; he’s teaching people what leads to eternal life.

I conclude therefore that Paul is speaking not of mortal life, but everlasting life. Jesus granted another chance at mortal life to a few who had died (such as Lazarus); but He grants the opportunity of eternal life to all who accept His covenants.



The pneuma that gives life in verse 6 is the new covenant in Christ, whose intent/focus is not on outward appearances but on inner transformation.

By life Paul is not referring to mortal life, but to eternal life, which is the intended result of that transformation.


the spirit gives life’. ‘Life’ - ‘zōopoieō’ - “to cause to live, make alive, give life”.

Your [part] question “what is life”, is actually important to come to grips with. And, to do so, you need a foundation. And, this foundation is built in Genesis. The reason for this is, that is where man ‘lost’ his ‘life’.

GENESIS 2: 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

Adam ‘didn’t’ physically’ die when he ate. And, Paul wasn’t talking to ‘dead’ Corinthians when he said that it was the spirit that gives life. This was a word for people who were ‘physically’ alive. So, both ‘death’ in Genesis 2, and ‘life’ in 1 Corinthians 3 isn’t about ‘physical’ life.

Time to consider a definition. What is ‘death’? But before opening a dictionary, it the Biblical definition of ‘death’ that we need - and here is an issue. The dictionary is not going to agree with the Bible. According to a dictionary definition, Adam did not die in the day [yôm] he ate. But God clearly says he did.

Why is all this important to consider? Because it forms the foundation for how you ‘see’, or how you will interpret this ‘life’ that comes by the spirit. And there will be debate. Just as there is ‘debate’ over when Adam ‘died’. And obviously I’m presenting ‘a’ view, which therefore won’t necessarily be accepted by all.

Death ‘biblically’ means separation. Adam died instantly - just as God said he would. Instantly separated from God. God who is a spirit. Adam’s spirit ‘died’ - was separated from God. It’s this ‘life’ that comes back - by the spirit - your spirit. It’s your spirit that is ‘reconnected’ back to God. That’s the ‘new creation’. That’s what is reborn. (your spirit)

2 COR 5:17 If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.

That’s why Paul could now ...

ROMANS 1: 9 God, whom I serve in my spirit

So this answers your Q”s - “* What is meant by spirit here?*”, and “what is life”. It is through mans recreated spirit that man once again has access to life. Eternal life. Because man is once again ‘connected’ back to the source of life. We ‘connect’ to God through Jesus, Jesus who gives us a new spirit, which replaces the one we ‘inherited’ from Adam. A ‘spirit’ with life.

1 COR 15: 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being” the last Adam, a life-giving spirit

The word ‘Life’ here is ‘zōopoieō’, the same as in 2 Corinthians 3:6. I appreciate this view may not be in line with other views of what [eternal] ‘life’ is, or how we ‘obtain’ this new ‘life’. But I provide this for consideration.

As for the option you provided as to what the ‘spirit’ in the verse might be - “the spirit of the law' (an abstract concept)?” - this doesn’t come into the picture - at all.

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