2 Corinthians 3:6 (KJ21) "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."

Is Paul referring to the Hebrew Bible as a whole, or specifically to the 'Law', or to the 'ceremonial law', or to the 'ten commandments'?

What is the 'letter that killeth'?

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    I noticed the open bounty... but I also noticed you already accepted an answer. Were you looking for something more / different than Mark Edward's answer? – Jas 3.1 Dec 13 '13 at 2:02
  • @Jas 3.1 Possibly yes, more input would be interesting. – John Unsworth Dec 16 '13 at 19:30
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    Among other things it means the translator hath a lisp! :) – Ruminator May 10 '18 at 1:50

In the preceding and following verses, Paul talks about something 'written with ink', '[written] on tablets of stone', 'the letter', 'the ministry of death, carved on tablets of stone', 'the ministry of condemnation', and 'the old covenant / Moses' which has a 'veil'.

These are all in contrast to '[written] with the spirit of the living God', '[written] on tablets of human hearts', 'the new covenant', 'the spirit', 'the ministry of the spirit', 'the ministry of righteousness', and 'Jesus' who removes that 'veil'.

Contextually, it looks like when Paul speaks of 'the letter' in contrast to 'the spirit', he is talking about 'the Law' as a whole; not the books of the Hebrew scriptures, not the ten commandments, not the ceremonial commandments, but the entire 'old covenant' system. This is reinforced by his connection of the 'new covenant' in verse 6 with writing on 'human hearts' in verse 3. This is an obvious reference to Jeremiah 31, where God says he will make a 'new covenant' that is unlike the (old) covenant he made with Israel during the exodus.

He nuances it differently per epistle, but what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3 is comparable to what he writes in Romans 7-8, or Galatians 3-5. The Law (though not evil) brings condemnation of death on those who sin, but Jesus brings life through the spirit. The old covenant, and the new covenant. These three passages have a noticeable overlap in content: death from the Law, life from the spirit/faith/Jesus, being heirs with Jesus, and a glory to be revealed/unveiled.

  • So the law (letter) kills by exposing our need for mercy in Christ. When the law came I died. – John Unsworth Dec 10 '13 at 19:49
  • Can you please cite the specific assertions from the scriptures? I believe this would be considered your "answer": "The Law (though not evil) brings condemnation of death on those who sin, but Jesus brings life through the spirit. The old covenant, and the new covenant." My thought is, isn't it Adam's sin that brought condemnation and death on all men? I would back that up with: Rom_5:12 Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: ? Also the new covenant has the law, though written on the heart. – Ruminator May 11 '18 at 20:04

I propose that "the letter of the law" is meant to indicate any [finite] approximation of Law, whereas "the spirit of the law" is meant to indicate Law itself—how things actually work, down to the smallest detail. We read in Romans 10:4,

For Christ is the telos of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

The translations of telos are several; I recommend How is Christ the ``End of the Law''? for an in-depth study of this verse. I take this verse to indicate that Christ is the full version of what any written law can only be a shadow. The Torah law was not bad, but it was not complete. It was meant to teach the spirit of the law and sometimes did; Ps 51 makes this very clear. "for you desire truth in the inward being"—if this doesn't foreshadow the New Covenant, I don't know what does!

Based off of Deut 17:11 and 30:12, the Jews came up with the Not in Heaven doctrine, which stated that God would no longer speak new law, or correct extant interpretation of law. From there on out, it was up to the legal experts to figure out what the law said. There are echoes of this idea in Chapter I, Section VI of the WCF, often known as "The Sufficiency of Scripture". In his What's Wrong with Protestant Theology?, Jon Mark Ruthven argues that God never meant for his children to be cut off from him by a book and legal experts. To be cut off from God is to spiritually die; the letter of the law is the thing that is left when God is nowhere to be seen or heard.

Jesus' appearance was an explicit denunciation of Not in Heaven. Much of the Sermon on the Mount can be seen as a shift from appearance to heart—or from letter of the law to spirit of the law. It's not that the spirit could not be found in Torah—we saw that King David knew of it—but the spirit either grows or dies, and it had largely died by the time Jesus was born. Not only did Jesus teach about the spirit of the law, he became spirit:

Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (1 Cor 15:45)

The world was created through Jesus (Jn 1:1-4, Col 1:16), is upheld by Jesus (Heb 1:1-3, Col 1:15-17), and is nourished by Jesus (Jn 15:1-17). When we cut ourselves off from Jesus, we have dead letters which kill, for they point out our problems without offering healing and reconciling power (contrast Mt 23:1-5 with Gal 6:1-5).

  • So the sermon on the mount is "spirit" and not "letter"? – Ruminator May 11 '18 at 20:15
  • @Ruminator: Any text or speech can be interpreted as mere "letter". I do think Jesus was trying to show that there was a level below pure "letter" in the Sermon on the Mount. – Luke Breuer Jun 8 '18 at 23:36

The "letter that killeth" is referring to the 10 commandments, ver.7. Because all mankind have broken these moral laws, the death penalty came into effect. Romans describes this clearly in 7:7-13. Here, the keeping of the Holy moral law was a standard that humanity couldn't keep. The Spirit of Grace, through the finished work of Christ, gave life to all who would repent and believe the gospel.

  • Thank you for your contribution. We see that you have taken the the site tour, and we appreciate that. We hope you continue to participate here. While I for one see the logic in your answer, perhaps you could strengthen your answer by citing a commentary that substantiates your assertion that “the letter that killeth” is referring to the 10 commandments. – user862 Jan 21 '17 at 21:28
  • Only the Jews are or ever were under the law because it was with Israel that the Sinai covenant was made and to whom the law was given. – Ruminator May 11 '18 at 20:17
  • @Ruminator - Actually the Torah applied to more than just the Jews (tribe of Judah) and the Torah existed even before it was written down before Sinai. The Torah applies to ALL humanity. For example: Scripture teaches that sin is breaking of the Torah (1 John 3:4). If only the Jews were to follow Torah, then anyone who is not of the Tribe of Judah could not possibly be sinners and sin because there would be nothing that they could break. Therefore, following your logic, the sacrifice of Messiah was only for the Jews. That really doesn't sync with the rest of Scripture. – The Duke Of Marshall שלום May 13 '18 at 1:45
  • @TheDukeOfMarshallשלום "Jews" is the current parlance for the Hebrews but okay, "Israelis". There are those "under the law" and those "not under the law" (1 Cor 9:20-21). 1 John was written to Jews - I mean "Israelis" who were under the law. In Romans 5 Paul makes the opposite point in relation to the gentiles (and Israelis before the law: Rom 5:13 "For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law." In Romans 5 Paul argues that all die because of Adam but until the law came none transgressed. Then the Israelis transgressed. – Ruminator May 13 '18 at 4:45
  • @Ruminator - "Jew" for "Hebrew" is anti-scriptural, wrong, and leads to doctrinal errors. 1 Cor 9:21 is referring to those not living under the law, not those who are "not under the law". Big difference. Noah knew about clean and unclean animals. Torah before Sinai. Paul teaches that a woman is under the law as long as she lives (Rom 7). Paul states he "delights" in the Torah (Rom 7). Paul states that Yahuweh is the god of all and that we establish the Torah through our belief (Rom 3:27-31). Paul states in Rom 2 that those who do the Torah are those that shall be declared right. – The Duke Of Marshall שלום May 13 '18 at 11:52

It seems to me that right after Paul (2 Cor 3:6) talks about the 'letter' and the 'Spirit' he explains what the 'letter' is in the next verse, 2 Cor 3:7, '...the ministry of death written and engraved on stones':

7 Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was,...(NIV)

This refers to what we call the 10 commandments, which were the foundational conditions of the Old Testament covenant with Israel. He then talks about Moses, who is the one who is the giver of the Law or Torah, also called the Law of Moses (Luke 2:22 and elsewhere). Simply said by Scripture the 'letter' is 'the ministry of death written and engraved on stone.' So the Spirit that gives life is the ministry of Jesus in the new covenant, and the letter that kills is the ministry of Moses in the old covenant (the Law/Torah). But to understand how the Law kills one must go to Romans Chapter 7 and 8. Simply this, the sin within used the Law as a weapon to bring condemnation leading to death. The Law condemns the sinner to death (the soul that sins must die), but the Spirit raises the dead giving life (Jesus and resurrection). Thats how I see it, I hope it helps you too.

  • Thanks for the response. Just a couple of tips for the future. One of the main purposes of this site is to provide seekers answers to their questions. In this case the response by Mark Edwards was accepted by the questioner. If you read his response, he basically says the same things that your response does. So, even though your response is a good one, the same information was already communicated to the questioner. You might want to choose a more recent question with no accepted answer, thereby you may be providing an insight that will resonate with the questioner. Thanks again. – alb May 11 '18 at 15:46
  • Also, you might try adding the actual scripture quotes within your answer for your key points. References are fine, by the quote prevents the reader from having to go and look up each reference. – alb May 11 '18 at 15:47

Let us consider this in context. We know that Paul was not anti-Torah, but rather pro-Torah (Rom 2:13, Rom 3:27-31, Rom 7:12, 1 Corin 7:19, etc). Also, terms such as "Ceremonial Law" are not Biblical, but rather just an invention of man. Rather, the letter that Paul is speaking of here is not ink on a page or chiselings in rock. Verses 2 and 3 of this chapter tell us what the "letter" is. Paul defines it himself.

2 Corinthians 3:1-3 The Scriptures 1998+ (1) Are we to begin to recommend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? (2) You are our letter, having been written in our hearts, known and read by all men, (3) making it obvious that you are a letter of Messiah, served by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living Elohim, not on tablets of stone but on fleshly tablets of the heart.

So the letter that Paul was speaking about was the recommendation or proof of their authority/apostleship. Some would expect a written letter to prove that they were who they said to be. Paul is telling the Corinthians that THEY are his letter, his proof of apostleship. Paul tells them that his letter was written by the Spirit.

So we see here that Paul is not saying that the Torah kills. Quite the contrary. Paul continues to uphold and support the Torah in his writings. The "letter that kills" here that Paul is talking about is the dogmatic, bureaucratic reliance upon the authority of man rather than the authority of the Spirit of the Almighty.

Remember, use scripture to define scripture.

  • Your description of the earlier passage is reasonable enough but that it connects to the usage of "letter" in the latter verse is rather unconvincing. Words can mean different things in different context: pair a word up with a different one and it can easily refer to something completely different even in the same sentence, much less in a separate one. – Caleb Dec 10 '13 at 8:45
  • "Letter of the law" has specific consultations in English different from "letter of recommendation" if those have been properly translate it is likely because the Greek construct have similar different meanings. Without an examination of the original language and any possible idiomatic usages, I don't think the assertions you make here are to be believed. – Caleb Dec 10 '13 at 8:45
  • Paul seems to use both figures, no? I think he has touched on something very significant in the passage. – Ruminator May 11 '18 at 20:30

Romans 8:1 There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Words without the Spirit of God do not give life, but the Word of God does. We must be accompanied by the Spirit of God, which will never leave us, nor condemn us.

  • Victor, welcome to the site, from another fairly new member! I have a couple of suggestions. First, you will get more activity on your responses if you make them on current questions; this one was posted five years ago. While still interesting, it's not getting much traffic. The ONLY reason I saw your post is that it's your first one. Second, please check your spelling and punctuation. Although I agree that we should NOT walk by the flash, I think you meant to use the word "flesh." And after multiple reads, I still don't know what your second paragraph means. – Papa Pat Dec 8 '19 at 0:59

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