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“The Letter That Kills”

The following was written by J. W. McGarvey in 1897 in response to the common misuse of the phrase found in 2 Corinthians 3 verse 7. Perhaps someone has used this ploy in excusing to you why they do not follow “the letter of the law” of the New Testament. Context is everything.

Just once in the course of his writings Paul makes the declaration that “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3: 7). No remark that he ever made has been applied in a greater number of unlicensed ways. If a man insists upon preserving some ordinance in the very form of its original appointment, such an ordinance as baptism or the Lord’s Supper, for example, he is accused of contending for the letter that kills, while the man who makes the charge, and who changes the ordinance, claims that he is following the spirit that gives life. All of that large class of writers who make free with the Scriptures while claiming to reverence their authority, employ this device to excuse their departures from the word of God, while those who remonstrate with them for their license are denounced as literalists, or sticklers for the letter that kills. In all these instances it seems to be claimed that if you stick close to the ordinance as Christ gave it, you will kill somebody.

The last example that attracted my attention was in connection with the number of elders that should be appointed in a church. The writer says: “It has been thought to be a greater evil to have a congregation without a plurality of elders than to have an eldership without the requisite qualifications.” And he adds, “This is to do violence to the spirit of the New Testament in an effort to be loyal to its letter.” But which, in this case, is the letter, and which is the spirit? To have a plurality of elders is certainly the letter of the New Testament; that is, it is the literal requirement; and the literal requirement also is to have elders of prescribed qualifications. Where, then, is the spirit as distinguished from the letter? Echo answers, Where? The writer was so in the habit of using this favorite expression where he wished to justify a departure from Scripture precedent that he evidently applied it in this instance from pure habit and without thought. The watchful reader will have seen many examples of the kind.

But what does Paul mean by the statement in question? We have only, to glance at the connection in which it occurs to see. He says “…our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious?” Here it is perfectly clear that by the letter that kills he means the Law of Moses, which, as he had abundantly argued elsewhere, could not give life, but brought under condemnation those that were under it; and that by the Spirit he means the new covenant in Christ, which alone can give Life. Men who are teachers in Israel ought to know this, and they ought to govern themselves accordingly. They ought to at once abandon the habit of perverting by misapplication this language of the apostle. (Edited for clarity)

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