The Spirit and The Letter

The Bible verses to do with the spirit and the letter of the law which the apostle Paul talks about have been greatly misunderstood and have been used by many professing Christians as a reason not to keep the seventh day sabbath. The problem is, we sometimes take verses on their own and don't look at the "big picture" of what is being taught. So what is the truth about the spirit and the letter? Let's look at the Bible verses.

Romans 7:6 .....'But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.'

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.'

First of all, what does Paul mean by being "delivered" from the law? What did breaking God's law demand? Genesis 2:17 .....'But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.' Exodus 31:14 .....'Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.' So we can see that under the old covenant, anyone who broke the law of God would be put to death. Ezekiel 18:20 .....'The soul that sinneth, it shall die.' But now through the perfect blood of Christ Jesus, we have been "delivered" from certain death. We are all sinners and all deserve death, but through the grace of God and the perfect life and sacrifice of Christ Jesus, we can be delivered from our sins and have life! Praise God!!

Think about this in a practical worldly way. SpeedingLet's say a police officer stops you for speeding in your car. At this very moment, you are 'UNDER THE LAW'. Now, let's say the police officer is in a good mood and just gives you a caution and lets you go. You are no longer 'under the law', you are now under the 'grace' of that officer. Now, does this mean you no longer need to keep the law, because the officer let you off? Of course not, you should be EVEN MORE DILIGENT in keeping the law. This also applies to God's law. Just because we have been 'let off' so to speak, through the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Doesn't mean we are now free to break God's holy commandments.

Now going back to the spirit and the letter that Paul talked about above, we can see that in the new covenant, keeping the law in "spirit" supercedes the letter of the law. But what does that mean exactly? Does it mean we no longer need to keep the ten commandments? Does it mean we no longer need to keep the sabbath day? No, what Paul is saying is that we now need to keep the law in a spiritual way, and not just according to the letter. Remember what Jesus said about keeping the law?

Matthew 5:21-22 .....'Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.'

Matthew 5:27-28 .....'Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.'

Do you see the new way we are to keep the law? We are to keep it in spirit, not letter. But we STILL KEEP the law right? And there is a structure to keeping the law of God. Take a look at the following:





Now keeping the law in spirit and not in letter, means loving your neighbour comes ABOVE keeping the specific commands of the law. Let's look at how this works:

Exodus 20:9-10 .....'Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do ANY work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.'

Exodus 23:4-5 .....'If thou meet thine enemy's ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again. If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldest forbear to help him, thou shalt surely help with him.'

So the 4th commandment says that we are not to do ANY work on the seventh day sabbath. BUT, say that a person, even your enemy as above had fallen and needed help on the sabbath day. Should we help him, even though it would be a kind of "work"? Of course we should. Because we are to keep the law in spirit, not in letter only. And as you can see from the above, loving (helping) your neighbour comes above keeping the specific commands.

And this is where the Pharisees failed! They only saw the letter of the law and missed the more important part concerning mercy, justice, compassion. But today, the Christian world goes completely the opposite way in fear of being like the Pharisees and ignore the letter of the law all together! And in doing so, continue to break God's holy law.

Jesus on the Spirit and the Letter

How did Jesus teach us to keep the law? Did He give us any lessons about keeping the law in spirit over the letter? Yes He did, take a look at the following Bible verses:

Matthew 12:1-5 .....'At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day. But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests? Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?'

So how was it that the disciples who reaped in a small way on the sabbath, which was "working", were not guilty of breaking the 4th commandment? Or how was it that David was guiltless, when he entered the temple and ate the shewbread which according to the letter of the law was not lawful for him to do? And the priests that "profaned" the sabbath according to the letter of the law by working in the temple were not guilty either? Because there was HUMAN NEED. And as we have shown, human need (love for your neighbour) comes above the letter of the law (specific commands). Do you see this? The disciples were not guilty for picking corn on the sabbath because they were hungry and NEEDED food. David was not guilty for eating the sacred shewbread in the temple because there was human need and he and his companions NEEDED food. The priests were not guilty by offering sacrifices on the sabbath, because there was human need and the people NEEDED to offer the sacrifices for their sins. And look what Jesus told the Pharisees:

Matthew 12:7 .....'But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.'

Mercy and love comes above the letter of the law. This is what Paul was saying in that we need to keep the law in spirit, rather than in letter. The Pharisees were guilty of keeping the letter of the law OVER the spirit of the law. They would easily pass by someone in need on the sabbath in order to keep the letter of the law. But keeping the law in 'spirit' in no way does away with ANY specific commands. Keeping the law in 'spirit' actually magnifies the law!

Does the Spirit Abolish Sabbath?

This is the important point that many sincere Christians misunderstand. They think that keeping the law in spirit does away with the 4th commandment and the seventh day sabbath. This is wrong. As we have explained above, keeping the law in spirit over the letter, means that loving your neighbour comes above specific commands. But this DOES NOT do away with specific commands. The command of "Thou shalt not do any work on the sabbath day" STILL STANDS! It's just that if anyone was in need on the sabbath, then helping them would come above the "no work" command. Do you see this?

Let's make up two situations. On the sabbath day, you get a phone call saying that a friend has fallen down a cliff while out walking and is stuck on a ledge. You go out to help and you call the coastguard to come and help. By doing this you are causing someone else to work on the sabbath. But is that wrong? No, because there is human need and your love for that person comes above the specific command of "no work". Now in another situation, you get a phonecall from a friend who wants help with doing some shopping on the sabbath. Would this be wrong? Yes, because there isn't a human need, the shopping could be put off for another time and therefore the specific command of "no work" still stands in this situation.

Keeping the seventh day sabbath is still on the list of ten commandments and is still binding just like the other nine, and your love for God comes first. But love and mercy for your neighbour or enemy comes above keeping the law to the letter. This is what the apostle Paul meant when he said that we should keep the law in "newness of spirit and not in the oldness of the letter."