What Does The “Letter Killeth” Actually Mean?

 

In this article, we will offer a very simple teaching, but nevertheless something very needful. Our Christian walk must be founded on an unshakable faith in God’s Word, meaning we resolve to believe, do, and solely rely upon Scripture.

Matthew 4:4 But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.

Let us be convinced: we can exercise utter confidence in the Word of God, as God has assured us of its perfection and preservation…

Psalm 12:6-7 The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O Lord, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.

Thus, anything that cast a shadow on the authenticity of the Bible or the absolute authority of Scripture must be violently rejected. Ironically, in this apostate hour, even the Bible is twisted in an attempt to cast a shadow on itself. In this article, we will look at an often misunderstood Scripture verse that is commonly used for this very purpose. Reading from 2 Corinthians 3:6, and specifically from the latter half of this verse.

“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.”
-2 Corinthians 3:6

How is this half-verse of Scripture, when misinterpreted, used to undermine the authority of the written Word?

First, I intend to show what this verse does not mean. Secondly, we will allow the Scriptures to reveal what the Apostle, in reality, is teaching here.

WHAT THIS HALF-VERSE DOES NOT MEAN:

2 Cor. 3:6b …for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

First, by using the term, “letter,” the Apostle cannot possibly be referring to the truth of God’s Word. How can we come to such a conclusion? Simple: this would contradict the testimony the Bible gives of itself and we know God’s Word cannot lie. For example, according to Hebrews 4:12, the Word of God is living…

Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is quick (living)…

Throughout the Scriptures, God’s Word is synonymous with life and peace. Indeed, there can be no sanctification, cleansing, freedom, or salvation apart from God’s Word.

John 8:31-32 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; 32And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

Ephes. 5:26 That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word…

1 Peter 1:23 Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.

However, two thoughts prevail among apostates, albeit, they are often unconscious:

1. Obedience to God’s Word constitutes legalism, and…

2. A zeal for Biblical accuracy equates to Phariseeism.

Hence, the erroneous absurd thought that God’s Word can actually bring death and/or bondage is bred.

2 Tim. 2:9 …the word of God is not bound.

In actuality, the only kind of “bondage” the Word of God brings is liberty to be the servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. The accusation of being “bound by the Bible” should be considered a compliment of the highest order to any real Christian.

Likewise the Apostle does not mean here, as some have imagined, that the N.T. is in opposition to the Old. It is religious error to assume that the two covenants are opposed to one another. The New Testament is in the Old Testament concealed and the Old Testament is in the New Testament revealed. The law was founded on the very supposition of the Gospel; and all its sacrifices, types, and ceremonies refer to the Gospel. The old was given to lead into the new, the new gives the proper meaning and perspective to the old.

Galatians 3:24 Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.

It is true, a misapplication of the law will, as the Word says, gender to bondage. However, God never intended the law to save, but gave it, among other things, to reveal man’s need for a Savior. Thus, if rightly interpreted, we see that the two covenants work hand in hand. Nor would the Apostle suggest that the Spirit of God and the Word of God (Jesus) are at odds with one another. In other words, we are cautioned, “you must be careful when you become overly concerned with the Bible, you’ll grieve the Spirit”. Such pitting of the Godhead against One another is not only abominable, but contrary to the testimony of Scripture itself…

1 John 5:7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

Any attempt to theologically divorce the Spirit of God from the Word of God is demonic. We must remember, it was the Holy Ghost who inspired the Word of God.

2 Peter 1:21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

In fact, the ministry of the Holy Ghost will always be in strict accordance with God’s Word.

John 16:13-14 Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth…He shall glorify me

The Holy Ghost always operates and moves in conjunction with faith in God’s Word.

Acts 10:44 …the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word.

Hence, to imply, in any way, that the Word of God could bring death or bondage is blasphemous.

WHAT THEN IS MEANT BY THIS PHRASE, “THE LETTER KILLETH BUT THE SPIRIT GIVETH LIFE”?

2 Cor. 3:6b …for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

We must remember, by strict definition, the Scriptures cease to be the Scriptures when misinterpreted or misapplied. As we know, there are no chapters in the original manuscripts of the Bible, but chapters were added for clarity and organization of thought. Notice, the last verse of chapter 2, in 2 Corinthians which leads to the discussion where the Apostle uses the phrase under question…

2 Cor. 2:17 For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ.

When the Apostle uses the term, “letter” he is referring to the Scriptures perverted, interpreted or applied apart from God’s Spirit.

“Every institution has its letter as well as its spirit, as every word must refer to something of which it is the sign or significator. The Gospel has both its letter and its spirit; and multitudes of professing Christians, by resting in the Letter, receive not the life which it is calculated to impart. Water, in baptism, is the letter that points out the purification of the soul; they who rest in this letter are without this purification; and dying in that state they die eternally. Bread and wine in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, are the letter; the atoning efficacy of the death of Jesus, and the grace communicated by this to the soul of a believer, are the spirit. Multitudes rest in this letter, simply receiving these symbols, without reference to the atonement, or to their guilt; and thus lose the benefit of the atonement and the salvation of their souls.”
-Adam Clarke

Thus, when the Scriptures are twisted to accommodate sin, error, or selfishness it becomes “letter”. As truth is the foundation for liberty, so error is the catalyst for bondage. The ironic thing is: when people use this verse to undermine God’s Word they are actually fulfilling its principle: the letter is killing.

-B.W.

"Thy word is very pure: therefore thy servant loveth it." -Psalms 119:140“Thy word is very pure: therefore thy servant loveth it.” -Psalms 119:140