The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. What does that mean? What is the letter of the law? It is a strange expression that comes to us from the scriptures. I think there are two ways we could understand that phrase, but Paul is only talking about one of those two meanings in this part of his letter to the Corinthians. “The letter of the law” can refer to a strict literal/material interpretation of the rules – I think that’s how we generally understand the phrase today. For example, some people say that since the commandment reads, “thou shalt not kill,” it must be obeyed in all circumstances: you shouldn’t kill someone in self-defence, or when defending your family; war can never be justified if it involves killing people. Another example would be a literal interpretation of, “thou shalt not bear false witness.” Following the letter of the law, there are no circumstances in which it is okay to lie – even a lie that could save someone’s life would be wrong. For example, lying to a bully about where their victim is hiding would still be lying and would still break the commandment. On the other side of that there are the people who think the “spirit” of the law is more important that what the law literally says. They claim to know what the spirit is, so you have to either agree with them or take their word for it.
When St. Paul talks about how the “letter kills, but the spirit gives life,” he means something different. St. Paul says that the law gives sin its power, and the consequences of sin is death. Imagine that no one ever told you lying was wrong – you wouldn’t like being lied to, but you might still lie if it got you out of trouble or made you look good. We could get to the point as a community where we try hard not to lie to each other because we love each other and need to trust each other to stay together. When God Himself says that lying hurts our soul, it tells us that lying is powerfully destructive. That’s what “the letter kills” is referring to. The good news is that, “the spirit gives life.” We will be tempted to disobey, to lie, to steal, basically to sin against God’s commandments, but God gives us the commandments so that we’ll ask for His help. St. Augustine says: “He commands us to make us learn how to ask the help of grace when we try to obey his commandments and fail. It also makes us grateful to him when He helps us do something good. Ask the Spirit to come, let him help you: then, what God commands is fulfilled. If the Spirit is absent, the letter kills you.… How does the Spirit give life? Because he brings the letter to fulfillment so that it doesn’t kill. The saints are those who fulfill the law of God using the gift of God’s Spirit. The law commands, but it can’t help. The Spirit helps, and then God’s commandments are fulfilled with joy and delight.”
Therefore, you that fear the Lord, praise him, and that you may worship him, not as slaves but as free men, learn to love him whom you fear, and you will be able to praise what you love. The men of the Old Testament, fearing God, because of the letter which terrifies and kills and not yet possessing “the spirit which quickens,” ran to the temple with sacrifices and offered up bloody victims. They were ignorant of what was foreshadowed by them, although they were a figure of the Blood to come, by which we have been redeemed.1
Therefore, God commands continence, and he gives continence; he commands by the law, he gives by the Spirit; for the law without grace makes sin abound, and the letter without the spirit kills. He commands so as to make us learn how to ask the help of grace when we try to obey his commandments and in our weakness fall wearied under the law, and also to make us grateful to him who helps us if we have been able to perform any good work.2
Let the Spirit be joined to the law, because, if you have received the law and if you lack the help of the Spirit, you do not fulfill what is of the law. You do not carry out what is commanded you.… Let the Spirit be added, let him help: that which is commanded is accomplished. If the Spirit is absent, the letter kills you.… You cannot excuse yourself on the plea of ignorance since you have received the law. Now, because you have learned what you should do, ignorance does not excuse you.… But why does the apostle say: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”? How does the Spirit give life? Because he causes the letter to be fulfilled so that it may not kill. The sanctified are those who fulfill the law of God according to the gift of God. The law can command; it cannot help. The Spirit is added as a helper, and the commandment of God is fulfilled with joy and delight. Certainly many observe the law from fear, but those who keep the law from fear of punishment would prefer that what they fear did not exist. On the contrary, those who observe the law through love of justice rejoice even in that respect because they do not consider it hostile to them.3
- LETTER 140, TO HONORATUS 19. Bray, G. L. (Ed.). (1999). 1–2 Corinthians (p. 217). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- LETTER 157, TO HILARIUS. Bray, G. L. (Ed.). (1999). 1–2 Corinthians (p. 217). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- EASTER SERMON 251.7. Bray, G. L. (Ed.). (1999). 1–2 Corinthians (p. 218). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.