“The letter kills” is more than a figure of speech. When the Chief Apostle visited Helsinki in Finland on 12 July 2023, he explained to the congregation what is behind the second part of this passage: “…but the Spirit gives life”.
At the beginning of his sermon, Chief Apostle Jean-Luc Schneider referred to the situation of the church in Corinth: “There was a group in this congregation that had some strange ideas. They wanted to make good money by proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.” And they insisted that the Mosaic Law be kept and aligned themselves with the old covenant. And because of this they questioned Paul’s authority. The Bible text used for this service, 2 Corinthians 3: 6 cites Paul: “[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.”
Old or new?
In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul made it clear that he is a servant of the new covenant and that he proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Chief Apostle explained: “Sure, Jesus didn’t abolish the law of Moses but fulfilled it. And the teachings of Jesus Christ have replaced the law of Moses.”
While the law of Moses was given to regulate earthly matters and also promised earthly blessings, the teachings of Jesus relate to eternal life and spiritual blessings.
“I must say, sadly enough, some Christians still have this Old Testament thinking,” the Chief Apostle noted. Their focus is earthly. Yet, the task of today’s Apostles is to tell them, “Sorry, Jesus Christ did not come to solve the problems on earth. His intention is to give us eternal life.”
The letter kills
The statement that the letter kills might be a bit surprising, the Chief Apostle said. “After all, the law of Moses, which Paul refers to as the letter, was given by God.” However, the law was not the problem. The problem was the sinfulness of human beings. Human beings were not able to keep and fulfil the law.
When Paul says that the letter kills, he is referring to spiritual death, the condition of remoteness from God. “One cannot be saved by keeping the law because every person is a sinner and commits sins, which means separation from God.”
The people who insisted that these laws be kept had a very human understanding of God. “For them God was a strict judge.” They believed that keeping the law leads to earthly blessing, violation of it leads to punishment. The Chief Apostle said, “The problem of the Jews was also that they believed that if they kept the law, and the better they did so, the more they deserved salvation and blessing. In other words, if you keep the law, then God is forced to save you. He is forced to bless you.” However, Paul made it clear to the church in Corinth that you cannot force God to bless you by being obedient. Salvation cannot be earned.
This was one reason why part of the congregation left Christ, Chief Apostle Schneider said. “Because these people thought: I don’t really need a Saviour. If I do the right things, then I will be saved.” However, Jesus Christ manifested the true nature of God.
The Spirit gives life
Jesus made it clear to the people that God does not only consider a person’s behaviour or works but one’s frame of mind, one’s heart. If a person did not reconcile with his or her neighbour, offerings or sacrifices could not bring about grace either. In fact, Jesus even pointed out that those who performed miracles in His name would not necessarily be saved. The Chief Apostle put it in a nutshell: “A good understanding of God is to know that it is not just important to keep a set of rules. You also need a pure heart, one that is full of love and compassion for your neighbour.”
Another problem the devout Jews had was that they were so attached to a law that was stuck in the past. That was another reason why they rejected Jesus, because He changed things. “They were stuck in their traditions and their past. Where there is no life there can be no development.”
Through the Holy Spirit, who is life, there is development and growth, the Chief Apostle said: “The Christian faith basically is a faith of change and development. There is more to it than just following a set of rules. God wants us to grow.”
Love determines our conduct
This development means that our motivation changes: “Our motivation is no longer the fear of punishment or the expectation of a reward. Rather, everything we do, we do out of love for God.”
That means that we no longer do the will of God out of mere obedience, because the will of God has become our will. We want the same as God wants. It is our task to help others experience the love of God.
Or as Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians: “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”