The Spirit Raises the Letter to Life

Authentic Ministry 6/Second Corinthians


We are now coming to a passage that teaches us where the spiritual action really is. Do you want to be right with God? It is not going to happen because you got all your papers in order, and then got them stamped. “Right with God” is a judicial category, but not a bureaucratic one.

We must learn two things. The letter kills and the Spirit gives life. But secondly, the Spirit gives life to the letter. This is why we must have two things; we must have a new covenant, and we must have a new heart. And all these things go together.

The Text

“Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; 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 Cor. 3:1–6).

Summary of the Text

Paul now asks the Corinthians, “Are you really going to make me talk about myself? Are you going to make me address things that you already know” (v. 1)? Do the Corinthians think he needs a letter of recommendation (like some people Paul could mention)? What are they talking about? Paul says that they are his walking, living, breathing letter of recommendation (v. 2), written on the hearts of the apostolic company. The tablets were human hearts, but the manner of writing was not ink for papyrus, and not a chisel for stone, but rather the writing utensil was the Spirit of God (v. 3), and the Corinthians themselves were the letters that were inscribed. Paul then states his confidence (v. 4), which is toward God in Christ. The same Paul who just a few sentences before had cried out who is sufficient? now says that while he is not sufficient in himself, he is nevertheless sufficient through God (v. 5). God is the one who has made him a minister of the new covenant—not of the letter, but of the Spirit. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (v. 6).

Gandalf and the Balrog

Every finite servant of God has a breaking point. That is what it means to be finite. And because God tests His servants, He needs to take them right up to that limit, even the greatest. Especially the greatest. Why? Well, remember what we saw in the first chapter— “But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9). The greatest in ability will be most prone to trust in themselves, and God wants to squeeze all the self-sufficiency out of His servants. “You, my son, are still entirely too perky.” Some men are too talented to use, at least in their current condition, but absolutely no one is too weak to use. When you are exhausted and virtually tapped out, this is the moment for God to move. Did Jeremiah feel sufficient (Jer. 1:6)? Did Moses feel sufficient (Ex. 4:10-17)? Did Ezekiel feel sufficient (Eze. 1:1-3:11)? Did Gideon feel sufficient (Judg. 6:15)? Did Isaiah feel sufficient (Is. 6:1-7)? Did Paul feel sufficient (v. 16)? Who is sufficient for these things?

But by the same token, and for this same reason, we see that Paul had supreme confidence in his sufficiency in Christ. “Our sufficiency is of God” (v. 5). In other words, when you come to the end of yourself, you have not come to the end of Christ. Coming to the end of Christ’s reserves is not even a possibility.

The Finger of God

Now Paul says here that the letter he is talking about was inscribed by the Holy Spirit himself. We see elsewhere in Scripture that the Holy Spirit is equated with the finger of God. “But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you.” (Luke 11:20). “But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you.” (Matt. 12:28).

But who inscribed the Ten Commandments on the tablets of stone?

“And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.”

Exodus 31:18; Dt. 9:10 (KJV)

God is involved in all of it. The Spirit of God gives us His Word. The Spirit of God is the one who forms the letters, wherever they are inscribed—whether outside the sinner or inside the saint.

The Letter Kills and Is Killed

So the problem with “letters that kill” is not the fact that they are letters. The letters written on our hearts are letters. This epistle of 2 Corinthians was written with letters. So the problem with “these letters that kill” is not who wrote them. The Spirit is the one who wrote them on the tablets of stone. The difficulty is where the letters are written. When they are written on stone, external to the sinner, out there, they do nothing but condemn, and the truer they are, the more condemnation they bring. When the law is “out there,” the law is my adversary. When the gospel is “out there,” the gospel is my adversary. When the truth of God is simply out there, in a leather-bound Bible, on your shelf, then your heart is still as black as that Bible’s cover.

The thing that determines what happens here is the regenerate or unregenerate state of every human heart. And it is one or the other. The unregenerate heart is wrecked by everything divine. The law condemns him (Gal. 3:11), and the gospel is the aroma of death to him (2 Cor. 2:16). The regenerate heart is nourished by everything. The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul (Ps. 19:7). The gospel is the aroma of life to those who are being saved (2 Cor. 2:16).

The unregenerate man always wants his religion out there, where he can manipulate it, defend it, control it, argue about it, and orchestrate riots on its behalf. He does this for Diana of the Ephesians (Acts 19:28, 34), and he does it for the temple of Jehovah in Jerusalem (Acts 21:29). Incidentally, the name of the real god in these two instances was Mammon, a substantial god that a man can manage and handle. The riot in Jerusalem was set off because they jumped to conclusions about Trophimus the Ephesian, wanting to make him feel right at home. “We have religious riots in Ephesus too.”

So the life and death issue is not the presence of truth. Rather it is the presence of truth in the inner man. As the saying goes, too many miss Heaven by eighteen inches—the distance between the head and the heart. “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: And in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.” (Psalm 51:6). Keeping the true religion out there is the way to turn it into a false religion.

So the external letter kills, but the Spirit brings life. But one of the things the Spirit brings life to is the letter. He does this by inscribing His letters on the human heart. The heart is the only place where the letters written by the Spirit—on stone, or papyrus, or wax, or printed paper—can come to life.

There are two fundamental features of the new covenant, the covenant that occupies such a large part of Paul’s argument here. Jeremiah’s promise of the new covenant is quoted in full in Hebrews 8 (Heb. 8:8-12; Jer. 31:31-34). But when it is quoted again two chapters later, the pull quotes highlight the two great features of the new covenant. They are, first, that the new covenant brings forgiveness of sin (Heb. 10:17), and second, the new covenant brings an internalization of the law (Heb. 10:16). And that’s what we are talking about here.
When God writes His law on our hearts, something remarkable happens. Not only is thou shalt love thy brother written on your heart, your brother himself is also written on your heart. Remember that Paul begins this section by saying that the Corinthians were written on his heart. Love your neighbor is condemnation when it is engraved in stone, or on a plaque, or in a devotional, or stuck on the fridge. But when God brings it home to you, He does not just engrave a proposition about your neighbor on your heart, but He engraves your neighbor on your heart. And this can only happen because Christ was engraved there first.

When the law is internalized, this brings the sinner to life. And when the law is internalized, this brings the letters to life. What happened to the handwriting of ordinances that was against us? God gathered them up and nailed them to the cross (Col. 2:14). But what happens to anything that is nailed to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ? That is right—it rises from the dead. The only thing that doesn’t rise again is the sin itself. But the law? The condemnation? The black despair of never being good enough? The accusations? All of that is “nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, oh, my soul.”

That law that used to condemn you is raised again with you, and is now your liberty, your refreshment, your pleasant instructor. His name is Jesus Christ.

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