Have you ever heard someone say, “Well, that may be in accordance with the letter of the law but certainly not with the spirit of it”? When such is said, it is offered as some kind of criticism as though the stated obligation as to its overt requirement or outward form has been met, but somehow the proper disposition (or internal requirement of heart) intended as obligation has not been fulfilled. That is, the statement is suggesting that someone has “gone through the motions” of doing what law required, but his heart wasn’t in it or he did not comply with the intent of the requirement. He did only what the minimum requirement was, as stated or legislated, rather than the maximal and intended requirement which obligated him to do whatever he was to do with proper attitude as well regarding the purpose of the requirement.
Of course, it is very possible for a person to “go through the motions” of some realized obligation without thinking about what he is doing. A person can sing without understanding. He may move his mouth while his mind is on lunch (cf. Eph. 5:19; 1 Cor. 14:15). One can worship without worshiping in spirit and in truth (John 4:24), but if a person worships in truth, he must worship with his own spirit under the influence of the Holy Spirit (Jude 20).
This idea of (1) complying with stated requirement and (2) at the same time not complying with motive/disposition requirement is mistakenly thought by some to explain certain Bible passages contrasting “law” and “spirit.” We have some passages that do mention and/or discuss the contrast between “letter” and “spirit.” Romans 2:27-29, Romans 7:6, and 2 Corinthians 3:1-11 do this. According to Bible teaching, however, there is no such thing in Scripture as faithfully complying with legislated obligation by overt action when the action does not derive from proper disposition. For example, whatever the Jew under the law of Moses was commanded to do, he was obligated to do it with love for God and neighbor (Matt. 22:37-40). If he failed in disposition, he failed in overt action.
The Lord’s disciples were once criticized for transgressing the tradition of the elders (Matt. 15:1-2). Jesus accused the critics of transgressing the commandment of God because of their tradition (v. 3). They were in fulfillment of one of Isaiah’s prophecies, “This people honoreth me with their lips; But their heart is far from me” (v. 8). It wasn’t that they outwardly obeyed and inwardly disobeyed. They altogether disobeyed, and their disobedience entailed hypocrisy (v. 7). Honoring with lips only amounted to violation of law and, actually, to no honor at all being given to God. Pretense is not partial obedience. Hypocrisy is not law compliance with one’s obligation to any degree.
And yet, we do find in Scripture the contrast between “letter” and “spirit.” We must, however, keep the contrast in its context and not make the contrast become what it never distinguished. If we fail here with such a disregard for context, we wind up with concepts that do not derive from Scripture.
Let us briefly point out a few things that, when the contrast is made in Scripture between “letter” and “spirit,” the contrast cannot possibly mean. It is not a contrast between—
1. Being a stickler for accuracy on the one hand and, on the other, having the proper over-all disposition toward God, but without being all that concerned with the details of obligation. Have you ever heard a Christian explain a given passage in just this way? Sometimes Christians have wound up, even if unintentionally, justifying disobedience by thinking that “letter” and “spirit” suggest that accuracy of interpretation and action does not really mean much to God in the Christian dispensation. How many times have cautious brethren been accused of being “legalists” or “five-steppers” or described by some other conceptually kindred term? Such criticism may be offered because of the failure of the critic to grasp true contrasts as opposed to false ones. The Bible contrast between “letter” and “spirit” is never a contrast between accuracy with regard to divine information (the supposed “letter”) and good disposition without necessarily having accuracy of information (the alleged “spirit”). This is a humanly imagined contrast, but Scripture does not authorize it.
This suggestion that we do not really under New Testament authority have the obligation to be accurate as to information and correct in the practice of our obligations is never made in Scripture! In fact, the New Testament obligates us to know the truth (if we want to be saved) and to practice the truth (John 8:32; 1 John 3:18; Heb. 5:8-9). No Bible writer ever undermined knowing truth for certain and doing the truth. Preachers of another generation used to speak of our having purity of doctrine and practice. Amen! Those today who would have us suppose that, somehow, the grace of God is going to cover the sins of people who never know God and who never obey the gospel are wrong and dangerous (2 Thess. 1:8). Furthermore, no man can have the proper attitude toward God while at the same time trying to devise ways and means of opposing what God, who cannot lie, has already said (Rom. 1:18; Heb. 6:18; Titus 1:2; Rom. 3:4). One prominent preacher among us several years ago claimed that it is the case that men must be right about Christ but that surely we can be wrong about everything else. His apostasy is sad, and his comment is unfounded.
2. Having a law and not having a law. Have you ever come across a Christian who takes the position that we do not have law from God today? Well, if we do not have law from God today, then we have no obligations from God today, if the idea of law entails obligation. In fact, if we have no law from God, we currently have no obligation to God. But, the matter of obligation is the dominant concept in “law” as described in Scripture. And that is why “law” as such is said to be unable to save anyone (cf. Rom. 7:11-13; Gal. 3:11). Law obligates, sin violates, grace eliminates. Again, we must keep contrasts in context or we wind up imagining what is never declared. For example, in Romans 6:14 Paul affirms that Christians are not under law but under grace. Now, if someone reads that and knows nothing of what Paul had already said in the same document or he does not know what Paul says later or he knows nothing of what other Bible writers say about law, he may well draw an erroneous and dangerous conclusion that Christians are not under any law whatever. But such is not expressed by Paul in this passage, however, or in any other one for that matter. In Romans 4:15 he had said that if we do not have any law, we cannot have sin. In Romans 6:1 Paul asks if we Christians should continue in sin that grace may abound. We should not, he affirms, but the possibility of even attempting this (continuing to sin so that grace may abound) is only possible because Christians do have law. In context Romans 6:14 is saying that our law (or gospel) is not a law system. And no law systems (Gentile-ism and Judaism) can save; they only condemn because there is in them no provision for actual forgiveness. Forgiveness in these systems could only be prospective (cf. Heb. 9:15; 10:1-4; Rom. 3:25-26). It was the death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and coronation of Christ that made forgiveness actually possible. That is why the gospel can be called “a law of faith” (Rom. 3:27). Why? Because, unlike Gentile-ism and Judaism, we can trust—or, have faith—in the gospel itself to save us (Rom. 1:16-17). No Gentile (under moral-law-ism or Gentile-ism) and no Jew (under Judaism) could trust in his law to save him. He will certainly be judged by his law (Rom. 2:14-15), but his salvation (if such there be) would have to come from God outside of the system of law under which he lived. The gospel is not like that (Rom. 1:16). We can trust it to save us, or to put it another way, we can trust God by trusting his message to save us! This is why the gospel can rightly be called “a law of faith.” The gospel is “the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). It is “a law of liberty” (Jas. 2:12). In fact, it is the “perfect law of liberty” (Jas. 1:25). It sets us free—not from obligation, but from sin (guilt, practice, consequence).
3. Abiding by law and merely following the supposed “intention” of the law without doing what it says. Some evidently have subscribed to the notion that since we are under grace and not under law that we are at liberty to do pretty much what we want even though we do have definite and specific obligations stated in the New Testament. But what are specific obligations among friends? As long as we follow the intended purpose of an obligation, we stand all right before God, it is thought by some, even while we violate the specificity of the obligation as stated. The question is: How in the world can we follow the “intended” purpose of an obligation if we do not submit to the obligation as stated? This issue is settled by interpreting Scripture, understanding Scripture, and rightly applying Scripture. There is no scriptural authority for the concept of (1) disobeying a specific obligation and yet at the same time (2) obeying its intention. Cannot God properly describe what it is that he does and does not want me to do? How can I know what his intended purpose is beyond what he declares? If his purpose is not revealed in the specific obligation, how in the world could I find it outside of and beyond the stated obligation? Can God not make himself clear?
This approach to contrasts is a way of justifying the claim that we do not or perhaps even cannot know truth for certainty regarding obligation, but that we can comprehend God’s general intention behind the stated obligations. But then the question arises: How can we know, generally speaking, God’s intention from Scripture, but that we cannot know specific obligation from Scripture? After all, the supposed comprehension of the divine intention is derived from the articulated obligation.
The fact is that in 2 Corinthians 3:1-11, Romans 2:27-29, and Romans 7:6, where we find the contrast between “letter” and “spirit,” the contrast is between the law of Moses and the gospel of Christ.