The Spirit and the Letter


The letter killeih, but the spirit giveth life.

i Corinthians iii. 6.

Scptuagcsima Sunday, 1877.

I SUPPOSE that we do not at all realise the extent to which even in the common things of life we are indebted to the teaching of S. Paul. No idea is more familiar to us than the distinction between the spirit and the letter. We talk of the spirit of a promise, of the letter of the law; we speak in condemnation of one person who observes an engagement in the letter but breaks it in the spirit, and in approval of another who disregards a pledge in the letter only that he may fulfil it in the spirit. But we do not connect this idea especially with S. Paul. If we chance to think of him, it probably occurs to us that he used this distinction, just as we should use it, because it was natural, because it was familiar, because it was on every one's lips in his day, as it is in ours.

Yet, so far as I am aware, it occurs in S. Paul for the first time. No doubt the idea was floating in the air before. But he fixed it; he wedded the thought to the words; he made it current coin. And from him it has penetrated to every province of human life. For S. Paul's words, as Luther truly said, 'are not words; they are live things, they have hands and feet.' Yes, feet to go everywhere, and hands to grasp everything.

I propose therefore this afternoon to enquire, what this distinction means in itself, how S. Paul applies it in the first instance, and of what further application it admits.

Now the idea of a 'letter' is something definite, fixed, immoveable. It implies a hard and fast line. It cannot be modified according to times or places or persons. It is inexorable; it is irreversible. When Pilate says,'What I have written, I have written,' he means that the matter has gone beyond the point when discussion is possible. By the maxim Litem scripta manet' the written letter abides,' we mean that the thing cannot be hidden, cannot be questioned, cannot be slurred over, cannot be recalled. It is there, as we say, in black and white. It has taken its place among the permanent things of the world.

On the other hand 'spirit' means the direct opposite to all this. Spirit is properly a synonym for breath, a pulsation of air, a gust of wind. The Divine Influence, the Divine Person, is called the Holy Spirit. The name is given, because no other symbol would so fitly describe the operations of the spirit. These operations are silent and imperceptible; they are seen only by the results. The spirit moves invisibly, as the air moves. And, like the air too, it quickens and sustains; it is the one indispensable condition of life for man. Withdraw the spirit, and the movements of the soul languish, the respiration of the soul ceases, the life of the soul is extinguished. Like the air too, its operations are various. Sometimes it resembles a gentle breeze, fanning the earth, giving health and vigour and joy to all things around; sometimes it is a mighty rushing wind, a fierce hurricane tearing up ancient forests, and hurling down strong cities, deafening with the crash of falling ruins, but itself unseen, intangible, imperceptible, mysterious still. 'The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.' Measure it you cannot; weigh it you cannot; grasp it you cannot. It plays about you; it buffets you; it makes you reel and stagger; it sweeps you onward. And yet you cannot so much as see it.

But the characteristic in which the spirit especially resembles the stirring air, and with which we are most closely concerned, is its adaptability. However small or however great is the space which it is called to fill, it contracts or it expands accordingly. The spirit, as we should say in the language of natural philosophy, is perfectly elastic. A breath of air will make its way through any crevice, however narrow; it will diffuse itself over any room, however large. It adapts itself to every irregularity; it fills every interstice. It is this elasticity which makes it so fit a symbol of the spirit.

This antithesis of the letter and the spirit occurs three times in S. Paul. In the first passage, in the second chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle is contrasting the true Jew with the false. The true Jew is that man—of what nation soever he may be—who acts up to the light which is given him. He may be no descendant of Abraham; he may not have been initiated into the covenant; he may keep no passovers, observe no sabbaths, offer no sacrifices; he may never have heard of the tables of the law. He is a heathen dog in the eyes of yonder Pharisee. But he is just, he is honest, he is pure, he is merciful and loving, he is reverential. Therefore he is the true Jew; therefore his is the true circumcision; for it is, says the Apostle, 'of the heart, in the spirit,

S. P. S. 14

not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.'

No, not of men. The tendency of men is always to prefer the letter to the spirit. An incident, recorded in the history of the earliest conversion of that country, on which the attention of Europe has of late been fixed, is a painful illustration of this. The Bulgarians, when first brought to a knowledge of the Gospel, put to the then Bishop of Rome—one of the most famous of the Popes—a question relating to the state of their deceased heathen forefathers. He sternly excluded all hope of salvation for them. He pointed to the passage which speaks of a sin unto death, a sin past praying for. Do you wonder, that he drove them to look elsewhere for more humane, more righteous teachers? And indeed this was not the first, as it has not been the last time, when such cruel language has been held. Christian fathers before him, Protestant missionaries after him, have sinned in the same way. Did they need this fierce thought to stimulate their missionary zeal? Nay, might they not have drawn a truer lesson from that chief of missionaries, who laboured more abundantly than all? Was it not enough, that the love of Christ should constrain them, as it constrained him? Was not the sense of God's infinite gift in the death and passion of His only Son, was not the consciousness that He had called them from death to life, that they owed everything which was noblest, best, truest, in themselves to His Gospel, was not the sight of a world steeped in ignorance and sin, was not the obligation of Christ's express command to teach all nations, were not all these combined a sufficient motive to exertion; that they must forge this terrible weapon to wield in their spiritual warfare? Is not this indeed to make sad hearts that God hath not made sad? And yet all the while the Apostle's own language is clear and explicit, declaring that the Gentiles, not having the law of Moses, had yet a law in themselves, and that by this law they would be judged. And if there were Jews who were Jews in the spirit, though not in the letter, so also must there be Christians. Many heathen shall come from East and West—Zoroaster and Buddha, it may be, Socrates and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius; while the children of the kingdom—the ministering priest and the learned apologist and the eloquent preacher and the rigid devotee—shall be cast out. By the spirit, not by the letter, shall men be judged.

The second passage, in which this distinction occurs, is likewise in the Epistle to the Romans. In the seventh chapter of that Epistle, the Apostle contrasts the Christian dispensation with the Mosaic, the Gospel with the Law, as the newness of the spirit with the oldness of the letter. In the context he describes the fatal effects of the Law. It wakes up the consciousness of guilt in the man. So sin starts into life, and it kills the man.

The same is the idea in the third passage, from which my text is taken. Here too the contrast is between the Law and the Gospel. The one was written on tables of stone, graven in hard and fast lines. The other is altogether different. Here everything is elastic, mobile, flexible, ready of adaptation, full of life. The material, on which it is written, is not the hard slab of stone, but the fleshy tablet of the human heart. The pen, which traces the characters, is not a pen of iron, but the Spirit of the living God. And, corresponding to this difference, is the contrast in the effects. The one was a ministration of death, a ministration of condemnation; the other, a ministration of righteousness. 'We are ministers,' says the Apostle here,'of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.'

This then is the primary meaning of the text. The letter is a synonym for the Law; the spirit for the Gospel. The Law was holy and just and good; but the Law could never make perfect. Law may restrain, may educate, may direct, but it cannot give life. On the contrary its effect is, in the Apostle's language, to kill. By giving edge to the conscience, it intensifies the sense of remorse, it wounds, it prostrates, it slays. A child will go on doing a certain wrong act thoughtlessly and ignorantly, till it has become a habit, without any sense of inward dissatisfaction; till at length some authoritative voice (of a father or of a mother, it may be), which is a law to that child, says, ' That is a wicked act; you must not do that.' Then everything is changed. From that time forward each recurrence of the evil habit brings misery to the child; each fresh outbreak of temptation costs it a cruel struggle. The child's conscience has been awakened by the commandment . The child has been taught the sinfulness of the sin. The child is far better than it was before; but it is far less happy. It has the sentence of condemnation in itself. To use S. Paul's language, the commandment has slain the child.

So it was with the Mosaic law. The Mosaic law was given to educate the conscience of the Jews, and, through the Jews, of the whole human race. It issued prohibitions; it imposed penalties; it prescribed rites. Thus by a system of obligations and restraints it taught effectually the heinousness of sin. Every day and every hour, by some rite enjoined or some commandment contravened, it reminded the Jew of his guilt . But all this in itself could only kill; it could not make alive. The Law said,' Do not this; for, if thou docst it, thou shalt surely die.' The principle of life, under the old dispensation, was not the Law, but something behind the Law—the fact of a merciful and loving Father, realised in the heart and conscience of the faithful. But this realisation was still only shadowy and incomplete. It was then at length in the Incarnation of the Son of God that this love was perfectly manifested, then at length in the atoning blood of Christ that the pardon for sin was fully assured, then at length in the dispensation of the Spirit that the sympathetic union of man with God was completely established, the filial relation was realised and the pardoned one—now no more a slave, but a son—had courage to look upward and cry, 'Abba, Father.'

This is the primary sense, in which the Apostle speaks of the letter killing and the spirit giving life. But, like many another maxim of S. Paul, the saying is far too full to be exhausted by its primary meaning. It has application as wide as human life is wide, as human thought is wide.

On one such application—perhaps the most important of all—I shall venture to dwell for a few moments. There is probably no serious Christian, who has not at some time or other felt inwardly pained, to think that he does not fulfil, that he makes no earnest attempt to fulfil, that the circumstances of life will not allow him to fulfil, certain precepts of our Lord to the letter. If a man should sue him at law and take away his coat, would he let him have his cloak also? If a man should compel him to go one mile with him, would he go with him twain? Were he to fulfil these precepts literally, what injustice, what misery, what confusion might not ensue? The words of Christ are the most sacred of all words. Yet even here, even in the words of the Divine Word Himself, it may be said, in some sense, that the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. And this, because human language necessarily confines the expression of the Divine thought . Human language is limited, and the thought is unlimited. In this particular case the spirit of the precept is the condemnation of a litigious, self-assertion. The spirit cannot be too promptly or too absolutely obeyed. One principle is here laid down in a concrete form, as it were in a parable. Human language cannot compass more than this. This principle is inviolate in itself. But right conduct is a very complex affair. Right conduct consists in taking into account many principles at once. In the case before us, by obeying the precept to the letter we might violate some other principle. We might, for instance, encourage a temper of lawlessness and violence in action ; we might lead to the moral deterioration of another.

Or again, take the precept, 'Give to him that asketh thee.' The letter would lead to what is called indiscriminate charity; and indiscriminate charity is productive of the greatest evil. But here again the spirit of the precept is plain, and it is imperative. We cannot be too ready to impart to others the best gifts—whatever those gifts may be—with which God has endowed us. We cannot be too merciful, too self-denying, too sympathetic. But the form, which alms-giving more especially should take, must vary with the varying ages. In our own time, when there are poor laws, and workhouses and hospitals and dispensaries, when there is organized hypocrisy and professional begging, it is quite clear that we cannot follow in exactly the same lines which were the best in Palestine eighteen centuries ago, when none of these things existed. The question we have to ask, and answer for ourselves, is not only what Christ did or commanded then, but also what He would do or command us to do in this altered state of society now. In short, we must endeavour to ascertain the mind of Christ through the recorded words and works of Christ—to ascertain it, and to follow it absolutely, without any reservation or afterthought.

And our teacher here must be the Holy Spirit of God, 'the Spirit which searcheth all things.' He is the only safe interpreter of Christ's words and works. He alone can translate them for us into modern language, and adapt them to modern life. This is the promise vouchsafed in His name. 'He shall take of Mine, and shall show it unto you.' If we go to any other teacher, then our attempts to evolve the spirit from the letter will be a hopeless failure. 'The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him.' But, if we approach Him with a single eye and a single heart, not wishing to spare ourselves, not seeking to excuse ourselves from irksome duties, but desiring only to learn, and prompt, when we have learned, to obey, then He will not fail us. 'If any man will do His will,'—' is ready to do His will,'—' he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God.'