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Paul’s “letter vs. Spirit” teaching in Corinthians requires context derived from his other writings to fully appreciate its rich meaning. A direct answer to the question is that “letter” refers to the Torah (Law) but ONLY as it is read, and obedience attempted, WITHOUT eyes opened by the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit). What it kills are those persons whose lives are revealed by the light of the Law (Rom 3:20, 7) to ultimately be characterized as unregenerate sinners (Rom 7:5). The reason it ”kills” the “old self” is because, as a “ministry of death” (2 Cor 3:7), this is one of its primary functions (cf. Rom 7:10). These meanings can be understood by reading a bit further down into the Corinthians passage (mouse over to read 2 Cor 3:14-18). We can clearly see in verse 14 that “old covenant” is parallel to “Moses” in verse 15, for indeed, they are both “read” by members of Isra'el. This is the context for the “letter” mentioned in verse 6, and the “ministry of death carved in letters of stone” in verse 7. The letter minus the Spirit will “spiritually” kill, because without the regeneration of the Spirit on the inside, the Torah reader is without an advocate for sin (Rom 8:2) and therefore falls under the condemnation spelled out by the Law for unrepentant sinners (Rom 4:15). Paul is not teaching that the “letter” is bad. The Law in and of itself is not a negative thing to an unbeliever. Notice carefully, that Paul clarifies the reason the “letter kills” is because the readers have “minds hardened” (2 Cor 3:14) with an “unlifted veil over their hearts” (2 Cor 3:15). In plain language, the reason the “letter kills” is because the person reading the letter is unsaved. Paul described himself “dying” while in his pre-saved condition in Rom 7:11, however, for Paul the “death of the old man” led to being “born again” by faith in Yeshua (Rom 8:2-4). Indeed, for all genuine believers in Yeshua, we too have died to the “Law of sin and death,” so that we may serve the LORD in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Rom 7:6, 8:1). Moreover, even though the Law is supposed to lead the reader to the Messiah (Rom 10:4; Gal 3:24; 2 Tim 3:15), until the reader of the Law surrenders to Yeshua as LORD, the ministry of the Law will eventually continue to “arouse his sinful passions” (Rom 5:20, 7:5), leading to condemnation (Rom 3:19), continuing hardness of heart, and ultimately God’s wrath and spiritual and eternal judgment for him (Rom 2:5, 9, 12). However, the good news is that Paul teaches emphatically that when this same sinner “turns to the LORD” (2 Cor 3:16), the heart veil is lifted. And because the LORD is indeed the Spirit, this results in freedom for the Law reader (2 Cor 3:17). This “Spirit” reference is the very same Spirit that Paul mentioned when he contrasted “letter” with “Spirit” in 2 Cor 3:6. The obvious conclusion to Paul’s teaching in this chapter is that the person freed by the Spirit “with unveiled face, [is] beholding the glory of the Lord, [and is] being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). Consequently, this new believer is now able to read the letter without it killing them. Conclusions: The “letter of the Law” is a person’s interaction with the Law, minus Spirit, done under the power of the flesh. Outside of the regenerative ministry of the Spirit of Messiah, God designed the “letter” of the Law to condemn and ultimately kill an unregenerate sinner. The “letter of the Law” is weakened by sinful flesh (Rom 8:3). However, once a sinner turns to the LORD, the veil is lifted from their heart and eyes (2 Cor 3:16), and they no longer have to fear the condemning “letter” of the Law (Rom 8:1). That which used to be a “ministry of death” for them (2 Cor 3:7), now takes on a new perspective as “holy, righteous, and good” (Rom 7:12) resulting in true freedom and obedience (Rom 7:22, 8:4) by the power of the Spirit (2 Cor 3:17).
The difference between the two Testaments must be clearly understood. We have the shadow in the OT but the substance in the NT (Heb 10:1). The New Covenant, unlike the Old, is not of the letter but of the Spirit (2 Cor 3:6 Rom 7:6). In the OT the Law was written in tablets of stone, but now God writes it in our hearts of flesh (Jer 31:31-33; Heb 8:8-10; 2 Cor 3:3). The ceremonial part of the Law takes a spiritual meaning in the New Testament. For example, the Sabbath speaks of the rest Christ gives to His people here and then in eternity (Mt 11:28; Heb 4:4-10). Similarly God told Peter to eat even the "forbidden" food of the OT to explain to him a spiritual truth, that is, how God can save the non-Jews also (Acts 10:10-16,44,45). The Temple in the OT becomes the people of God and their bodies in the NT. The New Covenant is called a "better" Covenant (Heb 7:22; 8:6). The core of the OT is all about what God "demands" whereas the core of the NT is all about what God "gives." Praise the Lord we are not under Law but under Grace (Rom 6:14). Let us stand firm in the liberty, and not be entangled again with the yoke of bondage (Gal 5:1). In fact, those who attempt to be justified by Law have fallen from Grace (v4). Law and Grace cannot coexist. Ishmael and Isaac cannot dwell in the same house. An old cloth and a new piece should not be stitched together. The new wine cannot be kept in old bottles (Mt 9:16,17). By saying so we do not mean that the Old Testament is irrelevant to us today. Apart from the Law the OT contains prophecy, history and wisdom. "These were written for our instruction, on whom the ends of the ages have come" (1 Cor 10:11). The OT must be read and diligently studied by every Christian, but the interpretation and application must be always in the light of the NT. If you would have a balanced diet of both the Old Testament and the New Testament truth, follow the Bible Reading Calendar given on pages 13-16 of this book. The Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, is the religion of Christ's Church! (C.H. Spurgeon)
Paul refers to what "the letter" is when he characterizes Christians in the verse cited in the question (2 Corinthians 3:6) as being ministers of a new covenant. "The letter" is the old covenant of the written Law that God gave through Moses to the people of Israel. The Law was a covenant of works that God made with the people of Israel after delivering them from Egypt. It is summarized in the Old Testament books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The covenant (or agreement) associated with the Law was that, if a person complied perfectly with all the requirements of the Law, that person would then be able to live eternally in God's presence. The requirements of the Law were good and just. However, because of the sin nature that all humans inherit from birth, no one was capable of the perfect obedience that the Law demanded. Therefore, while the Law was intended as a means for people to achieve eternal life, it, in fact, became an instrument of eternal death for all those under it. To deal with this, God instituted a new covenant with humanity by becoming human Himself in the person of Jesus, who (as both true God and true man) lived the life of perfect obedience to the Law of which no human had proven capable; allowed Himself to be unjustly killed to satisfy on behalf of all humanity the penalty for sin (death) that the Law demanded; and then rose again from the dead as proof that His sacrificial death had been an acceptable payment in God's eyes for the sins of all those who would place their faith in that death and resurrection (rather than in their own imperfect obedience to the written Law) to find favor in God's eyes, and to receive eternal life. Thus, while "the letter" of the written Law kills by condemning those who fail to perfectly obey it, Jesus did away with that Law and its requirements by nailing it to His cross (as Paul noted in Colossians 2:14), and God instead now gives eternal life on the basis of faith in Jesus' death and resurrection, as testified to by the presence of God Himself (in the person of the Holy Spirit) within all those who have received that eternal life.
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