Letter and Spirit

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By E.J. Waggoner
Apples of Gold Library, No. 37, January 1897

Romans 7 [margin]
6 But now we are delivered from the law, being dead to that wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.

Let our first question be, What is the thing in which we were held, and to which we are now dead? Let us see.

Held by Sin

The seventh chapter of Romans is but an expansion of the sixth chapter, where we read that we are “dead to sin” (verse 2), and that “he that is dead is freed from sin” (verse 7).

Romans 6
11 Likewise reckon you also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

We are dead unto the sin which held us, because sin also is dead by Christ.

6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.

And so “we are delivered from the law.” It had been transgressed, and therefore it demanded our death;

23 …for the wages of sin is death.

We are Dead

But now that we are dead, it pursues us no further; it has executed the penalty on us, in Christ.

Romans 7
1 The law has dominion over a man as long as he lives.

When he is dead, there is nothing more that it can do to him.

Galatians 2
20 I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me.

That is a good reason why the vengeance of the law no longer pursues us. The old life was a life of sin, but the man who committed the sin is dead.

The New Man Keeps the Law

The man who now lives is a “new man,” walking “in newness of life.” The “new man” is after God

Ephesians 4
24 …created in righteousness and true holiness.

Since the new man has not transgressed the law, he is as a matter of course free.

But the law is not dead. It is as much alive as it ever was. The new man is free from it simply because he is walking in harmony with it. The new man is under as much obligation to keep the law as the old man was; the difference between them is that the new man does his duty, while the old man did not, and could not.

The old man was “not subject to the law of God,” being opposed to the Holy Spirit. The new man is alive through Christ, who died

Romans 8
4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

Who are “not under the Law”?

Galatians 5
18 If you be led of the Spirit, you are not under the law.

But the verse last quoted tells us that “the righteousness of the law is fulfilled” in those who walk after the Spirit.

Therefore we are taught most plainly that the only ones who are “not under the law” are those in whom the righteousness of the law is fulfilled. The transgressors of the law are the only ones who are “under the law.” Those who are “delivered from the law” are the ones who are keeping it “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

This is shown in the statement that we are delivered from the law, in order

Romans 7
6 …that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.

We still serve, but as free men, and not as slaves. It is a spiritual service, that is, a real service; for only that which is spiritual is real.

Romans 7
14 For we know that the law is spiritual.

It follows, therefore, that when we were serving in oldness of the letter, we were not really keeping the law; for since the law is spiritual, it necessarily requires spiritual service. So it is only when we are delivered from the law that we keep it.

Unlike Human Law

The common opinion in regard to the letter and the spirit of the law, is most erroneous. The error arises from supposing that the law of God is similar to human laws.

It is quite common to speak of the spirit of a law made by man, when all that is meant is the intent of the law. Thus: No human law is perfect; its framers can not possibly foresee all the circumstances that may arise to be judged by it.

Then, too, the language of the law may be obscure. So the judge often finds it necessary to decide what was the intent of the lawmakers. A man might be technically or literally a violator of a law, while still acting fully in harmony with the intent of its framers. This is what is meant by the mistaken use of the term “letter and spirit,” as applied to human laws.

Now the great difference between the nature of human laws and the divine law is that there is no spirit to the former, while the latter is wholly spiritual. Spirit is life; but there is no life in human laws. They cannot give life. No man can get anything more out of a human law than he puts into it. If men ignore any human law, then it is said to be “a dead letter.” But it has no more life in itself when it is obeyed than when it is disregarded; the life is in the people, who make their acts conform to the words of the law.

The law of God is wholly different. It is alive whether people regard it or not. It is alive because it is spiritual. The man who serves in “the oldness of the letter” does not really serve at all, because, no matter how good his purpose, or how strong his endeavors, to keep the law, he is simply reproducing himself, and not the law. In trying to do what the law tells him to do, he is merely doing what his own nature allows him to do. While in a carnal state, he is

Romans 8
7 …not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.

“The Law is Life”

But “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:2) gives freedom from this bondage, so that “the righteousness of the law may be fulfilled in us.” The real law is the life of God in Christ, and that gives life.

What is termed “the letter” of the law of God is the verbal statement of the law. This is not the law itself, but only the form of it, as the apostle said the Jews had

Romans 2
20 …the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law.

The verbal statement of the law bears the same relation to the law itself that the photograph of a man has to the man himself. It is but the shadow.

A shadow is the exact image of the substance. The words of the divine law, being “the form of knowledge and of the truth,” might be compared to a statue, rather than to a photograph. It has the form and features, and differs from the reality only in having no life.

So when we speak of the spirit of God’s law, we mean the law itself, and not merely the intent of the law. The intent of the law may be learned from the words, since God is not subject to human limitations, but knows what is needed, and can say just what he means.

From the words of the law of God we may know exactly what we should do, for it is a perfect form. But it is only in Christ that we find the living substance. The law in Christ is not only living, but it gives life. It performs itself in those who submit to it, because it is God’s own life. It is not less than the letter; it is not something different from the letter; but it is simply the living thing which the letter perfectly describes.

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