The Letter of the Law
Do you know what “the letter of the law” is? Well, it’s quite simple actually. The phrase “the letter of the law”, refers to the exact words of the law. It means, the law exactly as it is written. And it could refer to any law. Sometimes people use the phrase “the letter of the law”, in reference to the bible, and they try to suggest that it’s a bad thing. They use it as a criticism, by saying something like this; “You adhere to the letter of the law, and not the spirit of the law.” Have you ever heard that?
Here’s what it says on Wikipedia, about “the letter of the law”.. The letter of the law versus the spirit of the law, is an idiomatic antithesis. (I’ll tell you what that means in a second) When one obeys the letter of the law but not the spirit, one is obeying the literal interpretation of the words of the law, but not necessarily the intent of those who wrote the law.
So, what in the world is “an idiomatic antithesis”? An “idiom” is simply a phrase or a saying, that’s become commonplace. And an “antithesis” is a comparison of two things that are opposite. So then, an “idiomatic antithesis” is simply a saying that contrasts two things which are the opposite of each other. That’s pretty easy, isn’t it?
Now the problem with calling the “letter of the law” and the “spirit of the law” an antithesis, is that it’s not true. The letter of the law, and the spirit of the law, are not opposites at all. They are two aspects of the law, that go hand-in-hand. How on earth could the “spirit” and “intent” of the law, be the opposite of exactly what the law says? That’s an absurdity in itself.
Remember what the letter of the law is; It’s the law, exactly as it is written. The opposite of the law, exactly as it is written, would have to be, a distortion of the law, exactly as it is written. It’s like we read in Galatians 1:6 & 7; “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you, by the grace of God, for a different gospel. Which is not another gospel, only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” The opposite of “the letter of the law”, is a distortion of the law. And you remember what God says about distorting the law, right?
2 Peter 3:16, speaks of the law of God, and it says; “..in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable, distort (or twist) as also the rest of the scriptures, to their own destruction.”
So then the opposite of “the letter of the law”, is to distort the law, and to not abide in the law, and to disobey the law. And disobedience to the law is sin, isn’t it? At least that’s what the bible says. “Sin is lawlessness”, 1 John 3, verse 4.
Now that’s “the letter of the law”. But what about “the spirit of the law”. The “spirit of the law” has to do with our attitude when obeying the law. It has nothing to do with being “the opposite” of the exact words of the law, but it has everything to do with our attitude while obeying the law, and our reason for obeying the law.
Now some people might do what the law says, simply so they won’t be punished for disobeying. I’ve heard it suggested that God has actually given us two “motivations” for obeying His word. One is the reward of eternal life with God, and the other is the “reward”, so to speak, of eternal separation from God. Jesus tells us in Revelation 22:12; “Behold, I am coming quickly, (or suddenly) and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done.”
The word “reward” means your wages. God says, in Romans 6:23; “The wages of sin is death. but the free gift of God, is eternal life in Christ our Lord.” Do you see what God is pointing out in this verse? God is contrasting “wages” and “the free gift”. He wants to be sure that we understand, that we can’t “earn” salvation. We can’t “earn” eternal life. We can definitely earn, and deserve death, but we’ll never deserve nor earn salvation.
And even though God requires our obedience to His word, that doesn’t mean at all that we’re “earning” anything when we obey God. It means that we’re humbling ourselves, so that God can exalt us later on. Isn’t that exactly what God says He’ll do? James 4:10 says; “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you.” So then we must have an attitude, of humility.
Listen to what Philippians 2:8 says about Christ; “And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death of a cross.” The obedience of Christ, to the will of God, was an act of humility. He humbled Himself, by becoming obedient. When we obey the things that God tells us to do, we’re not earning anything, we’re humbling ourselves. We are bowing down to God, and to God’s word, and we’re saying; Yes Father, I will do exactly as you say. I won’t argue with your word, I won’t doubt your word, I will humble myself and obey your word.
And we should be well aware of the verse in Luke 17:10, which says; “So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded, you say; We are unworthy slaves, we have done only that which we ought to have done.” In other words, even if we were able to perfectly, do everything that God has commanded us to do, even then, we would have only done what we are obligated to do. We don’t deserve any praise, we and we haven’t earned anything, we’ve simply humbled ourselves, to God our Father.
So many people get themselves all confused about obeying God. They think that if they acknowledge the fact, that the bible speaks again and again, about obeying God, that they have somehow turned salvation into something that is based on our works. But nothing could be farther than the truth. When you acknowledge what the bible clearly says, again and again, about our responsibility to obey God, you are simply giving up your pride, and you are humbling yourself to God, and you are saying; “Not My will, but Thine be done.” And that’s exactly what Jesus said in Luke 22:42; “Not My will, but Thine be done.” Jesus humbled Himself, and that’s exactly what we need to do.
Jesus said in John 4:34; “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work.” If people could just understand, that those words need to be OUR words, and that attitude needs to be OUR attitude. Father in heaven, my food, is to do your will! And what sustains ME, is accomplishing your work. When I do “works of obedience”, I’m not “earning” my salvation. I’m bowing down to God! Are you too proud to admit, that you’ve got to humble yourself? Are you too proud to follow the letter of the law? Are you too good for that? Jesus wasn’t.
“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” That’s what Jesus said, in John 14, verse 15. Do you know what “the spirit of the law” really is? “The spirit of the law” is love! Love for God, and love for your neighbor. That is the spirit, that’s behind every law that God has ever given. The spirit of the law is love!
Do you want proof of that? Here’s the proof; According to God, the two greatest commandments ever given, which are stated in Mathew 22:37 thru 40, are the commandment to love God, and the commandment to love our neighbor. God says that every other commandment, is dependent upon these two. In other words, every commandment of God, every law of God, depends upon having the spirit of love! Love for God, and love for our neighbor. That’s the “spirit”, behind every law of God.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Jesus gives us the exact words of one of His laws, in Mathew 19, verse 9. Here’s “the letter of the law”; “And I say to you (Jesus speaking) Whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Now, if you have “the spirit of the law”, will you commit adultery? Of course you won’t. What is the “spirit”, of the law of not committing adultery? The spirit of that law, is love. Love for your husband or wife, and love for God. When you love your husband or wife, you honor them, and you are faithful to them. When you love God, you honor God, and you are faithful to God.
Listen closely; If you have “the spirit of the law”, then you will obey “the letter of the law”. There’s simply no other way. It is impossible to have “the spirit of the law”, without also obeying “the letter of the law”. If you have the spirit of the law, you love the law. Psalm 119:97 says; “O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation, all the day.”
Concerning Christ’s law about marriage and divorce, and adultery, Jesus said in Mathew 5:27 & 28; “You have heard it said; You shall not commit adultery, but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman, to lust for her, has committed adultery with her already, in his heart.” That statement by Jesus, is proof, that the spirit of the law, comes from the heart. And that spirit, is love!
Now here’s a question; Can you obey “the letter of the law”, without having “the spirit of the law” in your heart? Yes, you can. You can go through the motions, but not have any love in your heart. Sadly, some husbands and wives, live together for years and years, obeying the letter of the law, but there’s no love in their relationship. And sadly also, is the fact that many people will attend the worship assembly, with no love in their heart, for God. .
So yes, indeed, it is certainly possible to obey the letter of the law, without having a love for that law, and actually, without even having an understanding of WHY you’re obeying that law. But, it is absolutely impossible, for anyone to have the spirit of God’s laws in the heart, without also obeying, exactly what those laws tell us to do. Jesus said it as clear as can be; “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” John 14:15
Here’s one more quick example. Galatians 6:2; “Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfil the law of Christ.” What’s the spirit of that law? Love is the spirit of that law. What’s the intent of that law? To love your neighbor as thyself, and to supply his needs. You can’t have the spirit of that law, without obeying the letter of that law. James sums it up perfectly, in James 2:15 & 16; “If a brother or sister is without clothing, and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them; Go in peace, be warmed and be filled, and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?”
Now James was using that illustration in regards to the claim of having faith, but then not doing what a true faith would do. What good is the faith, if it doesn’t do what’s required. James 2:17 says; “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.”
Well, the very same thing holds true with the spirit of love. What use is it to claim to have the spirit of the law, but not DO, what that very law requires you to do? It’s of no use, that kind of spirit is dead! It is impossible, to have the spirit of the law, without also obeying, the letter of the law.
And you cannot love God, without doing what the letter of God’s law tells you to do. “If you love Me, you WILL keep My commandments.” And you will keep them, in the spirit of love.
Will you exhibit the spirit of love for God, today, by obeying exactly what His law tells you to do?
By believing in Christ, and by repenting of sin, and being baptized for the forgiveness of your sins? And by confessing your faith in Christ, and by living faithfully, until the end of your life? If you will do those things, according to the letter of the law, and according to the spirit of the law, you will be saved eternally.