It’s a phrase we hear those who claim to be Christians say all of the time, “Follow the spirit of the law, not the letter!” But what does that phrase mean, and are they misusing it? In fact, are they using it in the opposite way as to how it was truly meant?
When one hears someone say that phrase, invariably they are implying, “Oh, stop being a stickler about the rules, follow what the rules are promoting, and don’t enforce them to the letter!” and the first part of that sentiment is indeed correct; but are they making an error after that “and” ? During a Bible study on Nehemiah last year, everyone in the study came to realise that in fact the latter was a misunderstanding. Now you may be thinking, “How could Nehemiah give you insight into ‘letter vs spirit” when it comes from 2 Corinthians chapter 3?” It turns out that “letter vs spirit” is also in Nehemiah chapter 5. In that chapter Nehemiah sees how the more wealthy Judeans are treating the poorer ones, and although they are not directly enslaving their fellow men nor directly charging them interest, and therefore they are fulfilling the letter of the law; they nevertheless are in a roundabout way charging them interest and enslaving them, and therefore wronging their brethren and violating the spirit of the law, which was that they not take advantage of their brothers.
Did you catch that? Following, “The letter of the law” did not mean “being a stickler for the rules”, it meant doing the bare minimum of what the law said in order to claim one was following it. And following “the spirit of the law” meant following the law completely so that you fulfilled every aspect of it down to the very core of what it was trying to get across and accomplish. That is nearly the opposite of how pretty much everyone uses the phrase today!
The wealthy Judeans were arguing, “We are not sinning, we are doing exactly what the Word says to do!” and Nehemiah was pointing out, “You may be doing exactly what the letter of the law says, but you are violating the spirit of the law in that you are still wronging your brothers.” He wanted them to follow the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law; for in following the letter and thinking they were finding blessing and life, they were violating the spirit and receiving the curses and death. Now I am starting to sound like Paul, aren’t I? They were doing the bare minimum to claim they were following the law and thusly deserving of grace/favour, but in only doing the bare minimum in order to skirt the law and in spirit violate the whole reason the law was given, they were violating the whole of the law and bringing curses and death upon themselves. We therefore must avoid this, we must follow the law in spirit and in truth!
Paul therefore is warning us against only following the bare minimum of the law in order to claim that we are following God and in grace; Paul is saying that we must truly follow the law, not just exactly what it says, but we must go beyond what it says and truly follow its spirit to the point that the reason it was given is fulfilled. That is to truly follow the law, not by the letter, but in spirit and truth.