The Decalogue The Law of Moses

The Spirit and the Letter: A New Covenant Contrast

photo by Ferdinand Feng

Does the indwelling of the Holy Spirit bring to the believer in this age of salvation history something prior ages did not have? It is hard to answer otherwise, for the new covenant is a better covenant than the old, and whole the Spirt came upon God’s saints to do certain things, the indwelling and sealing of the Holy Spirit puts us in a different realm from what came before. No Old Testament saint was given the knowledge of being crucified with Christ, raised with Him, and seated with Him in the heavenly places. These are glorious truths revealed after the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. A perennial question is, how does this affect the believer’s relationship with the law of the Old Covenant?  There is the suggestion that the believer in Christ is, due to the indwelling Spirit, at last able to realize a primary goal of salvation history, first revealed to Israel: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:45)

Some commentators, such as Hoekema, have expressed this as follows:

“The Christian life, we conclude, must be a law-formed life. Though believers must not try to keep God’s law as a means of earning their salvation, they are nevertheless enjoined to do their best to keep this law as a means of showing their thankfulness to God for the salvation they have received as a gift of grace. For believers, law-keeping is an expression of Christian love and the way to Christian freedom; it is equivalent to walking by the Spirit.”[1]

Such a perspective puts the law on a continuum with the Spirit. Because of the Spirit we are finally able to what the law requires—mostly. For Hoekema acknowledges implicitly we cannot do it perfectly and so he writes we are to do our best. However, this view fails to appreciate Paul’s position on the law as one of contrast rather than continuum. In a few places in his letters, Paul draws this contrast.  One of these is Romans 7:29. “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the letter (γράμματος).”

Paul presents two ways: new and old. The new is by the Spirit, the old is by the letter. The context of his discussion in Romans 7 makes it clear that letter is a reference to the law, the Mosaic code. And it is not just some parts of the law, ceremonial or civil, for Paul always refers to law as an entire category. Indeed, he uses the 10th commandment in his example of what sin used to kill him. The Decalogue is not a separate category.

The other reference that makes Paul’s meaning very clear is 2 Cor 3:6. A good part of the chapter is an explanation of the old covenant as inferior to the new, and that it is superseded, replaced by the new. Paul writes, “who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

Here we find the contrast between Spirt and letter. The letter kills and the new covenant is not of the letter. Hoekema and those who share this view want to rehabilitate the letter—the law—to say that now empowered by the Spirit, we can and should keep it. But had this been Paul’s thought, he had opportunity to explain it. Instead, his contrast is sharp and unflinching. The law kills, and the way we are free of its condemnation is not through Spirit-empowered obedience to what belongs to a former age of salvation history. Rather, we are free from it by dying to it, as he said in Romans 7.

We should not think that because this is Paul’s stance, he has no use for the law. He can still find wisdom in it, he can still see it as prophetic, but as an obligation upon believers, he has no place for the law. Too many Christians assume that the only way to relate to the law is that they must (somehow?) be able to obey the law, or at least try to, now that they have the Spirit. Paul says no. Walking by the Spirit is not walking by the law. It is a much higher standard. Love may fulfill the law—that is, the holiness we’re called to pursue—but Paul never tells Christians to walk according to the law. Andrew Wakefield’s question about Paul’s interaction with the Galatians is a pertinent one:

“If Christians can and should keep the law once they are enabled by the Spirit, why is Paul so concerned if the Galatians—who are already believers, who have already received the Spirit (Gal. 3:2-5)—take up the law?”[2]


[1] Anthony A. Hoekema, Anthony A., Stanley N. Gundry, ed. “The Reformed Perspective.” In Five Views on Sanctification (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1987), 88.

[2] Andrew Hollis Wakefield, Where to Live: The Hermeneutical Significance of Paul’s Citations from Scripture in Galatians 3:1–14. (Leiden, Brill, 2003), 201.

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