We are now coming to a passage that teaches us where the spiritual action really is. Do you want to be right with God? It is not going to happen because you got all your papers in order, and then got them stamped. “Right with God” is a judicial category, but not a bureaucratic one.
We must learn two things. The letter kills and the Spirit gives life. But secondly, the Spirit gives life to the letter. We must have two things; we must have a new covenant, and we must have a new heart. And all these things go together.
“Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (2 Corinthians 3:1–6).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
Paul asks, “Are you really going to make me talk about myself? Are you going to make me address things that you already know” (v. 1)? Do the Corinthians think he needs a letter of recommendation (like some people Paul could mention)? What are they talking about? Paul says that they are his walking, living, breathing letter of recommendation (v. 2), written on the hearts of the apostolic company. The tablets were hearts, but the manner of writing was not ink for papyrus, and not a chisel for stone, but rather the writing utensil was the Spirit of God (v. 3). Paul then states his confidence (v. 4), which is toward God in Christ. The same Paul who just a few sentences before had cried out who is sufficient? now says that while he is not sufficient in himself, he is nevertheless sufficient through God (v. 5). God is the one who has made him a minister of the new covenant—not of the letter, but of the Spirit. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (v. 6).
GANDALF AND THE BALROG
Every finite servant of God has a breaking point. That is what it means to be finite. And because God tests His servants, He takes them right up to that limit. Why? Well, remember what we saw in the first chapter— “But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9). God wants to squeeze all the self-sufficiency out of His servants. “You, my son, are still entirely too perky.” Some men are too talented to use, but absolutely no one is too weak to use. Did Jeremiah feel sufficient (Jer. 1:6)? Did Moses feel sufficient (Ex. 4:10-17)? Did Ezekiel feel sufficient (Eze. 1:1-3:11)? Did Gideon feel sufficient (Judg. 6:15)? Did Isaiah feel sufficient (Is. 6:1-7)? Did Paul feel sufficient (v. 16)? Who is sufficient for these things?
But by the same token, and for this reason, we see that Paul had supreme confidence in his sufficiency in Christ. “Our sufficiency is of God” (v. 5). In other words, when you come to the end of yourself, you have not come to the end of Christ.
THE FINGER OF GOD
Paul says here that the letter he is talking about was inscribed by the Holy Spirit himself. Now the Holy Spirit is equated in Scripture with the finger of God. “But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you.” (Luke 11:20). “But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you.” (Matt. 12:28).
But who inscribed the Ten Commandments on the tablets of stone?
“And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18; Dt. 9:10).
THE LETTER KILLS
So the problem with “letters that kill” is not the fact that they are letters. The letters written on our hearts are letters. And the problem with “these letters that kill” is not who wrote them. The Spirit is the one who wrote them on the tablets of stone. The difficulty is where the letters are written. When they are written on stone, external to the sinner, they do nothing but condemn, and the truer they are, the more condemnation they bring. When the law is “out there,” the law is my adversary.
So the external letter kills, but the Spirit brings life. But one of the things the Spirit brings life to is the letter. He does this by inscribing His letters on the human heart.
There are two fundamental features of the new covenant, the covenant that occupies such a large part of Paul’s argument here. Jeremiah’s promise of the new covenant is quoted in full in Hebrews 8 (Heb. 8:8-12; Jer. 31:31-34). But when it is quoted again two chapters later, the pull quotes highlight the two great features of the new covenant. They are, first, that the new covenant brings forgiveness of sin (Heb. 10:17), and second, the new covenant brings an internalization of the law (Heb. 10:16). And that’s what we are talking about here.
When God writes His law on our hearts, something remarkable happens. Not only is thou shalt love thy brother written on your heart, your brother is also written on your heart. Remember that Paul begins this section by saying that the Corinthians were written on his heart.
When the law is internalized, this brings the sinner to life. And when the law is internalized, this brings the letters to life. What happened to the handwriting of ordinances that was against us? God gathered them up and nailed them to the cross (Col. 2:14). But what happens to anything that is nailed to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ? That is right—it rises from the dead. The only thing that doesn’t rise again is the sin itself. But the law? The condemnation? The black despair of never being good enough? The accusations? All of that is “nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, oh, my soul.”
That law that used to condemn you is raised again with you, and is now your liberty, your refreshment, your pleasant instructor. His name is Jesus Christ.