Jesus told us he had not come to abolish the Older Testament, but to fulfill it.1 He meant, in part, that he had come to fulfill the Spirit of his Father’s teachings, and to move us away from legalistic rule-keeping. Jesus expressed it like this:
The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. (John 6:63)
And the Holy Spirit through Paul says,
He has made us … ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:6 Bold added)
So when Jesus tells his followers things like, “You think you are okay because you haven’t killed anyone, but I do not want you to even carry anger in your heart,” or, “You think you are okay because you have not committed adultery, but I do not what you to carry lust in your heart,” he is addressing this “Letter versus Spirit” issue.2
The Letter of the Law is all about performance; the Spirit of the Father’s teachings is all about the heart. Yes, we are to follow and obey his teachings, but not because we have to, or we are afraid of getting in trouble with God, or we want to gain his approval. That is certainly lifeless. But because we want to honor and please him.
Not we have to, but we want to.
Trying to keep the Letter of the Law is about principle-based rule-keeping. The Spirit of his teaching is prompted by a presence-based relationship.3 Jesus’ everyday presence in your life. There is no Life in rule-keeping. There is no joy in the Letter of the Law.
If you are controlled by performance, and all of us are to some degree, then you are setting yourself up for two unpleasant results. If you are really good at performance and rule-keeping, you will suffer pride and self-righteousness. If you are not so good at it, then you will suffer disappointment and despair and guilt.
I use ‘suffer’ purposely for both results, because not only will Jesus’ Life suffer in you – in fact the Letter of Legalism will kill it – but everyone around you will suffer as well. Here is a sampling of examples of the difference between the Letter and the Spirit:
Letter vs Spirit
The Letter is about you. The Spirit is about him.
The Letter is about rules. The Spirit is about relationship.
The Letter is about, “I’ll try to be good enough.” The Spirit is about, “Only by His grace.”
The Letter is about Willpower. The Spirit is about Joy-power.
The Letter is about Self-power. The Spirit is about Holy Spirit Power.
The Letter is about restriction. The Spirit is about freedom.
The Letter is about, “What I cannot do.” The Spirit is about, “What I can do.”
The Letter is about, “What I can get away with.” The Spirit is about, “What I want to stay away from.”
The Letter of the Law is legalistic, pedantic, and lifeless. The Spirit of Jesus’ teachings, as well as the Father’s teachings, are full-to-overflowing with Life. The life that is truly life.4 And if you will free yourself from legalistic, rule-keeping performance in your life, and grasp his grace, then your life will look like:
“Streams of living water will flow from within you.” (John 7:38)
Next Week: Lifeless – Better – Best
2Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28 paraphrased
41 Timothy 6:19