A Question I Was Asked:

Should We Strive to Obey the LETTER of God's Law, Allowing the Spirit of the Law to Follow?

Is There a Flaw in This Reasoning?

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. .
(Romans 10:4, NKJV).

You wrote somewhere "we should now obey the spirit of the law but not always the letter." My question is: Should we not start - and continue - with the letter of the law, and allow the spirit of the law to follow? Could it even be that the letter is the most important part?

UK Apologetics Reply:

This suggestion may initially appear logical to some people but actually it is against New Testament teaching. Jesus - and later Paul - made it plain that the Pharisees erred in being so insistent upon obeying the letter of the law (and even adding further bits to it). He slammed them for their cold and unbelieving hearts. Ultimately, it is moving in a carnal, self-concerned and self-righteous way to over-stress the letter of the law; it is an indicator of a lack of understanding.

Errors of the Jewish Religionists

The First Century Jewish religious authorities taught that adultery was wrong but Jesus pointed out that if one lusts after some particular woman, or women, then adultery has already occurred in the heart. This would not be the unforgivable sin, of course, but at least one should recognise it for what it is and own up to it; this was the approach of Jesus. His point was that sin is already in the human heart; meticulously obeying a whole set of laws - yes, even God's laws - in a strict, physical, letter-of-the-law manner would still leave sin present in the human heart. It is not enough to change what we do, we also need to change who we are! The Pharisees never seemed to get this point, they really seemed to think that obedience to the law - just on its own - could make them holy and righteous, but they only had interest in the 'doing,' literalistic part, they - apparently - separated their bodies from their minds.

It is good to look at Matthew 23 which is one long condemnation of the Jewish religionists from Jesus. For instance,

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices - mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean." (Matthew 23:23-26).

Here Jesus compares the inside of a dish with the human heart and the inner self; He said that these people were rotten there even though they were ever so good about looking after the outward details! We must learn from this! Can you imagine washing up a food dish or plate and being meticulous about cleaning the outside or lower part but leaving some food on the inside?

My emailer inferred that if we are meticulous about the letter of the law, then the spirit of the law will certainly follow but Jesus plainly shows us that this is wrong - it does not work this way!

The Example of the Sabbath

The approach toward the Sabbath should illuminate my point here very well. The original Sabbath day - given to the people of Israel under the old covenant - was to be observed from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. It was a most serious matter to break this because for the huge mass of the people of Israel travelling in the desert there had to be strong leadership and discipline to avoid confusion and anarchy. The Israelites were commanded to observe a Sabbath, to rest and meditate on the Lord for 24 hours per week. But much later - for the Pharisees - the Sabbath came to be seen as an end in itself, a strict period of 24 hours which would have to be observed until the end of time - no exceptions. However, Jesus shows us that their approach was all wrong; the Sabbath was not a strict period of 24 hours permanently set in stone at all. It was fine for Him to heal the sick on this day, the Pharisees, however, thought this "broke" the Sabbath, it was even perfectly fine for His disciples to pick some heads of grain on this day, rub them in their hands (was that not work?) and eat the kernels (Luke 6:1-5). For Jesus, this was fine, for the religionists it was plainly work! Even worse for hard-line sabbatarians, Jesus shows us that He Himself has now fulfilled the entire meaning of the Sabbath. Look at this:

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30).

Jesus was very careful to point out to the religionists the errors which had entered Sabbath observance:

He answered, "Haven't you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread - which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven't you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." (Matthew 12:3-8).

So the "rest" from the labour of sin which we now seek is not a particular day at all but Jesus Himself, who is revealed to be Lord of the Sabbath! - that is, He has complete authority over it, having completed and fulfilled it's meaning. Yes, it remains fine to set aside a day for rest, even to set aside Sunday as a primary day to worship God (although He can be worshipped at any time), but Sunday became 'The Lord's Day' (with good New Testament authority) - it did not become another Sabbath; the Sabbath is now completed and fulfilled. The idea that Sunday became a "Christian Sabbath" is a theological error. Unfortunately this clear error went into the 'Westminster Confession' of 1646, leading to hundreds of years of a tendency toward judgmentalism and self-righteousness among reformed (Calvinist) people.

Can Obedience to the Law Lead to Righteousness?

Let us simply allow Paul to answer this:

"We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn't that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!"(Galatians 2:15-21).

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. (Galatians 3:23-25).

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4, NIV throughout).

'Culmination' = Greek: 'telos' (G 5056 in Strong's) - end, ending, termination, conclusion, completion.

Some Conclusions

It is incorrect reasoning to say, 'should we not start - and continue - with the letter of the law, and allow the spirit of the law to follow?' - the lesson of Scripture is that way does not work; we now obey the law of Christ, summed up in several New Testament verses including the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7) and Galatians 5:13-26. It is the new law which the Holy Spirit will lead us into:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (Galatians 5:13-15).

Unfortunately it is a lesson of Christian history that to focus on obedience to 'the letter of the law' is a path to legalism, strife, self-righteousness and a willingness to judge other Christian believers. Far better to follow the advice of Jesus, as given in the sermon on the mount, in which He clearly pointed out the insufficiency of any law which is only about 'letter of the law' obedience but is not firmly rooted in the heart and soul.

Robin A. Brace. February 9th, 2016.