Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The letter of the New Testament - Part 2

Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills , but the Spirit gives life. (2 Cor 3:5-6 NKJV)

As I said in Part 1, the above passage is referring to the Law. The ministry of death and condemnation (the Law, the letter) kills, but the Spirit, through the Person of Jesus Christ, who came to dwell in us because of grace, gives life!

But is it only the "established" law that kills (the Ten Commandments and the other six hundred Old Testament laws and precepts)?

Really, any rule or regulation that takes the place of the PERSON of JESUS CHRIST, can bring us down. If we read the New Testament epistles with the mind that they are a matter of principles or instructions or rules for Christian living, they can quickly and easily become a matter of "letter" for us rather than LIFE.

Consider just a small sample of the "instructions" we find in the New Testament epistles:

Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love... continuing steadfastly in prayer... distributing to the needs of the saints... repay no one evil for evil... flee from idolatry... do not think too highly of yourself... associate with the humble... husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the church... pursue love... desire spiritual gifts... forgive one another... confess your sins to one another... do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers... love one another... grow in the grace of giving... the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control... be angry, and do not sin... let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification... children, obey your parents in the Lord... do all things without complaining and disputing... be anxious for nothing... put to death the deeds of the flesh... pray without ceasing... avoid sexual immorality... avoid every kind of evil... avoid the appearance of evil... do not neglect your gift... fan into flame the gift of God... fix your thoughts on Jesus... bear one another's burdens... add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love...

I'm sure you have all those things covered, right? ;)

Ok, seriously, let me ask you... do you feel better about yourself after reading this list, or worse? And remember, this list is just the tip of the iceberg!

See, we can preach this stuff week after week after week after week... and all of this is really good stuff... I mean, who's going to argue that doing things without complaining is a bad thing? Or fleeing idolatry and sexual immorality? But the problem is that in preaching all of this good stuff, we preach it as "rules for Christian living," and in doing so we're trying to help people live like Christ, but in reality we're leaving Christ out of the picture! We can very easily turn New Testament words into "letter" rather than understanding that all of these words are the result, or fruit, of the life of the indwelling Christ.

Now, if you can honestly say that most or all of the words in the above passage are a true description of your life in Christ... then you know that it's not because you've worked them all out as a matter of following them as rules.

However, I would bet... and I'm not really much of a betting man, but I would bet a LOT on this... I would bet that if you're like most people who regularly attend a church that preaches all of those things week after week, then the above list made you feel a lot worse about yourself, and not good at all about your walk with Christ. I would bet that you've heard it all. You've been taught week after week "how to live the Christian life," based upon all of these New Testament "rules" and "principles," but in fact you're nowhere close to living these things out consistently.

The reason: They've subtly become "letter" to you, and no matter how many times you hear them preached, you find no power to actually live by them. In fact, at times, perhaps many times, you feel yourself stepping backwards and not forward. And the reason for that is because in all of this ongoing teaching of how to live the Christian life, Christ is missing. Christ has been replaced by principles for living for Christ! And you may not have even realized it! You may have figured that since you're trying to do all those things, and you're trying to apply all those New Testament principles week after week and day after day, then that shows that you're following Christ. But you have unknowingly and unwittingly replaced Christ with lists of should's and shouldn'ts, with lists of do's and don'ts and with lists of rules and principles for Christian living. The lists go on and on, and they very craftily disguise themselves as "Christ," but what they really are is a carry-over from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

I'm not saying that all those things were inspired by God and written down for no reason! And I'm not saying that we should ignore them! What I am saying is that the substance of the Christian life is Christ Himself, living in and through us. The substance of the Christian life is a Person, not principles. We in the church have grown so accustomed to hearing principles, rules, instructions, etc, taught week after week after week, that we have been lulled to sleep. We've grown accustomed to pastors and teachers simply giving us rules and lists of things to do, and in doing so, we've missed Christ.

I can see this getting increasingly longer than I thought it would be, so I guess there will be a Part 3!

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 


  1. Joel,

    It brings a lot of clarity. I think one of the reasons the preachers preach those things (Christian principles) is the emphasis of it in the Bible (NT). Like the things you listed, there are a lot more such as the things Jesus told in the Gospels, sermon on the mount etc.

    I think all the Christian preachers agree to one point that we cannot do it without God’s ‘help’. So they encourage people to pray to God to ‘help’ them to do those. And the fundamental thing they miss is the verse you quoted first. It is the Spirit who gives the life and Christian life is Christ living His life in and through believers. It is NOT Christ 'helping' believers to live His life, but it is Him living His life in believers.

    in doing so we're trying to help people live like Christ, but in reality we're leaving Christ out of the picture!

    Absolutely! I agree. But it is so hard to realize that if we weren’t revealed the truth of God’s grace. Things would be much better if the ministers of the new covenant preach the message of all sufficiency of Christ.

    Hey these posts have been very helpful! So keep it going…

  2. Joel,

    Really well put!

    Must've taken you a while to compile that list of commands, but your point wouldn't have been as poignant without it.

    Why the commands in the New Covenant then, if we are no longer under law but under grace?

    1. Because they reflect the heart of the One we love, and we want to know His heart. This is even true of Old Covenant laws. The juice of the heart of our Lord may be squeezed out of the orange of the law that we are no longer under.

    And thus we can agree with Paul that the law that we are no longer under is nevertheless beautiful and good.

    2. They are a blessed red flag to us when we are walking by the flesh, that we may run back to Him and walk in His glorious Spirit, never with any condemnation.


  3. Bino... Yes I fully agree! The New Testament is filled with all kinds of commands and instructions, and if people aren't being taught who they are in Christ, and aren't becoming firmly rooted and grounded in Christ and grace, then it's very easy for them to look at all of these commands and instructions as the Christian life, and not understand that Christ is the Christian life, and all of these things simply describe what that looks like when we have Christ living in us and through us.

    Terry... those are two very great points! All of these things truly are the heartbeat of Jesus. I don't think He ever meant us to live by rules, but from His heart beating with ours. As we grow in grace and as we look at these New Covenant commands (and as you say, even the Old Covenant laws), and find that our lives aren't beating along with His heart, we don't need to feel condemned and we most certainly don't need to begin to start working on trying to follow the rules and commands, but we simply realize that we've been following the flesh and we turn our hearts and minds back to trusting in the Spirit, and walking in the Spirit.