2 You are our epistle, written in our hearts, known and read by all people, 3 revealing yourselves, that you are an epistle of Christ, delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. 4 Such is the confidence we have toward God through Christ. 5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves so as to consider anything as having come from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, 6 who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the spirit; for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. (2Cor3:2-6)
For all their faults, Paul is here depicting the Corinthian Church as “an epistle of Christ”. He is saying that their lives reflect the teaching of Christ that the apostle and his fellow workers had imparted to them. That pertained not only to their service to God but was something that could be observed by the world: “an epistle known and read by all people” (v2). But the key point I am drawing out from this passage concerns the relationship between the spirit and the letter, misunderstood amongst others by the ultra-influential Augustine of Hippo.
God’s Law imparted through Moses had been inscribed on tablets of stone but now such had been inscribed on believers’ hearts by the Holy Spirit (v3). However, contrary to the translations in many versions of the bible, Paul’s later reference in v6 to the letter killing and the spirit giving life is not referring to the Holy Spirit. If you examine the Greek interlinear translation of 2Cor 3 in the Bible Hub (available HERE), you will note that in verse 6 πνεῦμα (=“spirit” in the nominative case) has been translated “Spirit” (by implication the Holy Spirit) in many versions (e.g. NASB), whereas in verse 3 which is indeed referring to the Holy Spirit Πνεύματι (“Spirit” in the dative case) has a capital Pi “Π” rather than a lower case Pi “π”.
The Bible Hub Greek text is utilized by the Berean Interlinear and literal Bible. It is the highly regarded “Nestle 1904” version and corresponds exactly in this regard to the Textus Receptus followed by the Reformers translating the English Authorized Version of the Bible (note 1). Yet most Protestant bibles translate πνεῦμα as “Spirit” (i.e. the Holy Spirit) rather than “spirit” so as to support their particular theological understanding (referred to below). Of course, the Holy Spirit does “give Life” but that is not what Paul is alluding to in 2Cor3:6. Rather, he is contrasting the letter of the Law with the spirit of the Law – comparing a slavish observance of dead ordinances on the one hand with heart-felt obedience that fulfils the spirit (i.e. ultimate intention) of the Law on the other.
The reason I make the point about the Holy Spirit (apart from the fact that my interpretation is supported by the Textus Receptus) is that those who are not privileged to possess the divine Spirit’s presence (i.e. virtually everybody in Old Testament times and proportionally speaking the vast majority in the current age) are, contrary to the teaching of Augustine and the Reformers, well able to fulfil the spirit of God’s law, the heart of which is a love for humanity: “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal5:14). Such were the “sheep” in Mt25:31-46, being the definitive New Testament passage on final judgement – a passage in which religious faith or a personal knowledge of Christ as Savior are not so much as mentioned. For as I have been outlining, what Scripture refers to as “salvation” does not itself determine “who goes to Heaven when they die”. Neither is the possession of the Holy Spirit essential for that purpose.
However, the Spirit’s presence, His energies and a personal knowledge of Jesus as Lord and Savior are essential for those who are to be “saved”, i.e. delivered from the overriding influence of what Paul describes as “the body of this death” (Rom7:24-25). By that he is referring to the sin-polluted intellectual vessel (body and brain) procreated from our parents that the soul inhabits and utilizes during its earthly existence (cf. Eccles12:7; 1Thes4:4; Rom7:23). Those of God ‘s children chosen for His Son (note very carefully the wording of Jn17:6) need to be cleansed of their sin and receive ongoing sanctification so that they may become “free indeed” to serve the living God whilst in mortal flesh. As Paul has just affirmed to the Corinthian Church, they then become “a (living) epistle of Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (v3). Also depicted as the Body of Christ, these people have been called out from the world to be prepared for unimaginable glory in the ages to come – corporately to be betrothed to Christ and even to share His throne (Rev3:21 & 19:7). As for their precise activity it is not currently lawful for anyone to state it (2Cor12:4), but we are offered clues (cf. 1Jn3:2; Rev2:26-29; Gen15:5). It is a destiny for which those who do not come to know Christ as Savior or gain possession of an indwelling Holy Spirit cannot possibly attain, at least in the age that follows this one.
Such sublime providence could never be substantiated from mere philosophical reasoning, a few passages of the bible, still less from wishful thinking. A re-synopsis of the whole bible is what is needed, one that could be verified or otherwise by its intrinsic coherence. Albeit shabbily presented, such has now been provided in The Little Book of Providence:
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Note 1: It should be pointed out that the original New Testament text was written entirely in capital letters with no spaces or punctuation. So, whether the Greek word for spirit was a capital or lower case Pi is a scribe-based rather than genuinely textually based issue. But the point is that in all cases my interpretation is in line with that of the scribes with regard to whether Paul is referring to the Holy Spirit, the human spirit. or as in this case the spirit in the sense of fulfilling an aim or purpose (i.e. the spirit of the law) .
Related posts: Faith establishes the Law & Love fulfils the Law & Spirit or letter?
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