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What Christians Need to Understand about the Spirit of the Law vs. the Letter of the Law

Clarence L. Haynes Jr.

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. – 1 Corinthians 3:6

The spirit of the law vs the letter of the law, that is the question. Forgive me for my poor attempt at Shakespeare. There is a stark difference between following the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. These differences are critical and need to be addressed because they will impact your relationship with God and how you engage other people. I am going to do my best to help you understand the difference between these two things and hopefully help you to walk in the freedom and life God has given you.

What Does it Mean to Follow the Letter of the Law?

To follow the letter of the law means exactly what it says. You must follow all the tenets of the law and obey them to be accepted in God’s sight. I know this sounds like a daunting task and that’s because it is. The problem with the letter of the law is that no one has been able to follow it completely. There are 613 commandments or laws in the old testament that were required to be followed. Truth be told keeping the ten commandments is hard enough how are you going to manage following 613? If that is not enough pressure let’s add this to the mix.

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. - James 2:10

I think you can see that following the law is not easy and can be overwhelming. To top it all off mix in your sinful nature and this plan is basically useless or to say it a little plainer, “it ain’t gonna happen.” When you add all these things up you see why the law kills, because you can’t live up to its standards and requirements.

What Is the Spirit of the Law?

To follow the spirit of the law is to simply not put the strict adherence of the law above the person to whom the law is meant to serve. Jesus gave the ultimate summary of the spirit of the law when he said this.

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

There really is no greater verse in my opinion that sums up the spirit of the law vs the letter of the law than these verses. It boils down to loving God and loving people. Every one of the 613 commandments has these two commands as the foundation, heart, or the spirit of them.

What Does the Bible Say about the Spirit of the Law and the Letter of the Law?

Let’s consider the difference between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law in action. To do this we will look at some of the most law conscious people in the Bible, the Pharisees. Consider this passage:

Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”

Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. – Mark 3:1-6

If you look closely hopefully the differences become evident. Let’s sum them up.

The Pharisees were looking for the gotcha moment. They were trying to trap Jesus. They were more concerned about whether it’s lawful to heal on the Sabbath than they were about the need and well-being of the man. They were following the letter of the law. Jesus saw the stubborn hearts of the Pharisees. He also recognized the condition and the need of the man and knew he had the power to heal him. He chose to do good and heal the man. He was following the spirit of the law.

Here is an interesting side note for the “law-abiding” Pharisees. As much as they observed the law when they left the synagogue they went and plotted how they would kill Jesus. So much for observing the law.

This mindset didn’t just happen then it continues to this day. My mom shared a story with me of a time she was going through a very difficult situation in her life. She wanted to find a place to pray and she went into a small church to pray. It happened to be extremely hot that day and she had on a dress that was sleeveless. The dress was not short or inappropriate in length it was just sleeveless. When she sat down a lady in the church approached her. Never greeted her, asked her name, or inquired why she was there but simply said these words. “Excuse me but this is not how a woman should come into the church you need to have your arms covered.” This not only made my mom feel terrible, it provided no comfort for the situation she was dealing with. What happened? This woman was following the letter of the law. In this case, the policies of the church became the letter of the law. What she missed big time was the spirit of the law, caring for someone who was hurting and needed prayer.

How to Apply This Truth to Your Everyday Life

I always believe that whatever truths you learn in Scripture have no real impact on your life until you apply them. Let’s do this with this truth. Here are three simple ways you can be certain you are living by the spirit of the law not the letter of the law. Two of them Jesus already mentioned.

1 – Love God First
If we learn anything from what Jesus said is that loving God is the most important thing. If you truly love God that will impact your obedience, your worship, your prayer, and how you treat others. This will make the spirit of the law alive in your heart.

2 – Love People
The reason Jesus said to love people is because this affects how you deal with them. Think of all the ways the Bible describes love and all the things it does. Patience, kindness, not keeping a record of wrongs, and the list goes on. Having love of people carries with it the spirit of the law as Jesus said.

3 – Depend on the Holy Spirit to help you
The letter of the law is really about you doing everything. The spirit of the law is about God doing everything through you. If you want to embody the spirit of the law then allow the Holy Spirit more room to work both in you and through you. As you do this what you will find is that you will be able to love God and love people better. This will keep you continuing in the spirit of the law and not falling into the trap of the letter of the law.

Final Thoughts on the Spirit of the Law vs the Letter of the Law

I think you will agree that life is far less complicated and much more enjoyable when you live by the spirit of the law. It becomes even better when you allow the Spirit of God to help you do it. Remember the law kills and does not produce life in you because it requires something of you that you are not able to give. Therefore, don’t be bound again by trying to live to the letter of the law but live in the freedom God has given you. This is not freedom without boundaries but freedom without the bondage of adhering to all the tenets of the law. I leave you with the words of the Apostle Paul:

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 2:19-21

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/artisteer


Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club.  He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. He has also just released his new book The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. Do you want to go deeper in your walk with the Lord but can’t seem to overcome the stuff that keeps getting in the way? This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.


This article is part of our larger resource library of theology terms and questions important to the Christian faith. From heaven and hell, to communion and baptism, we want to provide easy to read and understand articles that answer your questions about theological terms and their meaning. 

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