(2) Spirit: The Letter Kills

Mar 02, 2024

All readings of biblical texts should be Spirit-led. If any method of reading is Spirit-led, it will at least attempt to be responsible to what that text is trying to say and do.

The Psalmist says, “Blessed is the man who . . . delights in the law of the LORD; on his law he meditates day and night. (Ps. 1:1) Paul says, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. (Rom. 7:12).”

It is not anti-spiritual to attend to text. Jesus said, “you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Mt 23:23)  The problem is when text becomes more important than why it was written and for whom it was written.

The point is not to stop reading and applying text to life; the point is in how it is done. No one speaking by the Spirit of God will pit the Spirit of God against the Word of God; the Spirit of God will never lead anyone away from the Word of God.

The Letter Kills?

This is an interesting and delicate balance. We all know that the law is made for people, not people for law. Law as its own end kills; rules and methods for their own sake are barren and empty. Everybody knows: the letter kills.

But take away all laws, all rules, all methods, and all procedures, and see what happens.

In 2Cor 3:6, Paul (who famously said “I think I have the Spirit of God” 1Cor 7:40) never says, “I don’t follow rules and methods, I just read by the Spirit!” In fact, this text shows that while reading Exodus 34, Paul was using ancient methods of interpretation that are similar to later rabbis. He certainly does not brag about, or spell out, require, or even mention the methods he uses. But he clearly uses then-accepted methods and approaches (not only here in this text, but in other places as well: e.g., 1Cor 10:1-11; Rom 10:5-13; Eph 4:8 are three good examples).

Lessons Learned

So what do we learn from this?

First, to read by the Spirit of God is not a method. It’s rather a frame of mind; an orientation towards God and the things of God; an openness to hearing the voice of God through the texts you read.

Second, to read by the Spirit of God is not a rejection of sound methods. It does not mean that you are now free to ignore sound study methods and principles, as if they don’t even matter.

The point here is not that one needs to be a biblical scholar. The point is rather that it is no virtue to champion our ignorance about biblical texts in the name of the Spirit of God.

Biblical texts have the quality of being able to speak to people who have no special knowledge about history, religion, or politics; no particular kind of education or social status; and no amount of money. Many biblical stories have universal appeal: stories about women and men, prophets and kings, nations and gods, peacetime and war, life and death—indeed, about all aspects of human existence. Biblical texts and stories can reach out to and benefit anyone, including children!

Growing Up

But just because some Bible stories can be read and appreciated by children, doesn’t mean it’s a kids’ book! The Bible is, in fact, a big and diverse book, and there are many complicated things in it that require the very best thinking adults can bring to it.

The old saying, “The Bible is so simple a child can understand it, and so deep you can read it for a lifetime and never master it” is overstated and a bit simple; but it has some value, especially if both parts of the saying are taken seriously. The message, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” is good for children and adults alike. But there is much more to the Bible than that powerful and wonderful message. As adults, we need to bring our very best to it and be willing to be challenged and to grow beyond where we are now.

It’s amazing how quickly some people can slip (or jump headlong!) into a childish mode of Spirit-talk as a kind of end-run around all of the complications. There is a particular kind of defiant insistence among some people that since they don’t need to be a scholar to read the Bible, then they don’t want to hear about a bunch of complicated “methods” or “rules” of interpretation. Why care at all about Hebrew or Greek texts, or English translations, or any other such scholar-laden thing? After all, Christians live by the Spirit of God, not the letter of any law, rules, or methods—right? Surely the Spirit of God can guide Christ followers to every full extent!


It sounds good—the Spirit rescuing us from the folly of rules and such. Who will say that the Spirit can’t grant our three wishes? “I just read my Bible, and the Spirit tells me all I need to know. Who needs rules when you’ve got the genie in the bottle!”

Well of course if we rely on law for its own sake we go too far. If we think rules and methods are the true ticket into heaven, then we go too far!

But why would any follower of Jesus, after a time of initiation into first things, not want to know more about how to read “God’s book” better and more responsibly? Any mentality that sets the Spirit of God into a context of “who needs rules!” did not get that from either the Bible or the Spirit, and indeed does not understand the Spirit of God! When we grow up, and are no longer children, we need to learn how to think like adults.

Series Intro: 
Power-Reading the Bible

1. Reading By the Spirit
Week 1: What Does It Mean?
Week 2: The Letter Kills
Week 3: What Could Be!

2. Reading the Text
Week 4: Methods

Week 5: The Prime Directive 
Week 6: Text Methods: Highs and Lows

3. Self Disciplines
Week 7: Methods for the Self
Week 8: Specialty Tools
Week 9: The Self and DBS

4. Summary
Week 10: Spirit, Text, Self:  Our Repertoire


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