The Letter Giveth Life
By Foy Valentine, Founding Editor
The world has Brother Paul to thank for the valuable saying that "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (2 Cor. 3:6). How very true. The wisdom of the saying is crystal clear. We are not to get so bogged down in dotting the "I"s and crossing the "T"s that we lose the sense of what is intended. Especially in good old freedom-loving America we are inclined to such a rejection of rules and standards, to such a bias against instructions and guides, and to such negativism about directions and "How To" counsels, however, that we are now edging perilously near to a general lawlessness that is closer to anarchy than it is to civilization.
I am remembering that two of my friends were flying one day to a meeting that I had called. One of the friends, John Claypool, was much inclined to deep thoughtfulness bordering on authentic profundity. He turned to his traveling companion in the seat next to him, Henlee H. Barnette, and asked, "Henlee, isn't every issue in life characterized by ambiguity?" John told me later that Henlee looked out the window in silence a long time and then turned to him to say, "Yes and No."
We are agreed, I trust, that "the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life." Please ponder, however, the possibility of truth in this proverb's mirror image. Consider, "The spirit killeth but the letter giveth life."
Please don't fly off in a fit of rage, withdraw fellowship from me, or write me out of your will. At least, not just yet. Maybe later.
When asked whether or not Pentecostals would get to heaven, my old theology professor at seminary replied, "Why, yes, of course-if they don't run right past it." He was a wise man and not given to disparaging remarks about the religion of others. He was simply reflecting a rather commonly held opinion in those heady days of Pentecostalism's early zeal that "spirit" sometimes seemed to eclipse "letter" in their wonderful enthusiasm.
If we have an overdose of "spirit" and an underdose of "letter," then we tend toward such self-centeredness, lack of discipline, and even lawlessness that our energies and life itself can be poured out like water. In truth, we need buckets in which to hold the water. We need fences to keep us in the pasture. We need rules that will give us some sort of ordered environment. We need governance to keep every person from simply doing that which is right in his own eyes to his own detriment and to the possible harm of those about him. We need the letter of the law, lest following what is subjectively thought at the moment to be the spirit of the law each person sets his own boundaries, acts on his own whims, and is motivated solely by feelings so that nothing is agreed on that is for the common good. With such a scenario, civilization would vanish in a fog of egotistical formulations guaranteeing that we would not learn from those who have gone before us.
Anarchy can never be as appropriate for humanity as the order which is characterized by boundaries, fences, walls, and rules.
In this light, then, too much "spirit killeth" but the letter "giveth life."
In our Western culture, musicians accept a contrived scale within which they function professionally. The Encyclopedia Britannica says, "Hence diatonic music gives a general impression of strength, simplicity, and solidity as distinguished from the more restless and poignant character of that in which notes from foreign keys are introduced by accidentals." Without the agreed on boundaries, music as we know it would not be possible. The "letter" of the boundaries "giveth life" to the music we love.
Those libertines who seek to live outside the laws of society and of God, unrestrained by convention or morality, consistently dash their life vessels against the rocky breakers of dissolution and ruin. Acceptance of the laws of God and the disciplines of society could save them from this folly.
In the Christian social ethics garden in which I have, to use the somewhat inelegant phrase from the King James version of the gospels, "digged and dunged," a lot of passers-by have sniffed that specific attention to the "letter" of Christian social ethics is beneath them. They choose to pass by on the other side, think deep thoughts, philosophize about profound principles, write weighty position papers to be read by their peers, and to publish ponderous tomes.
In the meantime, average students and ordinary church members smoke cigarettes and get lung cancer, drive carelessly and kill themselves, drink alcohol and become addicts, take a little marijuana and then become hooked on cocaine, play it cool with a little gambling and slip into pathological compulsiveness in an immoral effort to get something for nothing, toy with pornography and trash the possibility of a happy marriage, and dabble with a little adultery but then slide painfully into abortion.
For heaven's sake.
The "spirit giveth life" and light on all these things to be sure.
But plain, practical, specific, unambiguous, unvarnished talk, teaching, preaching, and action are needed if the slippery slope to ruin is to be avoided. Multitudes will miss the message unless it can be remembered that too much of the spirit killeth, but the letter giveth light.