OceanSide church of Christ
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THE “SPIRIT OF THE LAW” ARGUMENT (1)
Victor M. Eskew
Recently, I reviewed an article written by Al Maxey on a Questions & Answers Night. The article was entitled: “Regulating the Redeemed: What is Paul’s Intent in II Timothy 2:5?” wherein the writer said: “We have been set free from the letter of the law; now we live by the spirit of the law.” In my review, I asked: “What does that mean?” I then said: “There is not a person on the face of the earth who can give me a clear definition of what it means to live by the spirit of the law instead of the letter of the law.” Al Maxey heard that lesson and took up my challenge. In another article, entitled “The Spirit of the Law: Accepting a Legalist’s Challenge,” he has attempts to explain what “the spirit of the law” means. In this bulletin article, we want to review some of what he said.
Let’s begin by setting forth several quotes from our Lord Jesus Christ. “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). “Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed” (John 8:31). “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). “Jesus answered and said, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him. He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings: and the word which you heard is not mine, but the Father’s which sent me” (John 14:23-24). “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love, even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love” (John 15:10). All of these quotes from Jesus teach the necessity of obedience. Jesus says that we are to obey “the will of the Father,” “my word(s),” “my commandments,” and “my sayings.” What Jesus taught is exactly what I teach men to do. However, when we teach that men are to be obedient to the commands, word(s), and sayings of Jesus, we are called legalists. This charge leads to a question: “Was Jesus a legalist because He taught His hearers to obey His words and commands?”
We begin with the previous paragraph because of what those who advocate “the spirit of the law” argument say. Here is what is said in a nutshell: “We have been set free from the letter of the law; now we live by the spirit of the law.” To understand what is being said, one must understand the definitions of the two phrases, “letter of the law” and “spirit of the law.” If this writer understands how Al Maxey and others view these phrases properly, here is how the two phrases can be defined:
Letter of the law: what the law actually says and commands one to do
Spirit of the law: “the meaning and intent of the law,” “what those who created the law intended to accomplish,” and “the intent and purpose of the lawmaker”
If these are the definitions of the two phrases, then here is the teaching being advocated by Al Maxey: “We have been set free from the letter of the law (what the law actually says and commands), and, now we live by the spirit of the law (the meaning and intent of the lawmaker).” Here are two statements made by Al Maxey in his article: “The Spirit of the Law.”
1) “…the spirit of the law takes precedent over the letter of the law…”
2) “Some things take priority over the letter of the law, for they reflect a grasp of
the spirit of the law – they perceive and embrace the intent of the Lawmaker and Lawgiver!”
This student of God’s Word is greatly troubled when such things are said. These ideas generate many questions. Here is a list of a few of these questions.
1) If we are free from the letter of the law, do we have to obey the letter of the law? If we do, in what sense are we free from it?
2) When a person lives by the spirit of the law, does he disregard the letter of the law to do this? If he does, why isn’t this considered disobedience?
3) When is it right to adhere to the spirit of the law over the letter of the law?
4) Who is it that makes the determination as to when one can ignore the letter of the law in order to fulfill the spirit of the law?
5) How do we know when a certain behavior or action conforms to the spirit of the law?
6) When a person lives by the letter of the law, isn’t this fulfilling the spirit of the law? Isn’t the letter of the law the way the Lawgiver prescribes to accomplish His intent? If not, why not?
7) Isn’t living by the spirit of the law really living by the thoughts, opinions, and desires of men?
8) Is it possible for a person to think he is living in harmony with the spirit of the law and be wrong? If so, who makes the determination as to what behaviors are right and wrong when it comes to practicing the spirit of the law?
Let’s look at an illustration. In the Bible we have been given specific instructions about the wor-
ship of the church. The church is to assemble together (Heb. 10:25). Too, the church is to assemble on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). These two things involve “the letter of the law.” “The spirit of the law” is that man needs to worship God. (NOTE: This is my assumption as to the intent of these two commands). Let’s assume that a family lives 1-1/2 hours from the church building of the local congregation where they attend. Abiding by the letter of the law is extremely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive for them. Therefore, they choose to live by the spirit of the law. They do this by staying home and worshiping for 45 minutes in their living room every Lord’s Day. Is this acceptable to God? Can they do this for a month? For a year? For five years? Remember, “the letter of the law” says to assemble with the church on the first day of the week, but this is is enslaving and rigorous for this family. They, however, experience “freedom” by practicing “the spirit of the law” and worshiping at home. Are they really practicing the spirit of the law? Who makes this determination? What would make their actions wrong? Could the whole church involve itself in worship at home? Could we disband the corporate assembly?
The reason this writer believes that “the spirit of the law” cannot really be defined is because it is opened to man’s interpretation. Each individual says: “Her is what I believe the intent of the law is and here is how I will fulfill the spirit of the law.” Man becomes his own god. He sets aside the letter of the law, at least at times, to practice what he believes to be the spirit of the law. The spirit of the law is a wide open highway that leaves man free to do almost anything he pleases. He can disobey the letter of the law without his conscience bothering him. His conscience is clear because he thinks he is adhering to the spirit of the law.