What is the difference between the "spirit" and the "letter" of the law? God wants you to keep His commandments. Satan wishes you to break them. How does the devil deceive the world — and some Christians — into breaking God's law?
Some think you only need to keep the "spirit" of God's law. Others believe you must always obey the strict "letter." Both views are incorrect. Does God want you to keep the "spirit" or the "letter" of His commandments? Or does He want you to keep both the " spirit" and the "letter" of His law? Some believe the keeping of God's Ten Commandments is unnecessary for salvation. Many professing Christians believe they should keep nine of the commandments, the exception being the Sabbath command. Still others profess to believe in "the Ten," but break the first and second commandments by reverencing idols, break the fourth commandment by substituting a counterfeit sabbath, or break other of "the Ten" by their actual belief and practices.
A Deceived World
Your Bible reveals that Satan has deceived the "whole world." And the founder of Christianity warned: "Take heed that no man deceive you" (Matt. 24:4). Furthermore, He foretold that "many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many" (verse II). Paul also sounded the alarm: "But," said he, "evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived" (II Tim. 3:13). The apostle John, even in his day, had to warn of "many antichrists" (I John 2:18). He therefore admonished: "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world" (I John 4:1). Peter also foretold great apostasy: "But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies..." (II Peter 2:1). Would they be successful in leading multitudes into error? "And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of" (verse 2). False teachers, with cunning deceptions, would become so diabolically effective, said Christ, that "if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect" (Matt. 24:24). Already, some of the "very elect" have listened to "false teachers" and have been caught off balance.
The Ten Commandments
Is obedience to the Ten Commandments necessary for salvation? What did Jesus say? When a young man asked Him what he must do to receive eternal life, He told him to "keep the commandments" (Matt. 19:16, 17; cf., Mark 10:17-19). Christ mentioned five of the Ten Commandments (Matt. 19:18, 19), and then quoted one of the two "great" commandments (see Matt. 22:36-40): "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Matt. 19:19). Of course, the other five commandments were just as binding as the five which Christ specifically enumerated. Furthermore, Jesus knew some would falsely teach that He came to "do away with" the commandments of God. He said: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill" (Matt. 5:17). Then He warned: "Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (verse 19). Which of the commandments do you look upon as being the "least"? Is it the fourth commandment? The second? The third? Christ did not do away with the law of God — rather He magnified it and made it glorious: "He [Christ] will magnify the law, and make it honourable" (Isa. 42:21). But how did He magnify the law of God? Notice how Christ enlarged the sixth commandment: "Ye have. heard," said Christ, "that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill.... But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment..." (Matt. 5:21, 22). "Whosoever hateth his brother," said John, "is a murderer..." (I John 3:15). Here is how Christ magnified the seventh commandment: "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (verses 27, 28). Now what "law" or "laws" was it that Christ came to magnify? Did He come to enlarge or magnify the "ceremonial," "sacrificial" or "ritualistic" laws — as found in the law of Moses? Or did He come to magnify the "spiritual" law — commonly called the "moral" law — the Ten Commandments (Rom. 7:14)?
The Law of Moses
It is true that the entire "law of Moses" as given in the Old Testament is not totally applicable to Christians today. But this doesn't mean that all of the laws contained in the books which Moses wrote are meaningless today. Christ made the two great commandments of Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 6:5 just as binding on New Testament Christians as they were for those under the law of Moses: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and [you shall love] thy neighbour as thyself" (Luke 10:27). God's law is upheld all the way from Genesis to Revelation. "Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws" (Gen. 26:5). Abraham mixed his faith (his belief) with works — with active obedience: "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?" (James 2:21, 22.) And yet there are those who think Christians only need "faith" or "belief" — with no works. God's Word says we need to have both faith and works mixed together (James 2:14-22). So don't ever let anyone tell you there are "no works" for the Christian! The New Testament reveals that it is not necessary for a believer to observe the entire "law of Moses." But this does not mean that none of Moses' commands are binding on the Christian! A council of the New Testament Church (A.D. 49) concluded (among other things) that it was no longer necessary to keep the whole law of Moses. At that time certain men were teaching that Christians must be "circumcised after the manner of Moses" in order to be "saved" (Acts 15:1). They taught that the "law of Moses" in its entirety must be kept: "But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the [entire] law of Moses" (verse 5). The apostles, under divine inspiration, decided it was no longer necessary to practice circumcision, which was part of the Mosaic law. They then wrote letters to all the churches explaining this matter: "Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law [of Moses — verse 5]: to whom we gave no such commandment" (verse 24). The Gentile converts were informed what they should do to please God (verses 28, 29). The question of obedience to God's Ten Commandments was not even brought up at this council. Rather, they disputed about keeping the law of Moses with all its washings, rituals, carnal ordinances, sacrifices, etc. Later, Paul explained that "gifts and sacrifices" could not make the practitioner "perfect, as pertaining to the conscience; which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation" (Heb. 9:9, 10). Jesus taught men to worship God from the heart: "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24).
Meaning of "the Law"
Many people get confused concerning the meaning of the word "law." The Hebrew word for law is torah, and the Greek word is nomos. The word "law" (torah or nomos) is very broad and can mean many different things. It can refer to the Word of God, to the Five Books of Moses, to the Ten Commandments; or it can refer to sacrificial, ceremonial, ritualistic or carnal "law(s)" — all depending on its context. When Christ said He did not come to "destroy the law," He was referring to the eternal "spiritual" (or moral) law of God — not to the ceremonial, sacrificial, ritualistic or carnal laws contained in the "law of Moses." Likewise, when Paul spoke of the "law" he sometimes referred to the Ten Commandments, and at other times he plainly pointed to the "lesser" laws contained in the law of Moses. Notice how Paul refers to the Ten Commandments in the context of Romans 7:1-25. Paul commented: "I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet" (verse 7). "The law" here mentioned clearly refers to the Ten Commandments. Of this law, Paul says: "Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good" (verse 12). Furthermore, he plainly says: "For we know that the law is spiritual..." (verse 14). Yes, the Ten Commandment law is "spiritual" and it is "holy," "just," and "good." Paul is not talking here about the ritualistic, ceremonial, sacrificial or carnal laws contained in the law of Moses. Rather, he clearly means the Ten Commandments (verse 7). The "lesser laws" contained in the law of Moses were a "yoke" — but not the Ten Commandments. Rather, they are called the "perfect law of liberty" (James 1:25). James also refers to the second great commandment as a "royal law" (James 2:8). Clearly, in chapters one and two, James is referring to the "spiritual" law of God as contained in the two great commands, and further amplified in the Ten Commandments. Did James think any of the Ten Commandments were "done away"? "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend [transgress] in one point, he is guilty of all" (James 2:10). The Ten Commandments are like a chain having ten links. If one link (or one point) is broken, the whole is broken. How many points are there in this law of which James spoke? He mentions the commands against adultery and killing (verse 11). Then he says that this "law of liberty" is the law by which we will be judged (verse 12).
The Fourth Commandment
The Bible clearly enjoins God's people to keep the Ten Commandments. Many "Christians" at least profess to keep nine of the ten, but the fourth commandment is the one that causes many to stumble. This in spite of the fact that Jesus Christ and His apostles kept God's Sabbath. Christ plainly said: "The sabbath was made for man" (Mark 2:27). Jesus customarily kept the Sabbath — though not according to the hidebound traditions of the Pharisees (Luke 4:16; 6:6; 13:10-17; 14:1-6). We know the apostles also kept the Sabbath. And, of all people, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, kept the Sabbath (see Acts 13:14,42, 43; 17:2; 18:4). Was the Sabbath changed from the seventh to the first day of the week, as some claim? Both Scripture and secular history prove that the
The Bible makes it amply clear that we are now to "worship God in spirit and in truth," but this does not mean we are to ignore the literal commandment — flagrantly violating the letter of the law.
early New Testament Christians kept the Sabbath. Sunday observance came into popular usage by Christian-professing groups centuries after Christ and His apostles died. The Emperor Constantine finally made "Sunday" the official day of worship in A.D. 321-323. (Read our free booklets Which Day Is The Sabbath Of The New Testament? and Which Day Is The Christian Sabbath?) Other Christian-professing teachers attempt to spiritualize away the fourth commandment. They claim to keep the Sabbath every day of the week. Notice how this is explained by one proponent of this false doctrine: "Let us now turn our attention to the seventh-day weekly sabbath. The sabbath is a beautiful institution.... But through Christ, the physical sabbath has been superseded by a perpetual one which Christ has given for us to keep. We are now experiencing, in a spiritual way, God's sabbath every day of our lives." Now this teacher does not offer scriptural proof that God made all seven days holy. He does not have any biblical authority for his unscriptural assertions. He just makes dogmatic human pronouncements — with no scriptural validity whatsoever. Furthermore, this anti-Sabbath teacher writes: "The Christian has every day as a spiritual rest or sabbath-keeping, and there is no need to return to the one-day-a-week physical sabbath which Israel was required to observe under Moses." But this teacher has to explain away a lot of scriptures: God, says the Sabbath is the "seventh day." He affirms it was made for "man" — not just for the Jewish people. God shows that this day was given as a day of physical rest and relaxation, as well as a day of spiritual rejuvenation through worship of one's Creator. Those who teach against keeping God's Sabbath must ignore the examples of Christ and Paul. They vainly assume you can "keep" the other six days "holy" when God has not made them holy. Remember, you can't keep water hot or cold until it is first made either hot or cold. Likewise, you can't "keep holy" that which has not first been made holy — and man doesn't have the power to make anything holy! Only God can make something (including time) holy!
Only Keep the "Spirit" of the Law?
Some have concluded that we need only keep the spirit of the law but not the letter. What about it? Should a Christian observe God's law according to the "letter," the "spirit," or both? The Bible makes it amply clear that we are now to "worship God in spirit and in truth," but this does not mean we are to ignore the literal commandment — flagrantly violating the letter of the law. Christ taught that we must not only not murder, but learn to keep the "spirit" of this commandment — we must not "hate" — must not murder in our minds and hearts. Not only must we not commit adultery, but we must learn to keep this commandment according to its intent — we must not even "lust" in our hearts. When we lust after a woman, we thereby commit spiritual adultery. And when we "hate" someone in our hearts, we thereby commit spiritual murder (I John 3:15). In order to keep the commandments in our minds and hearts (according to the true intent and purpose behind the law), we must also keep the law in the letter. Can we commit literal adultery or murder and yet obey the spiritual intent of these commandments? Of course not. And the same applies to the fourth commandment. Truly, we should keep the Sabbath in the spirit — not "doing our own thing" on that day. We are to cease from our physical labors — just as God did after His six-day creation (Gen. 2:1-3; Heb. 4:4). In other words, we must learn to keep the Sabbath in the spirit, according to God's original intent, but we must also keep the literal seventh day. We cannot keep the Sabbath in our hearts, and at the same time do our normal work or business, pursue worldly pleasures or other activities not in keeping with the spirit or intent of that holy day. Of course, there might be times when one would have to "break" the "no-work" letter-of the Sabbath in order to "keep" the "spirit" or intent of that day. Examples would include emergencies or saving human life on that day — even if it meant doing hard work.
Saved by Grace
No amount of good works or commandment keeping, no kind of legal observance (whether the Ten Commandments or the ceremonial, sacrificial or ritualistic laws) can possibly justify us. Keeping any law cannot forgive us for the past sins (the violations of the spiritual law of God) which we have committed. This is where the sacrifice of Christ comes in. Christ's substitutionary death was sufficient to pay the penalty for all the sins which mankind has ever committed or will commit. Therefore it is truly "by grace [that] ye are saved" (Eph. 2:5). Grace means something which is freely given. It is by God's free gift of forgiveness that our guilty past is wiped clean. It is by His free gift of the Holy Spirit that we receive the strength and power to live a godly life in the future.
The apostle John wrote: "And hereby do we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (I John 2:3, 4).
So it is by His grace (His free gift) that we are saved — not by our own works. But many other scriptures show that we must obey God — we must have good works: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:8, 9).
A Commandment-Keeping Church
Though no amount of commandment keeping will save anyone, nonetheless God commands obedience. We are told to keep His commandments. Jesus Christ inspired His servant John to write: "And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (I John 2:3, 4). But the Christian is to go beyond what is commanded — going beyond "duty" (Luke 17:10). "And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight" (I John 3:22). Furthermore, this same apostle was inspired to reveal that God's true Church would be a commandment-keeping Church (Rev. 12:17; 14:12). Is commandment keeping important? Does God intend that we keep His Ten Commandments — all ten? Will we be blessed if we keep His commandments — or will we, as some would have you believe, be under a terrible curse? What does God say? "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city" (Rev. 22:14). Notice that this verse does not say "Blessed are those who keep some of his commandments." When Jesus told the rich young man to "keep the commandments," He clearly referred to the spiritual (or commonly called "moral") law of God (Matt. 19:16-19). Will we repent of sin — repent of breaking God's spiritual law? God commands us to repent — to quit sinning — to quit breaking His law (I John 3:4). David, a man after God's own heart, was inspired to say: "O how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day" (Ps. 119:97). And Isaiah also knew that obedience to the law of God is the only way to peace, happiness, prosperity and eternal life: "O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea" (Isa. 48:18).