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2 Corinthians 3:4–6

“Our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (vv. 5–6).

Many people have said that we should have no illusions that the Christian church has ever enjoyed a golden age when sin did not cause problems. That is clear from the New Testament, where the early churches had all manner of difficulties. The church at Corinth is a prime example of this, and both 1 Corinthians and what Paul says about his “painful visit” in 2 Corinthians indicate that the believers in Corinth were capable of serious sin.

Paul’s action to correct the Corinthians, however, did have an impact. We see this in 2 Corinthians 3, where Paul calls the Corinthians his letter of recommendation that validated his ministry. Their change as a result of his correspondence did not make them perfect, but it was plain enough that Paul could be confident that the congregation would be adequate evidence of his divinely appointed ministry. As he writes in verse 4, he had confidence “through Christ toward God” because the Corinthians’ lives proved they were letters of recommendation from the Spirit (see vv. 1–3). Yet, Paul does not praise himself for the Corinthians’ transformation or argue that he is sufficient to effect such change. Only the Lord can make the work of His servants effective (v. 5). As Augustine of Hippo writes, “Our sufficiency is from God, in whose power are our heart and our thoughts.”

The Apostle then says that he is a minister not of the old covenant but of the new covenant, arguing for the superiority of the new to the old (v. 6). He notes that he is a minister “not of the letter but of the Spirit.” This takes us back to 2 Corinthians 3:3 and the contrast between written external letters made with ink on stone and internal letters inscribed on hearts by the Spirit’s transforming work. Paul here contrasts the law with the gospel, the Mosaic administration with the administration of Christ. To be a minister of the new covenant in the Spirit is better because the Spirit gives life, but the letter of the old covenant kills. Any reading of old covenant history shows the appropriateness of Paul’s contrast. The law brought death to Israel. The people as a whole disobeyed it flagrantly, and the end was exile, a “death” insofar as God’s presence and life were associated with the Promised Land (2 Kings 17:7–23; 2 Chron. 36:15–21). Of course, this was the fault not of the law but of sin, which took God’s good law and twisted it to bring about death (Rom. 7:7–12). We will look at the death-dealing letter of the old covenant and the new covenant solution further in our next study.

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

The problem with the old covenant was unregenerate hearts. Many individual Israelites looked to the law not as a way of salvation but as something to obey to thank God for His grace. But the nation as a whole erred by looking to establish their own righteousness by it (Rom. 9:30–33). If we try to merit righteousness by keeping the law, the law will kill us. But if we reject our own merit and obey out of gratitude for God’s grace, we show that the Spirit is at work in us.

For Further Study
  • Ezekiel 37:1–14
  • John 6:63
  • 1 Corinthians 15:56
  • Galatians 3:10–14

Paul’s Letter of Recommendation

The Glory of the Old Covenant

Keep Reading Right Now Counts Forever

From the August 2021 Issue
Aug 2021 Issue