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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. V:
A Treatise on the Spirit and the Letter.: Chapter 6

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 6 [IV.]—The Teaching of Law Without the Life-Giving Spirit is “The Letter that Killeth.”

For that teaching which brings to us the command to live in chastity and righteousness is “the letter that killeth,” unless accompanied with “the spirit that giveth life.” For that is not the sole meaning of the passage, “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life,” 722 which merely prescribes that we should not take in the literal sense any figurative phrase which in the proper meaning of its words would produce only nonsense, but should consider what else it signifies, nourishing the inner man by our spiritual intelligence, since “being carnally-minded is death, whilst to be spiritually-minded is life and peace.” 723 If, for instance, a man were to take in a literal and carnal sense much that is written in the Song of Solomon, he would minister not to the fruit of a luminous charity, but to the feeling of a libidinous desire. Therefore, the apostle is not to be confined to the limited application just mentioned, when he says, “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life;” 724 but this is also (and indeed especially) equivalent to what he says elsewhere in the plainest words: “I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet;” 725 and again, immediately after: “Sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me.” 726 Now from this you may see what is meant by “the letter that killeth.” There is, of course, nothing said figuratively which is not to be accepted in its plain sense, when it is said, “Thou shall not covet;” but this is a very plain and salutary precept, and any man who shall fulfil it will have no sin at all. The apostle, indeed, purposely selected this general precept, in which he embraced everything, as if this were the voice of the law, prohibiting us from all sin, when he says, “Thou shalt not covet;” for there is no sin committed except by evil concupiscence; so that the law which prohibits this is a good and praiseworthy law. But, when the Holy Ghost withholds His help, which inspires us with a good desire instead of this evil desire (in other words, diffuses love in our hearts), that law, however good in itself, only augments the evil desire by forbidding it. Just as the rush of water which flows incessantly in a particular direction, becomes more violent when it meets with any impediment, and when it has overcome the stoppage, falls in a greater bulk, and with increased impetuosity hurries forward in its downward course. In some strange way the very object which we covet becomes all the more pleasant when it is forbidden. And this is the sin which by the commandment deceives and by it slays, whenever transgression is actually added, which occurs not where there is no law. 727



2 Cor. iii. 6.


Rom. viii. 6.


2 Cor. iii. 6.


Rom. vii. 7.


Rom. vii. 11.


Rom. iv. 15.

Next: Chapter 7