The Letter and the Spirit / Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) was brought up in Welsh Calvinistic Methodism, first as a boy in Wales and then as a teenager and student in London. Pursuing a future in medicine, he completed his academic education and training in London and by the age of 26 he also became a Member of the Royal College of Physicians. With a brilliant and lucrative career in front of him, however, God had plans for Lloyd-Jones to be a physician of souls rather than of bodies. Though raised in the church, it wasn’t until he was a young doctor that Lloyd-Jones came to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some time later he was called of God to preach and took his first pastorate in Wales. It was as the pastor of Westminster Chapel, London, (1938-1968) where “The Doctor,” as he came to be affectionately called, his ministry eventually reached a global audience through his published sermons and writings. His consuming desire was to live and minister to the glory of God; his passionate love for Christ, and his keen sensitivity to the ministry of the Holy Spirit pervaded his spoken and written ministries.

It is characteristic of human nature that we always prefer to have things cut and dried rather than have them in the form of principles. That is why certain forms of religion are always popular.

The natural man likes to be given a definite list; then he feels that, as long as he conforms to the things stated in the list, all will be well. But that is not possible with the gospel. That was partly the position under the Old Dispensation, and even there it was carried too far by the Pharisees and scribes. But it is not at all like that under the New Testament dispensation. However, we still tend to like this sort of thing. It is very much easier, is it not, to think of holiness in terms of observing Lent for six weeks or so during the year, rather than to be living with a principle which demands and insists upon application day by day.

We always like to have a set of routine rules and regulations. That is why I am pressing this point. If you take the Sermon on the Mount with these six detailed statements (Matt. 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43) and say, “As long as I do not commit adultery—and so on—I am all right,” you have entirely missed our Lord’s point. It is not a code of ethics. He is out to delineate a certain order and quality of life, and He says in effect: “Look, I am illustrating this kind of life. It means this type of behaviour.” So we must hold on to the principle without turning the particular illustration into a law.

Let me put it again in this form. Any man in the ministry has to spend a good deal of his time answering the questions of people who come and want him to make particular pronouncements upon particular questions. There are certain problems which face us all in life, and there are people who always seem to want some kind of detailed statement so that when they are confronted by any particular problem, all they have to do is to turn up their textbook and there they find the answer. Catholic types of religion are prepared to meet such people. The casuists of the Middle Ages, . . . those so-called doctors of the Church, had thought-out and discussed together the various moral and ethical problems likely to confront Christian people in this world, and they codified them and drew up their rules and regulations. When you were faced with a difficulty you immediately turned up your authority and found the appropriate answer.

There are people who are always anxious for something like that in the spiritual realm. The final answer to them in terms of this Sermon can be put in this form: the gospel of Jesus Christ does not treat us like that; it does not treat us as children. It is not another law, but something which gives us life. It lays down certain principles and asks us to apply them. Its essential teaching is that we are given a new outlook and understanding which we must apply with respect to every detail of our lives. That is why the Christian, in a sense, is a man who is always walking on a kind of knife edge. He has no set regulations; instead he applies this central principle to every situation that may arise.

All this must be said in order to emphasize this point. If we take these six statements made by our Lord in terms of the formula “Ye have heard” and “I say unto you,” we shall find that the principle He uses is exactly the same in each case. In one He is dealing with sex-morality, in the next with murder and in the next with divorce. But every single time the principle is the same. Our Lord as a great Teacher knew the importance of illustrating a principle, so here He gives six illustrations of the one truth.

Let us now deal with this common principle which is to be found in the six, so that when we come to work each one out we shall always be holding this central principle in our minds. Our Lord’s chief desire was to show the true meaning and intent of the law, and to correct the erroneous conclusions which had been drawn from it by the Pharisees and scribes and all the false notions which they had founded upon it. These, I suggest, are the principles.

First Principle

First, it is the spirit of the law that matters primarily, not the letter only. The law was not meant to be mechanical, but living. The whole trouble with the Pharisees and the scribes was that they concentrated only on the letter, and they did so to the exclusion of the spirit. It is a great subject—this relationship between form and content. Spirit is always something that must be embodied in form, and that is where the difficulty arises.

Man will ever concentrate on the form rather than on the content, upon the letter rather than upon the spirit. You remember that the apostle Paul stresses this in 2 Corinthians where he says: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life,” and his whole emphasis in that chapter is that Israel was so constantly thinking of the letter that they lost the spirit. The whole purpose of the letter is to give body to the spirit; and the spirit is the thing that really matters, not the mere letter.

Take, for example, this question of murder. As long as the Pharisees and scribes did not actually murder a man they thought they had kept the law perfectly. But they were missing the whole point and spirit of the law, which is not merely that I should literally not commit murder, but that my attitude towards my fellow men should be a right and loving one. Likewise with all these other illustrations. The mere fact that you do not commit adultery in an actual physical sense does not mean that you have kept the law. What is your spirit? What is your desire as you look, and so on? It is the spirit, not the letter, that counts.

It is clear, then, that if we rely only upon the letter we shall completely misunderstand the law. Let me emphasize that this applies not only to the law of Moses, but still more, in a sense, to this very Sermon on the Mount. There are people today who so look at the letter of the Sermon on the Mount as to miss its spirit. When we come to details we shall see that in practice. Take for instance the attitude of the Quakers with regard to taking the oath. They have taken the letter here literally, and, it seems to me, have not only denied the spirit, but have even made our Lord’s statement almost ridiculous.

There are people who do exactly the same with turning the other cheek, and giving to those who ask gifts of us, bringing the whole teaching in to ridicule because they are constantly living on the letter, whereas our Lord’s whole emphasis was upon the primary importance of the spirit. That does not mean of course that the letter does not matter; but it does mean that we must put the spirit before it and interpret the letter according to the spirit.

Second Principle

Now take a second principle, which is really another way of putting the first. Conformity to the law must not be thought of in terms of actions only. Thoughts, motives and desires are equally important.

The law of God is concerned as much with what leads to the action as it is with the action itself. Again, it does not mean that the action does not matter; but it does mean very definitely that it is not the action only that is important. This should be an obvious principle.

The scribes and Pharisees were concerned only about the act of adultery or the act of murder. But our Lord was at pains to emphasize to them that it is the desire in man’s heart and mind to do these things that is really and ultimately reprehensible in the sight of God. How often He said in this connection that it is out of the heart that evil thoughts and actions come. It is the heart of man that matters.

So we must not think of this law of God and of pleasing God merely in terms of what we do or do not do; it is the inward condition and attitude that God is always observing. “Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God” (Lk. 16:15).

 Third Principle

The next principle we can put in this form. The law must be thought of not only in a negative manner, but also positively. The ultimate purpose of the law is not merely to prevent our doing certain things that are wrong; its real object is to lead us positively, not only to do that which is right, but also to love it. Here again is something which comes out clearly in these six illustrations.

The whole Jewish conception of the law was a negative one. I must not commit adultery, I must not commit murder, and so on. But our Lord emphasizes all along that what God is really concerned about is that we should be lovers of righteousness. We should be hungering and thirsting after righteousness, not merely negatively avoiding that which is evil.

It is surely unnecessary that I should turn aside to show the practical relevance of each one of these points to our present condition. Alas, there are still people who seem to think of holiness and sanctification in this purely mechanical manner. They think that, as long as they are not guilty of drinking, gambling or going to theatres and cinemas, all is well. Their attitude is purely negative. It does not seem to matter if you are jealous, envious and spiteful. The fact that you are full of the pride of life seems to be of no account as long as you do not do certain things. That was the whole trouble with the scribes and Pharisees who perverted the law of God by regarding it purely in a negative manner.

Fourth Principle

The fourth principle is that the purpose of the law as expounded by Christ is not to keep us in a state of obedience to oppressive rules, but to promote the free development of our spiritual character. This is vitally important. We must not think of the holy life as something hard and grievous which puts us into a state of servitude. Not at all.

The glorious possibility that is offered us by the gospel of Christ is development as children of God and growing “unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” “His commandments,” says John in his first Epistle, “are not grievous.” So if you and I regard the ethical teaching of the New Testament as something that cramps us, if we think of it as something narrow and restrictive, it means we have never understood it. The whole purpose of the gospel is to bring us into “the glorious liberty of the children of God,” and these special injunctions are simply particular illustrations of how we may arrive at that and enjoy it.

Fifth Principle

That, in turn, brings us to the fifth principle which is that the law of God, and all these ethical instructions of the Bible, must never be regarded as an end in themselves. We must never think of them as something to which we just have to try to conform.

The ultimate objective of all this teaching is that you and I might come to know God. Now these Pharisees and scribes (and the apostle Paul said it was true of him, too, before he was truly converted) put, as it were, the Ten Commandments and the moral law on the wall, and having viewed them in this negative, restricted manner said: “Well, now, I am not guilty of these various things, therefore I am all right. I am righteous, and all is well between me and God.” You see they viewed the law as something in and of itself. They codified it in this way, and as long as they kept to that code they said all was well.

According to our Lord that is an utterly fallacious view of the law. The one test which you must always apply to yourself is this: “What is my relationship to God? Do I know Him? Am I pleasing Him?” In other words, as you examine yourself before you go to bed, you do not just ask yourself if you have committed murder or adultery, or whether you have been guilty of this or that, and if you have not, thank God that all is well. No. You ask yourself rather, “Has God been supreme in my life today? Have I lived to the glory and the honour of God? Do I know Him better? Have I a zeal for His honour and glory? Has there been anything in me that has been unlike Christ—thoughts, imaginations, desires, impulses?’ That is the way. In other words, you examine yourself in the light of a living Person and not merely in terms of a mechanical code of rules and regulations.

And as the law must not be thought of as an end in itself, neither must the Sermon on the Mount. These are simply agencies which are meant to bring us into that true and living relationship with God. We must always be very careful, therefore, lest we do with the Sermon on the Mount what the Pharisees and the scribes had been doing with the old moral law. These six examples chosen by our Lord are nothing but illustrations of principles. It is the spirit not the letter that matters; it is the intent, object and purpose that are important. The one thing we have to avoid above everything else in our Christian lives is this fatal tendency to live the Christian life apart from a direct, living, and true relationship to God.

Finally, we can illustrate it like this. Discipline in the Christian life is a good and essential thing. But if your main object and intent is to conform to the discipline that you have set for yourself it may very well be the greatest danger to your soul. Fasting and prayer are good things; but if you fast twice a week or pray at a particular hour every day merely in order to carry out your discipline, then you have missed the whole object of fasting and praying. There is no point in either of them, or in observing Lent, or in anything else that is meant to be an aid to the spiritual life, unless they bring us into a deeper relationship to God. I may stop smoking, I may stop drinking or gambling during these six weeks or at any other period. But if during that time my poverty of spirit is not greater, my sense of weakness is not deepened, my hunger and thirst after God and righteousness is not greatly increased, then I might just as well not have done it at all. Indeed, I would say it would be very much better for me if I had not done it.

All this is the fatal danger of making these things ends in themselves. We can be guilty of the same thing with public worship. If public worship becomes an end in itself, if my sole object in a pulpit is to preach a sermon and not to try to explain the blessed gospel of God that you and I, and all of us, may come to know and love Him better, my preaching is vain and it may be the thing that will damn my soul. These things are meant to be aids to help us, and illustrations of the Word. God forbid that we should turn them into a religion. “The letter kills, but the Spirit giveth life.”

Taken from . . .
Called to Be Saints: An Anthology on Holiness
Copyright © 2014
Ralph I. Tilley
(May be copied for noncommercial purposes,
not to exceed 500 copies.)


Author: Ralph I. Tilley

I joyfully identify with the long history of the orthodox, evangelical stream of the Church. Theologically, I am a conservative. On issues of secondary importance, I will not quibble with my brothers and sisters in Christ. We are called to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” I would hope I have no doctrinal biases; however, I realize that is a practical impossibility: “Now I know in part.” You can read more on the About page.