2 Corinthians 3:4-11
4. And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward:
4. Fiduciam autem eiusmodi per Christum habemus erga Deum:
5. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as
of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God.
5. Non quod idonei simus ex nobis ad cogitandum quicquam, tanquam
ex nobis: sed facultas nostra ex Deo est.
6. Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not
of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit
6. Qui nos fecit idoneos ministros Novi testamenti, non literae,
sed Spiritus: nam litera quidem occidit: Spiritus autem vivificat.
7. But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones,
was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold
the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to
be done away:
7. Quodsi ministerium mortis in literis insculptum in lapidibus
fuit in gloria, ita ut non possent intueri filii Israel in faciem Mosis
propter gloriam vultus eius, qu_ aboletur:
8. How shall not the ministration of the Spirit be rather glorious?
8. Quomodo non magis ministerium Spiritus erit in gloria?
9. For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth
the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.
9. Si enim ministerium damnationis, gloria: quomodo non magis abundet
(vel, excellat) ministerium iustiti_ in gloria?
4. And such confidence. As it was a magnificent commendation,
that Paul had pronounced to the honor of himself and his Apostleship, lest
he should seem to speak of himself more confidently than was befitting,
he transfers the entire glory to God, from whom he acknowledges that he
has received everything that he has. “By this boasting,” says he, “I extol
God rather than myself, by whose grace I am what I am.” (1 Corinthians
15:10.) He adds, as he is accustomed to do by Christ, because he is, as
it were, the channel, through which all God’s benefits flow forth to us.
5. Not that we are competent. When he thus disclaims all merit,
it is not as if he abased himself in merely pretended modesty, but instead
of this, he speaks what he truly thinks. Now we see, that he leaves man
nothing. For the smallest part, in a manner, of a good work is thought.
In other words, it has neither the first part of the praise, nor the second;
and yet he does not allow us even this. As it is less to think than to
will, how foolish a part do those act, who arrogate to themselves a right
will, when Paul does not leave them so much as the power of thinking aught!
Papists have been misled by the term sufficiency, that is made use of by
the Old Interpreter. For they think to get off by acknowledging that man
is not qualified to form good purposes, while in the mean time they ascribe
to him a right apprehension of the mind, which, with some assistance from
God, may effect something of itself. Paul, on the other hand, declares
that man is in want, not merely of sufficiency of himself, (aujta>rkeian,)
but also of competency (iJkano>thta,) which would be equivalent to idoneitas
(fitness), if such a term were in use among the Latins. He could not, therefore,
more effectually strip man bare of every thing good.
6. Who hath made us competent. He had acknowledged himself to
be altogether useless. Now he declares, that, by the grace of God, he has
been qualified for an office, for which he was previously unqualified.
From this we infer its magnitude and difficulty, as it can be undertaken
by no one, that has not been previously prepared and fashioned for it by
God. It is the Apostle’s intention, also, to extol the dignity of the gospel.
There is, at the same time, no doubt, that he indirectly exposes the poverty
of those, who boasted in lofty terms of their endowments, while they were
not furnished with so much as a single drop of heavenly grace.
Not of the letter but of the spirit. He now follows out the comparison
between the law and the gospel, which he had previously touched upon. It
is uncertain, however, whether he was led into this discussion, from seeing,
that there were at Corinth certain perverse devotees of the law, or whether
he took occasion from something else to enter upon it. For my part, as
I see no evidence, that the false apostles had there confounded the law
and the gospel, I am rather of opinion, that, as he had to do with lifeless
declaimers, who endeavored to obtain applause through mere prating, and
as he saw, that the ears of the Corinthians were captivated with such glitter,
he was desirous to show them what was the chief excellence of the gospel,
and what was the chief praise of its ministers. Now this he makes to consist
in the efficacy of the Spirit. A comparison between the law and the gospel
was fitted in no ordinary degree to show this. This appears to me to be
the reason why he came to enter upon it.
There is, however, no doubt, that by the term letter, he means the Old
Testament, as by the term spirit he means the gospel; for, after having
called himself a minister of the New Testament, he immediately adds, by
way of exposition, that he is a minister of the spirit, and contrasts the
letter with the spirit. We must now enquire into the reason of this designation.
The exposition contrived by Origen has got into general circulation — that
by the letter we ought to understand the grammatical and genuine meaning
of Scripture, or the literal sense, (as they call it,) and that by the
spirit is meant the allegorical meaning, which is commonly reckoned to
be the spiritual meaning. Accordingly, during several centuries, nothing
was more commonly said, or more generally received, than this — that Paul
here furnishes us with a key for expounding Scripture by allegories, while
nothing is farther from his intention. For by the term letter he means
outward preaching, of such a kind as does not reach the heart; and, on
the other hand, by spirit he means living doctrine, of such a nature as
worketh effectually (1 Thessalonians 2:13)on the minds of men, through
the grace of the Spirit. By the term letter, therefore, is meant literal
preaching — that is, dead and ineffectual, perceived only by the ear. By
the term spirit, on the other hand, is meant spiritual doctrine, that is,
what is not merely uttered with the mouth, but effectually makes its way
to the souls of men with a lively feeling. For Paul had an eye to the passage
in Jeremiah, that I quoted a little ago, (Jeremiah 31:31,) where the Lord
says, that his law had been proclaimed merely with the mouth, and that
it had, therefore, been of short duration, because the people did not embrace
it in their heart, and he promises the Spirit of regeneration under the
reign of Christ, to write his gospel, that is, the new covenant, upon their
hearts. Paul now makes it his boast, that the accomplishment of that prophecy
is to be seen in his preaching, that the Corinthians may perceive, how
worthless is the loquacity of those vain boasters, who make incessant noise
while devoid of the efficacy of the Spirit.
It is asked, however, whether God, under the Old Testament, merely sounded
forth in the way of an external voice, and did not also speak inwardly
to the hearts of the pious by his Spirit. I answer in the first place,
that Paul here takes into view what belonged peculiarly to the law; for
although God then wrought by his Spirit, yet that did not take its rise
from the ministry of Moses, but from the grace of Christ, as it is said
in John 1:17 —
The law was given by Moses;
but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.
True, indeed, the grace of God did not, during all that time, lie dormant,
but it is enough that it was not a benefit that belonged to the law. For
Moses had discharged his office, when he had delivered to the people the
doctrine of life, adding threatenings and promises. For this reason he
gives to the law the name of the letter, because it is in itself a dead
preaching; but the gospel he calls spirit, because the ministry of the
gospel is living, nay, lifegiving.
I answer secondly, that these things are not affirmed absolutely in
reference either to the law or to the gospel, but in respect of the contrast
between the one and the other; for even the gospel is not always spirit.
When, however, we come to compare the two, it is truly and properly affirmed,
that the nature of the law is to teach men literally, in such a way that
it does not reach farther than the ear; and that, on the other hand, the
nature of the gospel is to teach spiritually, because it is the instrument
of Christ’s grace. This depends on the appointment of God, who has seen
it meet to manifest the efficacy of his Spirit more clearly in the gospel
than in the law, for it is his work exclusively to teach effectually the
minds of men.
When Paul, however, calls himself a Minister of the Spirit, he does
not mean by this, that the grace of the Holy Spirit and his influence,
were tied to his preaching, so that he could, whenever he pleased, breathe
forth the Spirit along with the utterance of the voice. He simply means,
that Christ blessed his ministry, and thus accomplished what was predicted
respecting the gospel. It is one thing for Christ to connect his influence
with a man’s doctrine. and quite another for the man’s doctrine to have
such efficacy of itself. We are, then, Ministers of the Spirit, not as
if we held him inclosed within us, or as it were captive — not as if we
could at our pleasure confer his grace upon all, or upon whom we pleased
— but because Christ, through our instrumentality, illuminates the minds
of men, renews their hearts, and, in short, regenerates them wholly. It
is in consequence of there being such a connection and bond of union between
Christ’s grace and man’s effort, that in many cases that is ascribed to
the minister which belongs exclusively to the Lord. For in that case it
is not the mere individual that is looked to, but the entire dispensation
of the gospel, which consists, on the one hand, in the secret influence
of Christ, and, on the other, in man’s outward efforts.
For the letter killeth. This passage was mistakingly perverted,
first by Origen, and afterwards by others, to a spurious signification.
From this arose a very pernicious error — that of imagining that the perusal
of Scripture would be not merely useless, but even injurious, unless it
were drawn out into allegories. This error was the source of many evils.
For there was not merely a liberty allowed of adulterating the genuine
meaning of Scripture, but the more of audacity any one had in this manner
of acting, so much the more eminent an interpreter of Scripture was he
accounted. Thus many of the ancients recklessly played with the sacred
word of God, as if it had been a ball to be tossed to and fro. In consequence
of this, too, heretics had it more in their power to trouble the Church;
for as it had become general practice to make any passage whatever mean
anything that one might choose, there was no frenzy so absurd or monstrous,
as not to admit of being brought forward under some pretext of allegory.
Even good men themselves were carried headlong, so as to contrive very
many mistaken opinions, led astray through a fondness for allegory.
The meaning of this passage, however, is as follows — that, if the word
of God is simply uttered with the mouth, it is an occasion of death, and
that it is lifegiving, only when it is received with the heart. The terms
letter and spirit, therefore, do not refer to the exposition of the word,
but to its influence and fruit. Why it is that the doctrine merely strikes
upon the ear, without reaching the heart, we shall see presently.
7. But if the ministry of death. He now sets forth the dignity
of the gospel by this argument — that God conferred distinguished honor
upon the law, which, nevertheless, is nothing in comparison with the gospel.
The law was rendered illustrious by many miracles. Paul, however, touches
here upon one of them merely — that the face of Moses shone with such splendor
as dazzled the eyes of all. That splendour was a token of the glory of
the law. He now draws an argument from the less to the greater — that it
is befitting, that the glory of the gospel should shine forth with greater
lustre, inasmuch as it is greatly superior to the law.
In the first place, he calls the law the ministry of death. Secondly,
he says, that the doctrine of it was written in letters, and with ink.
Thirdly, that it was engraven on stones. Fourthly, that it was not of perpetual
duration; but, instead of this, its condition was temporary and fading.
And, fifthly, he calls it the ministry of condemnation. To render the antitheses
complete, it would have been necessary for him to employ as many corresponding
clauses in reference to the gospel; but, he has merely spoken of it as
being the ministry of the Spirit, and of righteousness, and as enduring
for ever. If you examine the words, the correspondence is not complete,
but so far as the matter itself is concerned, what is expressed is sufficient.
For he had said that the Spirit giveth life, and farther, that men’s hearts
served instead of stones, and disposition, in the place of ink.
Let us now briefly examine those attributes of the law and the gospel.
Let us, however, bear in mind, that he is not speaking of the whole of
the doctrine that is contained in the law and the Prophets; and farther,
that he is not treating of what happened to the fathers under the Old Testament,
but merely notices what belongs peculiarly to the ministry of Moses. The
law was engraven on stones, and hence it was a literal doctrine. This defect
of the law required to be corrected by the gospel, because it could not
but be brittle, so long as it was merely engraven on tables of stone. The
gospel, therefore, is a holy and inviolable covenant, because it was contracted
by the Spirit of God, acting as security. From this, too, it follows, that
the law was the ministry of condemnation and of death; for when men are
instructed as to their duty, and hear it declared, that all who do not
render satisfaction to the justice of God are cursed, (Deuteronomy 27:26,)
they are convicted, as under sentence of sin and death. From the law, therefore,
they derive nothing but a condemnation of this nature, because God there
demands what is due to him, and at the same time confers no power to perform
it. The gospel, on the other hand, by which men are regenerated, and are
reconciled to God, through the free remission of their sins, is the ministry
of righteousness, and, consequently, of life also.
Here, however, a question arises: As the gospel is the odor of death
unto death to some, (2 Corinthians 2:16,) and as Christ is a rock of offense,
and a stone of stumbling set for the ruin of many, (Luke 2:34; 1 Peter
2:8,) why does he represent, as belonging exclusively to the law, what
is common to both? Should you reply, that it happens accidentally that
the gospel is the source of death, and, accordingly, it the occasion of
it rather than the cause, inasmuch as it is in its own nature salutary
to all, the difficulty will still remain unsolved; for the same answer
might be returned with truth in reference to the law. For we hear what
Moses called the people to bear witness to — that he had set before them
life and death. (Deuteronomy 30:15.) We hear what Paul himself says in
Romans 7:10 — that the law has turned out to our ruin, not through any
fault attaching to it, but in consequence of our wickedness. Hence, as
the entailing of condemnation upon men is a thing that happens alike to
the law and the gospel, the difficulty still remains.
My answer is this — that there is, notwithstanding of this, a great
difference between them; for although the gospel is an occasion of condemnation
to many, it is nevertheless, on good grounds, reckoned the doctrine of
life, because it is the instrument of regeneration, and offers to us a
free reconciliation with God. The law, on the other hand, as it simply
prescribes the rule of a good life, does not renew men’s hearts to the
obedience of righteousness, and denounces everlasting death upon transgressors,
can do nothing but condemn. Or if you prefer it in another way, the office
of the law is to show us the disease, in such a way as to show us, at the
same time, no hope of cure: the office of the gospel is, to bring a remedy
to those that were past hope. For as the law leaves man to himself, it
condemns him, of necessity, to death; while the gospel, bringing him to
Christ, opens the gate of life. Thus, in one word, we find that it is an
accidental property of the law, that is perpetual and inseparable, that
it killeth; for as the Apostle says elsewhere, (Galatians 3:10,)
All that remain under the law are subject to the curse.
It does, not, on the other hand, invariably happen to the gospel, that
it kills, for in it is
revealed the righteousness of God from faith to faith, and therefore
it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth. (Romans
It remains, that we consider the last of the properties that are ascribed.
The Apostle says, that the law was but for a time, and required to be abolished,
but that the gospel, on the other hand, remains for ever. There are various
reasons why the ministry of Moses is pronounced transient, for it was necessary
that the shadows should vanish at the coming of Christ, and that statement
The law and the Prophets were until John —
— applies to more than the mere shadows. For it intimates, that Christ
has put an end to the ministry of Moses, which was peculiar to him, and
is distinguished from the gospel. Finally, the Lord declares by Jeremiah,
that the weakness of the Old Testament arose from this — that it was not
engraven on men’s hearts. (Jeremiah 31:32,33.) For my part, I understand
that abolition of the law, of which mention is here made, as referring
to the whole of the Old Testament, in so far as it is opposed to the gospel,
so that it corresponds with the statement — The law and the Prophets were
until John. For the context requires this. For Paul is not reasoning here
as to mere ceremonies, but shows how much more powerfully the Spirit of
God exercises his power in the gospel, than of old under the law.
So that they could not look. He seems to have had it in view to reprove,
indirectly, the arrogance of those, who despised the gospel as a thing
that was excessively mean, so that they could scarcely deign to give it
a direct look. “So great,” says he, “was the splendor of the law, that
the Jews could not endure it. What, then, must we think of the gospel,
the dignity of which is as much superior to that of the law, as Christ
is more excellent than Moses?”