Spirit of the Law

God gave us laws to live by—especially the 10 Commandments. Are you living by the spirit of these laws—the values behind them?

To understand biblical law, we must begin by understanding the concept of spiritual education and growth. Throughout the Bible, we are admonished to grow spiritually. Peter concludes his second epistle with this challenge: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

Human attitudes toward God’s law run the gamut. One way to view spiritual growth is as a four-stage process that shows one’s change in approach to God’s law:

  1. Anarchy and lawlessness: For many, this is the starting point, where there is little understanding of God’s laws and little desire to obey them.
  2. Blind obedience: This is the point where we come to realize that God has laws that should be obeyed, but we lack understanding of why and how to fulfill the law.
  3. Informed compliance: This is the stage where we come to a basic understanding of the law and commit ourselves to obeying it. (This is living by the letter of the law and is often the point where we seek baptism.)
  4. Living by the spirit of the law: This is the final and lifelong growth stage where we live by not only the letter of the law, but also the spirit of the law, which means the values behind the law.

Letter of the law vs. spirit of the law

  • The spirit of the law looks at the concept or reason why a law was created.
  • The letter of the law focuses on the precise language of a law without looking at its overall purpose.

When one obeys only the letter of the law, one can often find loopholes and exceptions that allow technical obedience to the law and at the same time violation of the spirit of the law.

For example, consider how a mother might tell her child that he cannot watch television until he finishes his homework. The spirit of the law—the purpose of this mother’s instruction—is that her son do his homework before playing.

If he plays an electronic game with his homework still not done, technically, he has obeyed the letter of the law (instruction) of his mother. He did not watch television as she forbade him to do until he finished his homework; instead, he started playing an electronic game—something his mother had not specifically forbidden him to do prior to completing his homework.

To have obeyed the spirit of his mother’s instructions, this young boy should have finished his homework first before engaging in any play (not just watching television).   

Living by the spirit of the law

Perhaps the greatest difficulty is making the transition from stage three to stage four in the above noted stages of spiritual growth. Jesus made this clear when He admonished the scribes and Pharisees: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matthew 23:23).

Here Jesus drew a line between informed compliance (just obeying the letter of the law) and living by the spirit of the law. These religious leaders were meticulously obeying God’s instruction to pay tithes—a tenth of one’s income—on some of the smallest of spices. Yet they overlooked other matters that are very important to God about how we are to treat others (justice and mercy).

Speaking of these leaders, Jesus said, “For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments” (verses 4-5). 

Meditating on the letter of the law can help us learn the underlying values—the spirit of the law. The law represents the desires and values of God.Many are like the scribes and Pharisees, never making it to the fourth stage of spiritual growth, where one lives by the spirit of God’s law as well as the letter of God’s law. This shortcoming may partly explain why Jesus said, “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14).

But remember Jesus said, “These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” Embracing the spirit of the law in no way sets aside obedience to the letter of the law. It is necessary to obey the law in order to also fully live by the spirit of the law.

What is the role of law in spiritual growth?

From a religious perspective, the reason for God’s law is clear (Romans 3:20). The law shows what is right and wrong in God’s sight. It shows what produces good results and what leads to death (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25). God’s law defines sin (1 John 3:4).

And there is another reason for law. Meditating on the letter of the law can help us learn the underlying values—the spirit of the law. The law represents the desires and values of God.

When I think of the relationship between laws and values, I am reminded of a summer job I had when I was in college. I worked at a large shipyard known for building all types of vessels, from atomic submarines to aircraft carriers.

To ensure quality work, there were myriad work rules, standards and procedures (laws). But the values were expressed very eloquently by an inscription on a statue of the founder, located at the main entrance to the yard where the majority of the workers passed daily. The inscription read: “We will build good ships, at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but we will build good ships.”

The primary value underlying this company’s founding was that it would build good ships. The implication is that the company’s work rules were created with this overall principle in mind.

Was there a flaw in the law—or the people?

Understanding God’s law has been an ongoing challenge for people throughout mankind’s existence. Because all people sin (Romans 3:23), some mistakenly think we might as well not even try to obey God’s commands. Others mistakenly think that Jesus came to do away with the law and that Christians have been freed from the law.

Part of the problem is that laws cannot cover every possibility if one is going to comply with just the letter of the law. Consider the U.S. income tax laws. The tax code is complicated, and by even the most conservative estimates is around 2,600 pages long. Why is it so long and complicated? It is, in part, an attempt to cover every possible loophole or situation that might occur.

And that is the problem with laws—they are difficult to write in such a way as to cover every situation. Take something as simple as the speed limit law of 70 miles per hour on many open highways. While this is perhaps a safe speed in clear weather, what about in rainy weather? What about during a snowstorm? Under such conditions, the value or spirit of the law—“drive safely”—overrides any speed limit.

Notice how God recognizes this problem. “For if the first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: ‘Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah’” (Hebrews 8:7-8, emphasis added throughout).

The fault was not the law itself but the people, who did not see the law as a statement of values but, rather, simply as a set of rules. They didn’t obey them, and they certainly didn’t live their spiritual values.

The point is, understanding and obeying the spirit of God’s laws will not come unless one first obeys the letter of God’s laws. As the psalmist noted, “A good understanding have all those who do His commandments” (Psalm 111:10).

Hebrews 8:10 shows God’s remedy: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”

A gift from God—the gift of the Holy Spirit—is needed to understand the values of the law and live in accordance with the spirit of the law.

The spirit of the law within the 10 Commandments

Have you considered the spirit of the law behind the 10 Commandments? One way to do this is to examine the values expressed by each commandment. Jesus expressed the overall values clearly when He was asked about which commandment was the greatest. Christ said, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39).

The value of love defines all the commandments. But what about each specific commandment? Are there specific values behind each? Here are some of the values I associate with each commandment, and you can likely come up with different ones and perhaps many more. Some of these are obvious, but others are less so:

1. I am the LORD your God. You shall have no other gods. No one but God is worthy of our worship. When God was freeing the ancient Israelites from slavery, six times He sent Moses with this message to Pharaoh: “Let My people go, that they may serve Me” (Exodus 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3). Also, at the end of the temptation of Jesus by Satan: “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! For it is written, “You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve”’” (Matthew 4:10). Jesus Christ came to serve, and He wants us to learn to serve too (Matthew 20:26-28). A key value I see underlying the First Commandment is service to God.

2. Do not worship idols. No physical image can capture the greatness of the Almighty. Paul expressed a value behind this commandment. “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:22-23). I see God’s instruction that we not be foolish.

3. Don’t take God’s name in vain. This commandment teaches respect for God.

4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. “Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (Exodus 31:13). A value here is sanctification—to be set apart for sacred duty. Do you know what duty God is calling you for?

5. Honor parents. This commandment directly expresses a value: honor. In a broader sense it suggests the value of respect for others, especially family.

6. Don’t murder. Every human life has value. To me, considering Jesus’ commentary in Matthew 5:21-26, this commandment teaches reconciliation and faith in God.

7. Don’t commit adultery. Be faithful.

8. Don’t steal. This respect for the property of others demonstrates God’s value of justice.

9. Don’t lie. Be truthful and honest.

10. Don’t covet. By being content with what we have and not desiring what belongs to others, we learn the values of generosity and unselfishness.

What did Jesus teach?

Just as the Word of God (Jesus Christ before His human birth) appeared on Mount Sinai to give the 10 Commandments to His called-out people, so did Jesus speak from a mountain to His called-out disciples at the beginning of His ministry.

This teaching is now referred to as “the Sermon on the Mount.” In expounding on God’s law, Jesus taught the spirit of the law, which includes values such as humility, empathy, meekness, seeking righteousness, mercy, purity, peacemaking and enduring persecution with joy, for both righteousness and for Christ’s sake (see Mathew 5:1-12).

One example of Jesus’ teaching regarding obeying both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law is found in what He said regarding the Seventh Commandment: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (verses 27-28).

As we read the four Gospels, we can clearly see that Jesus emphasized values. Not in place of the law, but as a complement to the law—the spiritual mind-set necessary to fully obey the spirit or intent of God’s law. As He specifically said: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).

What about you? Are you just living the letter of the law? Or are you moving on to live by the spirit (values) of God’s laws as well?

To learn more about God’s law, download our free booklet God’s 10 Commandments: Still Relevant Today.

And check out our interesting video series “The 10 Commandments: A Matter of the Heart.”

About the Author

Rick Avent

Dr. Rick Avent is a retired professor of civil engineering at LSU. He is happily married to Sandra with three grown children, and is an elder in the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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