More on the Letter Versus the Spirit
Some half-awake thoughts for you... Both the "oldness of the letter" and the "newness of the Spirit" have to do with what goes on inside rather than what goes on outside. It is seldom evident from our point of view which one of these drives a man. There are many "good" men who know nothing of the Spirit. They are involved in civic duties and works of charity. Nevertheless, I wish to contrast the two for our minds to soak up.
1. The man with the Spirit struggles against sin and the flesh. This is a sure consolation for the weary saint. If the Spirit was not present, why would there be an internal struggle with sin? There wouldn't be. It is the saint who battles, because while the flesh is still present, the Spirit is present also -there is a conflict of natures. This is not the case with the unbeliever. It is impossible. The unbeliever does not struggle with his sin. He struggles with the consequences, perhaps, but the desires themselves are welcome friends.
2. The oldness of the letter is different from the newness of the Spirit in terms of motive. The man under the letter serves the Law for selfish reasons such as to assuage God's anger and earn His favor, to make himself great among men, to flatter himself with a sense of accomplishment, success, and duty. The man serving in the letter would be just as happy if there was no Law at all, but in the Spirit the principles and precepts of the Law are loved even if they were never declared to us externally. The true fulfillment of the Law is found in Jesus, for example, which is out of love and glorification of God rather than self-preservation.
3. Since the letter coincides with the flesh, it must be noted that the mind set on the flesh is not able to submit to God (Rom 8:5-8). The mind of the man enslaved to the letter is hostile toward God. Therefore, to serve under the letter is to seek to obey the Law stripped of the Spirit and stripped of its true character. The letter is not equivalent to the Law. They are not synonymous. The letter is actually a perversion of the Law -a "denatured" Law, to quote C.E.B. Cranfield (The International Critical Commentary: Romans, Volume I). The letter is legalism and it is concerned with outward obedience only. Therefore the requirements are strictly behavioral -which means they are made to be attainable. How is this done? It is done by flushing the requirement of the heart and focusing on the external requirements. For the legalist, the Law (the letter) is a series of moral principles guiding outward behavior. So, the man in the flesh serving in the letter can claim to obey the law, like the Pharisees -which is really only the external shadow of the Law which is then perceived through a human lens- while at the same time he is hostile to God and unable to submit himself to Him. In serving in the letter he is not submitting himself to God -he is serving the idol of self. This is classic legalism. How does the flesh respond to the commandment? It responds by attempting to self-justify rather than be justly condemned by the Law. In contrast, the Spirit includes the true fulfillment of the Law which is loving service to God. Again, Jesus is the One who has fulfilled the Law in its true character. The Spirit wants nothing more than to submit to God. Can we do this as Christians? No, because the flesh is right there with us -still tainting every area with that remnant of selfishness. But the "newness in the Spirit", itself, is the fulfillment of the Law.