We should keep the spirit of the law but not the letter.

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If we are not obliged to do what the law literally requires, then may we literally kill, steal, and commit adultery? This cannot be the meaning of Paul’s frequent allusions to the letter and the spirit. The form and spirit of the law uphold each other. We cannot break the law literally without breaking it spiritually.

The religion of the Jews in the days of Christ and the apostles had become formal and selfish. They did their good works to be seen of men, not because they loved God and their neighbor. They condemned the open violator of the law, while they did worse than he did. They strictly kept up certain popular forms of obedience to the letter of the law, such as circumcision, but Paul wrote that they were actually transgressing the law (Romans 2:27–29).

Through their traditions, they were very strict in making the Sabbath a rest day for animals, but they neglected to spend it in the nobler work of our Creator—that is, by being a blessing to their fellow man. They commanded people not to steal, yet they didn’t think twice about robbing people in business deals with Gentiles, dragging God’s name through the mud in the process.

Likewise, today some are very strict in keeping up certain popular forms of religion, while breaking God’s commandments. Many would never steal their neighbor’s car, and they are very strict in enforcing the letter of the law on thieves; yet they will do much worse in taking advantage of their neighbor in a business deal. They do not fulfill “the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (James 2:8) because they are “keeping” the law for selfish reasons—to avoid losing their reputation or for fear of recrimination.

Heartfelt Sabbath keeping cures this selfish religion. It helps us obey the spirit of the law, for there is no way to keep the heart of the Sabbath only because it is popular, or for outward show, or for selfish advantage over others. The only way to keep it with the heart is out of unselfish love and respect for God’s creative and redemptive power.

Are we required to keep the spirit of the law but not the letter? Consider a sentence you may find in an elementary school textbook: ‘Jane kicked the ball with all her might.’ ‘With all her might’ tells how Jane kicked the ball. Could she kick the ball with all her might without kicking the ball? The spirit of the law tells how we keep the law. Can we keep the spirit of the law without keeping its letter?

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