One of the most basic theological distinctions in Lutheran and Reformed theology is the law/gospel distinction. Paul’s explanation of his ministry in 2 Corinthians 3 helps us see that this distinction is not just a quirk of Lutheran and Reformed thinkers but is a vital theological distinction that we must make. In this section of Scripture, Paul is defending his ministry against the so-called super-apostles (2 Cor. 11:5, 12:11), who apparently had an impressive presence and ability and were really into what Moses taught. Paul, on the other hand, was a man of weakness—frequently suffering (2 Cor. 3:7–9), not particularly impressive in speech (2 Cor. 10:10), and, at least at times, affected in ministry by physical ailments (Gal. 4:13–15)—and really into what Jesus did. The latter distinction between what Moses taught and what Jesus did is both the law/gospel distinction with which we are so familiar and the distinction on which Paul focuses when defending his ministry. In his defense, we find one of the clearest statements on why the law/gospel distinction is so vital.
The language Paul uses to distinguish between the law and gospel is pretty shocking. On the one hand, Paul writes about Moses, the tablets of stone, the letter, and the old covenant—all ways of talking about the law— and on the other hand, he writes about Jesus, tablets of human hearts, the Spirit, and a new covenant—all ways of talking about the gospel. These distinctions seem tame enough. However, when Paul goes on to explain how the law and gospel each function, his words are arresting but also bring clarity to the importance of this basic distinction. Paul calls the law “the ministry of death” (2 Cor. 3:7) and “the ministry of condemnation” (2 Cor. 3:9). He tells us “the letter kills” (2 Cor. 3:6) and that it “has come to have no glory at all” (2 Cor. 3:10). By contrast, Paul calls the gospel “the ministry of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:8) and “the ministry of righteousness” (2 Cor. 3:9). He tells us “the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6) and that its glory is permanent (2 Cor. 3:11). Building on the scene in Exodus 34, when Moses had to cover his face before the Israelites following the incident with the golden calf, Paul goes on to say a veil remains to this day when the old covenant is read. The only way the veil is removed so we can see the glory of God is through Christ (2 Cor. 3:14).
If we stop and think about the contrast Paul sets up in 2 Corinthians 3, we come to some pretty astounding conclusions about the law and the gospel. First, the law does not give life; that is to say, the law does not turn back the ultimate curse from the garden. In fact, Paul says it is quite the opposite, “the letter kills” (2 Cor. 3:6). The Spirit, however, does give life (2 Cor. 3:6). Second, the law cannot accomplish in us what it demands of us. To be sure, the law does demand righteousness, just not in a way that righteousness is brought about in us. The law, Paul says, is a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Cor. 3:9). It is the gospel that is a “ministry of righteousness” (2 Cor. 3:9). If we long for righteousness, we must look to Christ and be lead by the Spirit rather than looking to Moses and being lead by the law. How different this is from how we often think! Third, the law can’t give us access to the glory it reveals. Paul is clear, the law did come with glory (2 Cor. 3:7–11), but it also came with a veil to hide that glory lest the people be consumed. What’s more, that veil remains to this day (2 Cor. 3:14). Jesus, and only Jesus, removes the veil to give us access to the glory of God. But how? How is the veil lifted, and how is it that we are not consumed by the glory of God when the veil is lifted? In short, because Jesus was consumed. Jesus’ fulfillment of the law was not only his living a sinless life in perfect conformity to the law (his active obedience), but also his submitting himself in our place to the law as a ministry of death (his passive obedience). For all who are united to Christ by faith, the law’s ministry of condemnation and death was brought to an end by Jesus’ death in our place. Therefore, as Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us when Jesus died, the veil separating the Most Holy Place from the rest of the world was torn in two from top to bottom (Matt. 27:51, Mark 15:38, and Luke 23:45).
Far from being a theological quirk or a mere preference of certain church denominations, rightly distinguishing between law and gospel, as Paul helps us see in 2 Corinthians 3, is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. We often think we can accomplish something with the law that we can’t. We cannot preach the law sincerely enough to bring life. We cannot preach the law boldly enough to bring righteousness. We cannot preach the law gently enough to lift the veil. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6)! For life, we need the Spirit. For righteousness, we must hear the gospel. To have the veil lifted, we must go to Jesus.