The law’s sentence of condemnation was borne for us by Christ who suffered in our stead; The handwriting of ordinances which was against us—the dreadful ‘letter’ of which Paul speaks in our text—was nailed to the cross.
The law of God is holy and just and good; it is inexorable, and we have fallen under its just condemnation. That is at the bottom of what Paul means by the “the letter kills.’ He does not mean that attention to pedantic details shrivels and deadens the soul. No doubt that is true, within certain spheres; it is a useful thought. But it is trivial indeed compared with what Paul means. Something far more majestic, far more terrible, is meant by the Pauline phrase. The letter that Paul means is the dreadful handwriting of ordinances that was against us, and the death with which it kills is the eternal death of those who are forever separated from God.
But that is not all of the text. The letter kills, Paul says, but the Spirit makes alive. There is no doubt about what he means by ‘the Spirit.’ He does not mean that spirit of the law as contrasted with the letter; he certainly does not mean the lax interpretation of God’s commands which is dictated by human lust or pride; he certainly does not mean the spirit of man.