There are two views that you can bring to obeying God’s law: “letter of the law” thinking, and “spirit of the law” thinking.
“Letter of the Law” thinking
When you follow the letter of the law, you wake up every morning and in fear operate under the exact phrasing of the law. You see a law like “Thou shalt not steal,” and all day, every day live with this weight of fear that “I will not steal.” When you go to the store, the temptation to pocket the candy bar at the check-out aisle is easily thwarted with this self-aware “I will not steal!” You go to Foot Locker and see the latest pair of Jordan’s in the window. As you walk by the window, the temptation to grab and run rises in your wicked heart, but the powerful “letter of the law” thinking pulls out the abstinence pistol and shoots that temptation in the head. As you walk out of the store, the victory is yours. Like Rocky at the top of the stairs in Philly you raise your arms and jog in circles of victory because today, you nailed the law. You are a letter of the law master. You have followed all four words of the law and you don’t have a “hot” candy bar or pair of sneakers. When you get home, it is just in time for lunch. Mom sets out the sandwiches and snack cakes for you and your little brother. As you sit down, you notice that his sandwich has more jelly on it….so, you trade…without him knowing. You didn’t necessarily steal…you traded. You are still earning God’s favor because you followed the exact wording of His law: Thou shalt not steal. Whew! Good thing it wasn’t worded: Thou shalt not trade.
“Spirit of the Law” thinking
This one is simple. A person who lives a spirit of the law lifestyle sees in every law of God conjoining attributes of God. The call of “Thou shalt not steal,” does not end at “I will not steal,” but instead sees God’s Providence as the defining call of the law. It says “God has given me the things that I have need of, and I will trust Him to provide all that I need. I do not need to take for myself out of greed or any selfish desires, but rather trust Him only for all things.” This new view will make stealing unnecessary. Why would I take the candy bar or the sneakers? Why would I even “trade” what I have for something else? You see, the spirit of the law lifestyle takes the focus off of “Look what I can do in my own power,” and turns it to where it should be “Look at Who God is and what He has done, I will trust Him for all things.”
It is for this reason that in Romans 2:29, Paul says that we should be living “in the spirit, and not in the letter.” He finishes the verse with the view that living in the spirit of the law is what pleases God. Now, which one defines how you obey God?
Food for Thought: What are the two ways of thinking in Romans 2:17-29? Explain them in your own words. Which does God desire of us?