The “spirit of the law” is often contrasted to the “letter of the law.” In that context, the spirit of the law has to do with the deeper meaning or reason for the law, whereas the letter of the law refers to exact wording, literally applied, without regard for any deeper meaning. Children are good at emphasizing the letter of the law to the exclusion of the spirit of it. The following example may help:
A child comes home from school and is told, “Do not watch TV until you finish your homework.” A few minutes later, his mother finds him watching cartoons on his tablet, with his homework untouched. The child protests that his mom only told him not to watch TV—she never said anything about watching cartoons on a tablet. In this example, the child has kept the letter of the law, but he has violated the spirit of the law. If the mother had said, “Finish your homework before you watch cartoons,” then perhaps the child would have watched a baseball game instead—once again keeping the letter of the law. She could have been even more specific: “Do not watch any kind of show on any electronic device until you finish your homework,” but then the child might decide to go outside and play, leaving his unfinished homework inside. The frustrated mom could have said, “Don’t do anything until you finish your homework,” but the child, taking it literally, could then claim to be unable to open his book bag to get his homework. Obviously, focusing on the letter of the law can be a tactic to negate the intent or spirit of the law.
Leviticus 19:14 says, “Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind.” Here the letter of the law forbids exactly two things: cursing the deaf and tripping up the blind. However, no law can explicitly cover every possible situation. The spirit of the law in Leviticus 19:14 forbids taking advantage of the disabilities of another, no matter what those disabilities are. The letter of the law may be narrow, but the spirit of the law encompasses something far broader—and is therefore more difficult to obey. It is possible to go through life without ever cursing a deaf man or tripping a blind man, but it is far more difficult to never take advantage of someone else’s weakness.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus interprets the Mosaic Law according to the spirit of the law, not the letter. The law forbade murder, but Jesus said that anger or mockery makes one guilty of murder, because the same attitudes that produce murder first produce anger and contempt (see Matthew 5:21–22). The law forbade adultery, but Jesus said a lustful look is adultery in the heart. A man who never touches a woman other than his wife but who indulges in sexual fantasies is obeying the letter of the law, but not the spirit of it (see Matthew 5:27–28). And, according to Jesus, obeying the letter of the law but not its spirit is not an option.
When Jesus was asked about the most important commandment, He invoked the spirit of the law: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37–40). Every Old Testament law and every standard of behavior for the Christian can be summed up in these two commands because they embody the spirit of the law; that is, the two greatest commandments express the ultimate point of all the other laws.
In Luke 10 a teacher of the law, “wishing to justify himself,” asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (verse 29). It might be possible to keep the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” if neighbor is defined narrowly enough. Jesus’ response is the story of the Good Samaritan, in which He demonstrates that your neighbor is anyone you come into contact with. In fact, the real question is not “who is my neighbor?” but “who will I be a neighbor to?” The spirit of the law requires that we be neighborly in a proactive manner, looking for people who need help. Ultimately, none of us are able to keep this law perfectly, in letter or in spirit, and we are therefore convicted as sinners in need of a Savior.
People who focus on the letter of the law often point to their compliance as a means to justify themselves, even as they flagrantly violate the law’s intent; however, God will judge according to the spirit of the law, not just the letter.