*Minor differences ignored. Grouped by changes, with first version listed as example.
Who hath made us competent.  He had acknowledged himself to be altogether useless. Now he declares, that, by the grace of God, he has been qualified  for an office, for which he was previously unqualified. From this we infer its magnitude and difficulty, as it can be undertaken by no one, that has not been previously prepared and fashioned for it by God. It is the Apostle's intention, also, to extol the dignity of the gospel. There is, at the same time, no doubt, that he indirectly exposes the poverty of those, who boasted in lofty terms of their endowments, while they were not furnished with so much as a single drop of heavenly grace. Not of the letter but of the spirit He now follows out the comparison between the law and the gospel, which he had previously touched upon. It is uncertain, however, whether he was led into this discussion, from seeing that there were at Corinth certain perverse  devotees of the law, or whether he took occasion from something else to enter upon it. For my part, as I see no evidence that the false apostles had there confounded the law and the gospel, I am rather of opinion, that, as he had to do with lifeless declaimers, who endeavored to obtain applause through mere prating,  and as he saw, that the ears of the Corinthians were captivated with such glitter, he was desirous to show them what was the chief excellence of the gospel, and what was the chief praise of its ministers. Now this he makes to consist in the efficacy of the Spirit. A comparison between the law and the gospel was fitted in no ordinary degree to show this. This appears to me to be the reason why he came to enter upon it. There is, however, no doubt, that by the term letter, he means the Old Testament, as by the term spirit he means the gospel; for, after having called himself a minister of the New Testament, he immediately adds, by way of exposition, that he is a minister of the spirit, and contrasts the letter with the spirit. We must now enquire into the reason of this designation. The exposition contrived by Origen has got into general circulation -- that by the letter we ought to understand the grammatical and genuine meaning of Scripture, or the literal sense, (as they call it,) and that by the spirit is meant the allegorical meaning, which is commonly reckoned to be the spiritual meaning. Accordingly, during several centuries, nothing was more commonly said, or more generally received, than this -- that Paul here furnishes us with a key for expounding Scripture by allegories, while nothing is farther from his intention. For by the term letter he means outward preaching, of such a kind as does not reach the heart; and, on the other hand, by spirit he means living doctrine, of such a nature as worketh effectually (1-Thessalonians 2:13) on the minds of men,  through the grace of the Spirit. By the term letter, therefore, is meant literal preaching -- that is, dead and ineffectual, perceived only by the ear. By the term spirit, on the other hand, is meant spiritual doctrine, that is, what is not merely uttered with the mouth, but effectually makes its way to the souls of men with a lively feeling. For Paul had an eye to the passage in Jeremiah, that I quoted a little ago, (Jeremiah 31:31,) where the Lord says, that his law had been proclaimed merely with the mouth, and that it had, therefore, been of short duration, because the people did not embrace it in their heart, and he promises the Spirit of regeneration under the reign of Christ, to write his gospel, that is, the new covenant, upon their hearts. Paul now makes it his boast, that the accomplishment of that prophecy is to be seen in his preaching, that the Corinthians may perceive, how worthless is the loquacity of those vain boasters, who make incessant noise  while devoid of the efficacy of the Spirit. It is asked, however, whether God, under the Old Testament, merely sounded forth in the way of an external voice, and did not also speak inwardly to the hearts of the pious by his Spirit. I answer in the first place, that Paul here takes into view what belonged peculiarly to the law; for although God then wrought by his Spirit, yet that did not take its rise from the ministry of Moses, but from the grace of Christ, as it is said in John 1:17 -- The law was given by Moses; but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. True, indeed, the grace of God did not, during all that time, lie dormant, but it is enough that it was not a benefit that belonged to the law.  For Moses had discharged his office, when he had delivered to the people the doctrine of life, adding threatenings and promises. For this reason he gives to the law the name of the letter, because it is in itself a dead preaching; but the gospel he calls spirit, because the ministry of the gospel is living, nay, lifegiving. I answer secondly, that these things are not affirmed absolutely in reference either to the law or to the gospel, but in respect of the contrast between the one and the other; for even the gospel is not always spirit. When, however, we come to compare the two, it is truly and properly affirmed, that the nature of the law is to teach men literally, in such a way that it does not reach farther than the ear; and that, on the other hand, the nature of the gospel is to teach spiritually, because it is the instrument of Christ's grace. This depends on the appointment of God, who has seen it meet to manifest the efficacy of his Spirit more clearly in the gospel than in the law, for it is his work exclusively to teach effectually the minds of men. When Paul, however, calls himself a Minister of the Spirit, he does not mean by this, that the grace of the Holy Spirit and his influence, were tied to his preaching, so that he could, whenever he pleased, breathe forth the Spirit along with the utterance of the voice. He simply means, that Christ blessed his ministry, and thus accomplished what was predicted respecting the gospel. It is one thing for Christ to connect his influence with a man's doctrine.  and quite another for the man's doctrine  to have such efficacy of itself. We are, then, Ministers of the Spirit, not as if we held him inclosed within us, or as it were captive -- not as if we could at our pleasure confer his grace upon all, or upon whom we pleased -- but because Christ, through our instrumentality, illuminates the minds of men, renews their hearts, and, in short, regenerates them wholly.  It is in consequence of there being such a connection and bond of union between Christ's grace and man's effort, that in many cases that is ascribed to the minister which belongs exclusively to the Lord. For in that case it is not the mere individual that is looked to, but the entire dispensation of the gospel, which consists, on the one hand, in the secret influence of Christ, and, on the other, in man's outward efforts. For the letter killeth. This passage was mistakingly perverted, first by Origen, and afterwards by others, to a spurious signification. From this arose a very pernicious error -- that of imagining that the perusal of Scripture would be not merely useless, but even injurious,  unless it were drawn out into allegories. This error was the source of many evils. For there was not merely a liberty allowed of adulterating the genuine meaning of Scripture,  but the more of audacity any one had in this manner of acting, so much the more eminent an interpreter of Scripture was he accounted. Thus many of the ancients recklessly played with the sacred word of God,  as if it had been a ball to be tossed to and fro. In consequence of this, too, heretics had it more in their power to trouble the Church; for as it had become general practice to make any passage whatever  mean anything that one might choose, there was no frenzy so absurd or monstrous, as not to admit of being brought forward under some pretext of allegory. Even good men themselves were carried headlong, so as to contrive very many mistaken opinions, led astray through a fondness for allegory. The meaning of this passage, however, is as follows -- that, if the word of God is simply uttered with the mouth, it is an occasion of death, and that it is lifegiving, only when it is received with the heart. The terms letter and spirit, therefore, do not refer to the exposition of the word, but to its influence and fruit. Why it is that the doctrine merely strikes upon the ear, without reaching the heart, we shall see presently.
1 - "Lequel aussi nous a rendus suffisans ministres;" -- "Who also hath made us sufficient ministers."
2 - It is justly observed by Barnes, that the rendering in our authorized version -- "Who hath made us able ministers" -- "does not quite meet the force of the original," as it "would seem to imply that Paul regarded himself and his fellow -- laborers as men of talents, and of signal ability; and that he was inclined to boast of it," while instead of this "he did not esteem himself sufficient for this work in his own strength, (2-Corinthians 2:16; 2-Corinthians 3:5); and he here says, that God had made him sufficient: not able, talented, learned, but sufficient, (hikanosen hemas); he has supplied our deficiency; he has rendered us competent or fit; -- if a word may be coined after the manner of the Greek here, he has sufficienced us for this work.'" The unhappy rendering referred to had originated (as is shown by Granville Penn) in the circumstance, that the Vulgate having rendered the expression -- qui idoneos nos fecit ministros, Wiclif translated it as follows: which made us also able mynystris, and that, while Erasmus suggested that it should be rendered -- qui idoneos nos fecit ut essemus ministri, quasi dicas, idoneavit -- who fitted or qualified us to be ministers -- and while, besides, in the first translation from the original Greek, in 1526, Tyndale rendered -- made us able to minister, Wiclif's original version from the Latin was recalled, and is now the reading of our authorized version. -- Ed.
3 - "Mauuais et inconsiderez;" -- "Wicked and reckless."
4 - "Il auoit affaire auec des gens qui sans zele preschoyent l'Euangile, comme qui prononceroit vne harangue pour son plaisir, et n'ayans que le babil, pourchassoyent par cela la faueur des hommes;" -- "He had to do with persons, who without zeal preached the gospel, like one that makes a harangue according to his own liking, and while they had nothing but mere talk, endeavored by this means to procure the applause of men."
5 - "Es coeurs des auditeurs;" -- "In the hearts of the hearers."
6 - "Crient et gazouillent;" -- "Cry and chirp."
7 - "Il suffit, que ce n'estoit point par le moyen de la loy: car elle n'auoit point cela de propre;" -- "It is enough that it was not by means of the law; for it did not belong peculiarly to it."
8 - "Au ministere de l'homme qui enseigne;" -- "To the ministry of the man that teaches."
9 - "La doctrine de l'homme, c'est à dire, son ministere;" -- "The doctrine of the man, that is to say, his ministry."
10 - The reader will find the same subject largely treated of by Calvin, when commenting on 1-Corinthians 3:6. See Calvin on the Corinthians, vol. 1, pp. 128-9. -- Ed.
11 - "Dangereuse;" -- "Dangerous."
12 - "De corrompre et desguiser le vray et naturel sens de l'Escriture:" -- "Of corrupting and disguising the true and natural meaning of Scripture."
13 - "Can you seriously think the Scriptures," says Revelation Andrew Fuller, in his Thoughts on Preaching, "to be a book of riddles and conundrums, and that a Christian minister is properly employed in giving scope to his fancy in order to discover their solution? [...] All Scripture is profitable in some way, some for doctrine, some for reproof, some for correction, and some for instruction in righteousness, but all is not to be turned into allegory. If we must play, let it be with things of less consequence than the word of the eternal God." -- Fuller's Works, volume 4, p. 694. The attentive reader cannot fail to observe, how very frequently our author exposes, in the strongest terms, the exercise of mere fancy in the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. See Calvin on the Corinthians, vol. 1, p. 294. -- Ed.
14 - "Vn propos et vn mot;" -- "A passage and a word."
Who also hath made us able ministers - This translation does not quite meet the force of the original. It would seem to imply that Paul regarded himself and his fellowlaborers as people of talents, and of signal ability; and that he was inclined to boast of it. But this is not the meaning. It refers properly to his sense of the responsibility and difficulty of the work of the ministry; and to the fact that he did not esteem himself to be sufficient for this work in his own strength 2-Corinthians 2:16; 2-Corinthians 3:5; and he here says that God had made him sufficient: not able, talented, learned, but sufficient ἱκάνωσεν ἡμᾶς hikanōsen hēmas; he has supplied our deficiency; he has rendered us competent, or fit; if a word may be coined after the manner of the Greek here, "he has sufficienced us for this work." There is no assertion, therefore, here, that they were people of talents, or special ability, but only that God had qualified them for their work, and made them by his grace sufficient to meet the toils and responsibilites of this arduous office.
Of the New Testament - Of the new covenant (note, Matthew 26:28), in contradistinction from the old covenant, which was established through Moses. They were appointed to go forth and make the provisions of that new covenant known to a dying world.
Not of the letter - Not of the literal, or verbal meaning, in contradistinction from the Spirit; see the notes on Romans 2:27, Romans 2:29; Romans 7:6. This is said, doubtless, in opposition to the Jews, and Jewish teachers. They insisted much on the letter of the Law, but entered little into its real meaning. They did not seek out the true spiritual sense of the Old Testament; and hence, they rested on the mere literal observance of the rites and ceremonies of religion without understanding their true nature and design. Their service, though in many respects conformed to the letter of the Law, yet became cold, formal, and hypocritical; abounding in mere ceremonies, and where the heart had little to do. Hence, there was little pure spiritual worship offered to God; and hence also they rejected the Messiah whom the old covenant prefigured, and was designed to set forth.
For the letter killeth - compare notes on Romans 4:15; Romans 7:9-10. The mere letter of the Law of Moses. The effect of it was merely to produce condemnation; to produce a sense of guilt, and danger, and not to produce pardon, relief, and joy. The Law denounced death; condemned sin in all forms; and the effect of it was to produce a sense of guilt and condemnation.
But the spirit giveth life - The spirit, in contradistinction from the mere literal interpretation of the Scriptures. The Spirit, that is, Christ, says Locke, compare 2-Corinthians 3:17. The spirit here means, says Bloomfield, that new spiritual system, the gospel. The Spirit of God speaking in us, says Doddridge. The spirit here seems to refer to the New Testament, or the new dispensation in contradistinction from the old. That was characterized mainly by its strictness of Law, and by its burdensome rites, and by the severe tone of its denunciation for sin. It did not in itself provide a way of pardon and peace. Law condemns; it does not speak of forgiveness. On the contrary, the gospel, a spiritual system, is designed to impart life and comfort to the soul. It speaks peace. It comes not to condemn, but to save. It discloses a way of mercy, and it invites all to partake and live. It is called "spirit," probably because its consolations are imparted and secured by the Spirit of God - the source of all true life to the soul. It is the dispensation of the Spirit; and it demands a spiritual service - a service that is free, and elevated, and tending eminently to purify the heart, and to save the soul; see the note on 2-Corinthians 3:17.
Who hath made us able ministers - This is a more formal answer to the question, Who is sufficient for these things? προς ταυτα τις ἱκανος; 1-Corinthians 2:16. God, says the apostle, has made us able ministers; ἱκανωσεν ἡμας διακονους, he has made us sufficient for these things; for the reader will observe that he uses the same word in both places. We apostles execute, under the Divine influence, what God himself has devised. We are ministers of the new covenant; of this new dispensation of truth, light, and life, by Christ Jesus; a system which not only proves itself to have come from God, but necessarily implies that God himself by his own Spirit is a continual agent in it, ever bringing its mighty purposes to pass. On the words καινη διαθηκη, new covenant, see the Preface to the gospel of St. Matthew.
Not of the letter, but of the Spirit - The apostle does not mean here, as some have imagined, that he states himself to be a minister of the New Testament, in opposition to the Old; and that it is the Old Testament that kills, and the New that gives life; but that the New Testament gives the proper meaning of the Old; for the old covenant had its letter and its spirit, its literal and its spiritual meaning. The law was founded on the very supposition of the Gospel; and all its sacrifices, types, and ceremonies refer to the Gospel. The Jews rested in the letter, which not only afforded no means of life, but killed, by condemning every transgressor to death. They did not look at the spirit; did not endeavor to find out the spiritual meaning; and therefore they rejected Christ, who was the end of the law for justification; and so for redemption from death to every one that believes. The new covenant set all these spiritual things at once before their eyes, and showed them the end, object, and design of the law; and thus the apostles who preached it were ministers of that Spirit which gives life.
Every institution has its letter as well as its spirit, as every word must refer to something of which it is the sign or significator. The Gospel has both its letter and its spirit; and multitudes of professing Christians, by resting in the Letter, receive not the life which it is calculated to impart. Water, in baptism, is the letter that points out the purification of the soul; they who rest in this letter are without this purification; and dying in that state they die eternally. Bread and wine in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, are the letter; the atoning efficacy of the death of Jesus, and the grace communicated by this to the soul of a believer, are the spirit. Multitudes rest in this letter, simply receiving these symbols, without reference to the atonement, or to their guilt; and thus lose the benefit of the atonement and the salvation of their souls. The whole Christian life is comprehended by our Lord under the letter, Follow me. Does not any one see that a man, taking up this letter only, and following Christ through Judea, Galilee, Samaria, etc., to the city, temple, villages, seacoast, mountains, etc., fulfilled no part of the spirit; and might, with all this following, lose his soul? Whereas the Spirit, viz. receive my doctrine, believe my sayings, look by faith for the fulfillment of my promises, imitate my example, would necessarily lead him to life eternal. It may be safely asserted that the Jews, in no period of their history, ever rested more in the letter of their law than the vast majority of Christians are doing in the letter of the Gospel. Unto multitudes of Christians Christ may truly say: Ye will not come unto me that ye may have life.
(2) Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the (f) letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.
(2) He amplifies his ministry and his fellows: that is to say, the ministry of the Gospel comparing it with the ministry of the Law, which he considers in the person of Moses, by whom the Law was given: against whom he sets Christ the author of the Gospel. Now this comparison is taken from the very substance of the ministry. The Law is as it were a writing in itself, dead, and without efficacy: but the Gospel, and new Covenant, as it were the very power of God itself, in renewing, justifying, and saving men. The Law offers death, accusing all men of unrighteousness: the Gospel offers and gives righteousness and life. The administration of the Law served for a time to the promise: the Gospel remains to the end of the world. Therefore what is the glory of the Law in comparison of the majesty of the Gospel?
(f) Not of the Law but of the Gospel.
Who also hath made us able ministers,.... This is an answer to the question in 2-Corinthians 2:16 who is sufficient for these things? no man is of himself; we are indeed sufficient for them, but not of ourselves; our sufficiency is of God, he hath made us able, or sufficient ministers: such ministers as are not of men's, but God's making, are sufficient ones; and none are sufficient but whom God makes so; and those he makes able and sufficient, by giving them spiritual gifts, fitting them for the ministry: and these are ministers
of the New Testament, or "covenant"; the covenant of grace, of which Christ is the Mediator and surety; called "new", not because newly made, for it was made with Christ from everlasting; nor newly revealed, for it was made known to Adam after his fall, and to all the Old Testament patriarchs, and was exhibited under the legal dispensation, though but darkly, in types, shadows, sacrifices, &c. which therefore waxing old is vanished away; and the covenant of grace is now more clearly revealed under the Gospel dispensation, free from all the obscurity it before laboured under; and therefore is called "new", as well as because it will always continue so, and never give way to another covenant: now the Gospel, and the ministry of it, is nothing else but an exhibition of the covenant of grace, its blessings and promises; and the work and business of those who are ministers of it is not to insist upon the covenant of works, the terms, conditions, obligations, promises, and threatenings of that covenant; but to open and explain the nature, promises, and blessings of the covenant of grace: for such who are fit and proper ministers, are ministers
not of the letter, but of the spirit; which is to be understood, not of any difference between the books of the Old and the New Testament, for a faithful minister of the word may and will bring forth things new and old, out of the one as well as the other; nor of the literal and allegorical, or mystical sense of the Scriptures, as if the latter and not the former was only to be attended to; nor of the difference of communicating the Gospel by letters, and preaching it by word of mouth; since both methods may be used for the spread of it, as were by the apostles themselves; but of the difference there is between the law and the Gospel. The law is "the letter", not merely because written in letters, for so likewise is the Gospel; but because it is a mere letter, hereby showing what is to be done or avoided, without any efficacy in it, or communicating any to enable persons to obey its commands, to give life to its observers, or either to sanctify or justify any who are under it, or of the works of it; it is a mere letter, as observed by an unregenerate man, who only regards the externals of it, being unacquainted with its spirituality. The Gospel is "the spirit"; see John 6:63 it contains spiritual things, and not things merely natural, moral, and civil, as does the law, but spiritual blessings and promises; it penetrates into the spirit and soul of man, and comes from, and is attended with the Spirit of God. The law is
the letter that
killeth, by irritating and provoking to sin, the cause of death, which though not the design and natural tendency of the law, and therefore not to be blamed, yet so it is, through the corruption of human nature; and by convincing of sin when the sinner is killed, and it dead in his own apprehension; and by not only threatening with death, but by cursing, condemning, and punishing with it:
but the Gospel is
the spirit, which
giveth life; it is a means in the hand of the Spirit of God, of quickening dead sinners, of healing the deadly wounds of sin, of showing the way of life by Christ, and of working faith in the soul, to look to him, and live upon him; it affords food for the support of the spiritual life, and revives souls under the most drooping circumstances. The apostle may allude to a distinction among the Jews, between the body and soul of the law; the words, they say, are , "the body of the law"; and the book of the law is the clothing; and besides these, there is , "the soul of the law"; which wise men look into (w).
(w) Zohar in Numb. fol. 63. 2.
able--rather, as the Greek is the same, corresponding to 2-Corinthians 3:5, translate, "sufficient as ministers" (Ephesians 3:7; Colossians 1:23).
the new testament--"the new covenant" as contrasted with the Old Testament or covenant (1-Corinthians 11:25; Galatians 4:24). He reverts here again to the contrast between the law on "tables of stone," and that "written by the Spirit on fleshly tables of the heart" (2-Corinthians 3:3).
not of the letter--joined with "ministers"; ministers not of the mere literal precept, in which the old law, as then understood, consisted; "but of the Spirit," that is, the spiritual holiness which lay under the old law, and which the new covenant brings to light (Matthew. 5:17-48) with new motives added, and a new power of obedience imparted, namely, the Holy Spirit (Romans 7:6). Even in writing the letter of the New Testament, Paul and the other sacred writers were ministers not of the letter, but of the spirit. No piety of spirit could exempt a man from the yoke of the letter of each legal ordinance under the Old Testament; for God had appointed this as the way in which He chose a devout Jew to express his state of mind towards God. Christianity, on the other hand, makes the spirit of our outward observances everything, and the letter a secondary consideration (John 4:24). Still the moral law of the ten commandments, being written by the finger of God, is as obligatory now as ever; but put more on the Gospel spirit of "love," than on the letter of a servile obedience, and in a deeper and fuller spirituality (Matthew. 5:17-48; Romans 13:9). No literal precepts could fully comprehend the wide range of holiness which LOVE, the work of the Holy Spirit, under the Gospel, suggests to the believer's heart instinctively from the word understood in its deep spirituality.
letter killeth--by bringing home the knowledge of guilt and its punishment, death; 2-Corinthians 3:7, "ministration of death" (Romans 7:9).
spirit giveth life--The spirit of the Gospel when brought home to the heart by the Holy Spirit, gives new spiritual life to a man (Romans 6:4, Romans 6:11). This "spirit of life" is for us in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:2, Romans 8:10), who dwells in the believer as a "quickening" or "life-giving Spirit" (1-Corinthians 15:45). Note, the spiritualism of rationalists is very different. It would admit no "stereotyped revelation," except so much as man's own inner instrument of revelation, the conscience and reason, can approve of: thus making the conscience judge of the written word, whereas the apostles make the written word the judge of the conscience (Acts 17:11; 1-Peter 4:1). True spirituality rests on the whole written word, applied to the soul by the Holy Spirit as the only infallible interpreter of its far-reaching spirituality. The letter is nothing without the spirit, in a subject essentially spiritual. The spirit is nothing without the letter, in a record substantially historical.
Who also hath made us able ministers of the new covenant - Of the new, evangelical dispensation. Not of the law, fitly called the letter, from God's literally writing it on the two tables. But of the Spirit - Of the gospel dispensation, which is written on the tables of our hearts by the Spirit. For the letter - The law, the Mosaic dispensation. Killeth - Seals in death those who still cleave to it. But the Spirit - The gospel, conveying the Spirit to those who receive it. Giveth life - Both spiritual and eternal: yea, if we adhere to the literal sense even of the moral law, if we regard only the precept and the sanction as they stand in themselves, not as they lead us to Christ, they are doubtless a killing ordinance, and bind us down under the sentence of death.
*More commentary available at chapter level.