Paul returns to discussing the two covenants, declaring that he and his colleagues were ministers of the New Covenant. Under the Old Covenant, God never gave the people the Holy Spirit. He required them to keep the law only in the "letter" and not in its spiritual intent and purpose as Jesus Christ later magnified it.
For example, the sixth commandment forbids murder. As long as one does not actually take someone's life, he has kept the commandment in the letter. However, Jesus taught that anyone who is angry with his brother without a cause or even insults someone else is in danger of breaking this law (Matthew 5:21-22). Because we have God's Spirit under the New Covenant, we can keep His laws not only in the letter but also in their spiritual intent.
The apostle then writes, ". . . for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." This statement is a key to understanding the rest of the chapter. "The letter kills" means that, in agreeing to the terms of the Old Covenant and accepting God's law, the carnal nation of Israel fell under the condemnation of the law because the people could not keep it. When law is broken, a penalty results, and the penalty for breaking God's law is death. Thus, without the ability to keep it properly, the Israelites incurred the death penalty.
Paul explains this as it occurred to him personally in Romans 7:9-11:
I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me.
The Old Covenant had a fault: The people under it were unable or unwilling to obey God's law. The author of Hebrews mentions this in his discussion of the New Covenant's superiority over the Old:
For if that first [Old] covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second [New Covenant]. Because finding fault with them [the Israelites], He says: "Behold, the days are coming," says the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah." (Hebrews 8:7-8)
Since the Spirit of God was not generally available under the Old Covenant, the carnal Israelites could not obey the law even in the letter. They broke the covenant that they had made with God, so a New Covenant was necessary.
Under the New Covenant, God gives us His Holy Spirit upon repentance and baptism. This enables us to keep God's law even in its spiritual intent. Furthermore, under the New Covenant, God provides a means for repentant sinners to receive pardon for their sins and have Christ's righteousness imputed to them. These people are no longer under the condemnation of the law (Romans 6:14), and the way is open for them to inherit eternal life. This is what Paul means when He says, "the Spirit gives life."
Earl L. Henn (1934-1997)
Have the Ten Commandments Passed Away?
The subject here is not the doing away with laws but the change in administration of existing laws. Remember that Jesus said not one jot or tittle will pass from the law (Matthew 5:18). In Hebrews 8:10, where the context is the Covenant, the New Covenant is shown to have laws, which will be written in our hearts.
Paul is making a comparison, showing the superiority of the ministry's responsibility under the New Covenant to the priesthood's responsibility under the Old. He compares ink with spirit, stone with flesh, letter with spirit (or intent), and death with life.
The "ministration of death" was Israel's civil administration for punishing violations of civil law. The laws were not done away, but the Old Covenant administration and enforcement of the law was set aside because the church does not have civil authority. It is that simple.
The church does not have civil authority over the state. However, the ministry has the opportunity to play a large part in the ministering of life to those God calls—through teaching and administering God's Word. Thus, the letter killed because the Old Covenant could not provide for life. Words—even of divine origin—cannot produce life. A vitalizing Spirit must be present to charge the words with transforming power.
Under the Old Covenant, God did not promise His Holy Spirit, forgiveness of sin, access into His presence, or eternal life. Jesus raised the civil law from its merely carnal application to the nation of Israel to its spiritual application to the church, which would be drawn from all of mankind, including, of course, the Gentiles.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 18)