When Singapore first began implementing social-distancing measures in what feels much longer than a few months ago, I could not help but notice that communications from our government repeatedly used the language of complying with both “the spirit and the letter” of those regulations. Christians would quickly recognise that as being biblical language borrowed from the Apostle Paul, but a more careful study would reveal that the New Testament doctrine of the Spirit and the letter that of the law differs significantly from the common usage employed by the government.

The government’s intention is obvious and simple—isolate yourself as much as possible and don’t try to find loopholes around these legislations. You are to do both—keep to its letter (everything on the books) and the spirit (even more than what is on the books). To leave your home even just half an hour before your quarantine order ends is unacceptable (https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/covid-19-breach-quarantine-fine-tay-chun-hsien-12686600).

It is very important for us, however, not to mistake that secular misconstrual for the biblical concept. In Paul’s letters, observing the spirit and the letter of the law are not complementary, but instead they are diametrically opposed one to another. The letter of the law is death, but the Spirit is life (2 Cor. 3:6). You can only do one or the other, but not both. We are, in fact, to have nothing to do with the letter of the law—the blind, legalistic observance of what is written so that we do not get punished for breaking it, as though that was what God had intended us to do with the law. We, as Christians, are dead to the letter of the law (Rom. 7:6). It no longer holds any power over us. Not that we do not keep the law, but we are to keep to the spirit of it— to its true intention—which is to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Nothing more, nothing less. We do not keep the law simply because it is on the books. That is bondage, condemnation, and death, from which we have been freed by Christ. This is also why we are to submit to civil authority—not only for the fear of punishment, but also for conscience sake—recognising that it is what God has ordained and that it is good for the peace and order of society. In God’s justice system which weighs the hearts of men, actions do not matter nearly as much as intentions.

In our situation, keeping to the spirit of the law would involve us doing what we reasonably can to prevent the spread of the virus, but at the same time it would also mean that we should not feel too hindered by government safe-distancing regulations to help someone in need. “Is it legal or not?” should never be the first question or the ultimate consideration in deciding upon what we should or should not do. To kill your baby while she is in the womb is legal, as are gambling, watching nude people on a silver screen, and blaspheming God’s name. Man’s laws does not make something right or wrong. “Does it please God and edify your neighbour?” That is the right question to ask.

The Spirit and The Letter

Au Yeong Hau Tzeng is a graduate of The Masters University (Santa Clarita, California) and Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), and an associate pastor at Pilgrim Covenant Church in Singapore, but also ministers across the border at Johor Bahru Covenant Fellowship in Malaysia.

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