Pentecost: the law of the Spirit

Pope John Paul II, 1989

1. The descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Day is the definitive completion of the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ and the full realization of the announcements of the Old Testament, especially those of the Prophets Jeremiah and Ezechiel, concerning a new, future covenant which God would establish with man in Christ and an "outpouring" of God's Spirit "on all mankind" (Joel 3:1). However, this also means a new inscription of God's law "in the depths" of man's "being", or, as the prophet says, in the "heart" (cf. Jer 31:33). Thus we have a "new law", or a "law of the Spirit", which we must now consider for a more complete understanding of the mystery of the Paraclete.

2. We have already emphasized the fact that the Old Covenant between God-Lord and the people of Israel, established by means of the theophany of Sinai, was based on the Law. At its centre we find the Decalogue. The Lord exhorts his people to observe the commandments: "If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to the a kingdom of priests and holy nation" (Ex 9:5-6).

Since that covenant had not been faithfully kept, God announces through the prophets that he will establish a new covenant: "This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts". These words of Jeremiah, already quoted in the previous catechesis, are joined to the promise: "and I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jer 31:33).

The law of love for God and neighbor

3. Therefore the new (future) Covenant announced by the prophets was to be established by means of a radical change in man's relationship with God's law. Instead of being an external rule, written on tablets of stone, the Law was to become, thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit on man's heart, an inferior guideline, established "in the depths of man's being".

According to the Gospel, this Law is summarized in the commandment of love for God and neighbour. When Jesus states that "on these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets" (Mt 22:40), he makes it clear that they are already contained in the Old Testament (cf. Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18). Love for God is "the great and first commandment"; love for our neighbour is "the second (which) is like the first" (Mt 22:37-39). It is also a condition for observing the first: "for he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law" (Rom 13:8).

4. The commmandment of love for God and neighbour, the essence of the new Law established by Christ by word and example (even to giving "his life for his friends": cf. Jn 15: 13), is "written" in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. For this reason it becomes the "law of the Spirit".

As the Apostle writes to the Corinthians: "You show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts" (2 Cor 3:3). Therefore the Law of the Spirit is man's interior imperative, rather, it is the same Holy Spirit who thus becomes man's teacher and guide in the depths of his heart.

5. A law thus understood is far removed from every form of external constraint to which man may be subjected in his actions. The law of the Gospel, contained in the word and confirmed by the life and death of Christ, consists in a divine revelation which includes the fullness of the truth about the good of human actions, and at the same time heals and perfects man's inner freedom, as St Paul writes: "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death" (Rom 8:2). According to the Apostle, the Holy Spirit, who "gives life" because through him man's spirit shares in God's life, becomes at the same time the new principle and source of man's activity: "in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom 8:4).

In this teaching St Paul would have been able to appeal to Jesus himself, who in the Sermon on the Mount had pointed out: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them" (Mt 5:17). Precisely such a fulfilment of God's Law by Jesus Christ through word and example constitutes the model of "walking according to the Spirit". In this sense, the law of the Spirit, written by him "on tablets of human hearts", exists and operates in those who believe in Christ and share in his Spirit.

6. As we see from the Acts of the Apostles, the whole life of the primitive Church is a demonstration of the truth expressed by St Paul, according to whom "God's lope has been poured into our hearts through the Spirit who has been given to us" (Rom 5:5). In spite of the limitations and defects of its members, the community of Jerusalem shares in the new life which "is given by the Spirit"; it lives out of God's love. We also have received this life as a gift from the Holy Spirit, who fills us with love-love for God and neighbour-the essential content of the greatest commandment. Thus the new Law, stamped in human hearts by love as a gift of the Holy Spirit, is the law of the Spirit within them. It is the law which gives freedom, as St Paul writes: "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death" (Rom 8:2).

The beginning of a new morality

7. For this reason, Pentecost, in so far as it is "the pouring into our hearts" of God's love (cf. Rom 5:5), marks the beginning of a new human morality, based on the "law of the Spirit". This morality is more than mere observance of the law dictated by reason or by Revelation itself. It derives from, and at the same time reaches, something more profound. It derives from the Holy Spirit and makes it possible to live in a love which comes from God; it becomes a reality in our lives by been poured into our hearts".

The Apostle Paul was the greatest proclaimer of this higher morality, rooted in "the law of the Spirit". He who had been a zealous pharisee, an expert, a meticulous observer and a fanatical defender of the "letter of the Old Law, and who later became an apostle of Christ, could write about himself: "God... who has qualified us to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor 3 6).

L'Osservatore Romano August 9, 1989




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