Laws defining acceptable behavior are spiritual in nature, not physical; they express a moral standard by which we may evaluate our actions. In this sense, God’s Law, Torah, is spiritual, perfectly expressing God’s Way. (Ro 7:14a)
We, on the other hand, are carnal, sold under sin, tending to violate God’s perfect standard. (Ro 7:14b) In this state our sin nature is always looking for ways to justify breaking God’s Law (Ro 7:21); the carnal mind won’t ever submit – it’s at war with goodness itself. (Ro 8:6)
Attempts to subvert Torah can be extremely crafty, using sleight of hand to make the point. (Ep 4:14) One such teaching is that since Torah is spiritual, we need not bother with the letter of the Law. In other words, as long as we’re in keeping with what we think is the spirit of a command, it’s OK to ignore its actual wording and break it. For example, if the spirit of Sabbath is a weekly rest, does it really matter whether we rest on Saturday or Sunday?
This begs the question of whether we can properly honor the spirit of a command while we’re despising its letter, what it actually says. If the sabbath command tells us to rest on a particular day of the week, which it does (Ex 20:10), and we choose to rest on a different day, are we breaking the command? Of course we are, by definition.
While it’s true that God’s laws have spiritual applications, perhaps many such applications, it’s a mistake to think each law doesn’t also have a specific, practical application; it is presumptuous to claim we’re keeping a law in spirit – spiritualizing it – while we’re disobeying it literally. Who are we to say what all the spiritual applications of a particular command are, or even the primary application?
The words are what God has given us, and what He expects us to obey (De 27:26); as we look at the words of all of His commands, as well as all His examples, we begin to understand some of the spirit and intent behind His laws, the precepts. But all of this is based on the very words He uses, the letter, if you will. We can’t rightly divide the Word while we’re ignoring the actual words; we can’t respect the intent of His Law while we’re routinely breaking it; this is handling His word deceitfully and corrupting it. (2Co 2:17)
Certainly, there may be extenuating circumstances where the spirit of a command might be respected while we’re violating its letter. For example, in an emergency we might technically violate the sabbath to preserve life, even of an animal. (Mt 12:11) The sabbath was made for us; we weren’t made for it. (Mk 2:27) We must use common sense in the application of God’s law, and not violate the Law of Love as we force technical obedience to the letter of the law.
God’s Law is written such that it’s the exception to properly violate the letter; for the letter perfectly captures the intent, as a general rule. If we love God’s law, and He’s writing it in our hearts, we’ll be keeping it as well as we can, both the letter and the spirit, as a manner of life. (Mt 5:19)