What is this "new covenant" Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 3:6 and why does it matter? Let's talk about it. But first, a word on 2 Corinthians 3:1-3:
2 Corinthians 3:1-2 (NIV)
1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you?
2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody.
On verses 1 to 3: When Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, a number of people in his church were questioning his authority as an "apostle", that is, as a leader who plants and leads a church. They compared Paul to other individuals who were known as "super apostles" (2 Corinthians 11:5 and 12:11), who looked more impressive than Paul was, and who brought with them letters of recommendation talking about their credentials. They thought, "Look at Paul. He faces problems, defeats and disappointments all the time, and he doesn't have any letters of recommendation. So he mustn't be a legitimate apostle." Paul understandably was hurt that the very church he planted was now questioning his authority and competence as an apostle.
In response, Paul says, "We don't need letters of recommendation, degrees or certificates, because the best proof of our competence as apostles is you! The fact that you continue to follow Christ as a community -- is that not proof that God has been working through us?" (vv2-3).
Ironically, in the end it was Paul -- the guy whose authority was questioned because he went through so much criticism, opposition and difficulty and wasn't afraid to share about it -- who ended up having the lasting legacy, whereas those super apostles faded out of history.
What can we learn from this? The best and most important clue whether or not a person is called by God is the fruit that comes from their life and ministry. It's not how many degrees they have, how many courses they have taken, or what seminary they went to. As Jesus says, "By their fruit you will recognize them...A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit." (Matthew 7:16, 18). Do they demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control)? Do they preach Jesus Christ and him crucified? How well do they love God's people, the church? How well do they work with others? Are people led to Jesus and their lives changed for the better because of their ministry? Does their ministry last? It's the fruit that matters more than anything else.
2 Corinthians 3:6 (NIV)
6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant--not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
On verse 6: What is this "new covenant" Paul is writing about? To understand what the new covenant is, you first need to understand what the old covenant was. The old covenant was the original system under which God related to His people. Under the old covenant, in order to receive God's blessing, the people had to perfectly obey the letter of God's law, proving themselves by their performance (see for example, Deuteronomy 11:22-23). But since no one could obey God's laws perfectly, the people were cut off from God's blessing and presence. That's why Paul says that the "letter" (representing God's law and the old covenant) "kills" (v6).
This all changed when Jesus established the new covenant, a new way by which God would relate to His people (see Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 22:20). Since we could not obey God's Word perfectly, Jesus stepped in and obeyed God's Word perfectly on our behalf. Then he died on the cross for our sins. Under the new covenant, we are accepted by God, forgiven of our sins, declared righteous in God's sight, and given access to God's blessing, presence, eternal life and His Holy Spirit -- not because of our performance, but because of God's mercy and grace expressed through Jesus Christ. It's this new covenant of God's grace and love that Paul was now a minister of (v6). That's why Paul says that "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." (v6)
So if you're still living under the old covenant, trying to earn God's love and forgiveness, stop it! You can't earn God's love and forgiveness, and you don't have to! God already loves you and has made a way for you to be with Him and to receive His blessings even though we have sinned against Him: He sent Jesus Christ for us. So instead of trying to earn God's love and forgiveness, by faith receive God's love and forgiveness made possible through Jesus Christ.
Praise God that, like Paul, we can now live and serve God, not under a performance-based old covenant, but under a love-based new covenant; not under law, but under grace; not relying on our own imperfect ability, but on God's perfect love.