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The Letter and the Spirit

Man does not truly act until he acts in the spirit of truth; his deeds are not pure until they are woven of the texture of truth. The acts of virtue are not virtue itself, but are its outward manifestation; they constitute the letter, of which the spirit is inward and invisible. To be a mechanical imitator of the letter of virtue—that is, to do certain things because they are called "good," without having the spirit of goodness—is not to be virtuous, but to be dead to virtue. For instance, the kind-hearted man will give to the needy, and so the giving of one's substance to the needs has come to be regarded as kindness itself, which is a confusing of the letter with the spirit, for the unkind man may "give," and having given, he flatters himself for having done a good deed, but the inward spirit of kindness being absent, his act is a dead seed which bears no fruit.

The man who has the spirit of kindness, never thinks the thought, "I am kind and good because I give to the poor," nor does he even think of letting other know of his kindness, the spirit of love in which he dwells being all-sufficient; but the man who mistakes the letter for the spirit, having the form of kindness only, prides himself upon the kind act which he has done, and is anxious that others should know how kind he is.

It is the same with every kind of virtue; it is a condition of the heart expressing itself in acts, and where the spirit is, the letter will be found; but the letter may be there without the spirit, and where such is the case there is death, for the spirit alone is Life.

The man who adopts outward forms of goodness, and thereby imagines he has attained to goodness itself, is like a man who, having put a mask on his face, believes it to be verily his face.

The New Testament aspect of Formalism or Pharissaism as being the greatest of all sins or errors, and as being the most difficult to eradicate, touches and teaches a profound truth, for, in the soul of the sinner (no matter how vile may be his sin) who knows that he is a sinner, there is a bright ray of light, and his salvation has already commenced; but the sinner who is convinced that he is holy because he has merely adopted the form of holiness, is indeed lost in darkness. It is thus that "the drunkards and harlots," namely, those who know they are sinners, and make no pretence to anything else, are nearer to the Kingdom (more ready to receive the truth, and be reformed) than those who, being sinners, do not know they are such, but pride themselves on being more holy than others because they have adopted certain outward forms of conduct or religion.

Herein resides the truth of the doctrine of non-salvation by works, that is, by mere outward acts uniformed by the spirit of Goodness or Love, as well as the doctrine of non-salvation by faith without works; for where there are no outward acts of goodness, the spirit of Goodness is absent, and if a man thinks, "I am saved by faith, and works are unnecessary, and a stumbling block," such a man is self-deluded, having neither faith nor works.

Wheresoever the spirit of truth is, there will also be the letter. The good tree will always bear good fruit; but the letter may be copied an imitated by those who have not yet developed to spirit, and this is the letter that kills; it is death itself.

Formalism does not consist solely in the mistaking of Church rites for the spirit of religion; this is but one aspect of Formalism. This duality of the letter and the spirit is universal, and not merely particular, and the man who lives in his bodily sensations, who fears death and dreads the loss of his body and its pleasures, is a Formalist, that is, he is living in the passing manifestation of Life, and not in Life itself; he is mistaking the shadow for the substance, the letter for the spirit.

That man also is a Formalist who judges his fellow men entirely and solely from their outward acts, mistaking those acts for the real spirit of truth or error.

Goodness of heart is the great living power, and he who has attained to this, both truly acts and truly judges.

Every act of a man stands or falls by the spirit which prompts and informs it, and not by any human judgment or estimate of it. If it be of the spirit of truth, it is a living seed which will bring forth the fruits of Life; it is be of the spirit of self, and a mere imitation of truth, it is a lifeless seed remaining for ever barren.

Truth is the Savior of the world. Only in the spirit of truth is there right judgment and clear vision. Confounding the letter with the spirit, men stumble into the darkness of divisions, animosities, and strifes. He who will abandon self, and will cultivate Love and Goodwill ungrudgingly and without stint, will find the spirit of truth which is salvation and Life.

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James Allen

James Allen was a little-known philosophical writer and poet. He is best recognized for his book, As a Man Thinketh. Allen wrote about complex subjects such as faith, destiny, love, patience, and religion but had the unique ability of explaining these subjects clearly and in a way that is easy to understand. He often wrote about cause and effect, sowing and reaping, as well as overcoming sadness, sorrow, and grief. For more information on the life of James Allen, click here.

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