Law, Grace & New Wine

In his parable of the wineskins, Jesus taught, "No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, 'The old is good'" (Luke 5:37-39).​ Jesus was comparing the kingdom of heaven to the process of grape fermentation. Nowadays, winemakers store their vintage in casks and cellars equipped with climate control. The ancients did not have a way to keep wine from fermenting, especially in the sweltering temperatures of the Near East. Like us, they too preferred aged wine. However, these people often added water to it to dilute the bitterness and the alcohol proof. If someone put old wine into a new wineskin, it would burst open during fermentation—it would be stretched to the limit. Even today, fermenting wine can shatter a glass bottle or make the cork explode from the top of it!

In context, Jesus was responding to the Pharisees who accused him and his disciples of violating the Jewish tradition of fasting. First-century Jews fasted daily or biweekly, and groups like the Pharisees saw it as a necessary measure of one's piety. Jesus responded to their accusation by saying that he came to push the Law of Moses to its limits. The Law was the national constitution for Israel and the foundation of the Jewish faith. However, Jesus made himself clear on that point: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill" (Matt. 5:17). So, the Law of Moses was the old wine in an old wineskin. The Greek verb plēroō (G4137) literally means "to fill" until completion, although translators often render it as "to fulfill" in the sense of something being ended. That said, Jesus was inviting the Jews to drink the new wine he was pouring into a new wineskin—although, from the same divine vineyard as the old vintage. One of the main themes of Matthew's gospel was Jesus coming as a "new Moses," i.e. Israel's new lawgiver. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus appealed to the Law of Moses by saying, "You have heard that it was said . . ." (cf. Matt. 5:21) before expanding it with his teaching. However, this was, by no means, to contradict the former law, but to ensure God's original intent for it was being taught. Moses himself warned the Israelites that God was going to send a new prophet like him: "The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet" (Deut. 18:15). In other words, Moses knew that he was not the end-all of Israel's prophets and that another would surpass him. Rabbinical Jews are still waiting for this prophet while Messianic Jews and Christians know him to be Jesus (cf. John 1:19-34; see "Jew & Gentile: Parting Ways").


Old vs. New Perspective on Paul


Both Lutheran and Reformed theologies teach the "old perspective on Paul." This is a common view that many churchgoers still have. However, it dates no earlier than the sixteenth century, the time of the Protestant Reformation. Problem is, this not-old-enough "old perspective" contains much anti-Semitism and is based on replacement theology, also known as supersessionism. When the German reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) wrote about Law and grace, he believed that Paul considered the Law of Moses obsolete and fully replaced by faith alone (see "Salvation: Romans Road Less Traveled"). ​The "old perspective" theologians turn Judaism into a caricature, assuming that all Jews then and now believe they are saved by doing works of the Law. However, this view is not biblically or historically accurate, as we shall see. They read in the magisterial abuses of Roman Catholicism anachronistically into scripture's criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Reformed professor J. Ligon Duncan III (b. 1960) makes this explicit: "In the same way as much of Judaism, Roman Catholicism was and is a religion emphasizing salvation by grace through faith. But closer examination shows that human merit is not excluded."

The "new perspective on Paul" is only new to readers who have never studied the early church. Most Protestants begin with the New Testament and skip about 1,517 years to the Reformation. In fact, they tend to read the New Testament through a sixteenth-century lens. However, the not-so "new perspective" began in the first century and continues today in Messianic Judaism. Paul never said the Law of Moses was abolished in the sense of being outright canceled. Many churchgoers take all of two of the 613 commandments of the Law—one about the sabbath and one about kosher—to form a whole doctrine of replacement from them. However, sabbath and kosher were not universal rules for gentiles even in the Old Testament—only for the nation of Israel (cf. Acts 17:29-30). Simply put, there is no reason for us Christian gentiles to dismiss the Law of Moses just so we can eat pork or worship on Sunday. In about AD 50, the Council of Jerusalem—led by Jesus' brother James—settled these matters fully within the context of the Law (Acts 15:1-35).


The "new perspective" corrects these bad-faith assumptions, teaching that Jesus and Paul both 1) considered themselves to be Jewish; 2) followed and reinforced the Law of Moses; and 3) viewed "the Way" (i.e. Christianity) as Judaism restored and perfected. Therefore, Jesus' parable of the wineskins illustrates themes of renewal and restoration. Today, many church leaders just use these words in their cringe-worthy "evangelism" (i.e., marketing) tactics with little regard for what they really mean. Nevertheless, many people talk about renewal and restoration until it is time to actually do some renewing and restoring. This not-old-enough "old perspective" must be discarded so we can return to the genuine first-century faith of Jesus and his twelve apostles. Consider this statement by the Reformed pietist Jodocus van Lodenstein (1620–1677): "The church is reformed, and always reforming" (Latin: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda).

Law & Grace in Reciprocity

Paul wrote, "He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that [Jesus] might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body" (Eph. 2:15). If we only read this one verse, we may be justified to say that the Law of Moses is obsolete with its works-based merit system. However, the Greek verb translated in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) as "abolished" (katargeōG2673) is a compound of the words kata (G2596; "according to," used to amplify verbs and their purpose) and argeō (G691; "to delay"). Although many translators understand katargeō to mean "abolished," it can also mean "suspended" or "very delayed." Given the overall context, for Paul to say that Jesus suspended the Law makes more sense when a contemporary doctrine does not obscure his intent.


Paul wrote, "For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. . . . and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law" (Rom. 3:28, 30b-31). When Luther translated Rom. 3:28 into German, he added the word allein ("alone") to bolster his claim that we are justified only by faith. However, Paul made it clear that we uphold the Law of Moses by having the same faith that Abraham and Moses shared. What scholars call the "new perspective on Paul" is better known as covenantal nomianism, or "sworn lawfulness."  This means that law and grace are reciprocal because the covenants God made with Abraham and with Moses still form the basis of Christ's new covenant. The author of Hebrews mentioned Abraham and Moses as examples of covenant-based faith (cf. 11:8-28). Simply put, neither Paul nor the author of Hebrews could use Old Testament figures as exemplars of faith if Law and grace were opposites.


Most churchgoers see Law and grace as total opposites. They assume the new covenant implies that God now overlooks sin because of his grace. However, the definition of grace (Greek: charis; G5485) pertains to God providing us a way to reconcile our sins without having the pay the penalty of death for them (Rom. 6:23). Jesus, being "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), removed this punishment from us during his atonement on the cross. In his letter to the Galatian church, Paul testified, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree' [Deut. 21:23]—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith" (Gal. 3:13-14). Therefore, God both imputes and imparts his righteousness to us, just as he deemed Abraham "righteous" because of his faith (Rom. 4:3). The "old perspective" theologians teach imputed righteousness, but balk at the concept of imparted righteousness. The more-ancient "new perspective" acknowledges that God does impute Jesus' righteousness to sinful people. However, if differs from the "old perspective" in that a sinful person can and does mature into someone who is actually righteous. 

The Greek word for "law" is nomos (G3551), from which we derive the words "nomianism" and "antinomianism." Although "legalism" and "nomianism" look they should mean the same thing, they have slightly different but important shades of meaning. This is the difference between describing someone as "legalistic" as opposed to "law-abiding." The "old perspective" teaches churchgoers to criticize others who actually follow the Bible as "legalistic." However, the "new perspective" stresses the church's overall connection to Israel, which allows Christian gentiles to be "law-abiding citizens" alongside Jewish believers in Jesus. This distinction is very important when reading the sixteen verses in the New Testament that mention "lawlessness," especially Paul's description of antichrist being the "man of lawlessness" (2 Thess. 2:1-9). This begs the question as to what law a Jewish teacher such as Paul would be referring to if not the Law of Moses? The Greek word for "lawless" is anomos (G459, lit. "no law"). No, a Christian cannot be a law-abiding citizen of God's kingdom if there is no Law. Paul said likewise: "For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace" (Rom. 4:15-16a). Heaven forbid we say that God is lawless as if he were a rebel sinner like Satan.

Completion of the Law

In his letter to the Roman church, Paul instructed:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom. 13:8-10).

Paul also used the Greek verb plēroō when saying that love "completes" the Law. Put another way, it is God's steadfast love (Greek: agapē; G26) which "fills" the Law of Moses with meaning. The idea that loving one's neighbor "completes" the Law may also be found at Matt. 19:1922:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Gal. 5:14; and James 2:8. Many Christians assume this to be New Testament doctrine because they consider it the "Covenant of Grace" as opposed to the "Covenant of Works" in the Old Testament. However, it was Moses who first wrote this in the Bible when God told the Israelites, "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD" (Lev. 19:18). 


Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the everlasting covenant, make us perfect in every good work to do his will, working in us that which is well-pleasing in your sight; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among us, and remain with us always. Amen.


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