New Wine?

Today I read, “Tragically, [Martin] Luther did not realize that new wine cannot be repackaged into old wineskins.”

Let me add, even more tragically, Luther did not have any new wine.

A simple glance at history will confirm that Luther’s “wine” (his gospel) was packaged quite nicely into the Lutheran wineskin. The wineskin did not burst, and there was no loss of Luther’s wine. While I agree with the author (of Pagan Christianity, the book from which came the quote above) that Luther’s weekly services were simply a reworking of Roman Catholic rituals of pagan origin, I cannot agree that Luther had any new wine to put into that old wineskin.

Tertullian, a famous Christian of the 2nd century, said, “Custom without truth is simply error grown old.” Somehow, the aging of Luther’s errors have turned them into custom, but they have not become truth.

Luther believed that there was no way to reconcile Romans and James. He scoffed at his friend, Philip Malencthon, for trying. He called James an epistle of straw. (Defenders of Luther have regularly told me I’m misquoting him, because he really said “a right strawy epistle.” Sigh…)  His introduction to the NT suggests that neither Hebrews nor James are really worth reading, because they won’t teach you the Gospel, which is found best in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians.

Not surprisingly, this “gospel,” based on only portions of the NT, was extremely ineffective. Menno Symons, founder of the Mennonites, observed that the Lutherans were lived more godless lives than the invading, pagan Turks. Christian History magazine noted once that if a man didn’t cuss, drink, or kick his dog, he could be persecuted as an Anabaptist, obviously suggesting that it was typical for Reformation Protestants to do all those things.

To this day, young converts struggle with what to do with Luther’s partial gospel. Even if they stick to Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and the Gospel of John, as Luther suggests, many questions arise. If works have nothing to do with salvation, why does Paul say (in Galatians and Ephesians) that those who practice immorality won’t inherit God’s kingdom? If works have nothing to do with salvation, then why does Paul say (in Romans) that those who live according to the flesh will die? If works have nothing to do with salvation, then why does Jesus say (in John) that only those who do good will be raised to a resurrection of life?

One does not need to go to James 2:24 (the only occurrence of “faith only” in the Bible) in order to find a contradiction–not of Paul–but of Luther’s message.  Rom. 2:6,7 says that eternal life can be obtained by “patient continuance in doing good.” Gal. 6:9 says the same, “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we will reap [eternal life], if we do not faint.”

All these things may seem to contradict Paul’s words against justification by works. That’s not because they do contradict him; it’s because Luther’s error grown old has become custom, though not truth.  Paul’s justification by faith was a description of our entrance into Christ, our deliverance from our past sins, and, through grace, experiencing the breaking of sin’s power over us. Paul never says that eternal life or entering God’s kingdom is by faith. Jesus did not die to change God. God’s judgment was always just and good, and God was always merciful. Jesus died to change us. We were not good, and we had no way of repenting and living in the righteousness that God required in order to experience his mercy (Ez. 33). Jesus’ death, however, provided that means (Rom. 8:3,4). Delivered from our unrighteousness by faith, we are able to experience the mercies of God that were new every morning long before Christ died. Again, Jesus didn’t die to change God; he died to change us.

Never let anyone tell you that God requires perfection to pass his judgment. It’s not true, and he has never been unmerciful. Nor let anyone tell you that God requires nothing to pass his judgment if you are a follower of Christ. There is no partiality with God, and thus you, like all others, will be judged by your works by a merciful and kind God (2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Pet. 1:17), who offers the power of his grace and his Spirit to deliver you from the evil works that used to hold you in bondage.

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