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Our “New Wine” Reformation Heritage

“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for
the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. 

Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the
skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. 

But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved”

(Matthew 9:16-17 ESV).

This parable is a practical example of taking good care of household items.

Patching an old garment with unshrunk cloth would make no sense—as soon as you would wash it, the patch would shrink and you would be worse off than you were before. Putting new wine (which is still expanding) into stiff old wineskins would only result in a wasteful mess.

What was Jesus’ point with this parable?

The religion practiced by the self-righteous Pharisees was an old wineskin. “Follow our rules, be as holy as we claim to be, and God will reward you” was their message. This old wineskin was all works and pride, but the new wine that Jesus brought was the opposite. It was confession of sin, and trust in Christ for forgiveness of that sin. Jesus’ point was that works and grace are incompatible. You can’t “patch up” a religion of works. You can’t pour  the Gospel of grace into a heart that claims its own righteousness. It’s one or the other, as St. Paul makes plain: “And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work” (Romans 11:6).

This lesson had to be learned again in the days of the Lutheran Reformation. By the 1500’s, the Roman Catholic Church had become an old, dry wineskin. Forgiveness of sins was allegedly for sale; just buy an “indulgence.” Meritorious prayers to Mary and the saints, the demand for good works before forgiveness could be granted, and the teaching that believers would be punished for their sins in purgatory before entering heaven were all presented as ways that a person could earn at least a part of his own salvation.

Dr. Martin Luther was led by God to the “new wine” of the biblical teaching of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, revealed by Scripture alone. Hearts made new by the true Gospel were joined in a fellowship of churches that took the name Lutheran, not to glorify a man but to follow his lead back to Bible teaching.

It has been five hundred years since those days, and we still are blessed by that new wine (God’s free gift of grace) in new wineskins (hearts set free from self-salvation). How will we care for this precious legacy? It begins in our own hearts. A personal, ongoing reformation means that we use God’s Word to daily convict our own hearts of sin, and to find in Jesus our only Savior from those sins. Next, we will have concern for our fellow Christians, and especially for the coming generation, that the truth of the Gospel may always be taught among us according to the Bible alone. Finally, what better goal could we have than to do everything within our power to spread this Gospel truth far and wide? The earthly effort and cost may be great, but the results for God’s kingdom will be priceless!

Our message, our heritage, and our mission are not based on “salvation by works,” nor “works plus believing,” but rather this blessed truth: “We conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28). May God make us faithful stewards of this new wine!

Bruce Naumann is associate pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.