In Luke 5:36-39, the Lord Jesus says a curious thing. He tells us that the new life that He came to give us – a life we live through faith in His work and His promises – is completely incongruent with the old life He came to save us from – a life we live . It would be impossible to mix the old way of living – where we attempted to earn God’s approval through our obedience – with the new way of living – where we receive God’s approval as a gift through faith in Christ. It was so impossible, in fact, that Jesus compared it storing old wine in new wineskins. The new wineskins would burst – they weren’t made to contain old wine. But, as Jesus said, “no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’”
Trying to earn God’s approval, forgiveness, and love is part of our fallen nature. We paradoxically try to be worthy while knowing, but still trying to counteract, our own unworthiness. It’s an expression of the “old man” that we have to put off every day. And, just like Jesus described, it’s incongruent with the new life that He have in His Spirit.
We rarely slip back into this “old wineskin” way of thinking consciously. We may not even be aware it’s there…until we falter. And we believe if God is angry with us, or at least disappointed. Then, in our shame, we avoid Him until we get our act together again. We feel as though we can’t even pray.
But this debilitating logic is little more than old wine in a new wineskin, and “old man” way of thinking in a “new man” life.
At the moment when our hearts condemn us, we need the God who is greater than our hearts, knows everything about us, and loves us the same (1 Jn 3:20). At the moment of our need for mercy, we need Psalm 130.
This Psalmist begins with a cry to God out of the depths, from the pit into which he fell. This man knows his need for forgiveness and he comes to the Lord in hope of finding mercy – but not because he is worthy of it. No, not all. Instead, he cries out for mercy precisely because he is unworthy of it.
Psalm 130 is a proclamation of hope for the faltering follower of Christ. The truth is that no one can stand before Him without fault (v. 3). When we stumble into sin, we must not cast aside God’s promise of mercy in an effort to make ourselves worthy. Our unworthiness reminds us of the one thing that makes us worthy to call out to Him – not our obedience, not our faithfulness. Only grace.
Martin Luther explained it this way: “Some say: ‘Yes, I would gladly trust that my prayer would be heard, if I were only worthy and prayed aright’. [But] the very reason we do pray is because of our unworthiness.” Neither the strength of our prayers or the faithfulness of our obedience ensure that God will receive us in our time of spiritual need. Instead, it is belief in God’s promise – in His kindness, mercy, and forgiveness through Christ alone that ensures our access to God: “Your worthiness does not help you, but your unworthiness is no barrier. Disbelief condemns you, and trust makes you worthy and sustains you.”
This expectation of God’s mercy means we can wait on the Lord with hope (v. 5). Despite our faltering, He will forgive us again because of grace (1 Jn 2:1-2). Think about it – when He promised to redeem and heal you, He already knew everything from which you’d need to be redeemed and healed. To our performance-driven, self-assessing souls, this often sounds too good to be true. Perhaps that’s why it can only be received by faith.
The Father knows when you feel condemned by your failures, cut off from His compassion. He sees when we shrink back to the old way of living in fear, of believing that God’s love for us and forgiveness somehow depend on us. And He tenderly reminds us that His love and forgiveness depend entirely upon Him.
When we are most aware of our need for His mercy, He invites us to draw near through faith. He is ready to restore the faltering Christ-follower. He overflows with redemption and unfaltering love (vv. 7-8).