New Wine In An Old Skin
the problem of legalism in the church today

by Graham Pockett

Scripture quoted is from the NIV Bible, not because it is ‘best’ but because it is in modern English. If in doubt, please read the quotations in various translations. You might like to read Why I Quote The NIV Bible.

There are over 600 laws in the Old Testament. Should Christians be obeying these old laws, or should we simply ignore them?

In Matthew 5:17, Jesus said: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." [NIV]

Many church leaders quote these words in the context that part, if not all, of the Old Testament Law still applies today.

However, Jesus also said "The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it." [Luke 16:16 NIV]

So does the Law still apply today, or are we under a New Covenant of Grace?

I believe that many people misinterpret the wording of Matthew 5:17 and the following two verses. Darby's New Translation says:

The passage has nothing to do with obeying the law. Nor is it here accomplishing a particular prophecy. He comes as the revealed completeness of God's mind, whatever the law and the prophets had pointed out. Verse 18 forbids the sense of obedience as not to be maintained, though 19 proves that he was to be condemned who, being under law, broke the commandments spoken of. But this is a consequence; Christ speaks of their authority. All was to be fulfilled in some way or another, not set aside.

Matthew 5:17 therefore talks about fulfillment of Law and prophecy, not obedience, so there is no dispute between that verse and Luke 16:16.

To reinforce this, Jesus healed (worked) on the Sabbath [Luke 13:10-16] which, according to the church leaders of the day, was a direct violation of the Fourth Commandment: "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy." [Exodus 20:8 NIV]

If Jesus could be so clear about the Old Testament Law, why then do we have a problem with it today? Why are we still yoked to the Laws of the Old Testament?

So what parts of the 10 Commandments (the moral law of the Old Testament) are sacrosanct today? What Commandments must we obey today?

When asked which was the greatest Commandment, Jesus answered by saying:

'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. [Matthew 22:37-40 NIV]

Another area which can cause confusion is what we can eat or drink. When discussing "clean" and "unclean" foods, Jesus said:

What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean', but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean'. [Matthew 15:11 NIV]

If Jesus could be so clear about the Old Testament Law, why then do we have a problem with it today? Why are we still yoked to the Laws of the Old Testament?

In answering the questions asked by the church leaders of His day, Jesus said:

You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men." [Matthew 15:7-9 NIV]

Living by Grace

One of the traits of being human is that we respond to boundaries set for us. We are more comfortable with a set of rigid laws than we are with the vague concept of Grace. Once we have a set of laws we know where we stand. We don't have to believe in them, just obey them.

Once you abolish law (either Biblical Law or man-made law) you must then try and live by a sense of morality. Imagine if the only road law we had was that we must not drive dangerously? Would we be responsible drivers, keeping to a safe speed and being courteous to other road users? Alas, most probably wouldn't, but that is exactly what we are being asked to do as Christians.

Our book of rules has been thrown away under a concept of Grace and we are asked to live a life which is considerate of others – whether they deserve it or not! Jesus told us to love our neighbors and place their interests before our own.

In Galatians 2:21 Paul said: "I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" [NIV]

Most of us have trouble with this concept of Grace and seek to have rules placed on us to "guide" us on the right path. Rules that we can live under, rules we can manipulate, rules we can stretch, rules that we can bend and, yes, even rules that we can break with the intention of repenting of them before God. No wonder Jesus said: "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!" [Matthew 7:23 NIV]

Jesus also said: "First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean." [Matthew 23:26 NIV]

...we are left open to abuse by the very people who should be guiding and protecting us – our preachers and pastors

It isn't the Law He wants us to keep but the Will of God. Jesus told us to live a "clean life" (a vague concept at best and open to cultural interpretation – which is exactly what Jesus meant it to be) and to love others as we love God and ourselves.

However, because we want guidelines and rules to live by (usually blurring the relationship between "guidelines" and "rules"), we are left open to abuse by the very people who should be guiding and protecting us – our preachers and pastors.

In our demand for guidance we ask for more and more clarification, refining these guidelines and rules until they become locked-in-stone laws. Many churches insist that their members not only abstain from alcohol, but also refrain from tea and coffee.

Apart from the fact that neither tea nor coffee are mentioned in the Bible so there is no direct Scriptural basis for demanding that church members refrain from drinking them, the ban on alcohol is even more absurd because alcohol is mentioned in the Bible and we are even advised that a glass of wine each day is good for the stomach. When Jesus turned the water into wine it was not the so-called "new wine" which was non-aloholic but clearly wine which was quite potent.

The justification for these bans was that Paul told us to "honor God with your body" because "your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Abuse of your body is wrong, but is drinking tea or coffee abuse? What Paul was talking about was sexual imorality (read verse 18), not the food and drink we consume – or even the cigarettes we smoke!

Remembering that Paul told us we should not get drunk (Ephesians 5:18), the real problem is one of addiction. If you can smoke cigarettes, gamble or drink alcohol without becoming addicted to them there is no problem.

We should also remember that Paul said: "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." [1 Corinthians 10:31 NIV]


Another example of this is in the call for tithes within a church. Nowhere in the New Testament are Christians told to tithe. Let's look at this a little more closely.

For all of the wrong reasons many church leaders have promoted the concept of tithing to ensure that their church has "sufficient" income to pay its bills. Some church leaders even use emotional blackmail to support their viewpoint.

They make statements like: "The Bible says that you won't have food in your house unless you tithe, you can't out-give God [referring to Malachi 3:10]. If you don't tithe you are demonstrating your unbelief, your greed, and your lack of 'right' teaching."

How many church services have you attended where the offering is the predominant part of the proceedings? How many times is the call for "tithes and offerings" longer that the pastor's sermon? We should not wonder why non-Christians or "backslidden" Christians shake their heads and say: "They are only interested in my money!"

Sadly, in many cases that seems to be true...

One argument for tithing is that it precedes the Law because it was mention in Genesis. If that argument was valid then everything mentioned before the Law was established (often called pre-Levitical) would still be relevant today – like animal sacrifice. Sacrifice still is valid today, but not the sacrifice of animals. We sacrifice ourselves to Christ by giving up our flesh (our fleshly desires).

In the same way, giving (making an offering) is just as relevant in a New Covenant church as was giving in the pre-Leviticus church – but not the Law which supports tithing

Many churches confuse offerings with tithes – Grace with Law. Rather than trust God to supply their needs they use selected passages from the Old Testament to 'persuade' their members to tithe.

Paul spoke clearly on this when he said:

For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have. [2 Corinthians 8:12 NIV]

If the willingness is there? What willingness is there if we are tithing because we are told that we must? Clearly, if we are not giving willingly then the gift is not acceptable to God.

Paul also said:

Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. [2 Corinthians 9:7 NIV]

Does this mean that we should not make a generous offering to the church? Of course not, the joy is in the giving and we should be happy to give as generously as we can. Paul simply says that we should give cheerfully.

So an offering is made under Grace (a free gift cheerfully given) and a tithe is made under Law (if you don't pay then God won't bless you).

If a church is truly trusting in God for its provision then it does not need to demand that its members tithe. However, many churches do not trust God – they trust emotional blackmail and manipulation to ensure a sufficient income for their church to pay for the buildings and its infrastructure, to "pay the bills".

Any church that relies on tithing for their income is not trusting God to supply their needs.

Church leaders might like to see a "healthy" bottom line when the accounts are audited, but what has that to do with worshipping God, with carrying out the Great Commission?

Maybe they should remember Proverbs 3:5-6...

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. [NIV]


And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:19 NIV]

Any church that relies on tithing for their income is not trusting God to supply their needs.

The Bible says that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10) which is simply saying that He is wealthy. If He is so rich, why should He need our pennies? God doesn't need our pennies, but what He does want from us is a generous heart. He doesn't want us to give grudgingly – which we are more likely to do if we are blackmailed into tithing – but to give joyfully.

Should that gift just be money? Of course not – that gift to God might be your labor and/or your time. Of course, churches cannot bank the labor you give so some "encourage" us to both work for God by serving, and also by giving financially.

I think that many church leaders will have a lot of explaining to do when they stand before the Judgement Seat.


The problem with Scripture is that it is interpreted by man, and often with ulterior motives. Man chooses what Scriptures to follow and what Scriptures to ignore. While giving lip-service to following the Bible literally, many fundamentalist churches still select which passages to follow and which passages to ignore.

The problem, of course, is that some Christian leaders do not balance what they teach with what the Bible says or implies. They select passages, specially passages of Law from the Old Testament, which suit their purposes and then promote those passages as if disobeying them would bring down the judgement of God.

They use fear as their main tool, but the Bible tells us that it is Satan who gives you a spirit of fear, not God (Romans 8:15).

This is often done for two reasons – the first is to exercise power over their congregation (read the excellent book, "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse" by David Johnson and Jeff Vanvonderen), and the second is to use their authority to ensure that their views, or interests, are met (as with tithing).

They use fear as their main tool, but the Bible tells us that it is Satan who gives you a spirit of fear, not God (Romans 8:15).

It is time that we told our church leaders that the ultimate authority is not them but God, and He has already told us what He wants in the Bible. Manipulating Scripture to "prove" what they want to prove is wrong.

I would not want to be one of those church leaders when they have to stand before God to justify their actions. The end does not justify the means (read Romans 3:8).

In Matthew 15:8-9, Jesus says:

These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men. [NIV]

Are you living by God's rules, or those created by man?

I pray you have found this article interesting and I would be pleased to read any comments you may have. However, my workload is such that I may not be able to respond to all mail. Address any comments to Graham Pockett.

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Graham’s Christian writing:
"Graham Pockett doesn't mince any words, but he writes with a kind heart. If you have questions about such things as "once saved, always saved", or why so many different ideas can come from the same scripture, or how much what we see and do affects us as spiritual beings, you'll find much to think about here."  from This Christian Life
Graham Pockett
Download these articles:
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  • Evolution – a statistical question mark?
  • “Once Saved Always Saved” – a dangerous delusion?
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  • Bashing The Bible – misusing & abusing Scripture
  • Two Billion Doctrines – the strange religion called Christianity
  • Does God Ever Change His Mind? – Calvin would turn in his grave!
  • New Wine In An Old Skin – the problem of legalism in the church today
  • Are You Hard Boiled, Or Soft & Runny? – doctrines are like an egg shell
  • The Bible is an "iffy" book – a look at the conditional promises of God
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  • We Don't See The Clean, Just The Dirt – judgement and forgiveness
  • Why I Quote The NIV Bible – is it an heretical Bible?
  • "Omissions" from the NIV Bible – a look at 17 missing verses
  • Do You Believe In Miracles? – you do when they happen to you!
  • “Why Didn’t God Answer My Prayer For A Miracle?” – my response
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  • Christian Concepts – the three crosses  (an analogy)
  • Christian Concepts – we are what we eat
  • Christian Concepts – when are we saved?  (an analogy)
  • Christian Concepts – when we are saved, part 1  ...part 2

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    Last Updated: Thursday, February 14, 2019