Herman C. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
We have proved from Scripture that God’s Word considers drunkenness a sin and not a disease. Scripture pronounces woes upon those who follow strong drink (Isaiah 5:11). It warns against drunkenness and includes this sin in the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). It tells the saints not to have anything to do with those who are guilty of the sin of drunkenness (I Corinthians 5:11). It considers the sin so great that the drunkard cannot inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:21). It compares spiritual lethargy and worldliness with drunkenness (I Thessalonians 5:6-9).
Whatever the world, therefore, may say about drunkenness being a disease, Scripture does not look at the problem from that point of view. Scripture says that it is sin, sin which is so serious that the one who commits it and does not repent goes to hell. The kingdom of heaven is closed to him, for the sin is great in the sight of God and will surely bring God’s great punishment upon him.
We ought to pay attention to these things, for they are serious and involve our soul’s salvation. We do not often consider these things as seriously as we ought. What happens in the world also happens in the church. Already at a young age children start to drink. They do it because they think it is “smart” and because their peers do it. They have their “Friday night parties” and their “beach parties” in the summer, when beer flows freely and drinking is really the only reason for getting together. They grow up in an environment in which drinking is common and considered the thing to do. And when they grow older, Saturday night finds them at bars until all hours of the morning, and the Lord’s Day is desecrated because of sin on Saturday night. No evening meal, whether at home or in a restaurant, is complete without liquor. No visiting takes place without drinks being mixed or beer served. TV watching during the evening while several “six-packs” are consumed is common. And what is worse, people often make a joke of it all, laugh about drinking, poke fun of drunks, consider the whole thing as hilarious, and reflect in their speech the amusement which they have in their hearts about this dreadful sin. All this meets with God’s strong disapproval, and those who do such things slam the door to the kingdom of heaven in their own faces.
In considering this problem, we are faced with several questions which we propose to discuss in this article. 1) Is drinking liquor always wrong? Must we assume the position of the temperance movements in this country and be tee-totalers? 2) If the answer to these questions is no, then the question is: Where is the line drawn between proper drinking and drunkenness? 3) If drunkenness is a sin, ought not repentance and confession of sin be sufficient to deliver a man from this sin? I ask this question in connection with a rather lengthy quotation in an earlier article in which a Christian doctor who worked with people guilty of the sin of drunkenness said that although he testified to them of the truth of Scripture, and even was used by God to bring some to repentance and faith, he was unsuccessful in any single instance in helping these people escape from the sin.
That Scripture nowhere speaks of the calling of God’s people to abstain from drinking altogether certainly emphasizes that drinking is not, in itself, wrong. In fact, God speaks of the fact that wine is His gift which ‘can also be used with enjoyment and for profit. Jesus changed water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee, something which He would never have done if drinking itself was a sin. Paul urges Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach’s sake and his often infirmities (I Timothy 5:23). The Scriptures speak of wine as a symbol of spiritual prosperity, and that the gladness of heart which wine brings is a picture of the joy of salvation (Psalm 104:15,Proverbs 31:6, Song of Solomon 5:1). Those who argue that these texts do not refer to fermented grape juice and are not references to alcoholic beverages are mistaken and impose their own ideas on the text. While their motive may be pure [they fear greatly the evils of over-drinking and the sin of drunkenness), their zeal is misguided and their efforts to condemn all drinking are wrong. They fall into the opposite error of condemning a good gift of God, something of great seriousness (See I Timothy 4:1-6), and they lay restrictions on Christian liberty which cannot be endured by the child of God. This is not the direction to go.
But if it is true that also alcohol is a good gift of God which can be used by the child of God, where ought the line to be drawn between the good and bad use of this gift? I.e., when does the use of this gift become a sin? When does an obedient child of God become a drunk? What is the difference between one who uses this gift of God in the right way and one who so misuses it that he cannot enter the kingdom of God?
This is not such an easy question to answer. It is clear, of course, that the line can be drawn easily between those who only very occasionally drink alcoholic beverages and those who drink so much that they literally become drunk. The former is proper; the latter is flatly condemned. But the question is not quite so easy as that. Between these two extremes are many others: some who only periodically get drunk—say once a month or so; some who really never are drunk, but who drink to the point where they are nevertheless affected in their thinking and activity; some who really never get drunk, but who nevertheless always have their drinks close at hand: every night they drink several cans of beer. Every meal in the evening is accompanied by a drink or two. Every visit to friends and relatives begins with drinks. Every party or wedding has liquor as a part of it. If one would accuse them of drunkenness, they would solemnly assure you that they have never been drunk. But liquor is such a great part of their life that they cannot seem to be able to get along without it. Where does one draw the line?
In a certain sense, one cannot draw a line, simply because Scripture makes clear that this is a matter of Christian liberty. Just as one cannot legislate how much a person ought to eat before he becomes guilty of gluttony, and just as one cannot legislate by rules and precepts what constitutes modest dress, so one cannot ever say: this exact amount of liquor is all right to consume, but if you step beyond that limitation you are guilty of the sin of drunkenness. Christian liberty is never a system of do’s and don’t’s. If a child of God truly walks in liberty, the liberty wherewith Christ has made him free, then his life is controlled by the principle: what must I do to please the God Who has saved me? If he comes to his calling as a Christian in this way, the answers to all his problems are solved. He will never have any trouble with the question of how much he ought to drink.
But the opposite is true, too. If one is not motivated by this fundamental principle of loving and thankful obedience, then he will always attempt to get as close to the sin of drunkenness as he possibly can, while hoping somehow that he will escape the actual sin itself. To such a man the battle is lost. Whether he gets drunk or not, the battle is lost. God condemns him already, for he comes at the problem from the wrong point of view. He does not live, in his heart, a life of thankful obedience which begins with the question: “Lord, what wilt Thou have me do?” God looks at the heart. God judges an act in connection with the motive. God sees not as man sees, and God knows, even better than we, what is in harmony with the great principle of the law: Love God and thy neighbor.
Christian liberty is profoundly a matter of the heart. It all begins in the heart, and man is judged by God according to what his heart desires. Does he desire to get as close to sin as he can? He is condemned. Does he desire to stay as far away from sin as he can? He is blessed.
But this is not completely an answer to the question. And it is not the answer to the question, because drunkenness is an addiction, if we may for the moment use that word. It appears to me to be true that, though drunkenness is indeed a great sin against God, repentance and confession do not necessarily free one from the sin. This is not to say that repentance and confession are not necessary. Without question they are. No one who is guilty of the sin of drunkenness can escape from the sin and find peace with God and forgiveness without confessing his sin and repenting of it. Scripture is clear on this, for Scripture always leads us to the cross of Christ in Whose perfect sacrifice alone can be found forgiveness. And the only way to the cross is the way of heartfelt confession. The way to Calvary is a way drenched with the tears of sorrow for sin. There is no other way than this. And salvation is only in that one great sacrifice which Christ offered of Himself for the sins of His people.