Herman C. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
But in connection with the sin of drunkenness there is a certain anomaly. On the one hand, experience proves that confession and repentance alone do not necessarily free one from the sin; and on the other hand, it is possible, through the work of Alcoholics Anonymous, e.g., to be freed from drinking without actually being saved. That is, one can be freed from his “drinking problem” without confessing his sin and seeking forgiveness in the cross. And in addition to this, it is also often true that the one who has escaped from the sin of drunkenness can never touch a drop of liquor again, for if he does he will be back immediately in his old sins. As one person put it, he remains a drunk all his life, only he is now a non-drinking drunk: “Some people would rather be crazy than be called a drunk. It’s still something that people are ashamed of. There’s a terrible stigma involved in saying: ‘I am a drunk. That’s what I am. I’m a successful, charming, effective drunk that’s sober, and I’m one drink away from a drunk” (U.S. News & World Report, Nov. 30, 1987, p. 63).
In a certain sense of the word, therefore, the question is: what is the line between addiction and non-addiction? This is the question which is repeatedly faced by those who deal every day with this problem. Alcoholics Anonymous has, e.g., drawn up a rather elaborate testing procedure on the basis of which they determine whether a person is indeed addicted or not. I have had occasion to be involved in this sort of thing. AA sets up certain criteria to determine whether addiction is indeed present in a person, regardless of his own protestations.
In a recent issue of the Grand Rapids Press, Dr. Donahue addressed this problem and listed current thinking on it. He writes:
I’ll tell it like it is, for you (he was answering a question sent in by a reader, H.H.) and a lot of others in your age group who, studies reveal, are having alcohol problems.
Here are some questions to ask yourself?
Have you tried to cut down on drinking and failed? Do you feel guilty about your drinking? Are you annoyed at criticism about drinking? Have you ever taken a drink as an eye-opener in the morning? A yes to any of these indicates a problem . . . .
What about quantity of liquor drunk as a guide to problem drinking? Many ask me this. It’s difficult to quantify.
Four beers a day can spell trouble. Each 12-ounce bottle is equivalent in alcohol to six ounces of wine or 1.5 shots of 80 proof whiskey. Some can tolerate more than others, and women tolerate less than men before getting into liver trouble, for example . . . .
The person quoted above, a sober drunk, says this:
The best question to ask yourself or ask about someone you love: Is drinking distorting any part of my life—my working life, my social life, my family life? If it is, then you’ve got problems. Also, if you are secretly worried about your drinking, chances are you have reason to be worried. All alcoholics are, in their own souls, worried about their drinking. They may deny it; it is a disease of denial . . . .
The Bible speaks of the fact that the sinner is a slave of sin. This is immediately evident in some sins, perhaps not so completely evident in others. While it is a fact that the depraved sinner, apart from grace, is a slave to sin in a very fundamental sense of the word, any given sin can also become such a master in a person’s life that he becomes a slave to that very sin.
The depraved sinner is a slave to sin because his nature is corrupt and even his will is bound in sin so that he cannot even so much as will the good. This is the fundamental slavery of sin with which the whole human race is infected. But individual sins can also become our masters. Life is full of evidences of this.
If a person gives himself over to the sin of lying, he can become slave to that sin. The world speaks of compulsive liars or congenital liars; but the point is that lying becomes so dominant in his life that it becomes a way of life so that he lies even when there is no reason to lie. I once knew a man of this sort. He lied in everything he said. He lied because he seemed incapable of telling the difference between the truth and the lie. He lied when there was no apparent sense to it.
The same thing is true of fornication. A man may give himself over so completely to fornication that he becomes a slave to this sin. A man who had walked in the way of fornication once said to me (and it was a cry that rose from the very depths of his soul): “Reverend, I’d give my right arm to be free from this sin, but I cannot escape its clutches.”
The world speaks of kleptomaniacs, i.e., people who are compulsive thieves. But surely one can practice theft so often that the sin gains a certain dominance in his life so that he steals even when there is no point to it. Theft has control of his conduct, and he steals for no apparent reason and steals things which he does not want or need.
Gambling is such a sin. The world has even set up organizations, some called Gamblers Anonymous, to try to help people who gamble constantly to the point where they bring economic ruin on themselves and their families.
Drug use leads to severe addiction, even of a physical kind, so that the drug addict who desires to escape from drugs suffers terrible withdrawal symptoms, and, like the drunk, can never touch drugs again without reverting back to his old ways.
It seems as if this terrible slavery of an individual sin can be true of any sin. If a person gives himself over to hate, hate can come to dominate his life so completely that it becomes an all controlling principle determining everything he does.
Yet some sins have such severe physical and psychological consequences that the one who commits such sins becomes a slave to the sins physically and psychologically as well as spiritually. Drunkenness is one of them. It is not a disease. It is a sin. But it is the kind of sin that leads to great slavery, spiritual slavery, physical slavery, psychological slavery.
What are the psychological and physical reasons for this would make an interesting study in its own right, a study for which I lack the competence. But it is clear that some sins bring with them physical and psychological consequences which are grave and serious. These physical and psychological consequences, the harm done to the body and soul by these sins are of such a kind that other help is needed for a person to escape from them.
None of this means that there is no hope for the drunkard, no hope for the drug addict, no hope for the fornicator—even if he should do irreparable harm to his body and soul by his great sins, There is always hope in the cross of Jesus Christ. The blood of atonement was shed for the greatest of all sinners, and the price of Christ’s suffering was so great that no sin is left unpaid for. The cross is an amazing and wonderful gift of God. So complete is the atoning sacrifice of our Savior that no sin known to man (other than the sin of impenitence) is so great that it cannot be covered by the blood that flows from Calvary. To the sinner, chained in the seemingly unbreakable shackles of sin, there is hope, blessed hope, in that cross of Calvary. There is forgiveness and pardon. There is escape from sin and a power to break sin’s chains. For one who flees to that cross there must not be a moment’s doubt but that the blood of atonement has secured both pardon and deliverance.
But God has so ordained our lives that the humbled and repentant sinner may need help to escape from his sin. He may need the help which only his pastor, the elders of the church, and his fellow saints can provide. He may need their constant support and assistance. He may have been so harmed by his sin that the rest of his earthly life he stands on the brink of committing the same sins over again, and needs constant assistance to walk the path of obedience. The world has its organizations to assist drunks to stay sober. But the world knows nothing of the power of Calvary, and the great blessedness of the work of Christ through the church and through the communion of the saints. They help drunks, but never lead them to escape hell. There is no reason why the church cannot bring the message of pardon in the cross to penitent sinners not only, but also to give them the help and support they need to walk the pathway of life that leads to heaven.