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Dear Brother A.M., 

Some time ago, I promised you that I would read the books and pamphlets condemning the Christian’s use of liquor which you loaned me and that I would comment on their contention, shared also by you, that all use of alcoholic beverages is forbidden a Christian. Included among these materials are “The Christian and the Liquor Traffic” by Sam Morris (Wheaton, Ill.: Sword of the Lord Publishers, 1951), “Christ, the Apostles, and Wine” by Ernest Gordon (Philadelphia: Sunday School Times Co., 1944), and “The Bible and the Use of the Word, ‘Wine”‘ by Bertha Rachel Palmer (Evanston, Ill.: Signal Press, n.d.). I have now had the time to read these booklets and pamphlets and to study their argument. I trust that you have no objection to my answering you by way of an open letter. The question whether a child of God may drink liquor is one in which many have an interest, especially, because the issue of Christian liberty is involved, as you yourself pointed out to me. 

In brief, the stand of these writings, and the stand which you defend, is that any use of drinks which could be abused so that drunkenness results is sinful. In other words, you contend that it is sin for a Christian to drink beer, wine, whiskey, or any beverage which, taken in excess, has the power to intoxicate. You condemn the position that, although it is sinful for a Christian to be drunk, a Christian may in good conscience use and enjoy liquor. Therefore, you are critical of Reformed churches in general and of the Protestant Reformed Churches in particular on this point, for Reformed churches do not teach total abstinence as part of a holy life, much less blow it up as virtually the essence of a holy life. 

The only authority for determining whether a Christian must abstain from liquor is Holy Scripture. Listing one example after another of the ruin of lives, marriages, and homes by drunkenness has an emotional effect, but is not decisive for our question, whether all use of liquor is sinful. One could as well list all the misery that has resulted from the abuse of sex, in order to prove that all sex is evil and that all Christians must totally abstain. Only the teaching of the Bible may be the basis for our stand in this matter. For this reason, I will concern myself only with those sections of the books and pamphlets which you loaned me that allege to give the Biblical grounds for opposing liquor. 

First, I will present Scripture’s teaching regarding the Christian’s use of alcohol. Then, I will consider the arguments raised against any use of liquor. The teaching of Scripture is clear. Scripture permits the Christian to drink a beverage, wine, which, if taken in excess, would make one drunk. Scripture nowhere forbids the Christian to drink an alcoholic beverage, but it forbids the Christian to be drunken. It should be most significant to you that never does the New Testament say to the saints, “Do not drink,” but, “Do not be drunken.” It does not forbid the liquor, but it forbids the abuse of it. 

In Scripture, the alcoholic beverage spoken of and permitted to the saints is wine (in the Greek language,oinos). Now, I know that those who insist on total” abstinence maintain that “wine” in the Bible refers, not to wine as we know it today, but to grape juice, that is, to a juice that would not be able to make a man drunk even if he drank a barrel of it at one sitting. But this interpretation of the word “wine” in Scripture is a pure fiction, nothing but a device by which they desperately try to avoid the plain teaching of the Bible that wine, a liquid that could intoxicate if taken in excess, is permitted to the saints. Grape juice simply is not wine, not in the usage of Scripture either. Never in the ‘Bible does the word “wine” refer to grape juice. It always refers to the fruit of the vine which has the power to intoxicate. We need not chase here and there, from one obscure, secular authority to another, to discover whether in Bible times “wine” really meant “grape juice.” The Bible itself makes plain that when it speaks of wine, it means wine—a drink from the grape that will make a man drunk if he drinks too much. Ephesians 5:18 is conclusive: “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” “Wine” here is not grape juice, for it is something that a man could possibly get drunk on. “Wine” is an intoxicating drink, liquor. The apostle does not command the saints not to drink wine, but he commands us not to get drunk on wine (or, by implication, beer, whiskey, or any liquor). The reason for the prohibition is that in drunkenness is “excess.” Literally, the word translated “excess” is “debauchery” or “profligacy.” Inherent in drunkenness is dissoluteness of life. The saint who becomes drunk gives himself over to the power of his sinful flesh and thus sees to it that he behaves himself, whether in thought and desire or in deed, as an unsaved man. But Paul’s prohibition of drunkenness implies the right of a Christian to drink wine, an alcoholic beverage. In our drinking of wine, we must guard against becoming drunk. 

This passage shows what the New Testament means .by “wine” in every case. Jesus made wine at Cana, according to John 2:1-11. Apart from the evidence already presented that “wine” in the New Testament means an alcoholic beverage, how contrary to sound interpretation of Scripture to understand “wine” in John 2:3 as the alcoholic beverage, but to explain “wine” in verse 9 as grape juice. 

In Luke 7:33, 34, Jesus contrasts Himself with John the Baptist in that John, as a Nazarite, drank no wine (certainly, not grape juice), but Jesus did drink wine, so that His enemies called Him a “winebibber.” It is as plain as day, from the mouth of the Lord Himself, that Jesus drank the wine that John abstained from drinking, that is, intoxicating beverage. Although He was no “winebibber,” that is, a drunkard, a wino, Jesus was a “wine-drinker.” 

The fruit of the vine which Jesus incorporated in the Lord’s Supper was wine, wine in the only sense Scripture knows of, a drink which invigorates a man and makes his heart glad, a beverage which, if abused, makes one drunk. Therefore, the Corinthians could do exactly that with this element of the sacrament, and we read in I Corinthians 11:21 that some of them wickedly became drunk with the wine of the Lord’s Supper. 

Also the wine that Paul told Timothy to use in I Timothy 5:23 was wine, not grape juice. It makes no difference that the reason for the use is “thy stomach’s sake,” for the fact remains that the New Testament clearly shows that some use of liquor is permissible. This is enough to refute the position of total abstinence. 

The Old Testament teaches the same things, namely, that by “wine” is meant an intoxicating beverage and that this wine was legitimately used by God’s people.Genesis 9:21 records that Noah became drunk on wine.Genesis 14:18 records that Melchizedek gave wine to Abraham after the battle with the kings. There is no need to list all the passages in the Old Testament that mention the legitimate possession and use of wine by Israel. Psalm 104:14, 15 blesses Jehovah God for giving “wine that maketh glad the heart of man.” Israel thankfully used and enjoyed this good creature of God. 

To sum up, Scripture speaks of an intoxicating drink, wine, which it is permissible for the saints to use and which can be used rightly. But Scripture warns against drunkenness.

How then can anyone defend the proposition that any and all drinking of liquor is sin on the basis of Scripture? The fact of the matter is that this is absolutely impossible. This becomes glaringly and painfully evident in the book by Sam Morris, “The Christian and the Liquor Traffic,” which we may take as representative of all the other books and pamphlets defending total abstinence. Although it boastfully advertises itself as “a sledge hammer message,” its efforts to prove that Scripture condemns drinking have all the force of a wet noodle. And since the teaching of the Bible is the one decisive thing as regards the question whether drinking is sinful, the entire book is a pitiful failure. Seldom do I come across such foolish interpretation of Holy Scripture. Not only do the passages to which he refers not prove what he wants them to prove, but they often prove the very opposite. 

The proposition which the book wants to establish is this: “The Bible magnifies total abstinence.” In other words, the Bible forbids us to drink alcoholic beverages at all. The book claims to give us Biblical grounds for this position. What are these “sledge hammer” blows against our use of liquor? 

The first Biblical ground for opposing liquor is the statement in Deuteronomy 29:6 that the children of Israel drank no wine or strong drink during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. From this simple statement of fact the book infers that drinking wine is sinful. That this is an erroneous inference the book could have learned by reading the first part of the text where Moses reminds Israel that they also did not eat bread during the forty years. May we conclude from this that eating bread is sinful? At times, God’s people abstained from perfectly legitimate activities because of a certain purpose God intended them to fulfill during that limited period. For example, Israel had to abstain from marital relationships at the time of the giving of the law (Exodus 19:15). Shall we conclude from this that marital relationships are sinful? This is foolishness. 

The next ground against liquor is Jeremiah 35:1-14, God’s praise of the Rechabites for their faithfulness to their father’s command not to drink wine. What the book conveniently omits to mention is that the Rechabites were also faithful to their father in not building houses and sowing seed. According to the argument of the book, just as this passage proves the sinfulness of drinking wine, so it also proves the sinfulness of building a house and sowing seed. Therefore, no Christian may drink liquor, build a house, or sow seed. This, mind you, is the “sledge hammer” against drinking alcoholic beverages. The correct understanding of the passage has nothing to do with the sinfulness of wine. The Rechabites were praised for being faithful to their father in all his commands, whereas Israel was not faithful to their Father’s commands. 

Another “sledge hammer blow” against drinking isLeviticus 10:8, 9, which the book explains thus: ” God commanded the priests to drink no wine nor strong drink.” This is not even a correct statement of the teaching of the text. The text does not flatly prohibit wine to the priests, but it forbids them to drink winewhen they go into the tabernacle (“Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee when ye go into the tabernacle”). Next, the book proves total abstinence from the fact that in the Old Testament and in the case of John the Baptist in the New Testament the Nazarites were forbidden to drink strong drink (cf.Numbers 6:1-3Luke 1:15, etc.). It is hard to believe that one who claims to be a preacher of the Word can handle the Scriptures in such a silly manner. It is, of course, true that the Nazarites were forbidden to drink alcoholic beverages. It is also true that they were forbidden to cut their hair. Shall I preach to my young men that not only is long hair permissible for men but also that cutting their hair is sinful for young men, because the Nazarites were forbidden to cut their hair? In fact, the case of the Nazarite proves neither the sinfulness of drinking strong drink nor the sinfulness of cutting their hair on the part of men. On the contrary, it proves both that drinking strong drink was legitimate for the ordinary Israelite and that men had short hair. The Nazarites were special servants of God. As such, they were distinguished by certain characteristics that set them apart from the rest of Israel. Among these were total abstinence and long hair. 

Then, the book appeals to Romans 14:21: “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.” The argument of the book is that since Paul says that it is good not to drink wine, drinking wine is sinful. At least, the book here admits that it is a mistake to suppose that wine in the New Testament was grape juice and grants that wine is liquor, for Paul would hardly teach that it is good not to drink grape juice. The absurdity of the book’s appeal to this text to prove the sinfulness of drinking wine is obvious. If Paul is teaching the sinfulness of drinking wine, he is also teaching the sinfulness of eating meat, for he says: “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine. . .” If we follow the reasoning of the book, we must conclude that all Christians must not only be total abstainers but also vegetarians. In fact, Paul is not teaching the sinfulness of drinking wine or eating meat. Both of these activities are perfectly legitimate. Paul expressly says in verse 20, “All things indeed are pure.” But there may be brothers in the Church that are not yet as strong in Christ as they should be. These brothers regard eating meats and drinking alcohol as sinful and may be offended when the stronger Christians do these things. Then, out of love for the brother, not because there is anything sinful in eating meat or drinking wine, the stronger Christians should give up eating meat, drinking wine, or whatever offends the weaker brother. 

Finally, the book appeals to the texts in the Scripture that condemn drunkenness. At this point, one wonders whether the book is not guilty of deliberate deceit rather than mere ignorance. It is supposed to be proving that drinking wine is sin; instead, it shows that drunkenness is sin (which no one denies); then it loudly concludes: “See, I have proved that drinking is sin.” In fact, it has proved only that drunkenness is sin (which we have insisted all along is the Biblical teaching). The same error is made in the pamphlet, “75 Bible References on Drinking.” This pamphlet refers to I Timothy 3:3, 8, 11, 12 and analyzes the texts thus: “Church officers must not drink; neither should their families.” Actually, the texts condemn drunkenness, not drinking but drinking too much. These texts are illustrations of the truth that the Bible never condemns drinking wine (liquor), but only drunkenness. Similar passages are I Corinthians 5I Corinthians 6, and Galatians 5, which the pamphlet refers to as condemning drinking. I Timothy 3:3 says that a bishop, or elder, must not be “given to wine.” Once more, by the way, it is made clear that “wine” in the Bible is not grape juice but wine, for the Bible would not forbid an elder to be given to grape juice. The word translated “given to wine” is paroinos and means addicted to liquor, sitting too long at the wine, drinking too much wine.’ Similarly, verse 8 declares that a deacon must be a man “not given to much wine.” What could be more plain? Paul does not write: “A deacon must be a man who does not drink wine.” But he requires that a deacon not be a heavy drinker, a drunkard. 

Some effort is made to find in the Old Testament the prohibition of drinking that cannot be found in the New Testament. Especially Habakkuk 2:15Proverbs 20:1, and Proverbs 23:29, 30 are quoted. But all of these passages warn, not against drinking, but against drunkenness. In Habakkuk 2:15, 16, the prophet condemns the man who makes his neighbor drunk in order to “look on their nakedness.”Proverbs 20:1 speaks of the danger of misusing wine and warns us against being deceived, i.e., being drunken.Proverbs 23:29ff. condemns “tarry(ing) long at the wine,” i.e., drunkenness. The man described, in the passage is a drunkard. 

Our examination of Scripture shows that total abstinence is a commandment of men, not a commandment of God. Some may think that it is a good commandment of men, but we Reformed people will not permit our consciences to be bound by the ordinances of men. This is part of our liberty in Christ. Only the Word of God binds our consciences, and the Word of God in the gospel is not a reversion to the stifling legalism of Judaism. We will let no man judge us in meat, or in drink (Colossians 2:16). Why should we who are free in Christ be subject to ordinances, “touch not; taste not; handle not” (Colossians 2:21)? Christ has freed us from the intolerable yoke of men’s commandments, whether those of the Pharisees, or those of a Pope, or those of the books which you loaned me. So vital is this principle to us that we would rather have all the ungodly world in a drunken stupor because of beer, wine, and whiskey than that one child of God should doubt his salvation because he disobeys man’s commandment not to drink wine. 

This, then, is our Reformed position on the saints’ use of liquor. The believer may drink and enjoy alcoholic beverages. The believer may not be drunk. Drunkenness is sin. The impenitent drunkard shall not be saved. Since drug use is precisely the same as drunkenness, drug use is condemned as well. Condemnation of drunkenness also includes condemnation of parties that lead to drunkenness, beer parties among the young or highball parties of their parents. Nor may one drink for the wrong reason, e.g., to drown his sorrows, to obliterate his problems for a little while, or to feel joyful when he is troubled with depression. Instead, he should be filled with the Spirit. We in Reformed churches need to hear the admonition against drunkenness in the preaching, and we need to keep this sin out of the Church by the disciplinary labor of the elders, just as was the case in the churches addressed by the New Testament epistles. By no means are we silent on the subject of liquor in our churches. It also belongs to our Reformed position on liquor that if a man cannot use liquor without abusing it, he ought to give it up entirely. It is better to go to heaven without liquor than to go to hell with it. But he may not make total abstinence a law for all the Church, only for himself. And if we have brothers in the church who are offended by our drinking, that is, weaker Christians who are actually tempted to sin through our behavior, we ought to give up drinking, just as we should give up eating meat if this offended someone. This we would do out of love for the brother, not because we thought drinking a sin. 

You also mentioned smoking to me. It is my judgment that as it becomes increasingly evident that smoking is detrimental to health, Christians ought to give up smoking, or not to start. The law of God that would apply is the 6th commandment, which our Heidelberg Catechism explains to mean, in part: “that I hurt not myself, nor willfully expose myself to any danger.” Of course, smoking would be but one of many implications of this commandment: over-eating and being too fat; dangerous driving; hazardous sports; etc. To single out smoking as the one great violation of the 6th commandment strikes me as odd. When people and churches do this, I wonder about their thinking. Is it perhaps the case that in their thinking the prohibition of smoking is not part of the 6th commandment which the saved Christian is called to obey in thankfulness, but that “not smoking” is, in reality, another ordinance of man, another legalistic rule to keep in order to be saved, another “virtuous” abstinence from something pleasurable? Why is it that not drinking and not smoking are exalted to a place of preeminence in the Christian life above the ten commandments of God? Why is it that many who cry down woe on smokers go on, year after year, breaking the 1st commandment of the law of God by preaching and confessing a god who cannot by almighty grace save anyone, but is dependent on the supposed free will of man? The first part of a holy life is to love and worship the true God by preaching, believing, and confessing pure doctrine. The second part is to love the neighbor by doing good to him in word and deed. In comparison with this, smoking is next to nothing. 

This brings me, dear brother, to the heart of the matter. There is something far more important involved in this discussion than merely the questions, “May a German Christian drink a glass of beer on a hot summer evening, and may a Dutch Christian puff on a pipe or cigar without jeopardizing his soul’s salvation?” As I have already indicated, the essential truth at stake in our discussion is the liberty of the Christian in Christ. That is why I headed my letter to you as I did: “An Open Letter Regarding Christian Liberty.” The Life in the world of the Christian man is one of freedom glorious freedom. For it is a life under grace, not under the law (Romans 6:14). And as Romans and Galatians show us, this liberty is always threatened by legalists, law-preachers, who try to entangle us again in the yoke of bondage. This, we must guard against on peril of our soul’s salvation. What do I mean by Christian liberty? This Christ Jesus in whom I believe satisfied for all my sins and fulfilled all righteousness for me, so that I am free from all sin, death, condemnation, and hell and from all obligation to do anything to earn salvation. The Spirit of Jesus now dwells in me, freeing me from the enslaving power of sin, so that I can and do live a life of obedience to God, although not perfectly. Freed from pollution, I am free to serve God. My life of holiness to the Lord is not governed by the precepts and ordinances of men—my conscience is not at the mercy of this pope who says, “Thou shalt not eat meat on Friday,” and that lordly Pharisee who says, “Thou art damned if thou eatest with unwashed hands,” and that religious tyrant who says, “If you drink liquor, you go to hell.” It is the law of God that is the sphere of the saint; it is the law of God that I obey, the law that says, “Love your heavenly Father Who saved you by His only-begotten Son with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” And I obey that law out of the motive of thankfulness for a wholly gracious salvation. I am a free man in my conscious life, too. I am not a slave who has a list of “do’s” and “don’t’s” scrupulously to observe lest he be punished. But I am a son of God who loves my Father and who freely, joyfully honors this Father with a holy life.

This is the Reformed conception of a holy life. There isa Reformed doctrine of good works. I am convinced that it is the Biblical conception. It is unique. There are other churches that display a certain strictness with regard to the lives of their members, but whose conception of the Christian life smacks of the legalism of the Judaizers. They view the Christian life as essentially a matter of external deportment; they emphasize man’s commandments, in distinction from God’s; they present obedience to these commandments as a matter of achieving salvation. I think that we Reformed churches ought to set forth the unique Reformed doctrine of holiness and good works more than we have done. Let us have some Reformation Day lectures on such subjects as, “The Reformation’s Doctrine of Good Works,” and, “The Reformation’s Goal of a Church Zealous of Genuine Good Works.” 

I grant you that there are some among us who use our liberty for an occasion to their flesh. These damnable antinomians spoil our good testimony as far as others are concerned and make us stink in the nostrils of those who observe us from without. These enemies within leave the impression that the Reformed doctrine of liberty is, in reality, only the satanic idea of licentiousness. These are the people, young or old, who practice drunkenness and revelliings and the attendant lusts and lasciviousness. God will judge them. When they reveal themselves, as they inevitably do, faithful elders will discipline them, excommunicating them if they refuse to repent. But the presence of these abusers of grace and liberty in the Church is not strange. The Devil always sows tares among the wheat in order, on the one hand, to destroy the Church with the leaven of sin or, on the other hand, to destroy the Church by getting her, in reaction to this abomination, to revert to legalism. The Church, however, may never deny or silence the truth because wicked men abuse it. For the sake of God’s elect, she must proclaim it. They must be and will be saved by the truth. 

In conclusion, I can think of no better counsel than to advise you to read and study the third part of our confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, for an understanding of the Reformed view of the holy life of the Christian. Reading it, you cannot any longer entertain fears concerning our eager pursuit of holiness “without which no man shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). 

Cordially in Christ, 

David Engelsma