The Old Testament Witness to the Responsible Use of Wine

It’s amazing how far afield of important doctrines can human tradition carry us. The use of wine in the Lord’s Supper, and even the biblical definition of wine, is one such example.

There are many intertwined misconceptions surrounding the Christian’s liberty and responsibilities in the biblical use of wine, in personal use, as well as in the context of worship. I offer the following excerpt from Keith A. Mathison’s Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper to clear up some of these misconceptions. Following is found in the last chapter, “Practical Issues and Debates,” pages 297-313

BREAD AND WINE

One of the most emotionally charged questions in the modern American evangelical church is whether it is a sin for a Christian to drink an alcoholic beverage such as wine. Most evangelicals and many Reformed Christians are convinced that the consumption of wine in any amount is a sin. As a result of this conviction, many American churches now use grape juice as one of the elements of the Lord’s Supper. This practice raises a number of important questions. Is the consumption of wine by a Christian a sin? Should the church use wine or grape juice (or both) in the Lord’s Supper? In order to answer these questions, we need to discuss several related issues.

By way of introduction to this question, we must first note that it was not a point of dispute in the church for the first 1,800 years of her existence. It is still not a pint of dispute for most of the church around the world today. This issue is primarily debated in the United Staes, and it has been a matter of disagreement in the U.S. only since the middle of the nineteenth century. For the first 1,800 years of the church, the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper was an undisputed and noncontroversial practice. It was the universal practice of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants alike. It remained the universal practice for so long only because the use of wine in the New Testament descriptions of the Lord’s Supper is so unambiguously clear. The substitution of grape juice for wine had its origins, not in the study of Scripture, but in the capitulation of much of the American evangelical church to the demands of the nineteenth-century temperance movement (Horton, “At Least Weekly,” 168).

The Witness of Scripture
In order to demonstrate why wine was universally used in the Lord’s Supper for 1,800 years, we must first examine what the Bible says about wine in general and then examine what it says about the elements of the Lord’s Supper. When we examine Scripture, we see that wine is a good gift from God that is meant to be enjoyed in moderation and that the elements of the Lord’s Supper, as it was observed in the New Testament, were bread and wine–not bread and grape juice (For a good study of this subject, see Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., God Gave Wine: What the Bible Says About Alcohol {Lincoln, Calif.: Oakdown, 2001}. This book is an expanded version of The Christian and Alcoholic Beverage: A Biblical Perspective {Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986}.).

When we look at the Old Testament, we see that godly men gave wine as a gift (cf. Genesis 14:18-20). We also see that God himself commands that wine and strong drink be brought as an offering to him (cf. Exodus 29:38, 40; Leviticus 23:13; Numbers 15:5, 7, 10; 28:7). God always commands that only the best be offered to him as a sacrifice. Nothing unclean or unholy may ever be sacrificed to God. Yet God commands that he be offered wine as a sacrifice. It is impossible, therefore, that wine is inherently evil, unclean, or unholy.

There are numerous places in the Old Testament where wine is explicitly spoken of as a gracious blessing from God (see Genesis 27:28; Deuteronomy 7:12-13; 11:13-14; 14:22-26; Judges 9:13; Psalm 104:14-15; Proverbs 3:9-10; Amos 9:13-14). We see in these verses that an abundance of wine is considered to be one of the covenant blessings promised to those who are faithful. It is inconceivable that God would tell his people that wine is one of the blessings of the covenant if it is, in fact, a curse. In fact, Scripture refers to the removal of wine as part of the curse that falls on covenant breakers (cf. Deuteronomy 28:15, 39; Isaiah 62:8).

In 1 Chronicles 12:38-40, we read of David’s great coronation banquet. In the presence of at least one-third of a million people, an enormous coronation banquet was prepared for David. For three days, a huge assembly of people ate food and drank wine in the presence of God as they celebrated the enthronement of their king. Wine is also spoken of as part of the great eschatological feast (cf. Isaiah 25:6). Would God offer something sinful at a feast he himself prepares?

The Old Testament also uses wine to symbolize things that are unquestionably good. Isaiah, for example, uses wine to symbolize the gospel (Isaiah 55:1). The beauty of marital love is repeatedly compared to wine in the Song of Solomon (1:4; 4:10; 7:6-9; 8:2). God would not use something evil to symbolize the beauty of marital love, much less the gospel. The strict prohibitionist thesis is simply contradicted by Scripture.

Like all of God’s good gifts, wine can be abused. The good gift of food is abused by gluttons. The good gift of language is abused by liars and gossips. The good gift of sex is abused by fornicators, adulterers, and homosexuals. In the same way, the good gift of wine is abused by drunkards. The Old Testament pulls no punches in the condemnation of drunkenness (Job 12:25; Psalm 107:27; Proverbs 20:1; 23:20-21, 29-33; Isaiah 5:11, 22; 28:7-8). However, it is the abuse, not the use, of wine that is condemned by Scripture. The abuse of God’s good gifts is not solved by the ungrateful rejection of those gifts. The abuse of God’s good gifts is solved only by the proper use of them.

In my next posts, I’ll continue with the New Testament witness to the responsible use of wine, the testimony of the church, the rejection of wine, objections answered and summary.
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  1. […] up with this WordPress site. Here are links to the related posts to which Traver responds: The Old Testament Witness to the Responsible Use of Wine  The New Testament Witness to the Responsible Use of Wine The Church’s Witness to the […]

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