The following is an excerpt from Keith A. Mathison’s book, Given For You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, copyright 2002, P&R Publishing.
Because the substitution of grape juice for wine in the Lord’s Supper has now become the standard practice in many American evangelical churches, many theologians within those communions have found it necessary to justify the change. In this section, we shall address some of the specific objections offered by representative theologians, as well as some other potential objections to the use of wine.
The prominent Baptist theologian A. H. Strong expresses a common objection made by those who have substituted grape juice for wine. He writes, “Although the wine which Jesus poured out was doubtless the ordinary fermented juice of the grape, there is nothing in the symbolism of the ordinance which forbids the use of unfermented juice of the grape,–obedience to the command ‘This do in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22:19) requires only that we should use the ‘fruit of the vine.’ ” (Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan, N.J.: Revell, 1970), 960.) Several points may be raised in response to this argument. First, it should be noted that Strong himself admits that wine was “doubtless” the drink that Jesus used. Second, if we are required to use the “fruit of the vine,” we are required to use wine because, in the context of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, fruit of the vine was a synonym for wine.
Another Baptist theologian, William W. Stevens, presents a similar line of argument in his book Doctrines of the Christian Religion:
The bread used by Jesus was doubtless the unleavened bread of
the Passover meal, as the wine he used was doubtless the fermented
juice of the grape. But this does not mean that we must
of necessity use unleavened bread, nor does it mean that we cannot
use the unfermented juice of the grape. Unleavened bread
is what Jesus had at hand, and his phrase “fruit of the vine” in
Matthew 26:29 would include unfermented juice as well. The
bread and the cup are symbolical only. To insist on literalism
would be tantamount to legalism (William W. Stevens,
Doctrines of the Christian Religion (Nashville: Broadman, 1967), 344.)
Here again we observe that the author in question admits that it is “doubtless” that Jesus himself used wine instead of grape juice. If this is admitted to be the case, the real question is why the author would even desire to change it in the first place. Stevens is simply incorrect when he asserts that the phrase “fruit of the vine” in the context of Matthew 26:29 would include unfermented grape juice as well as wine. In the context of the Passover meal, the phrase “fruit of the vine” was a liturgical term used as a synonym for wine. Finally, the comparison that Stevens makes between leavened and unleavened bread and wine and grape juice overlooks one big difference between the two. Leavened bread is still bread, but grape juice is not wine.
The most influential evangelical Baptist theologian today is Millard Erickson. Like Strong and Stevens before him, he too attempts to justify the substitution of grape juice for wine:
What elements we decide to use in celebrating the Lord’s Supper
will depend, at least in part, upon whether our chief concern is
to duplicate the original conditions as closely as possible or to
capture the symbolism of the sacrament . . . . With respect to
the cup, duplication of the original event would call for wine. . . .
If, on the other hand, representation of the blood of Christ is the
primary consideration, then grape juice will suffice equally well . . . .
Suitability to convey the meaning, not similarity to the original
circumstances, is what is important as far as the elements are
concerned (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids:
Baker, 1985), 1125.)
This argument raises a number of important objections that must be noted. First, we are not arguing for duplication, but for obedience. If bread and wine were the elements that Christ ordained to be used, then we have no more right to change them than we have to use something instead of water in baptism. Second, the argument of Erickson (and of Strong and Stevens) changes when the subject is baptism. When discussing baptism, Baptists such as Erickson typically argue from the example of Christ. They insist that early baptism was administered only by means of immersion (This is a questionable assertion, but arguments about the meaning and mode of baptism are beyond the scope of this book. For a concise presentation of the arguments against the view that immersion was or is the only proper mode of baptism, see Jay Adams, The Meaning and Mode of Baptism (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1992).) They argue that we must duplicate the baptismal mode that Jesus used. Yet in the case of the Lord’s Supper, they say that only the most basic symbolism need be preserved. But if basic symbolism is all that matters, then it would not matter whether Jesus and the apostles baptized only by means of immersion. Sprinkling and pouring would be acceptable because those modes of baptism convey the meaning of cleansing and purification just as well as immersion.
The dispensationalist Charles Ryrie takes a slightly different approach in his argument for the use of grape juice in the Lord’s Supper:
The Scriptures do not use the word “wine” in connection with
the Supper, only “the cup” or “the fruit of the vine.” Of course
it was juice from the grape, but whether fermented or not is not
stated . . . . For the sake of converted alcoholics or even to forestall
anyone beginning to drink, unfermented juice is preferable in light
of today’s worldwide problem with alcohol (Charles C. Ryrie,
Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor, 1986), 425.)
There are a number of problems with Ryrie’s argument. First, the word wine does not need to be used when the phrase fruit of the vine is itself a Jewish liturgical term for wine. Second, Ryrie’s argument leave the impression that Jesus may have used grape juice. Since the Lord’s Supper was instituted during a normal Pasover meal in which wine was unquestionably used, such a suggestion is very misleading. As the Baptist theologians Strong and Stevens admit, there is not doubt that Jesus was using wine.
The argument that we should use grape juice instead of wine for the sake of converted alcoholics and because of today’s worldwide alcohol problem simply doesn’t follow. Drunkenness was as much of a problem in biblical times as it is today. Otherwise, why would there be so many biblical condemnations of this sin? Yet, in spite of the fact that drunkenness was a problem even in the first century, Jesus did not hesitate to institute the Lord’s Supper using wine. In addition, the apostle Paul encountered drunkenness in the observance of the Lord’s Supper at Corinth (1 Cor. 11:21). Aside from the fact that it would have been impossibel for the Corinthian Christians to get drunk if they were using grape juice, as some suggest they were, we must observe that Paul did not correct this abuse by advocating the nonuse of wine. Instead, he called for the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper. If alcoholism is a real problem today, it was a real problem in Jesus’ day. Human physiology has not changed drastically in two thousand years. But in spite of the fact that drunkenness was a problen, and in spite of the fact that human beings face the same kinds of temptations, Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper with the elements of bread and wine. To suggest that the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper contributes to sinful behavior is to condemn Jesus himself.
The Pentecostal theologian J. Rodman Williams provides another faulty argument against the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper:
In the three synoptic accounts of the Lord’s Supper
the content of the cup is called “the fruit of the vine”
(Matt. 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18). This doubtless
was wine; however, since wine is not directly mentioned
in any of these accounts, it is irrelevant to insist
(as some do) that wine must be used. Grape juice
equally comes from “fruit of the vine”
(J. Rodman Williams, Revewal Theology
(GrandRapids: Zondervan, 1992), 3:261, n. 178.)
This argument is similar to those made by Strong, Stevens, and Erickson. Unlike their arguments, however, it contains an obvious self-contradiction. Williams says that all three accounts of the Lord’s Supper call the content of the cup “the fruit of the vine.” Then he says that “the fruit of the vine” mentioned in these accounts was doubtlessly wine. Then he contradicts himself by saying that wine is not directly mentioned in any of these accounts. If “the fruit of the vine” is directly mentioned in all three accounts, then wine is directly mentioned in all three accounts. The specific word wine need not be used, so long as an acknowledged synonym for wine is used. It is not irrelevant, therefore, to argue that wine should be used in the Lord’s Supper.
While it is not irrelevant to argue that wine should be used, it is entirely irrelevant to point out, as Williams does, that grape juice comes from the fruit of the vine and is therefore also permissible. Many fruits and berries grow on vines. If Williams’ argument is valid, why limit ourselves to the juice of grapes? Williams himself does not reject the use of wine simply because he believes grape juice also falls under the biblical meaning of the phrase the fruit of the vine. This is evident when we see his suggestion that beverages such as milk and tea are also permissible (Ibid.). Milk and tea most certainly do not come from “the fruit of the vine.” Williams’ entire argument simply ignores the special Jewish liturgical usage of the phrase fruit of the vine. In the context of the Passover meal, the phrase meant “wine,” not any fruit that happened to grow on vines or the juice that could be derived from those fruits. To argue in the manner that Williams argues is to ignore the historical and grammatical context of Jesus’ words.
Not one of the theologians we have cited presents a cogent argument for the rejection of wine and the substitution of grape juice in the observance of the Lord’s Supper. The most that these authors have attempted to prove is that the use of wine is an indifferent matter, but the manner in which they have made this argument would work equally as well against the use of water in baptism. All but one of these authors readily admit that Jesus himself used wine at the first Lord’s Supper, yet their arguments assume that the church can reject its use without providing any biblical reason for doing so.
There are other arguments against the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper that these theologians do not pursue in any detail. For example, some argue that we should not use wine in the Lord’s Supper because any use of alcohol is a sin. As we have seen, this was one of the fundamental arguments of the temperance movement. But it is not based on a shred of biblical or historical evidence. More importantly, it directly contradicts the explicit teaching of the Bible. According to Scripture, wine is a good gift of God to be used in moderation. The abuse of this good gift, like the abuse of any gift from God, is condemned as sin, but the use of wine itself is not condemned as sin anywhere in Scripture.
Another argument against the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper is based on the idea that there are potential alcoholics who would be hurt by this practice. Those who make this argument say that some people are born with a genetic predisposition toward alcoholism. If they were to drink even a small amount of wine at the Lord’s Supper, it could lead them to become alcoholics. This argument, like the previous one, rests upon faulty presuppositions. In the first place, God has revealed in his Word that drunkenness is a sin, a moral and ethical failure, not a physiological or genetic defect. It is an act of disobedience to God.
Ironically, those evangelicals who use this argument have adopted some of the basic assumptions of liberal theology by taking something that God calls “sin” and implying that it is a “disease.” This removes the responsibility for the sin from the person involved. Secondly, this argument implies that Jesus did something wrong when he instituted the Lord’s Supper with wine. If there are people with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism now, there were people with the same disposition at the time of Jesus. Yet Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana and used wine at the first Lord’s Supper. Then he commanded that this sacrament be celebrated until he returns. If there is a genetic predisposition to alcoholism that is triggered by the use of even the smallest amount of wine, then Jesus is responsible for turning many people during the last two thousand years into alcoholics.
Other arguments against the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper are based on passages like Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 6:17, and 1 Thessalonians 5:22, where Christians are told to be separate from the world and to abstain from any appearance of evil. The use of such passages as an argument against the use of wine is based on the faulty premise that the use of alcohol is worldly or evil. If this were true, Jesus himself would be guilty of acting in a worldly manner. Jesus drank wine. He made wine. He gave wine to others. Any one of these activities would be labeled sinful by many modern American churches. But they are not sinful. To abstain from all appearance of evil means to abstain from every form and appearance of real sin, not the activity labeled “sin” by modern-day legalists. In any case, it is simply impossible to suggest that a sacrament of the church instituted by Christ himself has the appearance of evil.
Some argue that while wine is used regularly in many cultures, it should not be used in ours because in our culture the use of alcoholic beverages carries different connotations. Therefore, Christians who desire to maintain a credible witness to our culture should not use wine in the Lord’s Supper. However, our obedience to Christ cannot be compromised in order to conform the church to the standards of our culture. The culture is to be conformed to Christ, not the other way around. The problem at the heart of this argument can be readily seen if we examine its effect on areas not related to the Lord’s Supper. In our culture, for example, homosexuality has gradually become more and more acceptable. In order to “maintain a credible witness” to this culture, many Christian churches now ordain homosexuals to the ministry. In addition, many churches refuse to declare what the word of God says about this sin. Is this a credible witness to our culture?
The fact that many in our culture abuse God’s good gifts does not mean that the church must abstain from those things altogether. The church’s response should be to demonstrate the right use of God’s gifts. God’s good gift of sex is abused everywhere in our culture today. The church’s response should not be celibacy. The church maintains a credible witness to the culture by demonstrating the rightful use of that gift within the context of marriage. God’s gift of wine is everywhere abused by drunkards. The church maintains a credible witness by thankfully accepting this gift from God and using it moderately in the way that God intended it to be used. It does not glorify God to abstain from every gift of his that is abused by unbelievers in the culture around us. This would be impossible anyway, since unbelievers abuse everything that God has given us.
A final argument that has been made against the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper is based on the “weaker brother” principle found in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. According to this argument, it may be technically permissible to use wine, but since many Christians believe it to be a sin, we should abstain from using it in the Lord’s Supper lest we offend these “weaker brethren.” Several observations are in order. In the first place, Paul himself says in these passages that eating meat and drinking wine in and of themselves are indifferent matters (cf. Rom. 14:14, 20). They are sinful only when done in a specific religious context, namely idol worship. Second, if these passages imply that we should permanently abstain from drinking wine, they would equally imply that we should permanently abstain from eating meat (cf. Rom. 14:21). Yet very few strict prohibitionists are also vegetarians.
The primary teaching of these passages is that we should put love for our brothers in Christ ahead of any concern for our “rights.” However, the elders of the church have a responsibility to help “weaker brothers” grow to maturity. They are not to allow “weaker brothers” to remain weak indefinitely. Most importantly for our purposes, it must be observed that nothing in these passages has any bearing on the observance of the Lord’s Supper. However else these passages are used, they cannot be used to negate or change the sacraments instituted by Christ. Even if every other use of alcohol is voluntarily given up for the sake of weak consciences, the church cannot allow this argument to be used as an excuse to change the Lord’s Supper.
Because of the irrefutable fact that wine was used by Jesus in the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and because the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper was an undisputed practice for the first 1,800 years of the church’s existence, a heavy burden of proof rests upon those who have substituted grape juice for wine. After reviewing some of the most commonly heard objections to the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper, we are forced to conclude that this burden of proof has not been met. In fact, there has never even been an attempt to meet this burden of proof in many of the churches that have made this change. There is simply no legitimate reason for replacing wine with grape juice in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.