Wine and Liberty
Yet, in spite of the overwhelmingly negative statements in the Bible regarding strong drink, those who believe (from an honest study of the Scriptures) that drinking strong drink is not pleasing to the Lord (and attempt to share their findings) are invariably labeled legalists and compared to the hypocritical Pharisees.
Consider the sarcastic insinuations against “Christian teetotalers” by one such writer: “Why, if one didn’t know better, he might think that God actually wanted us to enjoy life! Unfortunately, the only Bible most of our pagan friends will read is the one written on our lives and spoken from our lips. The Bible they know is a book of ‘Thou shalt nots,’ and the God they know is a cosmic killjoy.” [i] I might ask our brother, “Was God a cosmic killjoy when He sent Moses down from the mount with tablets containing ten Thou Shalt Nots?” The fact that God tells His people to avoid certain practices does NOT mean He is a killjoy. In fact, by keeping His people AWAY from certain harmful practices (including strong drink), the Lord is actually protecting and enhancing their TRUE JOY. A loving parent isn’t a killjoy when he tells his son NOT to skate on thin ice or to stay away from the road, or other dangerous activities. The real killjoy is not self-control or self-denial. The real killjoy is self-indulgence. Lasting joy doesn’t come from liquid spirits; it is the fruit of the HOLY Spirit (Gal.5:22).
The spirit of the age (Eph.2:2-3) is characterized by a love of pleasure (II Tim.3:4) and a twisting of the true meaning of grace (Jude 4). When accusations of legalism are raised today against those who believe social drinking is not pleasing to the Lord, many in the evangelical world (having been affected by that “spirit”) are inclined to accept the accusations as true without question. It is much easier to justify a practice that pleases the crowd and one which folks WANT to believe, than it is to convince them of a view that requires selfless sacrifice (love). It is much easier to justify a practice that allows the believer to blend in with the world than it is to present a view that requires taking a stand against and being DIFFERENT from the world. It is much easier to drift downstream with the crowd than to swim upstream against the current. It is also much easier to accuse those holding an opposing viewpoint of holding to a “modern, unvarnished form of Pharisaism”[ii], than it is to take the time to consider HOW they arrived at their position on this important matter.
God wants His children to grow in knowledge and to have sound judgment that is able to approve things that are excellent (Phil.1:10). The goal of believers in any culture and in any generation ought to be to discern (through the principles of grace found in the epistles), what is pleasing to the Lord and what is not – even if the outcome of that study might require a “change” of lifestyle (Rom.12:1-2). It often does.
In the previous author’s remarks, he implied that God wants His children to enjoy life and that drinking alcohol was a means to that end. Both of those implications are open for examination. First of all it should be noted that God’s overriding attribute is His infinite HOLINESS, not an inner yearning for His people to have fun. Secondly, our overriding purpose on earth as believers is not to enjoy life (Matt. 16:24-26), but to glorify God. This is accomplished through a sacrificial life that manifests the indwelling Christ by putting the glory of God first and the welfare of others before self. Presenting one’s body as a living sacrifice (willing to sacrifice self for God’s glory) results in a deep, inner joy that brings rest and satisfaction to the soul. This is infinitely superior to the fleeting “enjoyment” offered through strong drink. To suggest that alcohol helps folks enjoy life would ring quite hollow in the millions of homes of those whose lives have been shattered because of loved ones who are problem drinkers.
It is not surprising that American Christians in our generation (like the church at Laodecea), would place such a high value on personal pleasure. However, in spite of this trend, there are Christians (present author included!) who stand opposed to the recently popular (but not new) notion of “Christian hedonism.” Pleasure seeking is not a fruit of the Spirit. It is rather the spirit of the age (I Cor. 15:19,32-34; II Tim.3:4). Believers receive rest, joy, and an indescribable peace when seeking Christ, which involves being made conformable to His death (Phil. 3:10). But seeking “enjoyment” out of life (and using God as a means to that end) is very different than seeking Christ Himself. One is Christ-centered, the other self-centered. Enjoyment is not to be the OBJECT of our seeking. Christ is, or should be (Phil.1:21).
And yes, there are believers who wholeheartedly believe in and live under GRACE as a rule of life (Rom. 6:14), and at the same time believe that drinking strong drink is not pleasing to the Lord. There is nothing inconsistent with that position. Certainly there are issues where good brethren will apply the principles of grace and reach different conclusions and should receive one another (Rom.14:1-4). However, there are also issues not specifically mentioned in Scriptures, which when compared to New Testament principles will inevitably lead believers (in the same generation and culture) to the SAME conclusion. For example, the Bible says nothing about smoking, for obvious reasons – it was not yet invented when the Bible was written. There was a time a generation or so ago, when not much was known about the effects of smoking, and many Christians smoked in good conscience. But with all the information we have today, the Bible principles are CLEAR that the believer ought not to not smoke, since its connection with cancer is so well documented. Light and knowledge bring accountability. “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).
We often hear the excuse, “If the Bible doesn’t condemn a practice, then we shouldn’t condemn it either.” The statement sounds quite pious, but I believe that such statements are sometimes cleverly designed (intentionally or unintentionally) to shut the mouths of men and women of opposing convictions. If such a motto is going to be quoted as if it were Scripture, it deserves some scrutiny. The Bible doesn’t forbid slavery, polygamy, or marijuana (assuming they were legalized) either. Should we then assume that God doesn’t CARE which we choose? Should we assume that God would be pleased with whatever choice we made, since His word doesn’t forbid them specifically? Are we to assume that the principles of grace (when applied honestly) NEVER condemn practices, but always give believers their choice? Do these principles always lead to a “good, better, best” type answer, and never to a “right or wrong” type answer? There are countless practices and issues in modern life which are not specifically endorsed or condemned by Scripture. That is why spiritual maturity and a knowledge of the principles of grace are so vital – SO THAT the believer has sufficiently exercised his senses to be able to discern between both good and evil (Heb.5:14).
One could argue forcefully that when issues such as slavery or polygamy are compared to the principles of grace in the New Testament today, it is obvious that they are NOT pleasing to the Lord. Though not specifically forbidden by the letter of the law, they are exposed by the spirit of the law. Roland H. Bainton made this point when he wrote, “Few in this land today would fail to agree that Christian principles require alike the emancipation of slaves and the abandonment of polygamy. Similarly one may argue that Christian principles call for abstinence from intoxicating beverages.”[iii] [Italics added.)
Many are arguing today that the principles of grace in the New Testament which are designed to give guidance to the believer in areas not specifically addressed in the Bible cover nothing but “gray areas” in which the believer may choose as he pleases. In many areas of choice, that is certainly the case. However, these principles are also designed to help the believer discern between right and wrong, good and evil, and between holy and unholy for issues and situations the Bible writers had no way of knowing would arise in succeeding generations. Although they were not able to address all future “issues” by name, the principles recorded give enough light for discerning believers to make choices in harmony with the mind of God on the matter. And yes, God DOES have a mind on many of these matters. The fact we are to “prove what is acceptable to the Lord” (Eph.5:5) indicates that there will be some issues that are NOT acceptable to the Lord. Not everything passes the test.
In the Scriptures the believer who exercises himself to discern between good and evil in areas not specifically mentioned in the Scriptures is portrayed as wise and mature (Heb.5:12-14; Phil. 1:9-10; I Thess.5:21-22; Eph.5:10; Acts 17:11; Lev.10:10; I John 4:1; etc.). However, in many evangelical circles today such believers are ridiculed as “sin-sniffers.”[iv] Bible teachers whose aim it is to help others apply the principles of grace to real life issues (such as drinking in the modern world) are viewed as “those who do not want other Christians to enjoy life.” [v]
Some have gone so far as to consider it legalistic to even encourage believers to ask themselves penetrating questions concerning whether an issue is pleasing to the Lord or not, or whether it might be stumblingblock to others. One such writer made the following helpful list of excellent questions: “Is it honoring to God? Might it harm a weaker brother or sister? Is it the best use of your time? Does it promote the cause of Christ? Does it avoid the appearance of evil?” But he then stated that such questions “have become a way of imposing one’s own conscience on another. In effect, they are oral tradition that is extra-biblical, palmed off as though a mark of wisdom and maturity. In other words, they are often a weaker brother’s attempt to enforce a kind of legalism on those who have fewer scruples about such grey areas.” [vi] By what stretch of the imagination could asking a brother to THINK be considered “a kind of legalism?” We have several chapters in the Bible which were written for that very purpose – to cause believers to stop and THINK about the ramifications of their actions (I Cor. 8-10; Rom. 14-15; etc.) on themselves, on others, and the testimony of Christ. It is always GOOD to “ponder the path of thy feet” (Prov. 4:26). We encourage thinking.
The purpose of this paper is NOT to put a believer under the law. Nor is it designed to frame the question of alcohol in terms of a “Thou shalt not.” Its only purpose is to HELP believers see an issue clearly so that they might (under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit) make a decision that is acceptable to the Lord. The more informed a believer is, the better equipped he is to consider the principles of grace and make the proper decision for his life.
Why is it that fundamentalists are labeled “Pharisaical sin-sniffers” for challenging believers to ponder the MANY BIBLICAL WARNINGSconcerning alcohol use, and the evangelicals who virtually encourage drinking (in moderation) under the banner of “grace and liberty” paint themselves with the brush of orthodoxy? Do we not see that the Biblical principles of liberty present BOTH the positive and negative aspects? Should we not present BOTH sides of the issue if we claim to be Biblical? The New Evangelical loves to teach “judge not that ye be not judged” and “all things are lawful unto me.” Most Christians in our land can recite those phrases in their sleep. Very few could recite the rest of the verse. The fundamentalist loves those passages too… but he doesn’t stop in the middle of the verse. He continues to teach the passage in its context. If we are going to present the WHOLE counsel of God, both the freedom in Christ AND the serious warnings must be presented. For example, consider the following expressions of (positive) liberty AND their (negative) warnings:
- All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not. (I Cor.10:23)
- All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. (I Cor. 6:12)
- All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence. (Rom.14:20)
- I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean…….But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. (Rom.14:14… 15)
- For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. (Gal.5:13)
- As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. (I Pet.2:16)
- But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. (I Cor.8:8-9)
- Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled. (Titus 1:15)
- Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel. But I have used none of these things: neither have I written these things, that it should be so done unto me: for it were better for me to die, than that any man should make my glorying void. ( I Cor.9:14-15)
- For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. (I Cor. 9:19)
Presenting material for consideration is hardly legalism. There are some folks who simply may not be aware of the dangers of drinking alcohol for the Christian. They may not be aware of its link to sexual sins, to crime, to sickness, death, domestic violence, lack of self control, its negative affects on the brain and sound judgment, of its addictive nature, etc. Presenting information for consideration enables the believer to make a more mature and educated decision. There really ARE more issues to consider than simply to say, “I like wine and there is no verse that says Thou shalt not drink – besides, all things are lawful.” How shallow, self-centered, superficial, AND lopsided. The Bible does NOT say, “all things are lawful for me, period.” The Bible says all things are lawful, BUT…” The subject of drinking alcohol (like other social issues) is complicated and requires some research. God expects more from his adult sons. “Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men” (I Cor. 14:20).
To call a brother a “legalist” (which is outright heresy and worthy of excommunication – Gal. 5:12) because he believes that the Bible principles when faced honestly, lead to abstinence from intoxicating beverages, is quite offensive. Justification AND sanctification are BOTH by grace through faith. And yet those who walk by faith are to grow into maturity and to exercise their senses to discern between good and evil, holy and unholy (Heb.5:14; Lev. 10:10). Not much discernment is needed to know that stealing and adultery are evil. The Bible clearly states such. But for the hundreds of other practices and issues faced by believers in the modern world, (and completely unknown and unknowable to the Bible writers) we are given PRINCIPLES to use in discerning whether such a practice falls into the category of good or evil, holy or unholy… pleasing to the Lord or not. Of course every believer needs to be convinced by God’s Spirit and God’s Word in such cases. But it is hardly fair to label those attempting to aid believers in formulating mature decisions in such areas as “legalists.”
It is not surprising to discover that in our age there are some who stretch grace well beyond its God-intended meaning. Some false teachers turn the grace of our God into lasciviousness (Jude 4). Unfortunately, there are many believers who have also seemed to “stretch” the meaning of grace to include some practices that may NOT be pleasing to the Lord. Does God not have a “mind” or opinion on these practices, simply because they were not forbidden in Scripture? Could it be that there were other REASONS why God chose NOT to deal with certain issues with a “thou shalt not?” Yet when many of the arguments supporting such social practices (like slavery, polygamy, smoking, drinking strong drink, etc.) are placed next to the principles of grace, they melt away like wax before a fire. The fact that God did not outright FORBID slavery is in no way to be mistaken as His endorsement of the dreadful practice. Rather, God chose to allow grace to first change the hearts of men who in turn would then abolish that horrible injustice. God doesn’t always deal with complicated social issues in the way that we might like, but His way is perfect… and for believers with spiritually sensitive hearts, effective!
God has given ample light in His Word to make His mind on these issues clear, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. The ability to see the “difference between holy and unholy” (Lev.10:10) depends upon a person’s level of maturity, spiritual discernment, and his willingness to learn (John 7:17). A heart that is unwilling to learn and eyes that are unwilling to see can justify virtually any practice.
[i] Daniel B. Wallace, Ph.D, The Bible And Alcohol, Biblical Studies Foundation.
[iii] Roland H. Bainton, Total Abstinence and Biblical Principles , Christianity Today, July 7, 1958.
[iv] Daniel B. Wallace, Ph.D, The Bible And Alcohol, Biblical Studies Foundation.
[v] Daniel B. Wallace, Ph. D, I Thess. 5:22 – The Sin-Sniffer’s Catch all Verse, Biblical Studies Foundation.