Alcohol, Liberty, and Legalism

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An interesting discussion took place in the comments to yesterday’s post on the Guinness Brewing Company. It seems that some think brewing beer is either an illegitimate vocation, and immoral activity, or unwise as a witness for Christ.

It’s not possible in one post to address all concerns. I’d just say, for my own part, that I do not advocate alcohol consumption and I don’t particularly like the taste of alcohol. Further, I find it slightly annoying when those who enjoy adult beverages talk about it a lot. (Sort of like the younger pastors who tend to work into conversation how much they enjoy a good cigar, or the occasional pipe. Good for you, bro!)

But the fact of the matter is that though alcohol can be abused, and is often abused, it is still part of God’s good creation—and Jesus partook of it enough that some falsely accused him of being a drunkard (Matt. 11:19 and parallels), and in fact he created “good wine” at a wedding celebration (John 2:1-6).

One of the reasons I think it’s worth returning to the issue is not because I care about alcohol per se, but rather because this issue is a good test case for hemeneutics, application, and ethics.

Again, with no attempt to be comprehensive, here are a few things that have been helpful to me throughout the years:

A Latin phrase to keep in mind:

abusus usum non tollit (“Abuse does not take away proper use”)

Ryan Kelly explains why Romans 14 has less application to this issue than most people think. Here’s the conclusion:

What we should conclude from all of this is that it is the abuse of a thing that is sin, not its use. Sin is that which violates God’s biblical commandments, not the additions and inventions we make. No man can bind the conscience of another. As Sola Scriptura Christians, our minds, wills, and hearts are directed by God’s revealed will in the Scriptures alone. On issues not forbidden or condemned by Scripture, we cannot invent a morality, or, worse, impose those inventions on others. We cannot be holier than Jesus, can we?

D.A. Carson:

Paul refuses to circumcise Titus, even when it was demanded by many in the Jerusalem crowd, not because it didn’t matter to them, but because it mattered so much that if he acquiesced, he would have been giving the impression that faith in Jesus is not enough for salvation: one has to become a Jew first, before one can become a Christian. That would jeopardize the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus.

To create a contemporary analogy: If I’m called to preach the gospel among a lot of people who are cultural teetotallers, I’ll give up alcohol for the sake of the gospel. But if they start saying, “You cannot be a Christian and drink alcohol,” I’ll reply, “Pass the port” or “I’ll think I’ll have a glass of Beaujolais with my meal.” Paul is flexible and therefore prepared to circumcise Timothy when the exclusive sufficiency of Christ is not at stake and when a little cultural accommodation will advance the gospel; he is rigidly inflexible and therefore refuses to circumcise Titus when people are saying that Gentiles must be circumcised and become Jews to accept the Jewish Messiah.

The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World, p. 145.

And here is John Piper, a teetotaller and an advocate of teetotalling, putting his young pastoral ministry on the line at Bethlehem Baptist Church in 1982 in order to argue against a provision requiring teetotalling for church membership

I want to hate what God hates and love what God loves.

And this I know beyond the shadow of a doubt: God hates legalism as much as he hates alcoholism.

If any of you still wonders why I go on supporting this amendment after hearing all the tragic stories about lives ruined through alcohol, the reason is that when I go home at night and close my eyes and let eternity rise in my mind, I see ten million more people in hell because of legalism than because of alcoholism. And I think that is a literal understatement. Satan is so sly. “He disguises himself as an angel of light,” the apostle says in 2 Corinthians 11:14. He keeps his deadliest diseases most sanitary. He clothes his captains in religious garments and houses his weapons in temples. O don’t you want to see his plots uncovered? . . .

Legalism is a more dangerous disease than alcoholism because it doesn’t look like one.

Alcoholism makes men fail; legalism helps them succeed in the world.

Alcoholism makes men depend on the bottle; legalism makes them self-sufficient, depending on no one.

Alcoholism destroys moral resolve; legalism gives it strength.

Alcoholics don’t feel welcome in church; legalists love to hear their morality extolled in church.

Therefore, what we need in this church is not front-end regulations to try to keep ourselves pure. We need to preach and pray and believe that “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, neither teetotalism nor social drinking, neither legalism nor alcoholism is of any avail with God, but only a new creation (a new heart)” (Galatians 6:15; 5:6).

The enemy is sending against us every day the Sherman tank of the flesh with its cannons of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. If we try to defend ourselves or our church with peashooter regulations, we will be defeated, even in our apparent success. The only defense is to “be rooted and built up in Christ and established in faith” (Colossians 2:6); “Strengthened with all power according to his glorious might for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11); “holding fast to the head from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together, . . . grows with a growth that is from God” (Colossians 2:19). From God! From God! And not from ourselves.

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