From time to time, Tenth Church is asked to approve an alcohol license for a nearby restaurant. Apparently, there is a civic ordinance that requires businesses within so many feet of a church to obtain consent before they are granted a license to sell drinks. And depending on the nature of the establishment, we are usually happy to comply.
We are also happy to allow the members of this church to consume alcohol. This is because the Bible teaches that Christians have the liberty to drink. Indeed, free wine is one of the promises of salvation (see Isa. 55:1; Luke 22:18). Thus the psalmist praised God for making “the wine that gladdens the heart of man” (Ps. 104:15). Obviously, he was talking about something more potent than grape juice, which may be nice to drink, but never exactly gladdened anyone’s heart. And speaking of glad hearts, who could ever forget the wedding at Cana, when Jesus turned water into fine wine (John 2:1-11). But then Jesus never was a teetotaler in principle, which perhaps explains why his enemies accused him of being a “drunkard” (Matt. 11:19).
However, at the same time that the Bible gives us the liberty to drink alcohol, it also gives many strong warnings about the dangers of alcohol abuse. God knows how easy it is for liberty to become an excuse for license, especially when it comes to drinking. The prophet Isaiah pronounced “Woe to those who… stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine” (Isa. 5:11; cf. Prov. 23:28ff.). If anything, the New Testament is even stronger in its warnings against inebriation. When it lists the sins we need to avoid—the sins that will prevent us from seeing God’s glory—it often includes the sin of drunkenness. “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious,” Paul reminded the Galatians: “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft… drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” Then he closes with this admonition: “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21; cf. 1 Pet. 4:3).
If alcohol was dangerous in biblical times, it is even more dangerous now. For one thing, we now know more about the harmful effects alcohol can have on the body, which for the Christian is “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). For another thing, the people of biblical times did not drive automobiles. We do, and thus we face the mortal danger of drunk driving. Furthermore, alcoholic beverages are more readily available now than at almost any time in human history. Beer, wine, vodka, whiskey—it’s all available at the corner bar, or at your local state liquor store. It has never been easier to get drunk than it is right now in America, which also means it has never been easier to become an alcoholic. People often describe alcoholism as a disease. It is more helpful to call the abuse of alcohol a sin, and at the same time to recognize that it is the kind of sin that enslaves the body as well as the soul.
To summarize, the biblical position on alcohol is liberty without license. Christians are free to drink a modicum of wine and other beverages. They are also free not to drink. As a matter of prudence, Christians who have personally escaped from bondage to alcohol often find it better not to drink at all. This, too, is a way of exercising Christian freedom, for we are at as much liberty not to drink as we are to drink.
However we exercise our liberty, we must careful to avoid alcohol license. Here are some practical guidelines:
1. Be careful about the company you keep. Many young people face a great deal of pressure to party, especially on weekends. The temptation may even come from friends who claim to be Christians. But here are some questions to ask about the people you hang out with: Are my friendships drawing me closer to God, or are they slowing me down in my spiritual progress? Am I influencing my friends for Christ, or are they influencing me? Remember that “friendship with the world is hatred toward God” (James 4:4). Do not listen to anyone who tells you to “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry” (Luke 12:19). Jesus said that people who say that are fools—not because there is anything wrong with eating, drinking, or being merry—but because they have a frivolous and unspiritual attitude towards life.
2. If having a drink seems important to you, then it’s too important. A Christian liberty is something to be enjoyed, but never something to be insisted upon. If you find yourself craving a drink, if you feel like you simply must have one to be happy, then you are no longer at liberty. Alcohol is becoming your master, and it is time to rebel against it.
3. Another practical guideline for preventing your liberty from becoming license is to examine why you are having a drink. Sometimes people drink in order to loosen their inhibitions. That is not a very spiritual impulse. The apostle Paul said “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). In other words, the best and truest joy comes from being who you are in Christ, and not from some artificial stimulant. When you are full of God’s Spirit, you are content with who you are. But without the Spirit, it is tempting to turn to a different kind of “spirit” in order to be happy, especially in social situations.
4. The last practical guideline is to remember that intoxication impairs a person’s judgment. The writer of Ecclesiastes described his youth as a time when he was “cheering [himself] with wine and embracing folly” (Eccl. 2:3). Have you been cheering yourself with wine, or with some other alcoholic beverage? If you have been drinking to excess, then you have been embracing folly. Strong drink often leads people to say and to do things that it would have been better to leave unsaid and undone. The book of Proverbs says that “Wine is a mocker” (Prov. 20:1)—it makes a fool out of the person who drinks too much. Heed the Bible’s warning, and don’t let alcohol license make a fool out of you.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2023 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org