Here we are at episode 200 in the Ask Pastor John podcast series. What grace, what kindness from the Lord, to have shown such favor on this little podcast. Episode 200 is appropriately epic. It’s a question we get all the time — weekly — from listeners who send us emails, and here it is: Pastor John, is drinking alcohol a sin?
Let me start by putting my biases on the table — my background, my biases — because everybody is influenced by their family and the experiences they have had. I am a default teetotaler. What that means is if I have my choice, I don’t drink alcohol. But I might, to be a good guest.
In other words, that is my little experience of freedom in Christ. But when I was in Germany, I decided that I was not going to make a pain of myself. If they put something on the table, I was going to do my best to manage it — to honor them — as a guest.
I want to let love be the guide, and love inclines me away from alcohol in our day. But here is the nuanced answer, as well as a little bit of why I have chosen this path for myself and why I don’t make it a requirement for everybody.
A Permissible Gift
The first answer that I would give to the question “Is it a sin to drink alcohol?” is the same answer I give to the question “Is it a sin to drink water?” And the answer is that it could be.
Drinking water when you should be giving a glass to someone else in need — that is sin. Drinking water when you should be paying more reverence to the preaching of God’s word — that is a sin. Drinking water when someone just warned you that it is contaminated and might kill you — that is sin. So drinking water can be sin.
“I want to let love be the guide, and love inclines me away from alcohol in our day.”
Presumably then, alcohol could be sin, but it may not be. Jesus made wine for the marriage at Cana (John 2:1–11). And I presume he made it because he expected people to drink it, and he didn’t want to participate in their sin.
Paul told Timothy to drink it medicinally (1 Timothy 5:23). The church leaders are not to be enslaved to it, which I think implies a moderate use of it (1 Timothy 3:8). Psalm 104:15 says it’s a gift from God: “Wine [is] to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart.”
So, I don’t think anyone can make a case from Scripture that teetotalism is required. If you choose not to drink alcohol like I do, as a kind of default way of life, it needs to be based on some principle other than what the Bible requires of us. What might that be?
Dangers in Drinking
It is remarkable how many warnings there are in the Bible about alcohol. I will just bullet a few here.
- Ephesians 5:18: “Do not get drunk with wine.”
- Romans 14:21: “It is good not to . . . drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.”
- Hosea 4:11: “Beware of wine, and new wine, which take away the understanding.”
- Ezekiel 44:21: “No priest shall drink wine when he enters the inner court.”
- Proverbs 20:1: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.”
- Proverbs 21:17: “He who loves wine and oil will not be rich.”
And the most extended statement in Proverbs goes like this, in chapter 23:
Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine. Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart will utter perverse things. You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast. “They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I must have another drink.” (Proverbs 23:30–35)
“Do not look at wine when it is red” — I don’t know what that means, except maybe that there is a kind of drink that is just a little too dangerous.
- Proverbs 31:4–5: “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of the afflicted.”
- Deuteronomy 29:6: “You have not drunk wine or strong drink, that you may know that I am the Lord your God.” The reason they didn’t drink any wine in the wilderness is, evidently, it would be an asset to their coming to know God fully.
You therefore get the impression that even though wine was permitted and was a blessing, it was fraught with dangers.
Alcohol in America
And I would add to those that the situation in which I live in America is why I feel zero incentive to try to like and enjoy alcoholic beverages. I am very content without them, and here is what I have in mind.
“God has given many other drinks that don’t have the same kind of addictive and destructive side effects.”
I did my ministry for thirty years at Bethlehem, just a few blocks away from Teen Challenge. Every Saturday night (virtually), some of those guys — who were in there to be set free from their addiction to alcohol — would show up, and they would come forward for prayer. Their stories were simply tragic, and I was thrilled for them to get free. So I watched it destroy lives, and I watched the lives being rebuilt minus alcohol.
I looked on Google yesterday: Alcohol costs Americans two hundred billion dollars a year, according to the Center for Disease Control Prevention. That is $750 per American in health costs and work production costs because of alcohol.
One-third of all traffic fatalities owe to alcohol involvement — and so on, with most of the ills of our culture. You can read statistics on divorce and abuse and so on. Not to mention that it makes people babbling fools on airplanes so that they get very, very annoying.
Know the Book (and Yourself)
By the way, nowhere in the New Testament is the communion drink called “wine.” Now, it probably was. I am not arguing it wasn’t. It probably was. But isn’t it interesting that nowhere is communion called “wine”? It is usually called the cup, or it is called the fruit of the vine. So, nobody can insist that we are commanded to drink wine by being commanded to drink the Lord’s Supper.
Given the fact that the Bible is mainly cautious about it, I don’t have any desire for it. And God has given many other drinks that don’t have the same kind of addictive and destructive side effects.
What I would like to say is: I am saving the best for last. I am saving the best for when I can handle it — and I know I am a man with an addictive personality. I buy a pack of gum, and I chew the whole thing in five minutes. So knowing myself, knowing this culture that is being destroyed in measure by it, I find little incentive myself for pursuing something I have no desire to pursue.
And let me end by just saying I do not condemn those who make other choices. It is just not on my agenda to go on a crusade to get other people to join me in this. I am just explaining where I am coming from.