Pelagianism and the Lord’s Supper


Movies build strong cases based in sympathetic and engaging storytelling supported by convincing acting, powerful emotional suggestion through music and the accessory trappings of set and effects. A film plot often carries us along so effectively that apart from decided critical analysis we can be brought to the point of fully condoning the conclusion of a matter without even considering the necessary philosophical shift that will occur in our own lives by doing so. So often we approach our theology narrative in a similar manner. A moral dilemma seems to present itself. Instead of starting from scripture, we feel that something must be right, either because we are comfortable with it at some level through past experience or because the majority of the people most important to us believe it is right and we subconsciously don’t want to break the mold. There is a strong inclination in today’s Christian church to substitute grape juice for wine in the observance of the Lord’s Supper. The practice is so culturally common in certain circles we forget that it is a fairly new one. For all intensive purposes, this article is a philosophical argument that inspects theological implications. The history of grape juice and its introduction to the Lord’s table by Reverend Welch and his prohibitionists is a sordid tale worthy of inspection at another time.

In the modern church, a moral high ground is given to those who "tolerate" or even shrink from wine in the cup of Christ’s table. Often this is defended with concern for the weaker brother, other times in response to certain pressures from those who choose to completely abstain from alcohol. After all, the issue can be made small in one respect if it is merely an aesthetic matter in scripture and larger in another way if we attach to the issue the weak conscience. And so the decision seems easily made. But while the question of whether to completely substitute grape juice for wine, or to even serve both grape juice and wine is seemingly insignificant, it has enormous ramifications in our understanding of soteriology and human nature.

The issue of love for our weaker brother or the modern desire to completely abstain from alcohol more than temporarily, are surface issues, or symptoms that relate to a deeper, more vexing dilemma. Amazingly, we place before ourselves a moral dilemma that our Lord and subsequently his church did not even deal with directly for over eighteen hundred years. But the root cause of this discussion is the 5th-century heresy of pelagianism, which holds:

(1) There is no such thing as original sin; consequently, (2) there is no hereditary taint of Adam’s sin. (3) Man has perfect freedom of the will and has no absolute need of God’s grace to set him right. (4) Man, though aided in various ways by divine grace, is virtually the author of his own salvation.[ref]Webster's Dictionary (1909, Second Edition)[/ref]

It is no accident that the use of grape juice in the Lord’s Supper corresponds to the rise and popularity of arminianism in the last few centuries. Arminianism itself is a form of semi-pelagianism, insisting that man’s nature while fallen, still retains the freedom to choose God on it’s own. The long held doctrine of the Christian church has been the total depravity of man’s nature, a nature that is born into sin, and apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, is incapable of turning to God. In sharp focus, then, this conflict is between whether man’s nature is completely fallen or not.

The issue boils down to what we believe has power over or influences the nature of man. Granted that naturally we all believe man inclines toward drunkenness apart from God, how far and how comprehensive is that inclination? Are all men born equally bent to sinful excess or are some just naturally worse than others. Ultimately, is God’s divine intervention necessary for man’s salvation, or can man choose for God to save himself? If the first is true, then the environment of man is not the cause of his sin or salvation. However, if the latter is true, then man’s environment is linked in cause to his salvation. From this comes our avoidance of alcohol for fear of addiction or relapse.

The Christian perspective on alcohol must begin with what the Scripture says. The Word of God must be our starting point. Christ declared “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” (Matthew 15:11) The issue with sin is that it comes from within us. It is part of our fallen nature, and consequently affects our entire being. If we are to embrace a true biblical understanding of the place of wine at the Lord’s table, or even alcohol in general, we must embrace what God’s word says about our sin first, or we will never overcome this seeming moral dilemma.

Often, the church calls the weaker brother to perpetual abstinence. The purported self-denial of the total abstainer is even held up as noble, virtuous, loving, and the spiritual reason for the substitution of grape juice for wine. Among other things, this position forbids maturity and Christian growth. The root of the issue is indeed anthropocentricity. It is to view the wine generally from a purely human perspective, and further than that misrepresent the nature and purpose of wine in the Lord’s Supper.

God did not merely create all things good. He gave man certain things for man’s benefit and to glorify himself and to express his true nature. Wine is one such thing. Wine is given to man for rejoicing (Deut 14:26), sorrowing (Prov 31:6, 7), the sustenance of health (1 Tim 5:23), and through all of these things points as a type to the comfort, joy, hilarity, purity, health, power, cleansing, and sustenance that are the true nature of the Holy Spirit.[ref]Psalm 1041:13-15 Proverbs 31:6, 7 Jeremiah 31:12 1 Timothy 5:23 Ephesians 5:18 Genesis 14:18 Ecclesiastes 10:19 Ecclesiastes 9:7, 8 Ecclesiastes 2:24 Matthew 9:17 Deuteronomy 14:26 Deuteronomy 12:7[/ref] Until the implementation of pasteurization, the purpose of cultivating grapes was for the production of wine. Man is responsible to use everything for God’s glory. This includes wine. Hence, the abuse of alcohol to the point of drunkenness is forcibly and unequivocally prohibited in Scripture, but the use of wine never is. In fact it is commanded.

Our modern method of dealing with drunkenness is to call it “addiction” and label it a disease. We then attempt to control man’s environment in order to keep him from sinning. The position is advanced: ‘If man doesn’t drink alcohol, he can’t get drunk’. This misses the whole moral responsibility of man by placing the cure in the changing of man’s environment. If a man is addicted to alcohol it is because he is in sin, and the Scripture calls it drunkenness. He is drunk because he is not exercising self government in terms of God’s law. The cure for drunkenness is regeneration. It is a new heart and mind made in the image of Christ.

To see the cure for drunkenness in total abstinence is to deny God the power to give man a new heart. It is to deny the effectiveness of the Holy Spirit to renew man’s mind and direct man in terms of God’s Word and obedience to Christ through repentance and right action.

I do not say these things with a heavy hand, or without regard to those who have been hurt by the destructive effects of drunkenness. Drunkenness has destroyed marriages, relationships, lives, ministries, etc. It is truly a problem in our society, and one that must be understood, approached, and dealt with by the Word of God.

If a man is encouraged to maintain self control by pursuing total abstinence as the response to drunkenness, he is being encouraged to advance a change by his own power and design. Pornography while a different issue in a number of ways, is a sin just like drunkenness. One that distorts and undermines the Christian family and is expressly forbidden in scripture. Yet, when a man repents fully, stops viewing pornography, and pursues Christ, we don't encourage that he totally abstain from sex with his wife. For a short time in order to pray and fast for the cleansing of his heart and the healing of hers, yes. But ultimately, we forbid him from abusing sexuality as God designed it and then exhort him to begin practicing marital intimacy in a righteous and Christian manner with his wife.

To serve grape juice instead of wine or even alongside wine in the Lord’s Supper is to deny (often unwittingly) the sufficiency of Scripture by rejecting Christ's appointed symbol, ignore man's totally fallen nature, and treat the work of the Holy Spirit as ineffectual. It ultimately asserts that the cause of man's sin is outside himself and persists in promoting the long and soundly denounced heresy of Pelagianism.

We know, that God gave wine to man for his betterment and enjoyment, to lift his spirit, and to strengthen him. Furthermore, Christ instituted the Lord's Supper with alcoholic wine in spite of man's fallen nature and that nature's proclivity to sin. The power of this act cannot be overlooked. By establishing this ordinance for us he drew a new and different line in the sand. A line that does not separate the “alcoholic” from the wine "connoisseur", but separates the unrepentant drunk from the redeemed sinner. He places all of us equally before God, calls us to forget ourselves and drink from the common cup of his salvation. The Lord's Supper is not about us and it’s not about what the wine does to us. We are to forget all of these except as far as the wine points to what our Savior did for us. For the man repenting of drunkenness, this is a most holy and beautiful picture of redemption. God takes what man's flesh and sin made vile and by his grace makes it a gift that draws man into fellowship in the assembly of God’s people, before the throne of God the Father through the death and resurrection of Christ the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit.