Who Is a Disciple of Jesus Christ?

Working from Matthew 28:18-20, I would say that anyone who is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and who is obeying everything that Jesus taught—that person is a disciple of Jesus Christ.  No doubt, there is room for dispute. But the bottom line is that we must be able to define who is and who is not a follower of Christ.

Christ definition disciple what is disciple christianThis question takes on significance when considered in light of “fencing the table” for the Lord’s Supper. Throughout history, Christians have had to wrestle with who should partake of the Lord’s Supper (Communion).  Is it for anyone and everyone who happens to show up the day it is celebrated? Or is it for only some of those present? On what basis does one decide?

The natural sentiment is to say that we should not exclude anyone. But to say such a thing is to gut the Lord’s Supper of its meaning. The Lord’s Supper is for those who have communion with God through Jesus Christ. When He instituted the Lord’s Supper, Christ did not celebrate it with the whole crowd gathered for Passover. He celebrated it explicitly with His disciples. So, it seems logical to conclude that the Lord’s Supper is to be celebrated by Christ’s disciples.

Most Christians would agree that the Lord’s Supper is not for all, but for some. Non-believers, atheists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Mormons—all these groups find themselves routinely excluded from the Lord’s Supper because they are not disciples of Christ Jesus. If it is the case that one must be a disciple to partake of the Lord’s Supper, then it must be necessary to exclude non-disciples from the Lord’s Supper. To do that, one must be able to define who is a disciple.

Some wish to simplify the process and say a disciple is “a follower of Christ.” The problem with saying this is that, often, people in the excluded categories mentioned above will profess to be followers of Christ. I have had Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons tell me they are “Christians.” Does follower of Christ (or Christian) get defined by the individual? If one professes to be a follower of Christ, then she is—on that basis—a follower and, thus, able to enjoy the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper with other believers?  If not, then on what basis is it decided whether or not the person is a follower of Christ?

As a pastor, I answered the question using the equation found in Christ’s great commission. Instead of the term follower of Christ or Christian, I used Christ’s word in Matthew 28—disciple. And, using Christ’s definition, I concluded that a disciple is someone who obeys all that Jesus commands and has been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-20). These two characteristics—having been baptized and being obedient to Christ’s commands—are the defining characteristics of a disciple of Christ.

This will not satisfy all, but it is a biblical position. Regrettably, it does exclude those who have never been baptized as believers. It excludes those who are ignorant of or in rebellion against the commands of Christ, too. But it defines disciple in Christ’s own categories, which include being baptized and being obedient.

Why (some) Stubborn Baptists Still Fence the Table of the Lord’s Supper

As a pastor, I have often had folks close to me ask (in separate—and as far as I know—unrelated incidents) for me to explain why Baptists don’t allow Presbyterians to fellowship with us in the Lord’s Supper. [The questions were not all that succinctly worded, but they were all to the same effect.]  So, I feel obliged to answer the Presbyterian question from a Baptist perspective.

Lord Supper Close CommunionAllow me to say at the outset that I am burdened by division in the body of Christ. I long for the day when there are no dividing walls disturbing the fellowship of the faithful.  One cannot help but feel the force of Robert Frost’s tension in “Mending Wall.” In that poem, one farmer is dutifully determined year after year to reconstruct a boundary wall between the two farms on the dubious authority of a single proverb: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

For his part, the second farmer at least asks what is being walled in and what is being walled out; nevertheless, without answering the question, the first farmer faithfully rebuilds the wall because “Good fences make good neighbors.”  Many Christians feel this poem pictures our present predicament with the Presbyterians.  The current evangelical ethos appears ready to test the proverb again.  To many evangelicals, Baptists appear as stubbornly stuck in fence-building as Frost’s farmer, perhaps explaining why I—a Baptist pastor—have suffered through a mini-explosion of pointed questions sympathetic toward the Presbyterian position.  I am left feeling sort of like a father who has had the distasteful task of taking candy away from his little daughter, only to watch her eyes pool with tears.

Feelings aside, the questions are legitimate and deserve a studied answer.  Though I profess to be no expert, I have been pondering the question for months now. Honestly, I desire to find a way to resolve the tension between myself and others of the Presbyterian persuasion.  I am personally affected by this tension nearly every day.  Yet, there are three things which I have not been able to reconcile.

First, though Baptists typically are those whose position is targeted for intolerant ire, the Baptists are not the only fence-builders in the Christian community.  Indeed, every Christian church and denomination builds fences around the Lord’s table.  Granted, a very few ecumenical churches (no longer evangelical in most cases) build the largest fence possible, allowing anyone without examination to partake of the Lord’s Supper.  But they are exceedingly rare and certainly not biblical.  The overwhelming majority of churches build a much smaller fence around fellowship.

All Christian churches build a fence around the table of fellowship known as Communion (or the Lord’s Supper).  Typically, these churches share the Baptist position, building the fence along the line of baptism to protect the Lord’s Supper.  Baptism is viewed by Christians as the rite which signals entry into fellowship, while the Lord’s Supper is the rite which signals on-going fellowship in the body of Christ.  So, it is really no mystery that Baptists require baptism before one partakes of the Lord’s Supper.  All Christians do that.  Who doesn’t require baptism prior to the Lord’s Supper?  Lutherans require it.  Roman Catholics require it.  Methodists require it.  Eastern Orthodox require it. And, yes, Presbyterians require baptism prior to partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

Speaking of what it calls the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the Orthodox Presbyterian Book of Church Order says, “They are properly administered only in a gathering of the congregation for the public worship of God, baptism being a sacrament whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church, and the Lord’s Supper signifying and sealing the communion of believers with Christ and with each other as members of his mystical body.”

All Christians build fences for the sake of the gospel.  Though we can bemoan the final outcome of such fence-building, let us not too hastily condemn the practice. As you will remember, Paul once informed a church that her members were getting sick and dying because of the manner in which some were partaking of the Lord’s Supper.  If we value Christ’s instructions at all, then we will treat with gravity the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  We will likely agree with Christian history that the Lord’s Supper belongs to those who have been baptized.

Second, the issue between Baptists and Presbyterians on the topic of the Lord’s Supper is not really about the Lord’s Supper.  The issue is the significance of baptism with regard to church membership.  Baptists—whose very identity is tied to their convictions on this issue—insist that Baptism is a visible, initiatory rite for entrance into the church.

I have stated already that all denominations fence the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper with the entry ordinance of baptism.  The issue is not whether one ought to be baptized before partaking of the Lord’s Supper. On this point, we all agree. All disciples must be baptized (Matthew 28:18-20).  And that baptism must take place before taking the Lord’s Supper.  What we do not agree upon is the definition of baptism.  What is baptism?

Rather than attempt to explain the various nuances between Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians on the question of baptism, I think I would simply say that Baptists alone insist upon a clear text-by-text definition for the practice of baptism.  The clear teaching of the New Testament appears consistent with Acts 2:41, “So, then, those who had received his word were baptized…” (NASB).  Baptism is reserved for those who hear the Word of Christ and respond to it by faith.

As Paul explains in Romans 6:3-7, baptism is a testimonial picture of the power of the gospel in the believer’s life.  Baptism functions as a confession because of its signifying visually the gospel of our Lord.  Baptism, then, is for believers who have (through the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ) died to the old way of living in sin, have buried both their sin and their guilt in Christ’s cleansing flood, and have risen anew from the waters with the empowerment of the Resurrection working in them to ensure a new walk in the narrow way of life.

According to the New Testament, baptism is pretty much what The Baptist Faith and Message teaches that it is:

Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper. –Baptist Faith and Message, 2010.

The verse references used in the Baptist Faith and Message: Matthew 3:13-17; 26:26-30; 28:19-20; Mark 1:9-11; 14:22-26; Luke 3:21-22; 22:19-20; John 3:23; Acts 2:41-42; 8:35-39; 16:30-33; 20:7; Romans 6:3-5; 1 Corinthians 10:16,21; 11:23-29; Colossians 2:12.

All denominations pretty much agree that baptism must precede partaking of the Lord’s Supper.  We do not agree on the definition of baptism, although I would point out that even the OPC Book of Church Order recognizes that baptism ought to be for believers.  Accordingly, Presbyterians can say, “Baptism with water signifies and seals cleansing from sin by the blood and the Spirit of Christ, together with our death unto sin and our resurrection unto newness of life by virtue of the death and resurrection of Christ.”  -That could be said by a Baptist, although we would most likely quibble with the “sealing” part.

What a Baptist cannot say, which the Presbyterians can say, is, “The time of the outward application of the sign does not necessarily coincide with the inward work of the Holy Spirit which the sign represents and seals to us.”  I cannot find warrant for this application of baptism anywhere in the New Testament.  In fact, I can think of an instance in which people were baptized (“outward application of the sign”) but not born again of the Holy Spirit.  In Acts 19, Paul arrived in Ephesus to discover a group of professing believers who had been baptized into the promise of John the Baptist.  Paul explained that the promises John was preaching were fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  With that knowledge, these professing Christian adults gladly agreed to be “re-baptized,” as folks are wont to say nowadays.  Paul, I don’t believe, thought that he was re-baptizing them.  He thought he was baptizing them in the New Testament understanding of the term, complete with the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.

Likewise, Baptists today are simply trying to maintain the biblical practice of keeping the ordinances in order: baptism, then the Lord’s Supper.  Baptism means what the New Testament declares that it means.  Baptists like me do not wish to withhold the Lord’s Supper fellowship from anyone who professes Christ, but we must also insist (again as all denominations do) that any who receive the sign of fellowship must first undergo baptism.  How is a Baptist supposed to ignore that which he believes is the biblical definition of baptism?

Finally, the issue of baptism is inherently and inextricably linked to church membership.  As stated, the real issue between Baptists and Presbyterians is the issue of the significance of baptism with regard to church membership.  Once again, most Christian churches place the same fence around membership as they do around the fellowship ordinance of the Lord’s Supper: Baptism.  Presbyterians agree with Baptists that one must be baptized in order to be a member of the church. Obviously, there is disagreement about what constitutes baptism.  As a result of the different definitions of baptism, the two groups end with a different definition of church.

Baptists believe that only those who receive the Word should be baptized. That appears to be the pattern of the New Testament (as mentioned above).  Historically, Baptists have referred to this practice as regenerate church membership. Who makes up the body of Christ if not the followers of Christ?  Who is the Bride of Christ if not those who have come to love Him through the gospel?  The one who has been taught to obey what Jesus commanded is the one who should be baptized and called a disciple (Matthew 28:18-20).  Where in the New Testament is the church made up of those who never believed or repented or exercised faith?

Presbyterians (at least as indicated above from the Book of Church Order) understand that baptism ushers one in to membership in the local, visible church.  Yet, they are comfortable baptizing persons who have never been born again in the Holy Spirit.  Presbyterians baptize into the church people who have never made a profession of faith.  In the case of young children, Presbyterians will baptize into the church persons who are unable to profess faith.

Presbyterians do this because they hold to a different definition for baptism and a different definition of the church.  Presbyterians (if I understand their Baptism Lord's Supper ordinanceteaching correctly) equate the visible church with the covenant community of Israel, utilizing baptism as roughly equivalent to circumcision—a sign of the covenant people of God.  Thus, believers are baptized into the visible church, but so also are their children.  If there is a family in which the wife is a believer, and the husband is not, the Presbyterian Church will baptize their children into the visible church. As long as one parent is a believer, the children can be baptized into the church.  In this scenario, the church ends up being redefined.

Obviously, I am a Baptist. Thus, I think Presbyterians have a faulty definition both of baptism and of the church.  About these two important Christian concepts, we disagree.  We have learned to live with that disagreement.  Though I can think of a great many arguments for my positions on baptism and church, I will forego those arguments in order to stick to the single point of this article—explaining why Baptists look so intolerant on the matter of the Lord’s Supper.

Presbyterians (or any denomination that demands Baptists to offer the Lord’s Supper) are asking Baptists to do something they themselves are unwilling to do—serve the Lord’s Supper to those who have never been baptized.  According to the PCA Book of Church Order,

6-4. Those only who have made a profession of faith in Christ, have been

baptized, and admitted by the Session to the Lord’s Table, are entitled to all

the rights and privileges of the church. (See BCO 57-4 and 58-4)

It is a little hypocritical for Presbyterians and other evangelicals to demand that Baptists allow admission to the Lord’s Supper merely on profession of faith.  No Presbyterian Church would allow that.  Why should the Baptist Church be so compelled to disregard baptism in relation to the Lord’s Supper? I’ve had cult members profess faith in Jesus Christ. Of course, I know that they don’t mean what it sounds like they are saying. Their profession is insufficient. This is why most who argue for allowing the Lord’s Supper based on profession will usually end up qualifying what they mean by profession. They mean not profession, but evidence of conversion. They mean the Lord’s Supper is for disciples. With that sentiment, I heartily agree.  But discipleship is defined by Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20).

As Baptists, our problem is that we insist on defining baptism so closely to the New Testament practice. We may lament the consequences of such a definition, but we must ask in response, “how else are we to know the definition of the word?”  We must be guided by our study of the New Testament, and we must act according to the dictates of our consciences on the matter.  Whatever the New Testament says is baptism, that is what we must practice.

So, who should partake of Lord’s Supper?  All disciples of Christ.

Who are the disciples of Christ? Those who have learned to obey Christ and have been baptized (Matthew 28:18-20).


Baptism Not Sufficient as the Sign of the New Covenant

A friend recently asked me to explain what the sign of the new covenant is for Christians today. That can be a thorny baptism sign new covenantquestion.  A few years ago, another blogger sought to answer the question and hinted that it might be the Lord’s Supper. Most have supposed the sign of the new covenant to be baptism.  Here is my attempt to answer.

Without a doubt, Jesus links the Lord’s Supper to the new covenant: “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28, NASB).

Paul, likewise, uses the same language in his repetition of the elements of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11).  Nevertheless, I believe the Lord’s Supper is prescribed as a sustenance ordinance; it signifies ongoing participation in the new covenant community. I don’t believe it is the primary sign of the new covenant because I don’t think it is the primary ordinance offered by Jesus.  The primary sign of the new covenant appears to me to be believer’s baptism. Here is a brief argument in three steps which shows the significance of the sign of believer’s baptism.

Born Again

Much is made of circumcision in the Old Testament and its displacement in the New by baptism, but the issue is a little more complicated than simply a switching of the signs.  The New Testament is not concerned with a mere changing of a team’s uniform from one outward appearance to another.  The New Testament speaks of a new day in which all of creation is being renewed (1 John 2:8).  This new day ushers in a new era in which the people of God have the law written by the Spirit on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33).

Believer's Baptism Sign new covenant

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The significance of this change is pointed out by Jesus in John 3 when he tells a leading teacher of the Jews that he must be born again.  When this teacher (Nicodemus) acts confused, Jesus chides him for not understanding what the prophets spoke about (see Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 36:25).  The prophets were speaking of a pouring out of God’s Holy Spirit which would usher in a new era of God’s people. God’s people would be marked not by occupying the land of Israel or by having an earthly king like David; they wouldn’t necessarily be marked by circumcision. Rather, they would be marked by spirit-filled obedience, having been born again from above.

As a result, New Testament writers make much of the necessity first and foremost of being born again by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (Eph 2:5, 10; Rom 8:9; 1 Peter 1:3, etc).  If anything, the sign of the covenant offered in the New Testament is the sign of those having the law of God written on their hearts.  Being born again is the surest sign of being in the new covenant community.

Believer’s Baptism

Therefore, the one action that most closely signifies the work that God does in regenerating a human soul is the sign of believer’s baptism. Baptism itself is not enough to satisfy the expectation of the Old Testament prophets (f by baptism you mean merely an outward, covenant sign). The prophets were already protesting the false security of the Jews, who vainly claimed covenant status because they were “circumcised.” Like Paul after them, the prophets shouted, “The sign is not the point” (See Romans 2:28-9; 1 Cor 7:19; Galatians 6:15).

The New Testament does not demand baptism as a mere covenantal nicety. It demands baptism as an affirmation of regeneration. Baptism by immersion follows as an act of private and corporate obedience, affirming the work accomplished by God of washing a soul clean and raising it up as a new, indestructible life. As such, believer’s baptism signifies much more than community membership. The very essence of baptism is regeneration and resurrection. Membership in community is only significant in that the new member is one who has been born again of the Holy Spirit. (The reality is that regeneration must be present for baptism to be valid, which is why the solution to the problem in Acts 19:1-5 was to baptize these followers “again.”)

Signs Insufficient

The necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit preceding baptism is the point of the new covenant community. In Baptist circles, we call this necessity “Regenerate Church Membership.” Practically, however, it means that the church should hear professions of faith from candidates before walking with them into the waters of baptism. As with Philip at the end of Acts 8, the pattern is clear: Preach Jesus, baptize those who confess faith in Jesus (see also Acts 16:33-34, in which the household was baptized because they had believed).

The point of what I am saying is this: Do not put confidence in any sign—even in believer’s baptism. The significance of believer’s baptism as the sign of the New Testament Church is not the “Baptism” part of the sign, but the “believer” part. Baptism saves no one. Faith in Christ is all that counts for saving one’s soul. So, those saved by grace through faith will be baptized and will continue celebrating their faith in community through the Lord’s Supper observance.

Why We Use Wine (Conclusion)

Finally, allow me to say that there are issues to consider concerning the Lord’s Supper and the use of wine.  First, there is the issue of liberty.  Liberty comes from Christ (Galatians 5:1; John 8:31-32).  However, the Apostle Paul instructs us concerning our liberty that it is not an excuse for leading a weaker Christian astray.  We may not take our freedom and with it cause a brother or sister in Christ to stumble.

Since prohibition, evangelical Christians in America have been strongly influenced by the teetotalism position, and Christianity (at least in part) has been defined by a strict morality relating to drinking alcohol.  (As the saying goes in Arkansas, “We don’t drink; we don’t chew, and we won’t date the girls who do”).  Many (most?) Christians think it is a sin to drink alcohol.

Because of this moral code, some Christians believe that drinking a single sip of wine is itself a sin.  This, of course, cannot be so because our Lord drank wine.  And Paul commanded Timothy to drink wine for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23).  Probably, this was the diluted wine mentioned earlier, but, again, it was still alcoholic wine.  In fact, the alcohol is the implied reason Timothy should drink the wine.  The alcohol might kill bacteria in the water which could have been causing Timothy’s stomach trouble.  So, it would be the case that alcohol has a positive effect in some instances (and without drunkenness).

We understand from this that drinking a glass of wine is not itself a sin.  Yet, we ought to be considerate of others who have come out of alcoholism or lifestyles in which alcohol has had devastating effects.  They rightly sense the danger, and we must not be cavalier in our exercise of our “rights” as Christians.  We may be free to drink a glass of wine, and yet we may be better served to abstain from drinking.  If we are truly concerned for Christian liberty, then we must recognize that we have the right to drink a glass of wine—and the freedom to decline it.  Like Paul, we can “try to please everyone in everything [we] do, not seeking [our] own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:33).

Second, many will assert that drinking wine at the Lord’s Supper is wrong because it hinders the recovery of former alcoholics.  According to AA, the alcoholic will always be subject to the temptation of alcohol and always in danger of entrapment if he takes even the first sip.  What a tragedy if that first sip were offered at a worship service.

This issue is tricky.  On the one hand, the danger is real.  Alcohol is a temptation to sin for some people.  Some are deeply scarred by their former drunkenness.  Yet, on the other hand, we must trust the wisdom of the Lord.  He is the one who instituted this practice, and, as I said earlier, He is the one who knows best the awfulness of sin, including the sin of drunkenness.

The key which I believe will unlock this dilemma is found in 1 Corinthians.  In chapter 6, Paul acknowledges that drunkenness is a defining sin which will keep a person from the kingdom of God.  Drunkards will not inherit the kingdom.  Yet, Paul then asserts a most wonderful proposition.  The alcoholic can be washed, cleansed, sanctified, and justified by God Himself through the washing with the water of the Word (1 Corinthians 6:11).  Paul seems to say that once you are born again by the Spirit and the Word, you are no longer an alcoholic.  You are no longer a drunkard.  You are no longer barred from the Kingdom.  You are, in fact, a saint.  You are set apart for holiness.  You are justified in the sight of God.  You are born again as a new—non-alcoholic—creature.

The Christian who was saved out of alcoholism is NOT an alcoholic any more.  He is a new creature in Christ Jesus.  This manner of thinking is contrary to some postmodern psychology, but it is in concert with God.  God changes us from the inside out.  We are born again.  And, because we are born again, we are no longer slaves to the sins which once held us captive.

Far from serving as an entrapment to further sin, drinking wine at the Lord’s Supper is a spectacular way to picture the complete redemption of the saint who once had fallen to drunkenness.  So, former alcoholic, drink the wine of redemption.  Remember the manner in which you had once become a slave to the sin of drunkenness, and now eat the bread of forgiveness and drink the wine of release.  Proclaim the Lord’s death as you drink the cup.  It was His death which took away your captivity to the sin of drunkenness.  It was His death which set you free to become a child of God.  And children of God are not drunkards any more.  Celebrate this glorious reality by sipping a cup of wine at the Lord’s table.  Drink wine in the manner the Lord intended it instead of in the way the Devil perverted it.

I understand in all of this there must be caution and wisdom and care taken.  Honestly, this was a factor in our decision to use non-alcoholic wine.  Though non-alcoholic wine does have trace amounts of alcohol in it, it does not have enough alcohol to affect any kind of “buzz.”  Non-alcoholic wine, for instance, would be—at most—1 proof (.05% alcohol by content).  The important thing is not the content of the alcohol but the substance itself.  It is wine.  Just as the Lord instituted for His followers to drink.

Why We Use Wine (Part 4)

The real objection to using wine in the Lord’s Supper is not that the Bible fails to speak of wine as the element used; rather, the real objection is that wine is an alcoholic beverage.  The Bible never authorizes grape juice for the Lord’s Supper.  It never hints that grape juice is the beverage the disciples used.  Grape juice is mentioned briefly in Genesis 40:11, but it is not the common beverage known in the 1st Century.

In the Bible, there are about 7 ways wine is mentioned.  (1) There are generic references to “wine” or “wines.”  These are all references to fermented and alcoholic wine.  (2) There is “red wine” mentioned in several passages.  It, too, is alcoholic, and the color typically serves (as mentioned in part 3) as a reference to “blood,” as in the Lord’s Supper.  (3)  There is “new wine” mentioned.  “New wine” refers to wine made from the most recent harvest. It was definitely alcoholic (Acts 2:13).  (4) There is “sweet wine” mentioned in places like Song of Solomon 7:9.  (5) There is sour wine (vinegar) mentioned with reference to the cheap, sometimes medicinal, wine that was no longer fit as a beverage.  [Some of the folks on Sunday probably thought this was the kind of wine they had drunk… but it wasn’t!]. This wine vinegar was produced either by extending the fermentation period or by not sealing it properly, thus having it ruin. (6) There is also mention of mixed wine and spiced wine, which are simply early versions of wine coolers—wines that had been diluted or flavored to make them more appealing.  This mixed wine was what most folks were drinking, and it was probably what Jesus and the disciples used.  It was wine mixed with (perhaps) 3 parts of water.  So, a 16 oz. skin of this “wine” would have 4 ounces of wine to 12 ounces of water.  It was diluted, to be sure, but it was also a wine (very weak wine, but wine).  Finally (7) there are a number of wines mentioned in Scripture by their locations: The Wine of Carmel, the Wine of Sharon, the Wine of Lebanon….

The point remains that when wine is spoken of in the Bible, it is spoken of as wine, not as grape juice.  The real objection to using wine is that it is an alcoholic beverage.  That’s the issue.  I understand and sympathize with those who have a concern about drinking alcohol.  I personally do not drink alcohol—by choice and by conviction.  I have experienced firsthand the damage alcohol causes to relationships.  So, with those of you who are uneasy about serving wine at the Lord’s Supper, I sympathize.

Personal feelings aside, however, we must walk by faith and not by sight.  The Lord in His infinite wisdom chose to use wine in order to make known the Lord’s death until His return.  Surely, the Lord knew the dangers.  He had studied the wisdom literature and knew that “wine is a mocker and strong drink a brawler” (Proverbs 20:1.).  He was not unaware of the fact that drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of Heaven (1 Corinthians 6:9).  Yet, He himself drank wine.  As He admits,

“For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’  The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her children” (Luke 7:33-35).

The Lord clearly came eating bread and drinking wine.  He knew the dangers of wine and the sinfulness of drunkenness. Yet, He drank wine, and He prescribed wine as a central element in the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper.   He was accused of being a drunkard because he (unlike John the Baptist) drank wine.  So, what are we to make of the fact that Jesus drank and expected His followers to drink wine?

I don’t think we are to take from this truth the thought that the Bible minimizes drunkenness.  There is no license in Scripture to become drunk with wine or any intoxicating substance.  Rather, we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).  Leaders especially cannot be tempted to drunkenness (1 Timothy 3:3, 8).  Jesus drank wine, but He was never drunk.  There is a pattern for His followers.  He instituted the use of wine yet still forbids drunkenness.

This might feel like a perilous paradigm for us to follow, but it is the one which Christ Himself instituted.  We must carefully and faithfully adhere to it.  That is what it means to walk by faith and not by sight.  Faith instead of sight will always have dangers on either side of its path, and the dangers are basically these two: legalism and liberalism.

The legalist wants a hard, fast rule to follow: No alcoholic beverage for anyone ever!  This allows the legalist to establish his own righteousness and thereby equips him with all he needs to exalt himself and to condemn everyone else who fails to meet the legal standard.  The legalist thinks that his abstaining from all alcohol is righteous, and he demands that everyone else do the same.  If some do not abstain, he judges them as being unrighteous.  Legalism has a way of instilling pride and feeding arrogance.  The Lord will allow none of that from His sheep.

The danger on the opposite side of the street is the danger of liberalism (not the political kind).  The liberals want no limits.  They extol the notion of being free from the Law.  They are free to enjoy a double scotch on the rocks or a martini slightly shaken, but not stirred.  While it is true (as we have seen) that drinking a drink of alcohol is not inherently sinful, it is not the case that we can be licentious.  We are not free to drink for the purpose of intoxicating effects: that is drunkenness.  We must not be drunk, but, rather, we must be filled with the Holy Spirit.  The liberal does not want any restraints because restraints threaten his righteousness.  He will not have his righteousness questioned.  He doesn’t like to think about righteousness, and he doesn’t want others to bring it up to him.  His righteousness is beyond question.  He will not have his own behavior bound by others (unlike the Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 8 – 9).

Jesus challenges both errors in His instructions.  His instructions are designed to keep His followers on the narrow path that leads to life.  He guides His followers away both from the high and rocky walls of legalism on the one side, and from the steep, deadly drop-offs of liberalism on the other.  The Man crucified between two thieves still leads His followers down the via media that leads to life.  He follows neither of the opposing perils pressuring Him for allegiance.  He leads in the narrow way.

I think this middle way (the narrow way) of faith is indicative of Jesus’s preaching and teaching.  When Jesus came, He brought the new wine of God’s favor to God’s people.  But new wine doesn’t work in old wineskins.  For us to drink up the favor of God, we must be willing to put on the new skin that is suitable for the new wine.  We can’t hold to our rigid formulations of faith (whether our rigidity is of the legalistic or the liberal variety).  Instead, we must be molded and shaped by the Word which Jesus has spoken to us.  To be sure, because His wisdom is infinite, He will instruct us in ways we did not expect.  Christ will challenge us always to rethink our motives and our actions.  Christ expects us to listen to Him and follow faithfully where He leads, not where we are already comfortable or confident.

Why We Use Wine (Part 3)

Most commonly, evangelical churches today do not use wine; rather, they use grape juice as a representation of “the fruit of the vine.”  In the gospel accounts of the Lord’s Supper, the word for “wine” is not actually used.  Instead, you will find simply, “the cup,” or “the fruit of the vine” (See Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:14-23).  To conclude from this use of language that the element must have been grape juice instead of wine would be something like concluding from Paul’s use of the term “saints” (instead of Christians) that he must be referring to Mormons. But, of course, he wasn’t.  He was speaking of Christians, and no one thought anything else.  Neither have Christians thought that the wine was anything other than wine until about the time of Prohibition in America (1919-1933).  As late as 1894, Edward Hiscox, in his Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches, notes that Baptist churches used wine for the Lord’s Supper.  Bread and wine were the elements used by Baptists in the 19th Century.

The truth of the matter is, the terms “cup” and “fruit of the vine” refer to the wine in its various symbolic functions.  The “cup” is a double entendre, meaning that it functions with two important meanings.  First, it functions as the cup of God’s wrath which Christ drank for us (Luke 22:42).  Christ is the Passover Lamb sacrificed for the salvation of God’s people.  As such, His blood is spilled and covers them from the angel who executes God’s wrath.  The “cup” of the covenant in Christ’s blood is a reference to the symbolic function of the wine to remind us of the Lord’s sacrificial death for us which is the basis of our salvation (just as the blood on the doorposts saved Israel’s firstborn from the death angel in Egypt).  Christ, of course, drank the cup when he spilled his blood for us.  Those outside of Christ do not have such a cup of the covenant.  Rather, they must drink the cup of God’s wrath alone, and the cup of God’s wrath is also—not coincidentally—a cup of wine:

“If anyone worships the beast and his image , and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (Revelation 14:9, NASB).

The cup of the covenant (which is filled with wine) is a sobering reminder to us of the wrath of God which Christ drank for us.  No wonder there is a little bitterness to the cup of wine we drink.  We are supposed to remember the awful death Christ died for us in our drinking of it.

And yet, it is precisely here that the second—sweeter—function of the wine appears.  The “fruit of the vine” is a term of thanksgiving.  It is a sign of abundant blessing.  Wine is mentioned in the Scriptures as an offering of thanks to the Lord (Exodus 29:38-41); as a tithe of the firstfruits of harvest (Nehemiah 10:36-39); as a blessing from God that “gladdens the heart of man” (Psalm 104:15); as a gift from God that signifies His abundant blessings (Deuteronomy 7:13).  As a blessing to us, the cup of the covenant filled with the fruit of the vine reminds us that Christ has swallowed the wrath of God against us—a great blessing indeed!

And more, the fruit of the vine in the cup of the covenant is the wine of God’s favor toward us, His people.  It is the wine promised by the prophet Amos, who said a day would come when the people of God would find the mountains dripping with sweet wine (Amos 9:13), and the hearts of God’s people would be glad because of it (Zechariah 10:7).   The fruit of the vine we drink at the Lord’s Supper is not the wine of God’s wrath, it is, instead, the wine of His favor.

In fact, the wine we celebrate at the Lord’s Supper is the wine of the bride of Christ.  It is a cup of blessing indeed which serves to remind us of our past deliverance from sin and death and our future reservation at the King’s table with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and believers from every nation, tribe and tongue (Matthew 8:11).  We who are in Christ (that is, His Bride) will definitely be at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7-9), and we will be drinking with great rejoicing the finest aged wine when we get there (Isaiah 25:6).  The fruit of the vine in the cup of the covenant reminds us of the sweetness of our future at the table of Christ.  No wonder there is also a sweetness to the cup of wine we drink.

Wine has long been a celebratory substance at wedding feasts, which is why the folks were distraught in John 2 at the wedding in Cana whenever the wine ran out prematurely.  Mary told Jesus to do something, to which He replied, “My time has not yet come.”  The time for Jesus to pour out the finest wine was a time yet future.  He was already pointing to His own wedding feast in future glory when he changed the water in Cana of Galilee to a very nice wine.

Why We Use Wine (Part 2)

As for the second question, why change now from grape juice to wine?  The answer is a little more complex.  The most succinct—if not the most forthright—answer is simply, “I don’t know.”  I am not sure why now is the right time to switch—or even if now is the right time for our church to change from drinking grape juice at the Lord’s Supper to drinking wine.  I have to believe—by faith—that the moment of conviction is normally the best moment for corrective action.  Once we know what the will of God is, how long should we wait to obey it?  I think the sooner we obey, the better, right?

Of course, it is possible to delay in order to achieve the full benefits of repentance.  Consider Zaccheus—that wee little man who climbed up in a tree.  When the Lord told Zaccheus that He would be going to his house, Zaccheus was immediately overcome by the condescending grace of our God that he repented at full throttle.  Yet, Zaccheus—a wealthy tax collector—didn’t simply begin handing out money.  Rather, he embarked on a mission to discover whom he may have defrauded, pledging to pay them back 4 times what he owed them.  Such a thoroughgoing repentance takes a plan, and plans take time to enact.  In one sense his repentance was immediate, yet in another it was more slowly enacted.  Such is the case with our changing from grape juice to wine.

Most immediately, I have been reading a book (which I first read several years ago) in preparation for teaching at Southern Seminary.  The book chides churches which use grape juice instead of wine.  The author, Donald Macleod, offers a rather frank rebuke against the use of grape juice in the place of wine:

“Many, probably even most, evangelicals today, use unfermented grape juice….  They object in principle to the use of alcohol.  Many of us, however, find this scrupulosity deeply disturbing.  It not only involves a clear departure from biblical precedent, but implies adverse criticism of the wisdom and integrity of our Lord.  The sacrament is not administered according to the mind of Christ if it willfully departs from His example” (Macleod, Priorities for the Church, 117-18).

In past readings, I went by this paragraph with no serious consideration of altering church practice.  The reason, I think, is not so much because it was overlooked or considered unimportant; rather, the reason was most likely because our church was wrestling with much more basic issues at the time—or at least more urgent issues.  The early years of my ministry here at Cedar Grove were spent mostly on church order and missions (both of which remain integrally important).  The elements of the Lord’s Supper were not urgent priorities in view of other things which needed to be addressed.

But now, our church is more mature and ready, I think, to embrace boldly all of the instructions of the Scriptures.  We don’t flinch when we are corrected by the Scriptures.  We genuinely mean the line we sang as children, “the Bible tells me so.”  When the Bible tells us so, we respond by believing it, putting our faith into action.

With Macleod’s critique on my mind, I headed back to the Scriptures and then to the elders of the church. We had a good discussion about the biblical teachings in relation to our practices as a church and concluded that there was no good reason to use grape juice instead of wine (particularly the non-alcohol wine which we chose).  So, we put together a plan to introduce the wine at our January 2nd service.

Whether this was the right time to introduce the change to our church or not, I suppose I still don’t know, but I think that it probably was for at least two reasons.  First, this move challenged us to be biblical instead of traditional.  The Protestant Reformation placed a sharp emphasis on the necessity of the church to be always willing to conform to Scripture whenever Scripture and tradition collide.  Our tradition—for the entire life of this local church—has been to use unfermented grape juice.  We gladly altered that tradition in light of the Scriptures.  Surely, that is a good thing, a mark of spiritual maturity and growing faith as a church.  (It is always the right time for such faith to be practiced).

Second, because we are exercising faith, we are strengthening our own faith.  Faith operates in the same way as our biceps.  If we hope to keep them strong and healthy, we must give them a workout.  Changing our practice at the Lord’s Supper offers us the opportunity to work out our faith.  Anytime we work out our faith, it grows stronger.  Already, I have received testimonies of folks who had never before seen the connection between the wine we drink at the Lord’s Supper and the glorious, aged wine we will drink at the marriage feast when Christ is finally and forever gathered with His bride, the Church.  The wine is a foretaste of glory. We see that glory more clearly now because (by faith) we moved to wine.

In addition, I have also spoken with several folks who have asked about the bread Jesus would have used.  Was it leavened or unleavened?  Whichever it was, it most certainly was not the paper-flavored Chic-lets we are now receiving.  One guy said he thought they were unseasoned croutons.  No one has mistaken them for bread.  So, come March 6th, we will likely be serving new bread with our new wine.  And this, too, is healthy for a church body.  One act of faith usually does open doors to other opportunities for faith, just as strengthening our biceps opens opportunities for us to do heavier lifting.  It is good for us to give our faith a biblical workout.  I am glad to be part of a church body which makes this exercise possible.

And now for answering some objections…

Why We Use Wine

Why did our church change from grape juice to wine at our celebration of the Lord’s Supper?  And, why did we choose to change now, after I have been here more than 9 years?  These are the main two questions I have received since orchestrating a change in our Lord’s Supper observance.  So, I will answer them briefly in order.

First, we changed simply as an act of obedience.  When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper with His disciples, He did so with bread and wine. It was wine that He and the disciples drank when they pulled the cup to their lips.  So, wine was the beverage He prescribed in observance of the Supper.  Wine ought to be the beverage we consume.

But what is the difference between wine and grape juice?  Or, to put the question another way, isn’t grape juice simply wine without the alcohol?  The answer is no. Wine and grape juice are not the same, regardless of alcohol content.  In other words, non-alcoholic wine is not the same thing as grape juice.  We did use non-alcoholic wine in our observance, but it was not grape juice.  Indeed, the shivers and quakes from some contorted faces affirmed for me the reality asserted here that wine—even non-alcoholic wine—is not the same as grape juice.  No one ever puckered up as though they had sucked on a green persimmon after drinking grape juice, but several lips were so puckered after drinking the wine.  Some of our congregation had never tasted wine before, and they were shocked by its bitterness.  No such shock ever followed a swallow of grape juice because the 2 substances remain quite distinct.  Jesus used the one (wine) but not the other.  The Bible knows of the possibility of drinking grape juice (see Genesis 40:11), but grape juice is never called wine.  Jesus used wine.

Wine and grape juice are 2 distinct substances; this is why we needed to change from grape juice to wine.  Jesus prescribed the one to be used but not the other.  Tea and coffee are each water-based drinks.  Probably 90% of these beverages is water.  Yet, neither beverage is water, and neither beverage is the same as the other.  Obviously, coffee is far superior to tea.  The two are not the same, and neither is grape juice and wine the same.  Jesus prescribed wine, not grape juice.  I don’t think it matters that they both originate from the same fruit any more than it matters that coffee and tea are each made up primarily of water.  They are not the same.  We should use the one Jesus used.

So, the question may arise (which it did), “Why use non-alcoholic wine if Jesus used alcoholic wine?”  This, I believe is a very good question.  I did not directly answer this question for the congregation because I believe it is a worthwhile conversation for us to have.  Should we use good wine containing alcohol?  Indeed, should we use the very best wine at the Lord’s Supper, especially if we consider the forward look of the Supper to the final wedding feast (Isaiah 25:6; Revelation 19:7-9; cf. Mark 14:25; 1 Corinthians 11:26)?  Questions concerning alcoholic content and wine quality are questions of “degree” related to the “wineness” of the wine.  The question we answered yesterday was a question of kind (of substance).  There is a distinction between grape juice and wine that is substantial.  The distinction between the characteristics of the wine is not substantial.  In each case, the substance is still wine.  It is important, I think, to use wine. It is not as important to use a particular wine, although I certainly understand the case for using alcoholic wine such as Jesus used.  We chose rather to take advantage of the technology available today which can make wine from grapes and then extract most of the alcohol back out of it.  Even without the alcohol, it is still wine, as the faces in the crowd made plain.

I will answer the second question in my next blog post.  Until then, you may want to hear the sermon  concerning wine. It should be available some time today, by clicking here.