About the Prohibition of God’s Gifts

Today is the 80th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition.  Of course, the Temperance Movement in the 19th century led to Prohibition in the 20th.   Here is a little-known story of some Christian men who got on the temperance bandwagon, and whose influence, sad to say, is still with us.

It was the Reverend Eliphalet Nott (1773—1866), a Presbyterian minister, who helped the temperance cause by providing what can only be described as a tortured interpretation of the Bible.  He held that Scripture refers to two kinds of wine: fermented and unfermented.  This was great encouragement to Dr. Thomas Welch, of Vineland, New Jersey, who was communion steward at Vineland Methodist Church.  Welch, a devoted Temperance man, was determined to develop a communion beverage that, in his mind, would be worthy of the Lord’s table.  He found the answer in pasteurization and became, as far as we know, the first man to apply that process to grape juice.  His son, Dr. Charles E. Welch, turned the resulting unfermented beverage into a commercial success.  The rest is history, both sacred and profane.

One odd twist to this story is that Vineland was part of a development that was to be devoted to cultivating grapes, but then had an ordinance forbidding the sale of alcoholic beverages.  Apparently Dr. Welch was not the only person under the influence of the Temperance Movement. 

Now, I take seriously the thoughts of departed saints.  But when Christian brothers expostulate on a matter of Christian living, and miss the boat, I have reason to respond and clarify if I can.  While these good men were no doubt hard pressed to guide their fellow believers during a period of real social change, and while the abuse of alcohol in their day was something they could not ignore, I do insist that the answer was not to accept the realities of the culture and embrace teetotalism.  At the most, that should have been a temporary expedient.  The real answer would have been to embrace a biblical approach to wine, raise their children in a household culture of moderation, and then go on to change the culture at large.

God has always instructed his people to drink wine as part of their worship.  He gave wine as a gift of his creation, gladdening the heart of man.  Our Lord Jesus Christ turned water into wine at a wedding feast, and it was the best wine in the house.  Certainly, the experiences of Noah and Lot should teach us caution in our enjoyment of wine, and the plain warning of the apostle Paul (“be not drunk with wine”) should be obeyed to the letter.  But the way to combat drunkenness is not to avoid wine, but to put it at the center of worship.  As the Holy Spirit enables us to put to death that which is earthly in us, we are able to thank God for the fruit of the vine, fermented as God intended. 

I do not suggest that this is easy.  It is a work of the Lord Jesus Christ in his Church.  But all of God’s good gifts can be abused.  Our job before the Lord is not to hide them in a closet so no one can play with them; our job is to be taught by him to use them rightly and to his glory.

With that in mind, I hope the whimsical spirit of G. K. Chesterton’s poem will be a step in that direction. 

WINE AND WATER                                                                                                               by G. K. Chesterton

OLD Noah he had an ostrich farm and fowls on the largest scale,
He ate his egg with a ladle in an egg-cup big as a pail,
And the soup he took was Elephant Soup and the fish he took was Whale,
But they all were small to the cellar he took when he set out to sail,
And Noah he often said to his wife when he sat down to dine,
“I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.”

The cataract of the cliff of heaven fell blinding off the brink
As if it would wash the stars away as suds go down a sink,
The seven heavens came roaring down for the throats of hell to drink,
And Noah he cocked his eye and said, “It looks like rain, I think,
The water has drowned the Matterhorn as deep as a Mendip mine,
But I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.”

But Noah he sinned, and we have sinned; on tipsy feet we trod,
Till a great big black teetotaler was sent to us for a rod,
And you can’t get wine at a P.S.A., or chapel, or Eisteddfod,
For the Curse of Water has come again because of the wrath of God,
And water is on the Bishop’s board and the Higher Thinker’s shrine,
But I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.


Information on Rev. Eliphalet Nott, the Drs. Welch and their involvement in the temperance movement is found in Thomas Pinney’s fine book,  A History of Wine in America  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).



Discovering the Covenant in Scripture

I am convinced that the doctrine of the covenant is the backbone of God’s dealing with His people.  My take on this doctrine is called “Reformed” and some are suspicious of a Reformed version of this doctrine.  Perhaps it seems like going beyond Scripture’s actual teaching, taking a minor theme found in a few texts and extrapolating it into a grand scheme.  The result is like building a skyscraper with a foundation that will only support a humble cottage.  Sooner or later it’s got to come crashing down, so let’s not go near it.  But my conviction is that the doctrine of the covenant is actually just such a skyscraper, and that its foundation is sunk deep and wide in the bedrock of God’s Word.

However, I must explain that I am not about simply giving a “Reformed” understanding of this doctrine.  I want to give the best reading of Scripture that I can, one that pays careful attention to the text, that does not ignore any text, one that often shakes up my current understanding and pushes me to a clearer grasp of what the Spirit is saying to the Church.  I have identified with the Reformed tradition because it helps me clarify what Scripture says and insists that I stay faithful to Scripture as the only infallible standard for truth and life.

First, some general thoughts on covenants.  Covenants are mentioned in the first book of the Bible, defining epochal moments in the LORD’s dealing with man.  They are the foundation of God’s dealings with Israel and define the nature of His dealings with all nations in Christ.  That is why covenants and their dynamic are found throughout the pages of Scripture.  Indeed, the gospel is a fulfillment of the LORD’s promises to Abraham.  In order to demonstrate these claims, I have to start where the LORD did: the beginning.

In Genesis 6 through 9 we read about a covenant the LORD made with Noah and all flesh, one that continues today.  There were several elements to it:

The LORD’s sovereign establishment of the covenant. (8:21; 9:1; 9:8-12, 17)

The covenant representative: Noah (9:1, etc.)

The subjects of the covenant: all flesh = man, all living creatures. (9:11, 12)

The nature of the covenant: perpetual. (8:22; 9:11-12, 16)

Promises made by the LORD to the subjects of the covenant:

to remember his covenant; (9:15-16)

to never to cut off all flesh by a flood. (9:11, 15)

[ Perhaps we may include the following:

       to provide seedtime and harvest perpetually; (8:22)

       to bless the offspring of Noah with fruitfulness(9:1,7);

       freedom to eat animals as well as plants. (9:3) ]

Obligations for man:

to not eat blood; (9:4)

capital punishment for men who murder other men. (9:5-6)

A sign of his covenant: the rainbow. (9:12-17)

These elements are identified simply as an attempt to understand the nature of this covenant.  Others may sort the details a little differently.  However, I think this analysis covers the basics.

Surely the LORD expected Noah and his descendants to consider this covenant in the light of what the LORD had done in the flood, and then identify what the LORD promised and then what he expected of them.  Some such analysis would have emerged in their minds, especially in the light of their knowledge of later covenants.

The next mention of a covenant is in conjunction with the LORD’s dealings with Abram.  First the LORD called Abram to go to the land He would show (Genesis 12:1-3), promising to make make his name great, to make his descendants into a great nation and to ultimately bless “all the families of the earth.”  Some time later the LORD made a covenant with Abram, promising that his descendants would be numerous like the stars and would be given the land of Canaan.  “Abram believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness,” an epochal moment in God’s dealings with all mankind.  The LORD pledged His faithfulness to this covenant as Abram sacrificed a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon.  Passing through them in a theophany (a visible manifestation of God’s presence), the LORD pledged that if He failed in his promises, He would be unmade like these animals.  Of course, it was impossible for God to be unfaithful; nevertheless, He gave Abram a visible sign of His commitment to keep His covenant.

The LORD elaborated on His covenant with Abraham and his offspring at a later time (Genesis 17:1-14).  Since I want to deal with this stage of the covenant in a following post, I’ll just note here that the LORD promised to make Abram the father of many nations, changing his name to “Abraham” which means “father of a multitude.”  This development is very important for the gospel.  The gospel is the fulfilling of the LORD’s promises to Abraham.  Indeed, only those who have faith like Abraham’s will be his true children, and then inherit the blessings promised to Abraham’s offspring.  Even those who are physical descendants of Abraham have no hope of salvation unless they become his true children by faith in the promises.

So much more could be said, but for now I’ll offer some final observations.  The prophets promised that one day the LORD would establish a new covenant with his people (Example: Jeremiah 31:31ff;   ).  The New Testament writings make it clear that this new covenant is fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Luke’s Gospel opens with multiple references to Old Covenant promises.   Furthermore, we celebrate our place in the new covenant by the Lord’s Supper where we are told: “This cup is the new covenant in Christ’s blood.”  That this central act of Christian worship is centered in the covenant is itself enough to lead us to examine all of the New Testament and look for what place the covenant has in the gospel of the kingdom of God.

Lord willing, I will continue next with a closer look at Genesis 17.  That passage is very helpful for understanding what was involved in the LORD’s covenant with Israel and how the New Covenant in Christ works out today.

The Importance of Making Distinctions

Have you ever wondered why the LORD gave his people so many detailed statutes about sacrifices, food, marriage, agriculture, warfare, financial transactions and the rest?  Developing a holy nation in the midst of unholy nations meant making some very basic distinctions about holiness and then carrying them out through all of life.  If God’s people failed to distinguish the LORD as holy and his Law as clean, they would call other gods as holy and their laws as clean (see Ezekiel 20:25).  This idolatry would spread, like leaven, through every aspect of their culture.  On the other hand, making these distinctions would demonstrate the holiness of God in the life of his people, bring great blessing to them and glorifying his name before a watching world of idolaters.

This came to my attention in my reading through the book of Ezekiel.  I have been following the prophet’s stunning descriptions of both the glory of the LORD and the inglorious behavior of his people.  Rather than worship the LORD, Judah worshipped the gods of the nations.  She turned from her faithful covenant head and “played the whore” (16:15) with false gods.  As the words of twenty chapters take hold of your heart, you begin to understand something of the LORD’s fiery wrath that was kindled against Judah.  You come to realize that the LORD is serious about his people worshipping him and serving him in every dimension of their lives.  You get a taste of what they were missing by not serving him.

The root of Judah’s spiritual adultery was their failure to set the LORD apart as holy.  It was a matter of failing to distinguish the holy from the common, the clean from the unclean.  Ezekiel records the LORD’s words in this matter:

“Her priests have done violence to my law and have profaned my holy things.  They have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them.”  (22:26)

Failing to distinguish between the holy and the common meant that the priests did not lead the people toward proper reverence for the LORD in their behavior.  This spiritual confusion led to social injustice: the princes ruled like wolves tearing their prey, the prophets divined lies and the people oppressed the poor.  (22:27-29)

But God is gracious and has given us a perfect and holy priest, Jesus Christ.  He was faithful to the Law, properly distinguishing holy and unholy, clean and unclean.  As a result, his ministry has not led to injustice but righteousness.  He has given himself as the perfect sacrifice, fulfilling the Law, and sanctifying his people by his blood.  (Hebrews 10:12, 29)  We who were once sinners and unholy have been made his saints.  His gracious act has made a distinction in us: we are his holy people.  Furthermore, he has given us the Holy Spirit and is teaching us to distinguish between the holy and common: we learn to put to death that which is unclean and put on Christ, or that which is clean.  His primary teaching tool is his law, pure and clean, “making wise the simple.”  (Psalm 19:7)  This law is the moral law and certain principles in the judicial law, the rest having been abrogated in Christ’s work.  But this is another subject and will have a wait for later blogs.