Communion Wine or the Purple Euphemism?
The Rev. Brian M. Abshire, Ph.D.
Why We Use real Wine in the Lord’s Supper
Wine, in Scripture, is a promise from God of the blessings of the covenant (Psa 4:7 “Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than when the grain and new wine abound.”). Though sinful men misuse and abuse this gift, yet God Himself uses it as an example of His goodness towards us. (Ps 104:14-15 “He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the labor of man, so that he may bring forth food from the earth, And wine which makes man’s heart glad, so that he may make his face glisten with oil, and food which sustains man’s heart.”). In fact, wine is a blessing that God specifically promises to those who honor Him with the tithe. (Prov 3:9-10, “Honor the LORD from your wealth, and from the first of all your produce; So your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new win”.).
As in all things in creation, wine itself is a symbol, a picture, a reflection of something bigger and greater. It is a picture of the blessings that come from a right relationship with God (Isa 25:6, “And the LORD of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; a banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, and refined, aged wine. Isa 27:2 In that day, “A vineyard of wine, sing of it”).
In fact, it is a picture of the new life we have in Christ; (Isa 55:1 “Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.). Jesus used wine as a symbol of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who cannot be limited by old traditions (Matt 9:17 “Nor do men put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out, and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”) This is possibly, why the very first miracle that Jesus performed before His disciples, authenticating His ministry, was to turn water into wine. (John 2:9-11 “And when the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom, and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first, and when men have drunk freely, then that which is poorer; you have kept the good wine until now.” This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.). This miracle, demonstrated not only His lordship over creation, but was also a picture of what the Messiah would do in His ministry; i.e., take up common, dirty elements (available water was practically undrinkable in those days) and transform them into something sweet and wonderful.
Some people have argued that the wine in Scripture was unfermented grape juice. But this is both linguistically and contextually untenable (see “Objections section for a detailed refutation). Grape juice rapidly ferments into wine. It is the fermenting process that bursts old wine skins. It is the alcohol in wine that, when used lawfully, lifts broken spirits, and makes the sad, glad. Drunkenness is forbidden, for that is dissipation; instead, we are to be filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18). The alcohol in wine is a picture of the Holy Spirit.
Thus for churches to use grape juice instead of wine, is to destroy the imagery of the Holy Spirit in communion. Yes, some people refrain from any alcohol because they are concerned about drunkenness. But for a church to refuse to drink wine at communion is to implicitly reject the very image God has given us of the work of the Holy Spirit. It is no accident that modern evangelicalism has widely substituted grape juice for wine.
Thus, we need to reclaim this biblical imagery for communion celebrations to be complete. It is the Holy Spirit who gladdens our hearts, fills our lives with goodness, bursts the old wineskins and gives us new life. We want the Holy Spirit’s fullness in our lives and our Churches. Therefore, as a symbol then of the Holy Spirit’s work and power, real wine needs to be used instead of the “purple euphemism” in our communion.
Some people wonder if this is really necessary. Does it really matter if we use grape juice as a symbol of real wine? R.C. Sproul said it best. He said, if it’s only a symbol, then why not use peanut butter and jelly? God Himself declared what symbols we are to use. The Westminster Confession of Faith, the doctrinal standards of Presbyterian Churches requires wine; hence all PCA and OPC elders are oath bound to serve wine in the Lord’s Supper. God did not choose grape juice to represent His precious Son’s blood, but rather wine. He superintended creation so that sugar would ferment into alcohol, to symbolize the effects of His Holy Spirit leavening and working His will in our life. Let us not allow the wickedness of others, who abuse His good gifts, to steal from us, the imagery God Himself has provided. Let us approach His table with humility, and reverence and obedience.
Some Common Objections Answered in A Personal Letter:
Thank you for your letter expressing concern regarding our using real wine in the Lord’s Supper. Please see this letter as an initial rather than final answer to your concerns. The session is most willing to sit with you and discuss it further.
First, let me say that I personally deeply appreciate the manner in which you approach this problem. I always respect a brother who begins with Scripture, even if we disagree about its interpretation. And brother, I respect you and appreciate you going right back to the Scriptures on this issue. May we all bow before God’s Word, test and try every idea and submit it to the authority of Scripture.
Secondly, reformation is difficult; it requires us to test everything by the authority of the Word of God. It requires us to submit every idea, every Bible study, ever preconception to the test. It takes time and we won’t always get everything right the first go around.
However, the fundamental question for all of us is, “Will I submit to Scripture, even if it means having to discard certain beliefs, values, ideas and opinions?” or “Do I find in Scripture that which tells me only what I want to know?” This is the crucial issue, and far more important than any individual discussion of any individual issue.
Thirdly, some things in Scripture are absolutely clear and unambiguous and others that are harder to understand (cf. 2 Ptr 3:16) and therefore differences must be dealt with gently and in mutual submission. There are times when God’s requirements are not clear to our sinful human eyes and consequently we have to forebear each other (cf. Rms 14:1ff). It is not weakness, but rather a fundamental requirement that we accept a “weaker brother” (regardless of which of us is weak and which is strong). But let us be honest, sometime we miss things that are clearly seen by others. I well remember my oldest brother once trying to show me a doe hiding in some brush. No matter how hard I tried, I just could not see what was so plain to him. Just when I was about to say, “You’re just making that up,” the doe jumped off and ran away. Point? Sometimes others see things that we do not, therefore we need to be patient, gentle and give one another grace.
The issue of transitioning from the “purple euphemism” to real wine in Communion falls into this category. Hence, the session’s decided (which it admits is a very unsatisfactory, and temporary solution) to use both wine and grape juice. Reformation takes time, people’s convictions change slowly. I have been a Christian for 22 years and only now are certain things becoming clear which were a complete mystery to me when a new believer. Should I not extend to my brothers the same grace to grow in wisdom and discernment that God gave me? Since I didn’t change overnight, should I expect anyone else to? Therefore, until God gives the entire church a unity of vision, and it is always God who must change the heart, we have an admittedly unsatisfactory procedure, using both grape juice and wine. But the alternative is to force some people to go against their consciences, and Scripture is clear that this is forbidden.
In general, you are trying to argue that grape juice is a legitimate element of the Lord’s Supper by making the case that the Scriptures are unclear as to the alcoholic content of wine. Therefore, since the alcoholic content is dubious, it is not required and therefore Christians may lawfully use grape juice as a legitimate element. Is that a fair summary?
But as I mentioned in person, that whole line of argumentation is just not valid. There is no such concept as “grape juice” as we know it in the Bible. You cite the word gleukos being defined as “fresh grape juice.” However, Abbot and Smith’s Manual Greek Lexicon define it as “sweet new wine” (cf. also New Bible Dictionary, pg 1332, paragraph 2): i.e., real, actual alcoholic wine. Grapes were harvested in August and September in the ancient world, boiled to thick syrup, dried, eaten as fresh fruit or turned into wine (see International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Vol 2, pg. 555). There just is not any such concept of saving some of the juice to drink. The squeezings from grapes quickly sours into uselessness unless processed. Pasteurization is historically very recent, used for the first time on grapes by a man named Welch. His specific purpose was to provide a nonalcoholic alternative for Communion wine. But in Scripture, every reference to “new wine” or whatever, is real, alcoholic wine. “New wine was wine from the most recent harvest while old wine was wine from the previous harvest (ISBE, Vol 4. pg. 1069).” And again, “both yayin and tiros are fermented grape juice with alcoholic content; hence both are able to cause intoxication (cf. Hos 4:11)…” (ibid.). Wine, real wine, with alcohol, was and is the element that was understood, exemplified and therefore required by Scripture in the Lord’s Supper. The exegetical arguments you have used are linguistically and historically invalid. They are not exegesis (reading out of the text) but eisogesis, reading something into the text that was never there. Nobody ever found them until the temperance movement of the last century.
You have to understand the history behind this debate. Because of very genuine problems with alcohol abuse in the last century, American Christians (and pretty much only American Evangelicals) created the temperance movement that identified alcohol with evil. These Christians then went back into the Scriptures to justify their preconceived ideas. No matter that, their eisogesis has been repeatedly refuted again and again by every single competent linguist, the same tired old arguments keep rearing their heads. Those arguments are wrong, dead wrong, and they are a perversion of Scripture.
However, many, many of God’s people have been taught those fallacious arguments and as a result, developed genuine and sincere convictions about the issue of alcohol. And Scripture is clear, if you THINK something is sin, then for you it IS sin (cf. Rms 14:14, 20 etc.). So now, we have a situation where many people sincerely believe that if they use alcohol in any form, they are sinning. Furthermore, because of technology, we have a new product (grape juice) that was never available before. Thus, broad evangelical Christians think grape juice is a valid element of the Lord’s Supper.
But since Scripture, Church history and the Confessions know nothing of grape juice; it is unwarranted for men to replace real wine with something different. If one can use grape juice lawfully, why not grape Kool Aid? Or why not spread a little grape jelly on the bread? For us to knowingly substitute grape juice for wine, when alcoholic wine was clearly the intention and product commanded, is to offer “strange fire” to the Lord. However, not all have this knowledge, and therefore the Session believes we have a responsibility to teach people, and work with them to convince them, rather than just “lord it over” the congregation and impose this conviction on them.
You rightly criticized the session’s compromise when you say, “Doesn’t the choice misrepresent Christ and divide the body? If it does, does this not damage the symbolism of the table? If wine is the only ‘correct’ element for the cup, then serve it only…” I concur this could be a danger. In fact, these words are the exact same fears I expressed when we discussed this issue in session.
Yet, the session made this “halfway covenant” based on the principle that we are all imperfect, we all fall short of the glory of God. And therefore, just as God allows divorce because of the hardness of our hearts, though it was never His intention, nor is it His highest good, so also has the session offers grape juice as well as wine as a concession to our brothers who do not yet have this conviction. The session is trying to juggle two things at the same time and undoubtedly we fail to keep them both equitably in the air. One the one hand is the conviction on our part that real wine is the correct element, on the other hand, a realization that a few families (two or three) have a different view. Perhaps this compromise is wrong. If so, God will judge us. But our intent was to exercise loving headship over our church, without lording it over those with different convictions.
The principle from Romans 14 is very pertinent here, “So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense…” Thus though I firmly believe that grape juice is not an appropriate element of the Lord’s Supper, I do not want food to become a matter of division. The Session makes this concession to give some of God’s people time and opportunity to think through the issue. And grape juice is just close enough to the real thing that we see this more of a matter of education, rather than overt sin.
Let me see if I can put it another way. I am dead sure that right now, I am probably, unknowingly, violating one of God’s laws in my daily life. But God is gracious, and through the study of His word, the admonition of my brothers, the conviction of the Holy Spirit and ongoing life experiences, God will ultimately convict me of that sin. But I don’t know what that sin is or when He will convict me of it. When He finally does smack me hard enough that even my hardened heart is convicted, God requires me to repent and change my actions. But even though I fall short in this area (whatever it is, and you may even have a list you’d like to give me!) God still loves me, uses me, blesses me, etc. Thus, even though I think people who refuse to use real wine are falling short, my job is not to condemn or judge, but teach them what is right. God will grant them conviction and repentance when He is ready. And until he does, the session does not think that we should force people to either sin against their consciences or refuse the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper.
Am I missing blessings because of my undiscovered sin? Almost certainly, God’s Law has implications. But the point is, reformation is a process. God is reforming me and is pleased to work even through my sinful ways. Therefore, we should extend the same grace to others, that God has extended to us.
Eventually, down the road, grape juice will not be offered. But since the session is making a change to what a few of our people sincerely believe, we are trying to give them time to get used to it, to examine the Scriptures, to query the Session, to haul out their convictions and examine them before God. Most of our people already share the session’s conviction on this matter. Some do not, but simply trust the Session’s judgment. Others, (a very small number) have like you, have genuine concerns and are searching the Scriptures. We are trying to faithfully shepherd all three groups. Thus far, it is not a divisive issue, in mutual submission all have acted honorably and gently with one another. Those who believe that wine is the only appropriate element do not judge their brothers who have different convictions. And I trust you will not either (cf. Rms 14:4, 10, 12-13). In fact, the session’s final decision to offer both wine and grape juice was specifically motivated by Romans 14:13, “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this – not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way…”
Are there implications to wine vs. grape juice? Think with me for a moment. Look at what passes for broad evangelical Christianity in our country today. Are we not agreed that far too much of American evangelical Christianity is like salt that has lost it’s savor? Is not American evangelicalism a bland, tasteless, compromised religion, antinomian and arminian, failing to act as light to the world? At risk of giving offense, is not the American church like wine without alcohol, a syrupy sweet, non-controversial, religion, all flavor and no punch? And could there not be a connection between those who embrace the “purple euphemism,” because they fear offending people and their own bland effect on culture? Grape juice is an appropriate symbol for much of modern Christianity in this country; it is wine without effect. (By the way, it is not that using grape juice leads to apostasy, but the other way around, apostasy leads to grape juice (cf. Col 3:16, 20-21, etc.).
Thus to review your arguments, wine is the example of Scripture, it was given by God as a lawful source of joy (Psa 104:15, Ecc 9:7) and therefore is a symbol of the Holy Spirit (Matt 9:17, Eph 6:18). The Confession does require wine, and as an elder who took a vow to uphold the Standards, I must act in accordance with it.
Brother, I know that these are hard issues to wrestle with and I do not expect you to change your convictions overnight. Reformation is a process, not a destination. But it all goes down to presuppositions, which ones do you have, where did you get them and are you willing to submit them to Scripture, or Scripture to your presuppositions? Please call me and schedule an opportunity to discuss your concerns in more detail with the session.
Communion Wine or the Purple Euphemism
Why We Use Real Wine in Communion
© 1996 Brian M. Abshire
All Rights Reserved
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