Drinks and Concessions

In our last post, we discussed bread as a source of comfort; now we’ll consider its liquid counterpart.

There’s a well-known Hebrew proverb that says, “No joy without wine.” This pleasing drink has lifted the spirits of people for many centuries. Yet the joy of wine is often found in its complexity. Of all the beverages to describe His sacrificial death, Jesus chose wine. He gave thanks, poured it, and used it to fulfill the old covenant. By drinking wine, His disciples learned that He is the ultimate sacrifice for their sins. Their ultimate joy could only come through his blood. 

Wine is also an essential part of the Lord’s Supper. Unlike the menu options for bread, when it comes to wine the Bible only mentions one: The fermented kind. Yet this beverage comes with warnings, and Scripture has some negative things to say about wine. In modern times, this has led to the use of unfermented wine (grape juice).

So which one should be used?

The unapologetic answer is that fermented wine should always be the norm. But exceptions do exist. The obstacles of modern culture can affect the practices of the church. Concessions are sometimes necessary, but should never replace the rule. This chapter presents the case for fermented wine, while allowing for the concession of unfermented grape juice.

The Case for Fermented Wine

Wine, like bread, is a common blessing for many cultures. Scripture confirms this in various ways. While bread strengthens the heart, wine “gladdens” it (Ps. 104:15; cf. Jdg. 9:13). It even has medicinal value. Paul advised Timothy, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim. 5:23). 

Wine is also a covenant blessing for God’s people. It’s often paired with other blessings such as grain and oil (Deut. 7:12-13; Jer. 31:11-12; Joel 2:19) and was part of the tithes that benefitted the nation (Deut. 14:22-23; Neh. 10:38-39). Yet the nation needed to be faithful to receive this blessing. So the removal of wine was considered a covenant curse (Deut. 28:39; Joel 1:10).

Wine was used in Old Testament worship. As he did with the bread, Melchizedek mediated God’s blessings to Abraham through the use of wine (Gen. 14:18). This fermented beverage was later used in the old covenant drink offerings (Ex. 29:38-40; Lev. 23:13; Num. 15:5) and became part of the Passover liturgy. We see this in the Last Supper accounts.

Given this information, it should come as no surprise that Jesus drank wine. Christ’s opponents certainly believed this. He caricatured their criticism by saying, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’” (Mt. 11:19)! Of course Jesus wasn’t a glutton or a drunkard. How could God in the flesh be an alcoholic?! Hebrews clearly taught the opposite: “He was tempted every way has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Yet even Christ’s moderate drinking is shocking to Christians who demand total abstinence.

Which raises an important question: How can our piety be holier than that of Jesus, who drank fermented wine?[1]

But not everyone is convinced. Opponents of fermented beverage employ a number of counter-arguments. First, they point out that Last Supper accounts mention “fruit of the vine” rather than fermented wine (Mt. 26:29; Mk. 14:25; Lk. 22:18). This ambiguous phrase can also describe unfermented grapes. According to Zechariah 8:12: “The vine shall give its fruit, and the ground shall give its produce, and the heavens shall give their dew.” Yet the prophet was speaking of covenant blessings in their respective infancies. For these to become covenant blessings, they must develop into wine, food, and rain.

Second, opponents claim that references to “new wine” describe the fruit of the vine before fermentation. Here, they point to the marriage of Cana where Jesus turned water into wine (John 2:1-11). The Bible, however, doesn’t support this theory. The Hebrew Old Testament used two words to describe wine: yayen (“wine”) and terosh (“wine” or “new wine”). Terosh was often coupled with dagan (“grain”) as products of agricultural fertility (Gen. 27:37; Deut. 7:13; Prov. 3:10; Jer. 31:12). So it’s no surprise that pagan societies identified these goods with gods. Dagon, the grain god of the Philistines, is mentioned in 1 Samuel 5:2-7.  Tirosh was a Canaanite god of revelry and fertility—not the sort of imagery associated with unfermented wine.[2]

Nor is this claim supported in the New Testament. In the gospels, Jesus told a parable about new wine and old wineskins (Mt. 9:17; Mk. 2:22; Lk. 5:37-38). A beverage that bursts old and brittle wineskins suggests fermentation. A more obvious example is found in Acts 2:13. After hearing the apostles speak in numerous languages, some ridiculed them, saying, “They are filled with new wine”! Clearly, the mockers weren’t talking about grape juice. They associated new wine with its intoxicating effect.

Third and most important, opponents reject fermented wine on moral grounds. In various places, wine is mentioned in a negative light. After the flood, the morally upright Noah planted a vineyard, got drunk, and laid uncovered (Gen. 9:20-21). Elsewhere, Solomon was blunt in his assessment: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Prov. 20:1). Opponents of wine use these and other texts to promote total abstinence. This is why they argue for unfermented grape juice at the Cana wedding. Surely God in the flesh wouldn’t promote drunkenness! Neither would he use fermented beverage in the sacrament.

Their point is well taken about the misuse of wine. Yet Scripture only condemns the abuse of wine that leads to drunkenness (Gen. 9:20-21: Prov. 23:21; Lk. 21:34; Rom. 13:13; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:18). These texts suggest that drunkenness was a common sin in the ancient world. Even in such a culture, wine was commended for gladdening the heart and soothing the stomach. Since it was used in the old covenant sacrifices and Passover ritual, there’s every reason to believe it was utilized in the Last Supper. The abuse of something shouldn’t disqualify its moderate use. Therefore, fermented wine should ordinarily be used in the Lord’s Supper.

The Concession of Unfermented Grape Juice

The norm of the first century church should be the norm of the twenty-first century church. Yet the modern world offers some challenges. First there are legal obstacles. Churches that rent may find landlords who are hostile to their practice. Some organizations, including churches, have restrictive language in their leases. Once signed, the lease must be honored.  Additionally, some states prohibit the consumption of alcohol in public buildings.[3] In this situation, we’re called to obey the civil magistrate (Rom. 13:1-7), even if it means using unfermented wine. Until a religious exception is granted, we are bound to follow the laws of the land.

This doesn’t mean absolute submission in every circumstance. It would be different if civil law prohibited the preaching of the word, because there’s no alternative. Not so the cup of the sacrament. While scripture indicates the use of fermented wine, grape juice is at least a form of the fruit of the vine. Therefore, churches can make concessions involving the sacramental beverage.

There are also legitimate medical exceptions. People with particular health conditions or who take certain types of medication need to avoid alcohol. If churches are willing to make concessions for food allergies, they should do the same for beverages. Others struggle with addiction, still others bound by conscience. One could argue that the exclusive use of wine could be a stumbling block for an alcoholic or a barrier for a teetotaler (Rom. 14:1-6). If concessions can be made for medical conditions, then why not for other concerns? In situations like these, a mixed tray of wine and grape juice enables Christians on both sides to partake in unity. Since the Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of the unity of the body, we should extend charity as far as we can when celebrating it.[4]

Yet the exception shouldn’t become the rule. Grape juice concessions should never supplant the biblical norm. To do so would violate liberty of conscience. It would deny Christians the opportunity to follow Christ’s instructions. This also applies to legal situations that require the exception. Venues that forbid wine can never be considered permanent locations. They are stop-gap by nature, temporary landing spots until a better option comes along.

The best options allow us to follow everything that Christ commanded (Mt. 28:20).

Ken Golden is the organizing pastor at Sovereign Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Davenport, Iowa. He is also the author of Entering God's Rest: The Sabbath from Genesis to Revelation--And What It Means for You and Presbytopia: What It Means to Be Presbyterian.

Related Links

Entering God's Rest by Ken Golden [ Paperback | eBook ]

What Is the Lord's Supper? by Richard Phillips

Feeding on Christ in the Lord's Supper, according to Calvin and the Westminster Confession by Wayne Spear [ Audio Disc | Download ]

Communing with Christ in His Supper by C.J. Williams [ Audio Disc | Download]

"The Puritans on the Lord's Supper" by Joel Beeke

  1. Introduction
  2. Papal Errors in the Lord's Supper
  3. Christ's Presence in the Lord's Supper
  4. Biblical Simplicity in the Lord's Supper
  5. Qualifications for Admission to the Lord's Supper
  6. Right Reception of the Lord's Supper
  7. Hindrances and Benefits of the Lord's Supper


[1] A. A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 347-48: “Whoever puts away true and real wine, or fermented grape juice, on moral grounds, from the Lord’s Supper sets himself up as more moral than the Son of God who reigns over his conscience, and than the Savior of souls who redeemed him.”

[2] Victor Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50, 221.

[3] This was the case in Independence, IA when my previous congregation rented the local civic center for worship.

[4] I’m indebted to David VanDrunen for this insight.