What Does an Alcoholic/Addict Need?

The question came up recently about how Christians should think about the “12-Step” programs that treat alcoholism/addiction as a disease and that catechize alcoholics/addicts into deism. More than twenty years ago I began to try to address these issues in a paper. I first posted it to the web in the late 90s. Here it is. I might put a few things a little differently now but the basic issues are unchanged.

There are three things that an alcoholic/addict needs to know:

    1) He is a sinner and alcoholism/addiction is a symptom of sin. He began abusing alcohol or other substances for a reason that ultimately grounded in sin. An alcoholic/addict knows (or will know) that he’s miserable but he doesn’t always want to call it sin. Pray for conviction, that the Spirit would drive him to his knees and teach him that his fundamental problem is not a “disease” but sin—rebellion against his Creator. Pray that the Spirit shows him his need of a Savior. Addicts are masterful manipulators, liars, thieves, deceivers, and self-deceivers. Only the Holy Spirit can break and break through all that to teach him that he cannot manipulate God.

    2) Jesus obeyed, died, and was raised for sinners. God is gracious to sinners. Grace, God’s unmerited approval and favor, alone is powerful enough to awaken dead sinners and faith (knowledge, assent, and trust) alone is only instrument by which we come into communion with the Savior. The addict needs to accept that he can’t do anything to earn favor with God. He can’t bargain. He can only trust the Savior and turn from sin and his particular sins. Grace is not magic. The addict needs treatment. The physical/psychological effects of abuse are real. The addict needs to detox and he needs a controlled environment where he can begin to break the habit of substance abuse, to see that it’s possible to live without being/getting high/stoned (whatever). There aren’t many “Christian” substance abuse programs that don’t rely on AA or Pentecostal/Keswick Holiness theology. What we need is a substance abuse program run by Rod Rosenbladt but it doesn’t exist yet! The addict needs a true church around him to minister to him, a pastor who understands sin, the gospel, and grace. A true church will be of much more value than a 28-day treatment program.

    3) When the (former; “such were some of you”) addict, now sober and in a sane and safe environment and in a sound, Reformed congregation full of sinners saved by grace who understand what the law is, what the gospel is (and how they are different), who understand who they are in Christ and who Jesus is and what he did, then that sinner needs to learn that the world doesn’t revolve around him (most addicts are Narcissists) and that he exists to glorify God (by loving God and neighbor) and to enjoy God forever. That process takes approximately one life time followed by death and glory.

This is only a start, of course, an orientation but one has to start somewhere and the law and the gospel are the place for sinners to start.

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  1. Scott, i can hardly contain myself after reading your article on addiction.I am a 54 year old man thats been clean and sober for about 9 years. After several rehab centers, where you can choose your higher power to be anything from a tree to a door knob and 5 months of county jail and 6 monts at a half-way house. I along with my wife of 30 years attend a reformed, christ centered church that preaches and teaches the doctrines of grace. It is so obvious that the only hope for sinners is the gospel and not aa on na .There must be a change from the inside out, by the spirit of God through the preaching of the gospel. thanks again, rick alexander

  2. Thanks, Scott, for staking out your position so clearly. However, something tells me that you may not have experienced an addiction from the inside. What seems so clear, obvious, and commonsensical on the part of someone on the safe outside (ie. not entangled in a life and soul strangling addiction) is not so clear for those of us on the inside. Clearly, if simple (simplistic?) answers worked, if repentance would do the trick, if just saying ‘no’ was at all effective, then the number of addicts would obviously dwindle. You are right to say that sin is ultimately at the core. But whose sin? Surely the one who becomes addicted bears responsibility for making the choice to cope with his or her reality by turning to substances or behaviors that become self-destructive. And while there certainly are some whose descent into addiction is just such a morality play, others’ circumstances are more complex. For example, I was sexually abused by male relatives and introduced to homosexual pornography by one of them when I was a young teenager (recently converted, too). But such was the situation in my local Presbyterian church that there was no place to take something like that without inviting condemnation, so I tried to bury the experiences and the recurring temptations that resulted. It really wasn’t until 35 years of awful internal struggle and self-condemnation that I was finally able to tell someone what happened to me and what my subsequent struggles with pornography had been like. I have since been immensely helped by sexaholics anonymous. And while I can agree with you that their theology doesn’t quite measure up to Westminster Confession of Faith standards, I have never found the help from Westminster-Confession-of-Faith-upholding churches (and I have been a part of several of them) that I have from the group of theologically unsophisticated (deficient?) brothers working through the 12 steps with me. Good (even excellent) theology can be useful, but only when it results in humility and an actual capacity to help sinners where they are, rather than presume to have the answers and wait for sinners to come to their senses and ask the right questions. When someone is suffering from addiction, and is depressed (clinically) and even suicidal, the last thing that person needs is a theology lesson. Instead, what that person needs is someone willing to incarnate the love of Christ. Sin is likely present, but so is mental illness, and destructive patterns of relating with others and coping with conflict. Repentance is always good, but in cases like this, medical intervention may also be necessary (it has been in my case), as well as counseling (to get at root causes of behaviors). Those root causes may not be sinful; they may be real and legitimate needs that were never met appropriately by those in positions of responsibility to do so (ie. parents), but then compensated for by behaviors that became increasingly destructive.
    And lastly a quick response to the implied deism of 12 step programs. You are right – a recovering and repenting addict needs a true church of people who understand sin and grace, and a pastor who understands sin and grace, and a community that is a safe place for sinners like me. Unfortunately, most churches (and sadly, the reformed churches that I’m aware of are among the worst) are museums of the holy rather than hospitals for sinners. I wish that such churches as you describe abounded, or even existed, especially in my neighborhood. In their absence, what’s an addict to do? It’s really unhelpful to people like me to say such places should exist, and that they are obviously so much better than what’s on offer. But your idealized theology and idealized church are doing nothing to help my very real addiction and all the destructive consequences therefrom. Maybe in some generalized way, you are right to suggest that current 12 step programs are deficient and that the church (qualified by being truly reformed) obviously provides a much better solution. But I’ve been around a while now, and I’ve just not seen it work out that way. In fact, those sorts of churches (obviously not practicing their proper reformed principles of grace) tend to be much more the problem than the solution. In the meantime, my uncle was dying of alcoholism, and over about 10 years AA saved his life, and through AA he became a committed Christian and leader in his local church. As for me, I am glad that God seems to delight in drawing straight lines with crooked sticks, otherwise there would likely be no hope for any of us. I sincerely pray that your tribe of folks with proper theology and grace-giving lives increases. But in the meantime, why beat with a stick a program that is doing a whole lot more good in helping actual sinners (even with its admittedly deficient theological resources) than all the churches who’ve got it right theologically-speaking are doing put together. Perhaps when the good tree bears the good fruit it’s supposed to bear, your critique will sound less hollow and more convincing, at least to this sinner.

    • William,

      I can’t answer your post in detail without violating confidences. You’ll have to trust me when I say that I’m not talking from the outside.

    • Bill, thank you for being open and honest about the struggles in your own life. My heart goes out to you. I agree with Scott Clark’s assesment and critique of self-help groups. While they can be helpful I have seen the other side where they keep people trapped in this self-pity mode and never finding real deliverance. This is a real frustration for those who are involved in these groups. Christian’s have turned to these groups because the church has either rejected them or does not know how to handle these issues. There is no substitute for the means of grace; the word, sacraments, and prayer. I would also add discipline to that means of grace. I appreciated Scott’s challenge to the church to love sinners. The church has not done a good job in ministering to those who struggle with pornography, sexual sins, or sins of alcohol or substance. As a pastor many of us are not equipped to address these issues and some are afraid of dealing with it because of their own similar struggles. The church has become feminized and there are no men who will come along side of strugglers and walk with them. The means of grace does change people and the process of sanctification is life long. Perhaps if more congregations and parish’s were willing to help people in their struggle with sin, so many would not turn to self-help groups. I am thankful that groups like CCEF and Harvest are out there as a more Reformed resource for these issues. Bill, may the Lord continue to bless you and use you to help other men in similar struggles with sin.

  3. Dear William,

    You are right. Medical intervention *is* necessary. God hides himself in the ordinary ways of this world to bring about healing and restoration. But God goes the extra mile, in fact, He has gone that extra mile by dying on the Cross for you and your sins, and your hurts, and your pain, your addiction, your isolation, your loneliness, your despair, you name it. He died for YOU. He took YOUR place upon Himself and gave you HIS place in exchange. All of this UNCONDITIONALLY.

    So that even repentance (the death of the old man/old creation) and faith (the resurrection of the new man/new creation) is entirely God’s work to you.

    Receive thou the absolute, unconditional, free forgiveness of all your sins for the sake of Jesus Who died for you so that you may be free and whole in the sight of God, totally new, perfect, righteous forever and ever. Amen.

  4. I’ve been a part of way too many churches, both Evangelical and Reformed but I’ve never been to any congregation where people spoke openly about their struggle with sin(s). The only time when it is safe to talk about this is when you have “broken through” and you can share your story of victory. Then it’s supposed to be encouraging to others, but it can also be a subtle judgement ON others…you have not achieved the breakthrough because you have not worked hard enough, prayed enough, fasted enough, whatever.

    Part of this is that the Church takes on the morality of middle class America, which treats any public sign of weakness as a failure and requires all to at least appear to be doing well. The sign of this in the world is a beaming smile and an upbeat attitude. Add some clappy happy worship music and you’re on your way to planting a church. People need somewhere to go that allows them to acknowledge the truth about themselves, so that’s where AA comes in. Dale Carnegie and Bill W. are neighbors, or even different sides of the same person.

    • Will,

      Sadly, this is too true.

      The good news is that if we can recover our own doctrine of sin and grace not only can we be ourselves but we can be what we are in Christ. That doesn’t ordinarily happen in the typical 12-step meeting.

  5. Will,

    I, too, have never attended a church where everyone was jumping to declare their sins in mixed company. However, within each I have found individuals who trust Christ to be their righteousness sufficiently to allow others to know their failures. I suspect this is often more a matter of maturity in one’s concept of the atonement and its application to us?

    Recently a man confessed to me some rather shocking struggles he was having, and had apparently taken to his elders. I was relieved at his candor, if grieved by his sin. Actually, as a rule, the church I presently attend, out of perhaps ten in my life, is far and above the most open and helpful in this regard… and it happens to be where Dr. Clark ministers.

    I have no doubt it is a direct result of a clear distinction between Law and Gospel, and Gospel as the means of sanctification.

  6. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you very much for posting this. I am an addict of Self, and the recovery process is taking lots of Gospel. It is nice to know places we can find it.

  7. I think this is where the resources of CCEF are so helpful to the Church! I have been taught and encouraged by the works of Dave Powlison, Ed Welch, and Paul Tripp as they seek to apply the Gospel to the ever deceptive human heart. Unless we are willing to truly bear one another’s burdens and speak the truth in love we are left with Psychology and its man-centered approach to life. ….His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. 2 Peter 1:3

    • If CCEF has helped, then that is good, but in general, one needs to be more careful about pushing off ministries of the church to businesses such as CCEF. Further, while perhaps your experience at CCEF was helpful and fruitful, I’ve had CCEF counsel a married couple where the husband had beaten the wife over the course of years, that the solution would be to move together to a different part of the state so that the husband would not be provoked (as viewed by the husband) by the wife’s siblings into beating the wife. So at least some CCEF workers think the best solution is avoidance, not repentance. Your milage may vary. When seeking the services of CCEF or like organizations you might want to ask yourself if you are in search of a spiritual benefit. If that is the case you must seek such in the church. Before going to buy such a thing for money people should consider 2 Kings 5:20-27 and Acts 8:9-24.

  8. I believe another key aspect of the problem of habitual, besetting sin is the assurance of salvation.

    Calvin grounded assurance on faith itself, so if the sinner is continually repenting and looking to Christ for his acceptance before God, therein lies his assurance that in spite of his constant failures to obey the Law, the Gospel assures him that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to him, and therefore he possesses the assurance that God accepts him on account of Christ and that the benefit of sanctification is his by virtue of being united to Christ through the aforementioned faith. This is the objective ground of assurance. There is also the subjective ground by which assurance is founded on progress in sanctification, something affirmed in a more pronounced way in the Westminster Standards than in the Continental documents.

    Romans 7 is the normal Christian life.

  9. Sounds to me like some of us have had bad experiences with ‘self-help’ groups, while others of us have had good experiences with them. Just as some of us have had soul-killing experiences in churches while others of us have found there means of grace in our time of need. Just realize that my experience of 12 step groups is not that they are ‘Christian’ solutions to people enmeshed in life-threatening sin. Rather, they are helps devised by people who were Christians who had found churches to be unhelpful or even unconcerned with respect to drunkards and the like. It doesn’t look very good for us to be critical of the admittedly incomplete means used by people to help marginalized sinners whilst in the meantime not lifting a finger other than in criticism to assist in their efforts. It raises the interesting question in my mind as to at whose meetings we might find Jesus if the incarnation was happening today. Something tells me it would not be in the assemblies of the holy.

    • I’ve had this smug, self-satisfied, response for a couple of decades or more from Alcoholics.

      I doubt that Jesus had much time for “God as we conceive of him.” The first thing he learned in Synagogue was the Shema: “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is One.” The second thing he learned was the 1st commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” He himself re-asserted this very teaching (Matt 22).

      Yes, Christian congregations needs to learn to think like Christians, to expect sinners to be sinners, to get over being shocked, to get past stuffy middle-class hang ups, but Jesus didn’t institute AA. He instituted the visible, institutional church — including sinful, stuff, middle-class types (for whom he also died!).

      Addiction is not a special kind of sin needing a special kind of grace. It’s a kind of sin needing the same grace that the rest of us need.

      Of course, you can test my hypothesis when he comes on clouds of glory when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus the Messiah is the Lord (Phil 2).

    • William,

      It takes a lot of courage to be so candid about your particular struggle with sin and addiction, and I do appreciate this. I also agree that our churches must improve in how they deal with those who are addicts, mentally ill, and grief stricken. While my struggle isn’t with addiction, I do understand what it is like to journey through powerfully dark struggle. I have dealt with bipolar disorder since my late teens. I won’t describe the sins that I struggled with before my diagnosis, and for about 5 years after, but it will suffice to say that they were egregious and unbecoming of a believer. I remember many bitter years wandering outside of the church, feeling as if I had been done wrong since they didn’t know how to deal with me or those who struggled like I had. It took me many years to understand that I was far more in the wrong than my imperfect church. Let me explain…

      It is so very easy for addicts, the mentally ill, and abuse victims to fall into a sort of myopia that inhibits them from seeing beyond their struggles. They have been so broken, so wounded, and have sinned so greatly that it dominates their vision of everything around them. They come broken and needy into churches with the hope that maybe the church can put the pieces together, and put them on the path toward wholeness. When they find that the church they come to is ill-equipped to deal with their struggles they become embittered, view the church as a failure and yet another institution that has let them down. There are a couple of key problems here: first, the broken tend to hold others, and often, entire communities hostage to their pain; second, they never see beyond themselves into the broader reality of what the church is and why, struggles notwithstanding, they are obligated to be a part of the body of Christ.

      We shouldn’t be going to church for the same reasons we go to AA or therapy, or support groups, because church isn’t fundamentally about us. We go to church out of heartfelt gratitude and obedience to worship and glorify God, we hear the Law and the Gospel, we hear the Word expounded, we come to the Lord’s table as a baptized body because that is what God has ordained. On the Lord’s day we are taken out of ourselves and our passing struggles into the great drama of the history of redemption, as we are taken into the presence of God worshiping him with those who have gone before us, and with the angels who worship him perpetually. It is here, as we let go of ourselves and our temporal concerns and worship God, and hear him speak to us, that we actually begin to find ourselves as we journey into the very reason for our being ,”To glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

      All of this to say that Dr. Clark is actually on to something in his post, we as believers beset by so many common struggles must approach these within the broader framework of the gospel. We needn’t expect our pastors and congregations to be addiction specialists, therapists, or psychiatrists. These roles, imperfect as they may be all have their place, and hopefully pastors can be wise enough to refer congregants to these services selectively and as needed. Just as much as the church needs to strive to deal with addicts and those with similar struggles better, believing addicts must accept that the church on this side is imperfect, but it is a body that God demands us not to neglect, even if it imperfectly handles our struggles.

  10. I couldn’t agree more William. As you yourself has implied, self-help group is not sanctification and should not be equated as such. Thus, no one is ignoring the means of race anymore than the other. Sanctification is something that is best not measured, not felt, not relied upon internally that is to say but best to ever look to Jesus Who is our everything. Self-help belongs to that category we call the empirical I, the I of this worldly experience in which both body and soul are for moment enclosed though overlap with our transcendental I, that is the I IN Christ and in heaven (already). This I, the new man, the new human person which ‘transcends’ body and soul/spirit is irreducible, unique and mysterious and cannot be analysed and thus can only ever be the subject of FAITH, not sight/sense. And so, whilst for the time being, for now, our bodies are mortal and subject to infirmity and frailty, we are already have a NEW life, new beginning in heaven. Not half-way, but already there, it’s immortal. The body and soul which is now subject to treatment, counseling, medical and healthcare and attention will one day be RE-UNITED with the New Adam in the New Heaven and New Earth.

    Looking forward to seeing you there, William.

  11. Jason, as one who is still in the process of being saved, I look forward, by God’s grace, to being there with you, too. And Scott, I respect your wide and deep knowledge. Based on our interaction, you’ve done an impressive job at dispatching what seems to me a paper tiger. But in the process, it doesn’t seem that you’ve actually heard what I am saying. I suspect there is some history at work that you are reacting against, and I’m just getting caught up in the overflow (just as I freely admit that I’m reacting out of my own history). I’m also guessing that we probably have more in common than our conversation is letting on. Grace is one of the most difficult things to grasp, as it assaults my pride, not just in the receiving of it, but in the giving as well. In my own preaching, I have found grace relatively easy to explain, but perversely much more difficult to live. At least we share the common ground of being sinners in need of a savior.

  12. I’m a recovering alcoholic who attends a Christ-centered recovery meeting once a week; I’ve been sober for three years. I’m also a member of an OPC. For some time I’ve been feeling somewhat uncomfortable about the meeting. For one thing, I’m pretty sure I’m the only Reformed Christian there: the meeting is run by a non-denominational church that meets in homes; most who attend the recovery meeting are members of home churches, and the rest go to the local Vineyard.

    Their church affiliation may seem incidental, but it isn’t; those who attend the meeting are unabashedly Arminian, and the language used reflects that. As someone who believes the Reformed faith presents the most accurate view of Scripture, I have a real problem listening week after week to things such as Step 3: “We make a decision to turn our lives and our wills over to God through Jesus Christ.” We–who were dead in our trespasses and sins–made a decision to turn our wills over to God? Perhaps the Calvinist in me protests too much. At any rate, I’ve learned to let go of this; after all, it’s a recovery meeting—not a discussion on soteriology.

    But there are other things that bother me too, and these things, I think, should bother any Christian, be he Arminian or Calvinist. First, the language often bandied about is secular—“disease,” “allergy,” “character flaws.” Is sin an allergy? Did Jesus die for character flaws? As Christians, we should call things as they are. Second, the steps, at least it seems to me, have become virtual Law (yes, with a capital L): “If you want to be free of your addiction, you have to go to meetings and work the steps.” “If you want to be happy, get out of yourself and serve others.” Now I don’t deny we are commanded to love and serve one another, but the way these things are said sounds to my ears almost like, “Do this and live.”

    In truth the meeting did help me at first get out of the habit of drinking. But what I think has helped me more are going to church on the Lord’s Day and attending to the means of grace—the Word of God and the Lord’s Supper. I began going to church again (after about twenty years of the “me and my Bible” mentality) about the same time I began going to the recovery meeting.

    Almost every Friday I struggle about going to the meeting: I feel I’m going because that’s what’s expected. If I said one Friday night, “I don’t think I’m going to come any more; I think the Lord’s ministering to me through His Word and Supper every Sunday is enough,” I would be told, “No, that’s not enough—you have to go to meetings and work the steps. You’re still in denial.”

    Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but the AA mentality—this is the only way to get and stay sober—is strong.

  13. Dear Brother William,

    I visited your website after posting my previous comment. Great website and glad to know that you’ve studied in the UK. I studied in the UK too and got my theological exposure partly from there too. Cambridge is a distinguished place to study theology, and was the intellectual ‘hotbed’of Puritanism, I must say so myself even though I’m no fan of Puritanism. I hope that I did not sound condescending … if I did, I’m sorry. And keep up the good work. It’s good to know you’re a trained theologian and serving God’s kingdom in Kenya.

  14. I spent three years in AA,Worshipping a god of my own imagination, and didnt paul declare the true god to those at Mars Hill,and I thank the true God today for His providence in bringing me through that system called AA, and I dont know why,and I dont have to,but He did . William said, God can make a straight line with acrooked stick, I agree. With Scott ,alcohism is sin and not a disease, amen.This is more than Just read your bible and you will find the answers.complexities abound .My friend John,who was homeless ,not by his own doing ,abused in a carer,s home as a .child fell into my company.I kept him in my home for six weeks ministering to him the gospel and subsequently losing contanct with him. Sometimes we met,or when He was in prison ,he would ask for the price of a pack of cigaretts.When I would pick up John and leave him to his nearest hitching spot, after maybe again telling him the gospel,I have to say I will never forget his eyes welling up.Johns eyes always welled up.John was found dead from hypothermia Dec 98.I cant say that John found Christ,but I can cay for sure his past hindered him.

  15. I presume RSC is reacting to something and I’m not sure what it is, I would point to the following links though:



    They are from a booklet prepared by a young Episcopal minister who is an AA member and who – in his sermons – majors in the Law/Gospel distinction and Grace.

    I’m sort of chary of the idea that you send someone somewhere other than the church, but what happens when for that person with those problems the local chapter AA models the santification process better than the local church

  16. It requires no particular expertise in Reformed theology to point out the numerous points at which the AA “message” differs deeply from the Gospel message. But all this misses the point that AA does not strive for doctrinal correctness; it is just a fellowship of drunks striving to stay sober one day at a time, grateful for “a daily reprieve based on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”

    Critics of AA (and most AA members as well, for that matter) need to pay attention to the Big Book dictum that “we should not fail to notice where religious people have been right.” (The divergences between classic BB and contemporary AA is another story, not of interest here.)

    But it is important to know that Bill W and his colleague Dr Bob S broke sharply with their Moral Rearmament matrix as it had been set forth by Buchman. The “four absolutes” of Buchman were replaced with the admission “we are not saints.”

    The allegation that AA’s concept of God is deistic is pure ignorance, of both deism and AA as well. AA’s central slogan is “But for the grace of God” which is anything but deistic.
    Usually this is cheapened into the secular humanist notion of “unconditional love,” but that is still better than deism!

    For orthodox Reformed Christians (of whom I count myself one), my defense of AA would be to present it as a “praeparatio evangelica” which God uses in a common grace sort of way to lead sinners to Christ. Bill W. himself wrote that AA is “only a spiritual kindergarten.” One does not fairly criticize a kindergarten for failing to teach Shakespeare, Milton, and Eliot. But many drunks have started off meeting in church basements before moving upstairs to the sanctuary itself. I know whereof I speak.

    • Larry,

      I know whereof I speak. AA is not just a kindergarten — it’s not intended to lead anywhere. AA is arguably, depending on the meeting, more like a cult than a kindergarten. It’s not harmless. It’s not “neutral.” It’s not mere preparation. In our theology the law is preparation for the gospel. Baal was a a preparation for Yahweh, nor was Stoicism a preparation for Jesus.

      I don’t want to let the churches off the hook. They need to become what they should be so that people don’t need AA. We are the divinely instituted hospital for sinners. God has given to us the means of grace. If anything, the perceived need for AA should shame us.

    • But all this misses the point that AA does not strive for doctrinal correctness; it is just a fellowship of drunks striving to stay sober one day at a time, grateful for “a daily reprieve based on the maintenance of our spiritual condition…. For orthodox Reformed Christians (of whom I count myself one), my defense of AA would be to present it as a “praeparatio evangelica” which God uses in a common grace sort of way to lead sinners to Christ.

      I have about as much experience with the world of addiction as I do with elephants (which is none), but I am curious about something as I watch these comments unfold. It seems like certain insider-interlocutors want to say that something like AA is not about doctrinal precisonsim but all about getting drunks sober. That would be just fine, but, if that’s the case, then what gives with all the theological references that seem implicit in AA?

      And it seems to me that if an enterprise’s goal is to present “…a ‘praeparatio evangelica’ which God uses in a common grace sort of way to lead sinners to Christ” then it necessarily should be “striving for doctrinal correctness.” So, which is it: a place to help drunks get sober or a place to lead sinners to Christ? If you say it’s both/and then this seems to suggest that getting sober requires true religion (which seems odd, since plenty of false religionists have gotten sober without it; seems more accurate to say that true religion requires sobriety). If you say it’s a place to get drunks sober then why not leave it at that and leave the “leading sinners to Christ” part to the work of the church?

  17. ”Usually this is cheapened into the secular humanist notion of “unconditional love,” but that is still better than deism!”

    It depends … the Gospel is unconditional love. The difference is that in the Gospel, God actually gives unconditional love by giving himself, holding nothing back, and so kills the Old Adam and raises up the New Adam. Secular humanism talks about unconditional love, ever talking but never actually ”delivering” it.

  18. “Previously, men had looked to the Church for all the trustworthy knowledge of God obtainable, and as well for all the communications of grace accessible. Calvin taught them that neither function has been committed to the Church, but God the Holy Spirit has retained both in His own hands and confers both knowledge of God and communion with God on whom He will.”- B. B. Warfield

  19. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.
    2 Cor. 3

    Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.
    2 Cor. 5

  20. Dr Clark, when you write, “It’s not hamless, it’s not neutral,” are you suggesting that AA is somehow harmful? Would it be better for drunks to continue drinking?

    And if you will indulge my boldness, it is simply embarrassing to see a scholar of your stature writing such ignorant misinformation about Alcoholics Anonymous and its program of recovery. There are many flaws, both in the original literature and in the popularized version which has been so successful in sobering up drunks. But the program deserves a more responsible and more knowledgeable critique. And if I may ask, what is your track record in helping drunks to acheive sobriety?

    Zrim, in response to your tendentious question, “So, which is it: a place to help drunks get sober or a place to lead sinners to Christ?,” I will try again to break it down for you.
    AA is a program of recovery from alcoholism. (Are you working with me?) But in that process, there are some who find Christ. (Is that sufficiently clear?)

    • Larry,

      No, of course it wouldn’t be better for alcoholics to continue drinking but I don’t accept the premise of your argument that only AA can help people stop drinking. Isn’t embarrassing for you to assume what you have to prove?

      The point of the essay linked (did you bother to read it?) is that Jesus is the Savior (not some “higher power”) or “god as we conceive of him”–that’s idolatry) and that Jesus the Savior saves sinners of whom alcoholics are a sub-set. Alcoholics and addicts need the grace of Jesus just like adulterers, murderers, thieves, and idolaters etc. In other words, well ALL need the grace of Jesus.

      We also ALL need to know the greatness of our sin and misery.

      In point of fact, it’s quite possible to get sober without AA. It’s quite possible to get sober in a purely secular (i.e., non-religious) setting.

      Once more, I’m saying that the visible, institutional church needs to re-consider how it thinks about alcoholism/addiction. We shouldn’t accept the myth of disease just as we shouldn’t have accepted the myth of “allergy.”

      People self-medicate and become addicted because they have real, underlying problems. Those problems are connected to sin (both Adam’s and our particular sins and the consequences of sin). The remedy for sin is grace. The giver of grace is Jesus who obeyed and died for sinners.

      AA is institutionally embarrassed by the scandal of the incarnation, obedience, death, and resurrection of Jesus. What drunks and druggies need is that scandalous Savior!

  21. David C: I wish you and I could talk. My first suggestion would be that you read a little more deeply into AA literature. Check that passage in “Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions” in chapter 12 in which Wilson movingly describes the transition from have the group as one’s higher power to the new birth which enables us to “know God and call Him by name.”
    Some echoes of Exodus 3:13-14 there. Also “AA Comes of Age” Read the pamphlet “A Bird’s Eye View of AA” (if the NY office still publishes it).

    Remember Step 3 is not Step 1. And you have a real message to carry in Step 12. If the Gospel is going to be represented in AA meetings, its is up to us to take it there. Hang in and stay sober.

  22. Dr Clark, do I understand you rightly to say that the Law is the ONLY praeparatio evangelica? How you you handle Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill quoting pagan poets?

    • Paul was preaching the law to the pagan philosophers and then he preached the gospel. The law isn’t only the Decalogue. The law is found throughout Scripture. He was prosecuting them for their idolatry and he then he preached the good, foolish news of the resurrection. Some of them believed and most of them didn’t.

  23. Larry,

    Is this the kind of “new birth” you’re referring to? From The Big Book, and Bill Wilson’s own words:

    “My friend suggested what then seemed a novel idea. He said, “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?”

    That statement hit me hard. It melted the icy intellectual mountain in whose shadow I had lived and shivered many years. I stood in the sunlight at last.
    It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a Power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning. I saw that growth could start from that point. Upon a foundation of complete willingness I might build what I saw in my friend. Would I have it? Of course I would!

    Thus was I convinced that God is concerned with us humans when we want Him enough [when WE want Him enough?]. At long last I saw, I felt, I believed. Scales of pride and prejudice fell from my eyes. A new world came into view.”

    This hardly sounds like the new birth wrought by the Spirit of God.


  24. Yes, Dr Clark, I have suffered through your essay, as different as it is from your finer work.
    That questions, by the way, is a debating trick which real scholars do not usually resort to.

    Statements like this one make my heart go out to you:

    “We shouldn’t accept the myth of disease just as we shouldn’t have accepted the myth of “allergy.” ”

    AA literature does not describe drinking as a disease. It refers to drinking as a “spiritual malady,” and a careful reader would note that the language is purely metaphorical. The literature insists that “our drinking was only a symptom” and eventually gets around to saying that the real disease is Sin (yes, that word is in the AA literature, for those who trouble themselves to read it).

    The Bible also describes sin as a disease, using the same metaphor. But neither the Bible nor AA uses that metaphor to make the sinner morally irresponsible, to let him off the hook. The heart of the Twelve Steps (4 through 9) involve moral housecleaning.

    At its outset in 1935, AA contained two factions: evangelical Christians (many of whom who were protegees of Samuel Shoemaker) and hardened irreligious agnostics. The founders were trying to find a way to work with the second group, to “con” them, if you will, into a position of neutrality in which they could at least overcome their drinking habit and conceivably grope their way into real faith.

    I am grateful that you acknowledge, somewhat grudgingly it seems, the Church’s failure to come to grips with the problem of addiction. But until you have something positive to offer, your critique of AA is a bit premature.

    • Larry,

      The entire AA industry is committed to the “disease model.” I learned about the disease model in and around AA. I have family who’ve been involved in the alcohol treatment industry for 30 years. They would shocked to find out that AA does not regard alcoholism as a disease.

      Have you read the Big Book?

      Just for fun, here are just a few references from AA World Services (http://www.aa.org) to Alcoholism as a disease

      p. 4:

      # 2—Alcoholism, the Disease

      Information on successful Twelfth Step work can be found throughout the book Alcoholics Anonymous. Also check A.A. Comes of Age. Alcoholics usually have to face the medical facts of the disease, as well as the present unmanageability of their own lives, before they can accept help. This seems to be true even for newcomers who are forced by pressure from others to come to A.A. for the first time.
      The medical viewpoint on alcoholism that helped to bring about the birth of A.A. is outlined in the chapter “The Doctor’s Opinion” in Alcoholics Anonymous. It is explained in further detail in the first three chapters of the Big Book, and in the A.A. pamphlets “Three Talks to Medical Societies by Bill W.” and “A.A. as a Resource for the Health Care Professional.” Many good descriptions of the disease are used by A.A. members, such as: “threefold illness,” “progressive disease,” “compulsion plus obsession,” etc. (See the pamphlet “44 Questions,” included in this packet.) Many newcomers have also been helped by discussion of various definitions of alcoholism, of the symptoms of the disease, of the uselessness of misdirected willpower in combating alcoholism, of the futility in insisting on an intellectual understanding of the condition before becoming willing to practice the A.A. program.

      From the Big Book:

      The explanation that seems to make sense to most A. A. members is that alcoholism is an illness, a progressive illness, which can never be cured but which, like some other diseases, can be arrested. Going one step further, many A. A. members feel that the illness represents a combination of a physical sensitivity to alcohol and a mental obsession with drinking, which regardless of consequences cannot be broken with willpower alone.

      From the pamphlet: Is There An Alcoholic in Your Life?

      “Many people have felt the same way about someone they love until they understood that alcoholism is a disease, a fact that modern medicine now confirms.


      Such quotations could be multiplied many times.

      Larry. the evidence that AA teaches that alcoholism is a disease is OVERWHELMING.

      Grudgingly? Are you kidding? I’ve been screaming it from the rooftop for decades? Did you really read what I wrote or did you read what you expected to find?

  25. Scott,
    To prove your small point (which you do), you consistently miss the larger point. Nobody that I can see in this discussion is trying to defend AA as somehow being ‘Christian’ or sufficient. Nobody is trying to pretend that AA is nothing more than AA itself claims to be. Some people have found that it has saved them from a life-killing addiction (nobody is talking about ‘salvation’ here). Some other people have found it unhelpful for whatever reason, and they have persisted in their addiction. My brother in law was someone who was hardened in his rebellion against God and who persisted in his addiction to alcohol (even after ‘treatment’ and court-mandated AA participation) until he drank himself to death nine months ago, leaving a broken family and four teenage children to cope with his self-destruction.

    You seem particularly concerned to overturn the idea that alcoholism (and addiction) is a disease. You seem to be advancing the argument that if addiction is a disease that must be treated, then any need for repentance is undercut. Your own experience seems to give you reason for understanding that AA in particular adopts this sort of therapeutic approach to alcoholism and other addictions. You are insisting that this is the case, even though some of us (me, at least) who are currently participating in AA/NA/SA have had very different experiences.

    Why must it be either/or? Some sin is obviously straightforward (I choose to misuse expense money, or I have sex with my girlfriend before marriage). Other sin is more complicated (I choose to drink, but my father was a drunk and my marriage is bad and…). The web of contributing factors doesn’t excuse the sin, but it also makes it much more difficult to resolve. In other words, whereas repentance/turning to Christ (which in the case of corruption or fornication means desisting from further financially corrupt practices or from further sexual relationships outside of marriage) is the obvious Christian response to this sort of straightforward sin, repentance will be a bit more complicated for the addict.

    Maybe some addicts just have a problem with the substance. But my observation is that the addiction is often the crowning sin/symptom of a network of sinful choices and sinful behaviors and circumstances. To repent from the addiction will require the resolution of sin at multiple levels. Moreover, there likely is a medical/physiological component to the addiction (brought about and/or reinforced by the sinful choices to indulge) which make the sin of addiction different from, say, the sin of pride (which is just as deadly). There may also be a genetic predisposition to addictive response to alcohol (which doesn’t give on an excuse to choose to indulge in drunkenness, but which is a factor that will need to be considered). There may also be aspects of relational dysfunction that contribute as a trigger to the choice to indulge. The addict may have originally been the victim of abusive behavior, but is now choosing to inflict that same behavior on others. Because of these added physiological and relational issues, recovery from some addictions may take much more than just repentance from ‘drinking’.

    Your rather vehement responses to myself and to Larry seem to indicate that you are sensitive to the errors and mistakes made by some (even by many) when it comes to dealing with people who are addicted and who are Christians. I’m trying hard to understand what we are saying that is tripping your wire. You seem to be projecting on us positions that neither of us have taken, and then dealing with us accordingly.

    I am sorry that you have had to experience the maddening calamity of loved ones caught up in addiction. And I am particularly saddened that their experience with AA was not only unhelpful, but seems to have driven them away from grasping hold of Christ and his good news. I am sure that there are AA/NA/SA groups that merely confirm people in their sin. And you are right, that is a tragedy. I’ve had the opposite experience (mainly because we have adapted the material to conform to our Christian perspective). While I am sure that some can participate in AA and end up worshipping all sorts of false gods, those of us in academics tend to get caught up in our own pantheon of idols (pride, phariseeism, publication glory), just as those of us from the US are hopelessly attracted to mammon/success/stuff. Idolatry is both pernicious and ubiquitous, even amongst us Christians, even in the church. But not everybody in AA is an idolater. And many people that I know have become Christians whilst participating in AA. We don’t forbid preaching in our churches just because many preachers are hypocrites. Preaching is a means of grace, just as AA/NA/SA can also be a means of grace. Even Sunday School or VBS can be a means of grace, though sometimes I wonder.

    In the meantime, I think we do agree that local congregations can be doing a lot more to help addicts like myself. If there was a local church in my city of 4 million doing so, I would be glad to join with them. But sadly, we are surrounded by congregations who are scandalized by the presence of sinners. As you suggest in your article, I have attempted to help the churches that I have been a part of to become aware of addiction and what is needed. Sadly, my efforts have not been successful. In the meantime, our group is providing accountability, prayer support, fellowship in Christ, and community at a level I haven’t experienced (yet) in the local church. Obviously this is second best. But in a place where best doesn’t exist, second best looks pretty good.

  26. Dr Clark,
    It is not hard to document your claim that AA frequently speaks of alcoholism as a “disease.”
    But this is a slippery term, which even the medical profession has diifficulty in defining.
    Influenza is not a disease in the same sense as psoriasis.

    I suspect your objection (which seems to verge on the pathological, as evinced by your use of such language as “the AA industry”) is rooted in some odd impression that labelling xxx as a “disease” takes it out of the area of moral responsibility and provides the alcoholic with a rationalization for his drinking habit.

    If that is your objection, you are not altogether wrong. One common AA mantra (not grounded in the Big Book) goes “I am not a bad person trying to become good, I am a sick person trying to get well.” But on the contrary, the point of the disease metaphor (which the literature is careful to say is a SPIRITUAL malady, if you stop taking quotes out of context) is that alcoholism is a fatal and terminal condition, from which the alcoholic is powerless of extricate himself. He must have help from outside himself.

    Yes, I know, as do the thousands of Christian alcoholics within AA, that the “higher power” business falls short of the Biblical revelation of God. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out, and I do hope you do not feel you have made some sort of original discovery. But if you can set aside, for only a moment, your “contempt prior to investigation,” can you allow that an inadequate notion of God may be the seed which the Holy Spirit causes to germinate into a better notion.

    When Paul saw the monument to “an unknown god” on Mars Hill, he used that as a starting point for his proclamation of the Gospel. He did not tell the philosiphers “your unknown god is an idol.”

    And if it is okay for the Bible to use “disease” as a metaphor for sin, why is it so terrible to use the same metaphor for drinking? When one carefully considers the Christian roots of AA (which Bill Wilson was careful to acknowledge), one might even draw the inference that he was tacitly acknowledging that drinking is sinful, at least for alcoholics.

    You are long on diagnosis (highly skewed at that) and short on prescription for the problem under discussion. This is reminiscent of quite a few alcoholics in early recovery who are counselled by well-meaning preachers (typically Baptists and Pentecostals) that they should void AA because it is not sufficiently Christian. Looking for “an easier, softer way,” they try to stay sober by getting active in their church. Soon, they are off and running, possibly because the Men’s Fellowship had a keg party. A few make it back to AA after a church-inspired relapse.

    • In Scripture the language of disease is metaphorical. In AA it isn’t.

      Yes, I’m adamant about calling sin what it is. When we haven’t it’s led to Pelagianism and that doesn’t help anyone.

      Is Jehovah’s Witnesses a praeparatio evangelica? What about the Mormons? What about Christian Science?

      Outside of Christ alcoholics are not sick, they are dead in sins and trespasses, as we all are. In Christ, alcoholics are sinners redeemed by grace, as are all believers.

      The Big Book cannot be squared with Scripture. It’s a competing system.

      Prescription: The law and the gospel! Prescription: the institutional church. Go back and read the essay. The elders need to step up and provide leadership. The deacons need to step up but we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Jesus established a hospital for sinners: The church. He’s provided means of grace (gospel and sacraments) and he’s provided structure and accountability.

      Alcoholics need what we all need: Jesus the Savior.

      How is that short prescription? Jesus is sufficient.

  27. This is a very fascinating discussion for me as a non-westerner living in Africa. The unfolding discussion seems to be bent more on defending a particular interpretation of Scripture than on defending Christ. It would be interesting so see how many non-biblical terms used throughout this thread have been used to defend a particular theological, supposedly biblical, position. It is surprising how one can use terms like “Reformed”, “evangelical”, “praeparatio evangelica”, and still feel comfortably “Christian”, and use those same terms to reveal how “un-Christian” others are.

    As an African, I have become quite wary of the Western tendency to label, summarize, and systematise Scriptural truth. “This is what the Bible teaches about sin” is fascinating to an American who must understand everything in categories and labels, but repulsive and confusing to an African whose filtering system is much much more narrative. Scott’s comments betray an amazingly cultural way of approaching scripture and life, and a very unredemptive response to those of us who do not want to theologise issues, but especially for those of us who do not know him. Scott, I am sure you are quite loved and effective in your context, with family and friends who love you and forgive you when you are being selfish, rebellious, or whatever sinful behaviours you may have. But put yourself in a situation in which none of those people exist, where the message you are bombarded with is how sinful you are, and where looking good is the ultimate goal of the day. In addition, you struggle daily with the nagging thought that you are indeed the most sinful person in your city, that you may be somehow demonised. If someone were to listen to your heart’s cry, it would be, “I want to be free”. Then someone suggests to you that there is a group that meets weekly that offers the fellowship you did not think possible, where the common denominator is “I am an addict”. Where you stop lying to yourself as a way to cope and come clean among others who are just as addicted.

    SA or AA cannot offer salvation. It never will.

    As an African, I am amazed to find that I can go to a place where I am not ashamed to state “I am Sammy, and I am an addict”. No where in my African context am I free to admit that. This “much less than perfect” place of the recovery group offers me that. You can theologise it all you want, but I show up to a meeting, and I am welcome to admit my brokenness, and allowing that admission, and the stories of other broken people to intersect with what Scripture says of the human condition and its remedy, and there I meet Christ. Does that fit neatly with Reformed theology…no. But Christ is using my group to bring me to himself in ways that seemed completely elusive.

    I hear your concerns Scott. But please do not take the route of early missionaries to Africa who brought their denominational doctrines in the name of Scripture, and told us to shed ourselves of our ‘primitive’ cultures. Instead, take the position of Christ, who knew the difference between right and wrong, but entered our world anyway, and continues to use our broken culture to bring us to himself.

    As for me, I will continue to meet my band of brothers who struggle just like me. I will continue to live in the light as He is in the light by being truthful. The alternative is too dark and dreadful, and unfotunately, “Reformed”.

  28. I agree With you Scott.While I can empathise with the other subscribers,they have seemingly not come to the understanding that alcoholism /drunkenness is a manefestation of sin.By the grace of God I am an ex alcoholic.THere is no such thing according to the big book as an ex alcoholic,especially one who can drink normally.but all I can say is that when I was saved 18 years ago after doing Aa top table ,top recrute for 3-4years,something was still missing that sobriety was not filling,that something was Christ,who was never mentioned in AA meetings.what was mentioned was a higher power or a god as I understood him to whom I should hand my life over to.OverTwo thousand years ago Jesus Christ died on a cross for my sin,my Alcoholosm/drunkenness,thats why when I recieved Christ there was no need for AA,I was washed, I was cleansed,I was one of the[ such were some of you]The god of AA is not the God of the bible

    • Hi Thomas,

      There’s no question that, in his mysterious providence, God has used AA to help bring people to sobriety but it’s also the case that, in his mysterious providence, people have also been led away from the faith by AA. This is why we cannot appeal to providence to vindicate the value of AA.

      Acc. to Deut 29:29 we’re responsible for the revealed will of God not the secret (i.e., what God might do or shall do or what his hidden from us, e.g., God as he is himself). As you say Thomas, the Triune God of Scripture is no mere “higher power.” The expression, “as we conceive of him” is exactly what Scripture calls idolatry and is explicitly forbidden by the first and second commandments. It was no mere “higher power” who led us out of Egypt and it was no mere “higher power” who became incarnate, obeyed, died, and was raised on the third day. It was Yahweh Elohim, the 2nd person of the Holy Trinity.

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