What Hath Beer To Do With Calvin? Christian Liberty Is Not License

Abounding grace to sinners (Rom 5:20), i.e., God’s free favor to the undeserving, leads to Christian freedom but not to licentiousness (living without norms). Liberty is not libertinism. This doctrine is at the heart of the Reformed doctrine of the Christian life. This is part of our inheritance from the Reformation. The Medieval church had placed God’s people under countless man-made rules. Luther announced the Protestant rejection of these rules in favor of God’s Word as the final authority for the Christian faith and Christian life (sola scriptura) in The Freedom of the Christian Man in the fall of 1520.

Following Luther, the Reformed were great advocates of the doctrine of Christian liberty. When we think about the Reformed faith and about some of its leading lights, e.g., John Calvin (1509–64), however, we might not think of Christian liberty. This is especially so since Calvin’s opponents have delighted for most of the last 500 years in portraying him as a grim, joyless tyrant. Calvin scholar Jeanine Olson contradicts that narrative: “These reformers were not teetotalers. Genevan pastors received part of their pay in wine.”1 The Reformed were serious about their faith and the Christian life but they were not joyless machines. The enjoyed family, friends, fellowship, and the good things God has provided in this life.

The Freedom of the Christian Man Again

Many modern Christians, especially who have been deeply influenced by Pietism (the desire to experience God directly, without the use of means such as the preaching of the Gospel, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper) and those who have been influenced by varieties Fundamentalism, i.e., the reduction of Christian orthodoxy to a few marks such as abstinence from alcohol, premillennialism, the length of the creation days, King James Only-ism, and strict dress codes, should understand the Reformation break with Medieval legalism in the doctrine of the Christian life. Those Pietists and Fundamentalists have lived under something very much like the thing that the Protestant Reformers rejected. This is because there lives in the heart of every person a little tyrant longing to stand in the place of God.

Those who are emerging from Pietism (the Quest for Experience) and Fundamentalism (the Quest for Certainty), who are just discovering the Reformation doctrines of grace (salvation by God’s free favor alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and the Christian faith and live normed finally by Scripture alone) can sometimes react ungraciously against their Pietist or Fundamentalist past. This phase has been dubbed “the cage stage”—because those who are going though it need to be placed in a cage until they get over it—which can lead to excesses in the other direction. Sometimes this can mean the abuse of alcohol or turning liberty into license. One might see newly Reformed folk doing more than enjoying a beer or a glass of wine with some friends but drinking to excess or even doing what the Apostle Paul says not to do: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18; NASB).

Against the Pietists and Fundamentalists, who impose man-made rules, whether well-intentioned or ill, we must assert the reality of Christian freedom and the uniqueness of Holy Scripture as the final norm for the Christian faith and the Christian life. The Pharisees sought to put a “fence around the law” as they said. They counted 613 laws in the Torah and they established rules to keep Israelites from violating those laws, or so they thought. They accused Jesus of teaching his disciples to break their traditions. Our Lord replied, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matt 15:2; ESV). He placed the Word of God over their good intentions, over their fence around the law. He accused them of making the Word of God “void” by their traditions and rules (Matt 15:6).

Wine Means Wine

So we should judge the Pietist and Fundamentalist rules against any use of alcohol. They are convinced that Scripture forbids the use of any intoxicating drink and have developed elaborate theories about why “wine” in the Scriptures cannot refer to a potentially intoxicating drink. The evidence against this supposition is overwhelming. Almost from the beginning of the history of salvation we see that wine is potentially intoxicating. One of the first thing that Noah did after leaving the ark was to plant a vineyard. He knew that what Psalm 104:15 says is true, that God has given us wine to gladden our hearts. Apparently, however, as soon as the vineyard gave him grapes he made wine and with it he got drunk: “He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent” (Genesis 9:21; ESV). The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX), which was influential on New Testament vocabulary and usage uses the word οἶνος (oinos), which is the same word used in the NT. It means “a beverage made from fermented juice of the grape, wine.”2

The wine Noah drank was intoxicating. When Paul says “be not drunk with wine” he uses the very same noun that the LXX used in Genesis 9:20. At Pentecost, after the Holy Spirit fell upon the Apostles, they were accused of being drunk with wine. Peter denied the charge (Acts 2:13–14). The wine about which they were talking was potentially intoxicating because it was fermented. It was alcoholic. The wine that our Lord Jesus made by a miracle for the wedding at Cana was not grape juice. The wonder was that the host had saved the good wine for the end of the feast, after people had been drinking and eating for days (John 2:10). John uses the same noun there as is used regularly for a fermented, potentially intoxicating drink. Grape juice is good but it is not intoxicating.

Scripture does not condemn Noah for drinking but implicitly for getting drunk. Paul does not forbid the drinking of wine but the abuse of wine. Indeed, Paul commended to Timothy the drinking of wine (same noun): “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim 5:23; ESV). Deacons are not required to be teetotalers (completely abstaining from wine) but “dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain” (1 Tim 3:8; ESV). Paul distinguished between drinking wine and addiction to wine, or what we today call alcoholism. He says essentially the same thing about older women in Titus 2:3.

We could make analogous points about the use of tobacco. The Pietists and the Fundamentalists may not approve but their disapproval is not the Word of God. Whether one smokes or drinks is a matter of Christian liberty and wisdom. There may be wisdom in abstaining from these but their use is a matter of wisdom and liberty. There are times when it is edifying to others to abstain. There may be those in the body who, because of their background, cannot or should not partake. Perhaps it may lead them to stumble back into unbelief. Paul instructs us here:

Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves (Rom 14:20-22; ESV).

When the Pharisee (e.g., the Fundamentalist or Pietist) seeks to impose his rules upon us, we might well resist by taking a drink or a puff, if only to assert our freedom and to rebuke his legalism but when the weaker brother’s spiritual welfare is at stake, we must love him as we ourselves would want to be loved were we in his shoes. For the recovering alcoholic, especially in the early days of sobriety, even the smell of alcohol can be an almost unbearable temptation.

Christian liberty and discretion applies to a range of issues. e.g., marijuana, in those states where it has been legalized its use is a matter of liberty and wisdom. Believers may be free to use it but it may be wiser to investigate it first and possibly to abstain.  Why? Prospective marijuana users should know, e.g., that the THC content (the active ingredient) of marijuana is considerably higher today than it once was and carries with it associated risks, including addiction.

Business practices, where they do not violate God’s moral law are a matter of liberty. E.g., where the medieval church forbade the charging of interest on loans, the Reformed have always engaged in commerce and even lending at interest (usury, in the broad sense). In Geneva, however, interest rates were sharply limited but the charging of interest was permitted. The older Reformed piety was strictly opposed to games of chance (gambling, e.g., cards, dice, slot machines etc) but not to calculated risks (e.g., investing). Arguably, were one to study horses the way one studies the performance of a company, one might justify betting on horses. It is more difficult to see a justification for games of chance.3

There may be some ambiguity about what constitutes “cussing.” E.g., in Philippians 3:8 Paul uses strong language about his former life. It has been translated politely as “dung.” Scripture is not prudish. It records a lot of gross sins quite colorfully. Yet, Scripture also uses euphemisms, polite expressions, e.g., Peter’s words to Simon the Magician in Acts 8:20. “To destruction with you and your money” almost certainly a euphemism for hell, as J. B. Philips indicated in his paraphrase: “To hell with you and your money.”

Still, Scripture gives no place for license: Paul says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29; ESV) and “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Eph 5:4; ESV). We should not that Paul remonstrated twice with the Ephesians about this in the plainest possible terms.

There is liberty of speech. Context matters. In some cultures plain talk about ordinary life is considered acceptable, even expected. On the farm there are certain ways of referring to ordinary processes that are not offensive to farmers and ranchers but that are not appropriate for church or a ladies tea. Paul gives us a test: is what I am about to say edifying? Is it appropriate? Wisdom and discretion are essential here. The cage-stager is enthused about his newfound freedom but he typically lacks discretion and wisdom.

So, against the Pietist and Fundamentalists we must continually reassert Christian liberty. Against the libertine, however, who will be governed by no law, not even love, we must assert limits. Love limits us. Grace frees us from the arbitrary rules of the Scribes and Pharisees but divinely revealed laws and wisdom and discretion and the law of love limit us.


1. Jeanine E. Olson, “Church and Society: Calvin’s Theology and Its Early Reception,” in J. Todd Billings and I. John Hesselink ed., Calvin’s Theology and Its Reception (Louisville: WJKP, 2009), 204.

2. Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. S.v., οἶνος.

3. I am using the word chance here to describe our experience of relative randomness not to minimize divine sovereignty.

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