Derek Webb put out a song back on his Mockingbird album that I think about often. It is called “A New Law” and it opens like this:
Don’t teach me about politics and government just tell me who to vote for Don’t teach me about truth and beauty just label my music Don’t teach me how to live like a free man just give me a new law…
You can see where he’s going with this. After the chorus, verse two begins with:
Don’t teach me about moderation and liberty I prefer a shot of grape juice
Today I want to talk about that shot of grape juice. Some churches still use wine, while others prefer to play it safe with the shot of grape juice. Do you think that it is relative? This has been a question that’s been percolating in my mind for years now.
Of course, I understand why the switch has occurred and I am sympathetic to it. What about the alcoholics? What about the children? Should they partake in the cup if it is fermented? What about the conscience of those that believe strongly against strong drink? The switch to grape juice is made in sensitivity to others.
But is this what Jesus has commanded us to drink in the sacrament? Is grape juice the same thing as wine? Well, those who oppose wine certainly wouldn’t think so. And if they are not the same, how is swapping wine for grape juice following the Regulative Principal of Worship?
As I am still reading through Jim West’s Drinking with Calvin and Luther, this question has resurfaced for me. Can “the fruit of the vine” mean either wine or grape juice?
It is sometimes asserted that “the fruit of the vine” could include something like Welch’s grape juice. The important thing, it is claimed, is that the juice is “the fruit of the vine,” which grape juice certainly is. The argument is silly. No attempt is made to actually exegete Matthew 26:28-29, or to consider the historical significance of the phrase—something Kenneth L. Gentry Jr. explains in detail in his outstanding book, God Gave Wine. In biblical days, “fruit of the vine” had a singular definition: fermented grapes—therefore, wine. It was a conventional expression describing fermented wine. (122)
So now what do we do with the command to “drink ye all of it”? Is it up to us to say that the culture has changed and now we need to consider the weaker brother and therefore switch to grape juice? Was Christ himself being insensitive when he instituted the sacrament with a fermented beverage? Did he not know that we would later think it more appropriate for only those over 21 to imbibe? Or is there something about wine that better represents the blood of Christ, the beauty of the gospel, and the bitter cup of wrath that he took in our place? Here’s another excerpt from West:
Also, the substitution of some other drink under the plea of removing temptation obliterates the typical significance of the cup of blessing, as the emblem of joy, as an illustration of the manner of which Christ’s blood was pressed out by his atonement, and as the fulfillment of the prophecy, “In this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined” (Isaiah 25:6, my emphasis). The lees are a course sediment that lingers on the bottom of a wine barrel or glass; they accumulate during fermentation and consist of yeast cells and small particles of the grape. Wine “on the lees” is aged wine, the lees helping to preserve the wine’s strength and color. Writing in The Presbyterian Review of 1887, Henry J. Van Dyke Sr. wrote, “no ingenuity of interpretation can so torture ‘wine on the lees well refined,’ which God makes the symbol of all Gospel blessings, as to make it mean unfermented grape juice.” (131)
West also ties together the miracle of changing the water into wine at Cana with the significance of wine in communion for a husband and wife, and Christ and his bride. “Excellent wine is the penultimate sensory experience, anticipating the ultimate. Herein is romance: a husband and wife, alone in their own banqueting house, whose hearts are intoxicated with that of which wine is a symbol, so communing that Christ’s love for the bride and the Church’s love for the Bridegroom is mirrored” (134). Screwing the top off a bottle of Welch’s just doesn’t do it.
What do you think? Have we changed the elements? Are we disobeying the command of the Lord? Does grape juice convey the same meaning as wine?
*I found this interesting article on the introduction of Welch’s to the Lord’s Supper: Welches Grape Juice, Worldly Wisdom, and Wine