Sunday, July 13, 2008

To Drink or Not to Drink, That is the Question

To Drink or Not to Drink, That is the Question
Colossians 2:16-23
How to make decisions permeated by the gospel

Scripture Introduction:

Tonight may seem a little weird at first. We are going to be discussing a very heated debate that is going on in within many Southern Baptist circles. My fear in doing this is that we will get distracted by this tree and miss the beautiful forest of Colossians 2:16-23. So, as we are discussing this particular issue I hope to help you extend it beyond the beginning discussion.

There is a network of church planters (people who start new churches) called Acts 29. Acts 29 does not agree with requiring church members to totally abstain from alcoholic beverages. In fact some have even gone so far as to have church services in bars and teaching classes on how to brew good beer. One prominent member of Acts 29 discusses that in his desire to be biblical he had to repent of total abstinence and drink a beer.

Some of that probably sounds a little strange; it does, to many traditional Baptist. This is why on December 10, 2007 a group of board members got together to defund any Missouri Baptist Church that was affiliated with the Acts 29 Network. Let me put a face on that decision. My buddy Sam loves Jesus. He is passionate about spreading the glory of God to the nations. My buddy Sam belonged to the MBC when he began planting his church. He also found the Acts 29 Network very helpful. Therefore, because of his affiliation with the Acts 29 Network he lost all of his financial support from the MBC.

Many in the Acts 29 Network personally abstain from drinking alcohol. Many that are friends of the Acts 29 Network personally abstain from drinking alcohol. However, they feel it unbiblical to require total abstinence. It is a matter of Christian liberty, they say.

There was also a motion given at the recent Southern Baptist Convention (and it was also made at the Missouri Baptist Convention) that all those that serve on boards of the SBC “agree to abstain from drinking alcoholic beverages and using any other recreational drugs…” Thereby, saying that if you want to serve as a leader then you must totally abstain from alcohol use. This is not saying drunkenness; this is saying even a drop of alcohol. The reasoning is to maintain an effective witness in the community, to avoid the abuse of alcohol, and to be careful lest we make our weaker brother stumble.

Here at First Baptist Church of New London, our church covenant reads something somewhat similar. About halfway down you will see the statement, “We also engage to…abstain from the sale of, and use of, intoxicating drinks as a beverage”. This is not unique to our church. We copied a very common church covenant from the 50’s and 60’s and still have it today. The question for us as we look at Colossians 2:16-23 is this: Should a church (or network of churches such as the SBC) require its members to totally abstain from the use of intoxicating drinks as a beverage?

Read Text

Sermon Introduction:

Before we begin asking this question I need to make a few disclaimers. I personally abstain from the use of alcohol. I feel that it is the wisest choice for a believer. I have no desire for alcohol use, I saw what it has done to my father, and I want no part of it. I am not encouraging any of you to drink—even one drop. If you ever came to my office asking my opinion on drinking alcohol I am going to do my best to tell you to abstain; especially, if you are under 21 and especially, if you are a member of our church. Because, like it or not that is the law and that is what you said you would submit to when you became a member. Perhaps in the future the constitution and church covenant will be rewritten and read a little differently. But until that time your liberty does not extend to disobeying what you agreed to abide by.

The central question that was being asked at Colossae is the same central question asked of us today: what will give us the fullest expression of Christianity. Last week we mentioned Psalm 16:11. If it is true that in God’s presence is fullness of joy and at his right hand are pleasures forevermore, then how do we most experience this fullness of joy? The thing that ought to be deeply on the heart of every person—and especially on the heart of every believer—is how can we be most faithful to God and His gospel? How do we do as Paul said in Colossians 1:23, “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast not shifting from the hope of the gospel”.

In Colossae the question was whether or not all of these extra things enhanced their spiritual experience. Does asceticism (strict treatment of the body) help you to be more like Jesus? Are you more spiritual if you abstain from certain foods or drinks? If I have been enlightened and experience visions but you do not—does that mean my experience of God is full and yours is not?

Sam Storms has excellently summarized this section: “The leaders of this movement had created a long list of proscribed activities from which one must be diligent to abstain (vv. 21-22). If a person proved faithful in abiding by these extra-biblical and ascetic practices, and engaged in fervent worship of angels (v. 18a), one might expect to receive religious visions in which things inaccessible to the ordinary believer are seen and experienced (v. 18b). All this served to mark them out as spiritually superior when compared to the average individual. “

In our present case does requiring abstinence from alcohol give us the fullest expression of Christianity? Will setting up regulations safeguard against sin and give us power to overcome evil and protect our fullness of joy? Or are such things actually far too restrictive and stand opposed to our joy in God? Is it possible that it misses the point entirely and does not go far enough?

You can see how this extends beyond our question of alcohol consumption. This has an affect on the movies that we watch. Many of you ask me questions about dating/courting, etc. Hopefully this text will help you to know how to answer these questions. There are many things that are not expressly commanded or forbidden in Scripture. These are often questions of individual conscience and Christian liberty. So, how do we know what to do in such matters? Hopefully these principles will help us make these decisions in a way that honors Christ and promotes holiness.

This discussion is one that we have had before. A few months ago in our sermon series on enjoying the gospel we talked about two barriers to our enjoyment of the gospel. One was licentiousness the other was legalism. Legalism is the lethal poison being spread in Colossae. We defined legalism as “seeking to achieve forgiveness from God, justification before God, and acceptance by God through our obedience to God.” (Mahaney) It is us trying to smuggle our character into God’s work of grace. (Mahaney) In Colossae they were trying to smuggle their works of asceticism, abstaining from foods, seeking visions, worshipping the right angels, among other things.

This is why I oppose such things as the Missouri Baptist Convention banning of Acts 29 churches. I believe that the Southern Baptist Convention with such resolutions as those recently passed verge on legalism. This is why I would like to see our church covenant reworded. As it stands it is far too susceptible to the charge of legalism.

But there is another side to this coin. There are those that use their “freedom” for immorality. Even though I oppose such resolutions I also oppose the use of alcohol. It is unwise and I would encourage anyone to abstain. This is why this sermon is dangerous; in order to biblical it has to walk the fine line between legalism and using freedom as a license to sin. There is really only one solution to this—the powerful working of grace. As John Piper helps us see the root of legalism and immorality—unbelief.

Wherever happy confidence in the sovereign power of God for our own lives and the lives of others grows, weak legalism creeps in. For we inevitably try to compensate for loss of dynamic faith by increased moral resolve and the addition of man-made regulations. But wherever joyful confidence in the power of God is waning, the flesh is waxing. Which means that the very morality that we had hoped would save ourselves and the very regulations we hoped would purify our church fall victim to the massive power of the flesh, and become its instruments of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

Tonight our text will help us see two marks of grace that will help us walk the fine line between legalism and immorality.

I. Grace delights in the substance and not the shadows

The Pharisees in Jesus’ day look quite a bit like us sometimes. Imagine the core of God’s law (draw a little circle). Now outside of that are biblical ways to follow those. These are good. These are prescribed by God and should be sought after by His power. Now, we know that God wants to follow these things. So what is the best way to do it?

Let’s take our example of alcohol use. One of these laws is drunkenness. We know that God does not want us to be drunkards, or even drunk. Drunkenness is a sin. So, how can we best fight alcohol abuse?

Let’s go back to the Pharisees. One of the things that God commands us to do is to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. What does that mean? How do you keep from breaking that? Let’s build a fence around this commandment to protect us from breaking it. So, they did this with every wall. They built a fence around the commandment. Then after time they built a fence around the fence. What would that look like practically? Pharisees rightly believed that a man ought not to lust after a woman. How do they fight that? Well, do not look at a woman…ever. That is why the Pharisees became known as the bleeders. They always walked with their head down and would always run into stuff. Does God say not to look at women? No. Is looking at a woman with your eyes wrong? No, of course it is not. Is looking at a woman with lust wrong? Of course it is. Do you fight lust by regulations or do you fight lust with the power of grace?

Let’s go back to drunkenness. Do you fight drunkenness with regulations that are not in the Bible? Do you fight drunkenness by saying that even Jesus’ could not serve on your board. Remember Jesus’ albeit diluted and not nearly as strong as ours today had a touch of alcohol. Never drunk—but he did not totally abstain. The apostle Paul commanded Timothy to drink a little win to help his stomach. Not drunkenness, but not totally abstaining. Therefore, is the best way to fight alcoholism and drunkenness to require totally abstaining?

Do you fight sin with fences or do you fight sin with grace? That is central at Colossae. A group of people are judging the spirituality of others based upon what food and drink they consume or do not consume. Therefore, Paul says stop allowing them to cast judgment on you because you refuse to adhere to their laws. Do not let people judge you because you bust down their fence.

What fences have you set up? Let’s look at our situation two different ways. First, let’s consider our own fences that we make ourselves adhere to. Secondly, let’s consider the fences that we have set up that tick us off when people do not have the same fence.

First we will consider our fences. How do you define your relationship with God? Who of us does not feel a little more holy when we are fervent about Bible reading? Who of us does not feel more accepted by God because we shared the gospel, or gave money to the church, or helped a kid, or prayed, or fasted, or read Scripture, or read a book, or wrote a book, or counseled a friend. Who of us is not daily tempted to struggle with smuggling our character into God’s work of grace. Furthermore, who of us does not attempt to atone for our mistakes by special acts of performance?

What happens then is that we define our relationship with God by external works instead of the inner work of grace done by Christ. And when this happens to protect our own standards we begin holding others to the same standard. So as to feel justified and more holy we often exalt our same standards. This, I humbly believe, is what is happening in the MBC with these alcohol resolutions. It is denying the power of grace and delighting itself in shadows instead of the substance.

But there is another side to this coin. We can hear what is being said here and give absolutely no care for food or drink and fall headlong into idolatry and love for the world. Instead of setting up fences to protect a good commandment we erect fences to protect our sin. One of these fences can be Colossians 2:16-23. We treasure alcohol and we call it a treasuring of freedom.

Listen to Paul in Romans 14. I will read the entire chapter because it is all very important to this discussion.

What then is Paul saying? In summation Paul is saying that was is important is not the things on the periphery like eating meat and drinking wine and celebrating certain days.

Colossians 2 is only dealing with the legalist. It has gone so far the other way that Paul is reminding them of their freedom. They are in danger of falling back into a type of faith that at its core denies the sufficiency of Christ. They are defining their relationship with God based on their observance of man-made regulations. This will not fly. That is why Paul deals so strongly and rebukes them for going after the shadow instead of the substance.

Romans chapter 14 charges both sides; the libertarian that is flaunting his freedom at the expense of his brother and the legalist that is trying to bind the libertarian by his own rules and regulations.

What do both of these have in common? One of my friends from college recently wrote something that I think helps here: “Jesus did not go about fixing the legalistic Pharisees by getting a big head about how much beer he could drink without it effecting his conscience, how many dirty movies he could watch without it making him feel less spiritual, or how many dirty words he could spew out of his mouth without it effecting his righteousness. Rather, he sought to show up the Pharisees by not allowing the lesser laws dealing with externals to get in the way of the more important laws of love, mercy, and justice. Do you want to teach the legalists a lesson (and they probably need one)? Obeying less rules is not going to do the trick, but love, a love which cannot be bound by rules involving externals, will.”

In other words grace is the answer. Grace is that fine line that tiptoes between legalism and immorality. Grace refuses to bow down to man made regulations. Grace has found its souls happiness in Christ and therefore sees no need in placing all of these rules. They are unnecessary and distracting. Wouldn’t it be stupid for me to try to romance my wife’s shadow when my wife is standing right there? Why would you want to follow the shadow when you have the substance?

Grace also refuses to be satisfied with sinfulness. Grace refuses to find satisfaction in the fleeting pleasures of the world. Grace leaves us free to get drunk every day and still be forgiven by God. But grace will so work in the heart that we will have no desire for such things of the world.

II. Grace clings to the Head and not religious exercise

Let me quickly try to summarize verse 18-23. Again what is happening is that a group of people have developed this strict regime that you must adhere to in order to be really spiritual. Many in Colossae where saying, “this is stupid” and refusing to do it. Therefore, the false teachers stood in judgment over them and disqualified them, saying that their benefits in heaven (if they even got there) would be really slim; this caused them to be puffed up without reason and having a sensuous mind.

Again, if you move down to verse 20 you will see Paul’s final argument. If you died with Christ then why are you still submitting to all of these stupid rules? Remember what it means to die with Christ? It means that in Christ your sinful nature has been put off. You now have the power, by grace, to follow hard after Christ. In Christ you have the ability to obey Him. In Christ you have the ability to pursue holiness. In Christ you have the power to stop the indulgence of the flesh. If all of that is true then why do you need to build fences?

Building fences looks smart but listen to verse 23. “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” It looks smart but it actually fosters sin. These fences seem like a good idea but they keep you from growing instead of helping you.

How then do you stop sin? That is the issue isn’t it? How do you live in the fullness of joy that we learn about in Psalm 16:11? We get a hint in verse 19, and will look at this more next week. How do you stop sin? Sin is stopped by “holding fast to the Head” That is what, or rather who, causes growth. Christian growth comes from clinging to Christ and not rules. But it comes from clinging to Christ.

So, let’s use this to ask a few questions about the decisions that we make? These are meant to drive both legalism and licentiousness from you:

Is this expressly commanded or forbidden in Scripture?
Is my motivation to make Christ the only boast of this generation?
Is this done in faith?
Does this glorify God?
Does my conscience condemn me?
Does this promote or distract from the gospel?
Is it permissible but not beneficial?
Is it necessary?
What do other believers say?
What is the historical answer?

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