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 LutherFollowing 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.

—R. Scott Clark


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.


  1. The use of marijuana leads to the equivalent (biblically speaking) of drunkenness. That is to say, it leads to intoxication. As someone who smoked on a daily basis (usually more than once per day) for several years and smoked in total for about seven years of my life before becoming a Christian, I can confidently say that there is no equivalent to having a glass of wine or a beer. You don’t get drunk off of “a finger of scotch.” You do, however, get high off of as much as a few hits off a joint/pipe/whatever. Just one hit off a big bong can incapacitate people.

    Drawing an equivalence between these two is untenable. Yes, there are degrees of intoxication with marijuana, but there is no equivalent to having a glass of wine. If you claim such, I would have to actually see some evidence. My personal experience, while not exactly ironclad proof, would say otherwise. The same goes for the many other regular marijuana users I have known throughout my life.

    Medical marijuana is an entirely separate issue. I do not have a problem with true medical use. I’m not talking about the “medical” use like I had a prescription for. My prescription came from a real doctor but it was unnecessary. I deal with the same health problems (severe headaches) now through regular exercise and massage. However, illegally using it just because it is “natural” is a violation of Romans 13. Breaking a law — one which does not force you to commit sin or prevent you from carrying out God’s commands — just because you disagree with it is not a Christian position. Also, the fact is that marijuana is still illegal on a federal level, so even use in a state where it is legal may cause some issues. Ask a lawyer.

  2. Good post,

    On the topic of cannabis for medical reasons I agree with you because I know first hand about it, my wife has MS and she doesn’t take any pharmaceuticals just natural things, she asked me for guidance and approval because she thought it might be a sin to use.

    I told her is was okay because it’s Gods creation for medicine for her.

    One of the reasons she use’s it is for pain relief and to help her sleep and she gets really stoned on purpose.

    There are still fundy’s that say it’s a sin no matter what and say that she should only take doctor subscribed drugs even though it does the same things as cannabis but pot is natural.

    I would rather her use God’s creation than mans, do you realize how bad the side effects are of pharmaceuticals, cannabis side effects are so minimal it’s not even an issue.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    This is a great article. However, I must take issue with you on one point you made – the Christian’s using marijuana as a matter of liberty. I must disagree, and here’s why. I can have a glass of wine or a cigar because I like the taste of each. On both those cases, my mind is not being altered. However, with regards to marijuana, the sole purpose of smoking a joint, or more, is to alter your conscious state. It is done for the sole purpose of “getting drunk.” And that is a sin. Once again, I agree with you on every other point, but on the issue of the usage of marijuana, you are, in my humble opinion, way off base.

    • Mark,

      I wrote that portion with fear and trepidation. I’m sure that you are not alone in your view and I am quite willing to be persuaded to change my mind but it must be on the basis of sound arguments and not supposition and emotion.

      Let me be clear. I am personally opposed to the legalization of marijuana. I think that weed as it exists now is much more potent because of a higher THC content than most realize. That is why I linked to the CDC article, which gives several reasons why one ought not to use weed recreationally. It is addictive. We don’t know the long-term effects on the brain but it the trajectory of the research is not promising. It makes young people fat and lazy and, despite the propaganda of Big Weed (it’s big business), it is a gateway drug. Ask a drug counselor or a cop (I’ve talked to both) and they will tell you that it’s a starter drug.

      That said, the point of Christian liberty is to preserve your freedom to disagree with me about matters that are morally indifferent. If we’re going to bind the consciences of others, i.e., to say that they cannot use weed because it is sin and that anyone who uses weed, even legally, has violated the moral law of God.

      Can we show from God’s Word that the use of weed, even the new, higher THC weed, is sin? I doubt this but this is the burden that you must meet. You must show that there is a material difference between having a finger of scotch after work to unwind and smoking a joint. I’m not sure that you can do that. Both are intoxicants. People drink to relax. They drink to be social. What is forbidden is drunkenness. People use weed for the same reasons. Of course, we haven’t touched medical marijuana. I am not prepared to tell a genuine medical user (as distinct from someone who doesn’t have a genuine need but who nevertheless has a medical card) that it is sin.

      Sin is any want of conformity to or transgression of the law of God. Does using weed meet that test.

      Your claim that people only use weed to “get high” and that getting high is the moral equivalent to getting drunk is supposition. Those in the Corinthian congregation who came out of paganism opposed the eating of meat that had been offered to idols (which is all the meat there was in Corinth) for similar reasons. They could not imagine that people who ate that meat could do so without involving themselves in idolatry. Paul addressed this in 1 Cor 8–10. His rule is that we are free to eat meat offered to idols so long as:

      1) it is not part of a pagan religious meal/observance. We have a religious meal, the Lord’s Supper;
      2) It doesn’t lead one’s self back to idolatry;
      3) It doesn’t lead another, weaker brother back to idolatry.

      Your argument seems similar to that of those who opposed the eating of meat offered to idols.

      The point of Christian liberty is that Christians may be personally opposed to something, even strongly, and yet agree to live in peace with each other because it is not a matter of sin but a matter of wisdom about which people may well disagree.

      I am prepared to try to persuade Christian weed users against using it (apart from genuine medical use) but I’m not prepared to charge them with sin and to pursue a case in the assemblies of the churches.

    • I will add that from past experience it is impossible for anyone to take one puff of marijuana without becoming intoxicated. The only possible exception to that would be if one’s tolerance from regular smoking were so high that one puff had little effect. In either case, intoxication or addiction are in play. In short, legal in no way implies right. I would not feel legalistic in any way to counsel Christians to abstain from the use of recreational marijuana.

    • Hi Jerry,

      We still have to define “intoxicated.” Those who require abstinence from alcohol make the very same argument, that any use of alcohol is intoxicating and therefore transgresses Paul’s prohibition. Contrast that definition with Ursinus’ who defined drunkenness as entailing reeling and vomiting.

      As a matter of wisdom I too would counsel/encourage people to avoid marijuana for the reasons I’ve given so far.

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