Changing the Elements?

apologeticsDerek 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


But, if our primary concern

But, if our primary concern is strictly adhering to the way communion is laid out in Scripture (i.e. wine vs. grape juice), then wouldn't that necessitate the unleavened bread that Christ and His disciples would have been eating at the Passover meal?

[…] not going to address the

[…] not going to address the issue of wine or grape juice, although that is a worthy subject of […]



Another good question! What

Another good question! What will the gluten free newbies do?? And yes, Kathleen. I often feel very individual as opposed to communing during even the most meaningful attempt. I think it is all part of our fallen, broken world. And our longing for the real intimacy that we will all have on day at his heavenly table! What a glorious day that will be!

So true and funny, Jessalyn!

So true and funny, Jessalyn! I hate digging out bread from my teeth while I am trying to have a "moment"!

That's a good question,

That's a good question, Staci. There's differences of opinion whether Paul's vow was Nazarite or private since he wasn't in Jerusalem. But yes, the Nazarite vow was pretty clear that they were to let nothing from the grape vine touch their lips.

I've honestly never thought

I've honestly never thought of this before.

So, just pondering this...when early Jewish Christians took a Nazarite vow (as Paul apparently did in Acts 18:18), could they not partake of the Lord's Supper?

Well, how much should we

Well, how much should we focus on the "food" instead of the fellowship and meaning? Last Sunday I was in a church in Seattle where they had a separate "bread basket" for those needing gluten-free. I often question that we all sit in our nice pews or seats and quietly partake "together" or stand in line to "receive". This just dosen't seem like we are 'communing' rightfully with God or with the brotherhood of believers. Sorry... more questions. I just try not to let it distract me from Jesus.

A related phenomenon is how

A related phenomenon is how tiny the portions are. I think when Jesus passed the bread, the disciples tore of pieces a bit larger than their little fingernails. For the wine, I'm thinking they took a good sized quaff and not a tiny bit that can only with great charity be labeled a sip.

Funny that you wrote on this today, Aimee, as I'm working on a communion post as well.


Leslie, the article I linked

Leslie, the article I linked to below explains how Welch was a prohibitionist who was against the use of wine in communion. He was among the first to pasteurize grapes, therefore resulting in an unfermented juice.

When did the grape juice &

When did the grape juice & square cracker tradition begin? I am wondering if it a development of a post-industrial, hurried American lifestyle. Taking the time to share a cup and break bread from one loaf would take a lot longer than passing around the tray of pre-poured and pre-cut elements.

My church has a yummy, honey

My church has a yummy, honey taste in our bread. I joke around that the Southern Baptists may have their "Bless your hearts" but us Presbies have our sweetness in the bread ;)

So it isn't just me?! We had

So it isn't just me?! We had communion this week and I had to lead the song immediately after with the cracker-stuck phenomenon- showing everyone my chewed "square noodle" from the stage. We too had grape juice shot.

As a member of a southern

As a member of a southern baptist church I of course partake of the grape juice shot. LOL. I have always struggled with this question. I tend to lean more toward actual wine and bread that is broken from a single loaf (for symbolic purposes) rather than the tasteless dried out square noodle we consume... Honestly, I think the bread issue bothers me even more than the juice. I mean, surely, the bread was meant to be a pleasurable experience rather than a trial of how much I get stuck in my teeth and then have to be working on getting out as we pray and I simultaneously try to meditate on the glorious sacrifice of my Lord's body.... ;) just sayin'

West does mention that

West does mention that unleavened bread is not necessary, and that some of the Reformers rejected it because it is more associated with the Jewish Passover and the kosher Old Covenant food in contrast to the New Covenant sacrament.

Very interesting thoughts!

Very interesting thoughts! I've wondered this often. If we go down this road, we also must ask what type of bread we serve too. Is it a triscuit cracker, a whole-wheat nine grain, or a loaf of french bread an accurate representation of the sinless body of Christ broken for us? I leave no answers...only more questions! :)

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