Wine in the Supper: Something Old, Something New
Thomas Bramwell Welch was a Methodist minister and a supporter of the Temperance movement. In 1869 he founded the Welch’s company after creating a method of pasteurizing grape juice, which halted fermentation in the grapes. Until Welch’s was founded and grape juice went into production, the church had universally used wine in the Lord’s Supper for all of its history.
Once prohibition became the law of the land many churches moved away from using wine in the supper. It wasn’t long before only a few churches retained the historic practice. Even after prohibition was repealed a large number of churches adopted the new tradition introduced by Mr. Welch. We as church members may have become accustomed to it, and for many of us it may be the norm, but all of us must admit, the use of grape juice in the Lord’s Supper is an innovation that was introduced by man and not by God. Not only has it been the historic practice of the church, but it is mandated for us in Scripture that we use wine in the Lord’s Supper.
What then should we do? The session of our church began discussions around the beginning of this year on this question. I was beginning work on a sermon that touched on the question of why Jesus chose bread and wine as the two elements that symbolized his body and blood. Why did he not choose water or meat, for instance? Why bread, and why wine? As soon as I explored the answer to that question I realized that it would lead us toward reconsidering or even confronting our former practice.
I presented my conclusions to the session well in advance of the time when I would preach, and we agreed to study the topic and to re-examine whether our practice of grape juice only communion was falling short of our Scriptural and Presbyterian obligations. We came to the conclusion that we were falling short of what God commands regarding the supper in Scripture and came to the decision that beginning in July we would begin to serve the supper using wine. However, we will also include grape juice as an option for those who are not persuaded or who may have some other issue that prevents them from drinking small amounts of wine.
From a Presbyterian perspective, the use of wine in the supper is part of our polity. Book of Church Order 58-5 gives us specific instructions on how the Lord’s Supper should be administered:
"The table, on which the elements are placed, being decently covered, and furnished with bread and wine, and the communicants orderly and gravely sitting around it (or in their seats before it), the elders in a convenient place together, the minister should then set the elements apart by prayer and thanksgiving. The bread and wine being thus set apart by prayer and thanksgiving…"
The Westminster Larger Catechism defines the Lord’s Supper as “bread and wine” in Questions 168, 169, and 170. The Westminster Confession describes the elements as “bread and wine” in Chapter 29.3, 29.6, 29.7. Historic Reformed confessions such as The Heidelberg Catechism, and Second Helvetic Confession all specify wine as well. From the perspective of church government, it seems that those churches who do not serve wine are themselves out of step with the teachings and practices of our church.
However, the conscience of any person shouldn’t be driven or compelled even by a church council. Ultimately the Scripture is the true standard of our practice. It is to Scripture that I turn. My argument for including wine in the Lord’s Supper is simple: it was the command of Jesus and the practice of the early church.
Did Jesus Use Wine in the Lord’s Supper?
Interestingly enough, the text in the Synoptics never refers to wine in the accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, but refers to “the cup.” For example, see Matthew’s account below as the typical formula:
“And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom’” (Matt 26:27-29).
It is referred to as the “cup,” however Jesus refers to “this fruit of the vine” – an obvious reference to grapes. Thus we know that at least the juice must be from grapes. We also know that in practice, as soon as the grape is crushed the natural yeasts on the skin of the grape begin to consume the sugars and alcohol production begins. In a matter of hours (depending on the temperature) it is possible for grapes to be producing alcohol when they are crushed.
Jesus instructed Peter and John to “go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it” (Luke 22:8). And so the Lord’s Supper as instituted was done during the Passover and as a Passover meal. We know from the Jewish Mishna (a collection of Jewish traditions around the time of Christ and after) that the Passover included the use of wine – as it does even to this day. We also know from the Mishna that the phrase “fruit of the vine” was the typical phrase used by rabbis during Jesus’ time to speak of wine at the supper. There is no exegetical, historical, or theological case to be made that Jesus used anything other than wine when he instituted the Lord’s Supper.
In the late 1800s when some were pressing for Reformed churches to begin the new practice of using unfermented grape juice after Welch had invented it, theologian A.A. Hodge was adamant:
"The contents of the cup were wine. This is known to have been ‘the juice of the grape,’ not in its original state as freshly expressed, but as prepared in the form of wine for permanent use among the Jews. ‘Wine,’ according to the absolutely unanimous, unexceptional testimony of every scholar and missionary, is in its essence ‘fermented grape juice.’ Nothing else is wine. The use of ‘wine’ is precisely what is commanded by Christ in his example and his authoritative institution of this holy ordinance. Whoever puts away true and real wine, or fermented grape juice, on moral grounds, from the Lord’s Supper sets himself up as more moral than the Son of God who reigns over his conscience, and than the Saviour of souls who redeemed him. There has been absolutely universal consent on this subject in the Christian Church until modern times, when the practice has been opposed, not upon change of evidence, but solely on prudential considerations."
As we can perhaps see, the example of Jesus and the early church is using wine in the Lord’s Supper. RTS Professor of Systematic Theology, John Fesko, concludes from the example of Jesus: “While grape juice is nice, should we not follow Christ rather than Mr. Welch? We must be faithful to the example, and essentially command, of Christ. We have no authority to change a divinely instituted practice of worship.”
Michael Horton puts it this way.
"One final appeal. Some of us have come from charismatic, non-Reformed backgrounds influenced by the 'Jesus People' and the California beach culture in which a Communion service of Coke and potato chips was thought to underscore the unimportance of the physical element and play up the spiritual meaning. We may respond in horror at such a thought, but then we must ask ourselves why we refuse to use the element that the Savior and King of the church prescribed, viz., wine. Abandoning wine in favor of grape juice was unknown in the church until American Prohibition, a movement led almost entirely by Arminian revivalists (especially Methodists and disciples of Charles Finney). American fundamentalism rested its case against wine in Communion on the exegetically untenable position that the 'wine' in the New Testament was never fermented. While many conservative Reformed and Presbyterian brothers and sisters would regard this conclusion as naïve, many of us have nevertheless argued that fermentation is not essential to wine. This argument was unknown to our forebears, as it was to Scripture. And if it is not a sound argument, why should we continue to replace our Lord’s required element with an element that he has not commanded?"
As Horton says, we don’t have the freedom to swap out any element of the supper that we want. We must practice the supper as Scripture commands and shows us by example.
What Does Wine Communicate that Grape Juice Doesn’t?
When I preached on this question back in March I raised the question of what wine communicates to us that simple grape juice doesn’t. I pointed out then a few things:
Psalm 104:15 tells us that God gave wine to gladden the hearts of men. And so there is a joyfulness in the Lord’s Supper that wine testifies to. Wine is symbolic of joy and celebration. That’s why Jesus says in Matthew 26:29 that he won’t drink wine again until “I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom,” because that will be a time to celebrate and rejoice, but now when he is being put to death is a time of sorrow.
We can be guilty of becoming so sour and dour in the supper that we can forget the celebration that is symbolized in the wine of the supper. I love grape juice. It’s one of my favorite sugary drinks, but grape juice doesn’t gladden the hearts of men – certainly not the way wine does. Something is lost in the move from wine to grape juice.
I would suggest something else is signified by wine, as well that isn’t symbolized by grape juice. If I could put it bluntly, wine is a transformed substance. There is no wine until the fruit is crushed. The grape must die so that we can receive the joy and gladness that the cup represents. And when we hold the crushed grape, we remember what it took to give us this drink.
But you see, wine isn’t simply the death of a grape. In essence it is the death and resurrection of the grape. What it becomes when the fermentation is complete is different than what it was before. After the grapes are crushed, the juice sits there, it is covered, it sits in the darkness, and the yeasts consume the sugar. Once it does its work the yeasts and sugars produce alcohol while also keeping the same essence of what was there before. In a sense it is a resurrection drink.
It still has the flavor of the grapes that were there, but there is also something new. It died and it came back, but different than it was before. There is a resurrection symbolized in wine. The grape dies so that something new can come forth. When we only drink grape juice I do think there is something that is lost. It’s almost as though the death is there, but the resurrection is missing from the symbolism. Or maybe we could say another opportunity to symbolize the resurrection is lost.
In addition to all of this, wine is a pure drink that contaminants cannot survive in. It is safe to drink. It says something that this drink that Jesus says represents his own blood is, in a sense incorruptible and destroys contaminants when they enter into it, just like the blood of Christ and his sacrifice is incorruptible.
In the end, all of this comes down to the command of Jesus. In his wisdom, he took a cup of wine, fermented fruit of the vine, and he held it up and he said, “Drink of it, all of you.” I would say that our practice of the supper without wine has been the bare minimum of what Jesus commands. But I would say churches that don’t offer wine in the supper need to reconsider their practice, about whether their practices are based on the text of the Bible or whether they might be traditions that have been culturally (rather than biblically) informed.
As Christians we should always be in the process of being reformed and informed by Scripture about what our practices as a church should be. That is precisely what we, as the session of this church have done. We are continuing to be reformed and to keep examining our practices to make sure that we worship in the way that God commands us in Scripture.
If the Scriptural practice is to serve wine in the Lord’s Supper, why will we still include grape juice?
A: We will include grape juice alongside of wine because we recognize that some folks may not be persuaded, and at a practical level we as a session have decided to give such persons a way of not being compelled to violate their conscience. We also know that as long as this particular church has existed, it has never served wine in the supper. We would rather persuade than force church members to adopt the biblical practice of wine in communion. We also do believe that grape juice meets the bare minimum of what should be included in the Lord’s Supper. It is under the oversight of the session, it is administered alongside of the proclamation of the word, and it is, in fact, the “fruit of the vine” in the barest sense of the word, even if it is missing some of the richer, fuller symbolism of wine.
Are those under 21 permitted to drink wine in the Lord’s Supper?
A: Yes. In small amounts and for religious purposes those under 21 are allowed to drink communion wine.