“Be not drunk … but be filled with the Spirit” — Ephesians 5:18
As we approach the holiday season (Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve) every year, we are reminded of a particular temptation: Drunkenness! The civil authorities ramp up public service announcements, sobriety check points, free ride services and the like during this period because of the rise of drunk driving which occurs every year during the holiday season. What is it that drives people — even Christians in their fleshly weakness (Romans 7:14-25) — to overuse or abuse alcohol (and other drugs) at festive occasions? The reasons are many, but the problem is not exclusive to this time of year.
The abuse of alcohol in particular, specifically mentioned in our title-text, as well as hallucinogenic drugs — even “legal” ones, is a serious problem, not only at holiday time! But it appears as a special temptation during the holidays when “celebrations” and “partying” are common. Where should Christians turn for guidance? The opinions of the medical establishment and law enforcement officials are sometimes helpful, but a Christian should not base his life on human opinion. A Christian should turn to the only source and norm for his faith and life: Holy Scripture, God’s unchanging Word!
Our title-text is Ephesians 5:18: “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” It contains a crystal-clear divine prohibition of drunkenness with a definition which shows why it is a sin, and an exhortation to the Godly alternative. We note, however, that St. Paul does not say, “Do not drink wine!” He condemns the abuse not the use of alcohol. Scripture certainly allows the moderate use of alcoholic beverages, as belonging to man’s daily bread, and indicates their legitimate purposes (Cf. Psalm 104:1415; Proverbs 31:6-7; Ecclesiastes 9:7; 10:19; Zechariah 10:7). We also have the following specific examples: Our Savior’s first miracle was the production of 90 to 120 gallons of the finest wine from water at a wedding feast in Cana, thus graciously providing a completely legitimate beverage for the proper enjoyment of the guests (John 2:1ff.). Our Lord Himself drank wine as a beverage with His meals; and, although He never sinned by doing so, His enemies falsely accused Him of overindulgence, slandering Him as a “winebibber” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). The Apostle Paul instructed the young pastor Timothy to use “a little wine” to help relieve his stomach problems (I Timothy 5:23). The New Testament clearly forbids the judging of anyone because of what they eat or drink: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat (food) or in drink” (Colossians 2:16). As Christians we are simply to follow this general principle laid down by Christ’s Apostle Paul: “Every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer” (I Timothy 4:45). The Bible tells us, for example, in Psalm 104:1415: “He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man, that he may bring forth food out of the earth, and wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man’s heart.”
So while the moderate, conscientious use of alcohol is a matter of Christian liberty, the abuse of alcohol for drunkenness is absolutely forbidden by God. Paul says: “Be not drunk,” thereby prohibiting overindulgence, inebriation, intoxication, drunkenness. Paul mentions the means, “with wine,” simply because it was the commonly used alcoholic beverage in the Orient at Paul’s time, the excessive consumption of which results in drunkenness (Cf. Genesis 9:20-21).
To be “drunk” is to be intoxicated, to be stupefied, impaired, and rendered incompetent and ultimately unconscious as the result of excessive consumption of alcohol. Most state laws contain a similar definition of “intoxication” when referring to “driving under the influence” of alcohol and other substances that impair one’s judgment and responsible operation of motor vehicles. While such secular definitions are instructive in their limited scope, Solomon, as the penman of the Holy Ghost, describes both the condition and the result of drunkenness in Proverbs 23:31-35 as a spiritual evil; for drunkenness, as he points out, also leads to other sins such as sexual sins —sexual lust and filthy language— as well as to a host of other sins and offenses (cf. Proverbs 31:5, Isaiah 5:22-23, 28:7, Hosea 4:11, Habakkuk 2:5, 1516, etc.). While the Bible’s reference in our title-text is specifically to the “wine” commonly consumed in ancient times, wine today is but one example of many substances, the abuse of which can render a person “drunk,” intoxicated, “buzzed” and “high.” The prohibition: “Be not drunk” covers all such situations.
During these latter days of sore distress on the earth, wherein the children of the world blatantly display their spiritual depravity, unbridled lust, debauchery, and hedonistic behavior without the slightest apology, they regard God and His Word and will to be foolishness (I Corinthians 2:14; Romans 8:5-8). And, even while drowning in destruction and perdition as the result of their materialism and worldliness (I Timothy 6:9), they deny the reality of sin, of sin’s guilt, and of sin’s consequences, refuse to repent, and continue down the broad and easy road that leads to hell (Matthew 7:13), literally destroying themselves in the process (Hosea 13:9a). Sadly and tragically, they ignore the hammer of God’s Law (Jeremiah 23:29) and seek instead to deny their accountability, to escape their reality, to mask their pain, to dull their anxiety, and to drown their sorrows in various kinds of intoxication. In so doing, however, they only compound their troubles in the sin of drunkenness, which destroys the inhibitions created by curb of the Law and produces even more sin and vice out of their unbridled hearts (Matthew 15:19). And this is more pronounced today than in any other period of history.
Jesus earnestly warns us, His latter-day disciples, even as He warned the twelve apostles: “Take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting (Gk., becoming giddy, “tipsy,” “buzzed” by overindulgence in alcohol), and drunkenness (Gk., heavy drinking), and cares of this life, and so that day (Judgment Day) come upon you unawares” (Luke 21:34). Drunkenness robs a person of proper awareness, not only for the Last Day now nigh at hand, but also for the temptations of the devil (I Peter 5:8), the world (I John 2:15-17), and our sinful flesh (I Peter 2:11), all of which create and contribute to the “cares of this life,” the anxieties which are often blamed for “driving us to drink” in the vain hope of escaping the stress, tension, responsibility and frustration of everyday life. We should beware of these powerful temptations and, with the help and by the grace of God, “cast all our care upon Him, for He careth for [us]” (I Peter 5:7)!
Some people get drunk only occasionally, such as when they attend a party; but this is no excuse, nor does it mitigate the sin of drunkenness. The Bible specifically mentions what we would call today “binge drinking” and becoming “party drunks.” “For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries; wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you” (I Peter 4:3-4). In Galatians 5, such wild partying (“revellings”) and the “drunkenness” that typically results from it are listed under the manifest “works of the flesh” (v. 19); and Paul says: “They which do such things [Gk., they who perpetrate and persist in such things] shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 21). The same combination is noted in Romans 13:1314: “Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness…. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.”
The Bible also speaks of habitual drunks, whom we identify today as “alcoholics,” people who cannot control their drinking but have become at least psychologically, and perhaps even physically, addicted to alcohol. Alcohol has become their master. But that fact does not relieve the alcoholic of his responsibility before God for his drunkenness. St. Paul describes addictive drinking in the phrases “given to wine” (I Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:7), referring to one whose constant companion is alcohol, and “given to much wine” (I Timothy 3:8, Titus 2:3), indicating those who are literally “enslaved” by wine in excessive amounts. The fact that these descriptions occur in Paul’s discussion concerning the qualifications set down in God’s Word for pastors and for deacons shows that such addiction can indeed occur among professing Christians and that even those who aspire to offices in the church are not immune to these temptations.
The question is often asked whether a person can be a true Christian and an alcoholic, a drunkard, at the same time. If a person continues to get drunk (Romans 6:1-2) and allows alcohol and other intoxicants to be the master (Romans 8:12-13; Galatians 5:16; etc.) of his life, the answer is obvious: He is not a Christian. Since drunkenness is listed among the gross outward sins of the flesh and typical of the ungodly unbelievers, as we have already noted (I Peter 4:3; Romans 13:12-13; Galatians 5:21; etc.), no one who is a Christian dare “continue” in such sins (Romans 6:1) and deliberately (“willfully”) commit them (Hebrews 10:26ff.) lest he make “shipwreck” of his faith (I Timothy 1:19) and despise both the redeeming blood of his Savior and the gracious operation of the Holy Ghost (Hebrews 10:29)! “God forbid!” Paul cries out. “How shall we that are dead to sin live any longer therein??” he asks in Romans 6:2. “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (I Corinthians 6:911).
Drunkenness is not a spiritual “misdemeanor” to be excused or condoned; it is to be condemned according to God’s Law, so that drunkards see the greatness of their sin and repent. Impenitent drunkards “shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (See above); and our refusal to partake of their sins (I Timothy 5:22) and to be their “drinking buddies” is itself a testimony of the Law to them, as Paul writes in I Corinthians 5:11: “But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.” The sinner, be he a “casual” drunkard, a chronic alcoholic, a hapless drug addict, or one who persists in any manifest transgression of God’s holy Law must learn first to see himself as God sees him in the mirror of that Law: Hopeless and helpless, unable to save himself in any way, without excuse, unquestionably guilty and deserving of eternal punishment. And he must recognize his need of deliverance, his need of salvation by the work and power of another, namely, by the One who is truly capable of accomplishing the otherwise impossible (Matthew 19:26; Philippians 2:13). Until he is brought to such knowledge and realizes his hopeless condition under the indictment of divine justice (Romans 3:20), he cannot be converted to saving Christian faith. He cannot be helped even by the Gospel; for he rejects the very idea of sin and guilt and thus sees in himself no need for salvation. He must first be able to cry from a heart crushed by the hammer of the Law, convicted by its justice, and terrorized by its threats: “What must I do to be saved?!” (Acts 16:30).
Then, and only then, is the precious Gospel or “good news” of salvation in Jesus Christ meaningful to him as a truly contrite sinner! Then, and only then, is he ready to hear that his merciful and gracious God loved him in spite of himself and did something, already in eternity, to rescue him and all mankind from sin and lack of righteousness: “Before the foundation of the world” (I Peter 1:20), God determined to save the world of sinners through His Son, Jesus Christ, whom He gave of His free grace to be their Savior (John 3:16). In the fullness of time, He sent Him (Galatians 4:4-5) to live our life under the Law perfectly, from the womb to the tomb, to give us a righteousness that alone avails before God, to take our sins, guilt and full punishment upon Himself, willingly suffering in His own soul and body the hatred and wrath of God, with the full agony of damnation, as He hung on the cross in darkness, forsaken by God, in the place of all sinners. Shedding His blood as the ransom-price of our salvation (I Peter 1:18-20), Jesus bought us back and redeemed us to God to be heirs of eternal life. We are declared righteous by God’s undeserved love for the sake of the Righteous One, God’s onlybegotten Son. In Him we are accepted before God as His children; in Him we are redeemed, restored and forgiven. This Gospel message works simple childlike faith in our hearts (Romans 10:17) by the power of God’s Spirit, as also does “the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5), Holy Baptism.
Now, when Paul says in our title-text literally, “On the contrary: Ever be being filled with the Spirit,” he refers to the renewing of the Holy Ghost begun at conversion, which continues throughout the life of the believer through the power of Gospel. The Holy Spirit of God constantly renews us in the new man, as Paul says in Ephesians 4:2224: “That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; and be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” The putting on of the new man includes that, as we clothe ourselves by faith in the righteousness of Christ, we do nothing to accommodate the flesh in which “dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18), that is, to enable the flesh to gain the upper hand over the new man of faith; for Paul writes in Romans 13:14: “Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.” Bringing forth “the fruit of the spirit” (Galatians 5:22) is evidence of spiritual resurrection to a living faith (John 12:24; 15:5, 8), a faith that lives unto Christ out of gratitude for His priceless vicarious atonement (II Corinthians 5:15). “Walk in the Spirit,” Paul instructs us, “and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh… If we live in the Spirit (if we are really alive spiritually), let us also walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16, 25).
The Spirit working through the Gospel renews us day by day so that we are able to glorify God in our body, the temple of the Holy Ghost (I Corinthians 3:16, 6:19), mortify (that is, kill) the sinful flesh by true contrition and faith (Romans 8:1314, Galatians 5:1625, 6:78), and produce good works, spiritual sacrifices of thanksgiving, acceptable to God by virtue of Jesus’ blood and righteousness (Ephesians 2:10, I Peter 2:5). So let us turn to the Gospel in time of need, in times of stress, in times of anxiety, not to alcohol or drugs; and we will find help that never fails. The Psalmist sings: “The Lord is my Light and my Salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the Strength of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1). Even though the world and our own deceitful flesh consider drunkenness a trifle to be laughed off, a simple escape from care, or, especially during the holidays, an unavoidable result of partying, we Christians, according to our new man of faith, know better. Ephesians 5:18 tells us the truth of the matter: “Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” By the grace of God and by His Spirit of grace in the Gospel, let us ever order our lives according to God’s clear Word and desire as His dear children what David longed for: “One thing have I desired of the Lord; that will I seek after: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple” (v. 4). God grant it for Jesus’ sake.
— E. J. W.