Saturday, December 8, 2007

God Is No Santa Claus

It’s the Christmas season and I have a confession to make. I used to believe in Santa Claus. My brother and two sisters did, too. Santa was way cool. He brought gifts.
That was when we were kids, decades ago. Yes, I know a guy named Saint Nicholas probably started the tradition of delivering presents mysteriously back when much of the world was Christian, but by the time I was a kid Santa was an icon in a fully developed consumer religion. We loved him.

My family practically worshipped Santa at our house in Ohio back in the sixties. We sang songs about him, drew pictures of him, and wrote what-I-want-for-Christmas wish lists to him. We lit candles made in his image (and watched his head melt). And we ate Santa cookies, making sure to nibble off his arms and legs first. We were told to be good because he was coming. He was the gift giver.

My brother, two years older, became a growing skeptic and decided Claus was a phony. He pointed out that Santa’s wrapping paper exactly matched the stuff Mom and Dad used. He also claimed that Santa couldn’t be in two different places at once. I had to think about that. In the month of December Santa seemed omnipresent. He could be standing on a nearby street corner ringing a Salvation Army bell, riding in a sleigh on a live television broadcast in another state, and sitting on a throne in the department store right in front of you, all at the same time. I suppose my tender young brain preferred denial to sound logic. After all, only one real Santa was needed, even if there were multiple imposters. He brought gifts.

Bing Crosby, the crooning baritone, seemed to think Santa was all-knowing. He sang about him like this.

He sees you when you’re sleeping.
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake.
You better watch out. You better not cry.
You better not pout. I’m telling you why.
Santa Claus is comin’ to town.
He’s making a list. He’s checking it twice.
He’s gonna find our who’s naughty or nice.
Santa Claus is comin’ to town.

My brother convinced me before I started shaving that Santa wasn’t really comin’ to town. It had been Mom and Dad stuffing presents under the tree all along. So I stopped believing. Maybe you should, too.

I don’t want to spoil the harmless delusions of children with holiday visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, but I do think we have an ongoing Santa problem in American culture. Some of us act like God is a cosmic Chris Cringle who always delivers presents even though he threatens not to. We imagine He lets everybody into his heaven, and that hell is simply the proverbial lump of coal that nobody really gets in their Christmas stocking. We think He’s too jolly to actually punish people. I often go out sharing the Gospel with strangers and many of them seem to regard God as a wrathless sugar daddy who hangs out in the great beyond, waiting to answer prayers like Santa in his toy shop at the North Pole. Is this true?

Here’s the bad news, first, from the Bible: All have sinned. (Romans 3:23a) The wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23) Sinners don’t go to heaven. (Corinthians 6:9) Yikes, it looks like everybody gets an F on their moral report card. No promotion. No admittance. We all get death and hell. Merry Christmas.

But heres’s the good news: The Bible says that every good gift comes from God (James 1:17) and that God will give us a new heart with His Spirit in it. (Ezekiel 36:26-27) God saves us by His free grace (Ephesians 2:4-9), and he gives such things as righteousness, sincerity, purity, humility, and wisdom to those who ask in faith. Even repentance is a gift from God. (see Acts 5: 31-32) I think we should ask for more of this good stuff. Forget the Harry and David fruit basket this year. Instead, go for the fruit of the Holy Spirit, which includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:14)

God's greatest gift of all was giving himself in the person of Christ Jesus. God is no Santa in the sky who chooses to ignore our sins for the sake of holiday cheer. Far from it, He is just and holy, and reconciles us to Himself by paying for our sins through the shed blood and death of His Son. Our pardon was purchased at great cost to God, but it is free to us who believe. Isn’t that good news?

I have another confession to make. My own five children have never believed in Santa Claus. I chose not to repeat my parent’s gleeful deception about a jolly fat man with a long white beard, who squeezes down chimneys with a sack of toys each Christmas. We do, however, enjoy singing songs about somebody comin’ to town with good gifts. We look forward to Christ’s return and His righteous reign, wherein He will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34).

Are you ready? Better watch out.

Friday, December 7, 2007

A Toast To Wine and Wisdom

To drink, or not to drink; that is the question. Is it nobler in the mind to partake of the fruit of the vine, or to shun its intoxicating flavors?

No Drinking Allowed
Last year the Southern Baptist Conference voted to condemn all alcohol consumption among its members and declare imbibers unfit for church leadership in the SBC denomination. I recently read SBC seminary president Paige Patterson’s support of the resolution online at ( While I admire the Godly work of the SBC, I wonder whether the baby has been thrown out with the bath water regarding wine.

If the Bible condemns the consumption of all alcohol, then believers are wise to not drink it. A hearty toast to abstinence, if this is the case. To do otherwise is sinful disobedience. But what are we to make of the Bible’s commendation of wine? Although Patterson fails to mention any positive statements for wine in his exegesis, they abound in Scripture. Are we to reject that which God has blessed?

Blessings and Curses of Wine
The Bible includes the advice of Paul to Timothy regarding the medicinal value of wine, as well as passages that depict wine as a desirable beverage.
“Spend the money for whatever you desire, oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household” (Deuteronomy 14 26 ).
“You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man's heart” (Psalm 104:14-15).

On the other hand the Scriptures pull no punches in condemning drunkenness.
“Wine is a mocker, strong drink is a brawler, and whosoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1).
“It is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes intoxicating drink” (Proverbs 31:4-5).
John the Baptist, who Jesus considered “the greatest born among men,” was a total abstainer. Perhaps we should all do likewise. A toast to abstinence. But then, the Lord himself made wine and drank it. How about a toast to wine? No toast to drunkenness, though. Neither John or Jesus got drunk. Incidentally, Jesus was falsely accused of being a drunkard (Luke 7:33-34), which is evidence that the wine he made and consumed at the wedding in Cana contained alcohol. How about a toast to moderation?

Abuse, Not Use, Condemned
It does not take a rocket scientist to see the connection between the consumption of wine and the intoxication that can result. It does require a bit of logic to not equate consumption with drunkenness, because wine can, in fact, be consumed without the consumer getting drunk. I successfully tested this hypothesis recently with guests and a lasagna dinner. We enjoyed God’s good gift and obeyed His command to not get drunk. I’m not sure the SBC would approve.

Martin Luther once quipped, “Do you suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused? Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we then prohibit and abolish women?”

Many of God’s good gifts to man are abused. The gift of food is abused by gluttons. The gift of rest is abused by sluggards. The gift of language is abused by liars and gossips. The gift of sex is abused by fornicators, adulterers and homosexuals. It’s no surprise, then that God's good gift of wine is abused by drunkards. And it is a sobering thought, indeed, to consider that drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:10). The solution to abuse is not to ungratefully reject God’s good gifts, but rather to use them properly.
It is interesting to note that for some 1,800 years the church used wine during the Lord’s Supper. Proponents of the abstention position have tried to claim that communion wine was non-alcoholic grape juice. However, Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians who got drunk during the Lord’s Supper makes no sense if the wine contained no alcohol (1 Corinthians 11:20-21).

Keith A. Mathison, points out in his book, Given For You, that the substitution of grape juice for wine had its origins, not in the study of Scripture, but can be traced to the nineteenth-century temperance movement. Mathison describes the movement as largely an expression of Christian liberalism and cultural feminism marshaled against the abuses of alcohol. It ultimately failed to transform the culture because it placed the responsibility of sin in an external object rather than in the human heart. The movement’s only lasting “success,” according to Mathison, is found in the churches that used its logic to replace the wine with grape juice in the Lord’s Supper.

Practical Merits of Abstinence
If abstinence was good for John the Baptist, then I reason it must be good for others as well. Let me count the benefits. First, abstaining from all alcohol keeps one a safe distance from drunkenness and all its attending sins. Since sobriety decreases in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed, drinking no alcohol ensures no drunkenness. Second, total abstention protects a weaker brother from falling into sin as a result of his exposure to alcohol through our free exercise to drink it. Paul writes that “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (Romans 14:21).

Be Filled With The Spirit
The Apostle Paul warned the saints in Ephesus, saying “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). Dionysus worship, which was common in Ephesus, was notorious for its unrestrained orgiastic combination of wine, music, dance and sex. It sounds much like today's sex and drugs and rock n' roll idolatry. Drunken Dyonisiac worshippers equated their frenzied, ecstatic state with being filled with the spirit of Dionysus. Paul condemned this as counterfeit spirituality. In contrast, believers in Jesus are to be filled with the Holy Spirit, who will lead them in the righteousness of Christ through faith.

Part of Paul’s letter to the Galatian church is worth quoting at length here, since it so beautifully contrasts the works of the flesh with the works of the Spirit.

Galatians 5:13-26 13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. 16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

Freedom and Wisdom
As Christians are filled by the Spirit, it seems possible for us to drink wine in a way that glorifies God, and to thank Him for His good gift that gladdens the heart of man. The Holy Spirit’s gift of self-control enables believers to enjoy God’s gift of wine. By His power we exercise restraint, we avoid over-indulgence, and we avoid passing judgment on others for their use of God’s gifts (Romans 14:3).

To conclude, it seems there are really two options for Christians: no use, or moderate use. Abuse is not an option. One man abstains, like John the Baptist, and it is good. Another man drinks, like Jesus, and it is good. Both gave glory to God; neither got drunk. I think it would be wise for the SBC to modify its position and to forbid drunkenness instead of consumption. This would place it on rock solid Biblical ground and would restrict no one's legitimate Christian liberty. Ultimately, whatever we do, whether in word or deed, we are to do unto the Lord, giving thanks to the Father (Colossians 3:17). So abstain unto the Lord and drink unto the Lord.

I propose a final toast to wine and wisdom.