Today is Ash Wednesday, so the big talk this week around the office involves fasting. It’s always a curious thing to hear avowedly secular people discuss Lenten fasting. It’s become a kind of cultural artifact—it’s something you do because everyone else does, or because your family always did–like secular Jews celebrating the “high holy days.” People I know who deny the God of Scripture or the deity of Jesus are still fasting (though they are very particular about the exact rules—I won’t do this at these certain times in these certain circumstances). It’s interesting to see that, in doing this, they’re creating another man-made law to follow, and willingly taking on the yokes they shape themselves. It’s like, deep down, there’s still a desire to fashion our own righteousness…
Anyway, I want to talk to Christians for a second here. Specifically, Protestants.
If you are a Protestant Christian and you’re planning to celebrate Lent this year, I have to ask you: Why?
In brief, Lent is the observance of the 40 days leading up to Easter, in which practitioners fast from something (either something positive [a blessing] or something negative [a vice]) in order to share in the…
Okay, here’s where I start to get confused. Why ARE you doing it?
Is it to share in the suffering of Christ? We do that through our daily battle against sin, our Christian witness, the opposition we face from a world system that is set against our message.
Is it to show repentance for sin? If that’s the case, isn’t the sacrifice of Christ enough to pay for your sin? Do you need to demonstrate some outward sign of sorrow to prove to God that you are appreciative enough, or you have changed enough?
Is it to teach yourself discipline or self-control? It seems like that’s something the Holy Spirit does, primarily. Beyond that, why limit yourself to these 40 days? Why not fast during Christmas? Fourth of July? What is it about this season that requires your outward acts of penitence and self-denial more than any other season? (I guess we do it on January 1st as well, but that’s penitence of a different kind.) And then there’s the whole thorny issue of talking about fasting, which really defeats the whole purpose…
Those of us who may be tempted to take part in Lenten observance need to really step back and ask why. This practice isn’t mandated in Scripture; it wasn’t observed by the New Testament church. As a matter of fact, it seemed like Paul had some harsh words for those who would apply extra rules to control behavior for the sake of spiritual asceticism.
While the practice of Lent became part of church tradition during the first millennium of the Church (some point to Nicea as the earliest discussion), it wasn’t seen in a positive light by several of the key figures in Protestant faith. (Here I must tip my cap to Keith Miller for culling these great examples.)
- While Martin Luther did preach a Lenten sermon in his church, he also said that “Lent has become mere mockery, because our fasting is a perversion and an institution of man.” He continues by saying that the kind of traditional fasting required by Lenten observance is a perversion of the intent of fasting, and the story of Christ’s fasting, in Scripture.
- In his Institutes, John Calvin called the Lenten fast a “superstitious observance” and a “gross delusion” that misapplies Scriptural texts and makes men think they are doing a service to God.
- John Owen decried the practice of Lent in his Mortification of Sin, especially when practitioners give up “sin” temporarily in an attempt to honor God.
- Johnathan Edwards called the dietary rules of Lent an “anti-Christian superstition” and part of “popish religion.”
- Finally, Charles Spurgeon calls his listeners/readers to consider that the season of mourning has indeed ended:
Come, then, and for your own good hang up the sackbut and take down the psaltery—put away the ashes! What if men call this season, “Lent”? We will keep no Lent, tonight—this is our Eastertide! Our Lord has risen from the dead and He is among us, and we will rejoice in Him! Come, Beloved, surely it is time that we did, for a while, at least, forget our pain, griefs and all the worries of this weary world and, for one, I must, I will, be glad and rejoice in my Lord—and I hope many of you will join with me in the happy occupation which will be helpful to yourselves.
I have to say, friends, I stand with these faithful brothers on this issue. The vital spiritual practices of daily repentance and even occasional fasting as a physical act of devotion aren’t bad themselves, certainly not. But the practice of formalized fasting as part of the church calendar rings false with the New Testament teaching. If you are in Christ, you are not bound to a ritualistic practice tied to specific days of the calendar.
So this is my challenge to all my Protestant brothers and sisters: this year, let’s give up Lent for Lent. Rather than putting on the robes of mourning, let’s celebrate that our King has already risen and is alive evermore–every day is Easter Sunday! Our sins have been cleansed by His blood, so our acts of pious penitence are no longer needed. Through His suffering, He has won our joy.
[reposted with minimal changes from last February]
Your Turn: Okay, Lenten observers, here’s your chance to convince me–from Scripture–that I’ve missed the boat on this. I mean it: Biblical arguments for the practice of Lent are most welcome. I want to be Biblical above all things.