Every Sunday night before evening worship I meet in my study with the middle schoolers in our church to discuss the morning sermon. That goal isn’t always achieved. As I’ve gotten to know them they have also gotten to know me. Sometimes they use that to their advantage to derail the normal topic of discussion. They have figured out that the quickest way to have a tangential conversation is to ask me a serious question. I’ve never told them—and maybe I don’t need to—but these are some of my favorite times as a pastor. In one manipulatively planned digression I was asked about the practice of Lent.
Over a century ago William Ingraham Kip wrote: “For some years past each return of Lent has been, we believe, regarded with additional interest.” That observation remains true today. As Ash Wednesday marks the start of another Lenten season many of us will encounter it. In the spirit of the Apostle Paul who said “test everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) we should think biblically about the Lenten season.
Lent is regarded by many to be on of the oldest and most important practices of the church calendar. Traces of its observance can be found in the writings of Irenaeus (d. 202), Tertullian (d. 240), and the Council of Nicea (325). Through the centuries different rules, ceremonies, rites, and liturgies have left Lent without a unified expression individually and corporately. Nevertheless, for many, the Lenten season is a time of preparation for Easter and growing closer to God through fasting, self-denial, and repentance.
With such an ambitious purpose some might wonder if there’s room to question its usefulness. Paul reminds us, however, that not all that glitters is gold. There are “spiritual disciplines” that can be bad for you! He told Timothy that it is possible to have the appearance of godliness but actually deny its power (2 Timothy 3:5). He also cautioned against submitting to regulations such as “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” which are according to human precepts and teachings because though they had the appearance of wisdom “they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:23). We need to be careful. Just because someone wants something to promote a good and godly end doesn’t mean it will. So, does Lent have the appearance without the power; the glitter without the gold?
First, we should remember that there’s no biblical requirement for observing a Lenten season. Far different from the religious days many have imposed on the calendar, God has permanently set the rhythm of our life according to his calendar: “Six days shall you labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:9-10). That’s how it has been from creation and how it will continue to be until Jesus—who is the Lord of the Sabbath—returns (see Genesis 2:3 and Hebrews 4:9). Under the Old Testament there were all kinds of ceremonial days added to the Jewish calendar. But these days had no permanence and, according to the work of Jesus, are things we’ve been set free from (see Colossians 2:16-17). The only “holy day” the New Testament knows is the weekly “Lord’s Day” (see Revelation 1:10). There’s nothing special or sacred about the forty days of Lent. That means that whatever Lent might promise (if it does) it cannot offer something unique or different than what we get every Lord’s Day when we gather for the ministry of Word and sacrament.
Second, in the Lenten season people commit to giving up certain types of luxuries in the promotion of piety. In the Roman Catholic Church this is a form of penance. Penance in the Catholic tradition is a sacrament whereby a baptized person makes satisfaction for sin. According to this teaching, after confession of sin you still need to “do something more to make amends for sin.” This includes activities like prayer, giving an offering, works of mercy, or voluntary self denial. In making satisfaction one can regain grace and justice and obtain forgiveness through the Church. One can easily see the connection between Lent and penance. Let me suggest, however, that this view of penance is far from biblical repentance and seeks to add to the perfect satisfaction of Jesus Christ. While many evangelicals who observe Lent wouldn’t claim to do it in the context of this sacramentalism, the very practice of unnecessarily abstaining from certain luxuries promotes a cheap repentance and a confidence in the flesh. It reinforces that Pharisaical attitude Jesus rejected: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15). Sin is a problem with the heart and that’s why we need the resources of the Spirit. Paul asked the Galatians: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). These self-imposed rules will not bring one closer to God and further from sin: “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do eat” (1 Corinthians 8:8).
Third, while fasting is a biblical discipline both individually (Matthew 6:16) and corporately (Joel 2:12), the Bible gives stern warnings against false fasting which is a false piety. The Prophet Isaiah rebuked: “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high” (Isaiah 53:4-4). Likewise Jesus warned: “When you do fast do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:16). Biblical fasting is to the end of promoting humility, repentance, mercy, and prayer. Without these corresponding graces a fast is nothing but the worst kind of hypocrisy. The fashionable and culturally savvy Lenten season seems, at least to me, to promote an atmosphere for such hypocrisy to thrive in. John Calvin rightly wrote: “It would have been much better to have had no fasting at all, than have it carefully observed, but at the same time corrupted by false and pernicious opinions.”
I know that Lent means a lot to many Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists and is a significant part of their traditions. But, as I look at the Bible and the true nature of Christian liberty, repentance, and fasting I’m not convinced that the Lenten season actually encourages those things–I guess that’s one of the reasons I’m Presbyterian! It certainly has the appearance, but lacks the power; it has the glitter, but it’s not the gold. Even if you disagree with me (and I’ll happily give you that liberty) I hope that you can take some encouragement: put no confidence in the flesh but only in Jesus, rend your heart and not your garments, add to your profession of faith every grace of the Spirit, and take the path of daily self-denial which is identification with Jesus Christ and the promotion of his glory. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).