Every Sunday night before evening worship I meet in my study with the middle schoolers of our church. Normally, we meet 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 normalcy. They have figured out that the quickest way to have a tangential conversation is to ask me theological questions. 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 these middle schoolers asked me 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 many traditions have come to practice Lent. As Ash Wednesday — which is tomorrow — will begin another Lenten season, many of us will encounter it. In the spirit of the Apostle Paul who said: “Test everything” (see 1 Thessalonians 5:21), we should stop and think biblically about the Lenten season. Is it good, bad, or neutral?
Lent is regarded by many to be one of the oldest and most important practices on 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 either individually or corporately. Nevertheless, for many, the Lenten season is a time of preparation for Easter and a practice to grow closer to God through fasting, self-denial, and repentance.
With such an ambitious purpose some might wonder if there’s any room to question its usefulness. How can any of that be bad? Well, Paul reminds us that not all that glitters is gold. There are “spiritual practices” that can actually be bad for you. He told Timothy that it’s possible to have the appearance of godliness but actually deny its power (see 2 Timothy 3:5). He also cautioned against submitting to regulations like “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch,” which look wise but “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 — no one has to do it. Different from the many religious days we have created, God has permanently set the rhythm of our life according to his own 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 since the creation of the world, and how it will continue to be until Jesus — who is 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 were not intended to have a permanent place. According to the work of Jesus, these days are days we have been set free from (see Colossians 2:16-17). The only “holy day” the New Testament knows anything about is the “Lord’s Day” (see Revelation 1:10). God himself has attached no significance or meaning to the forty days of Lent. Whatever people might feel about, it’s only the result of us putting meaning and significance to it. That means that whatever Lent might promise it simply can’t offer something unique or different than what we get in observing God’s weekly calendar.
Second, in the Lent season people commit to giving up certain types of luxuries as a way to promote piety — godliness. In some traditions, like the Catholic tradition, this is a form of penance. In Catholic teaching penance is one of the seven sacraments where a baptized person makes satisfaction for sin. According to this teaching, even after confession of sin you still need to “do something more to make amends for sin” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1459). 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 so obtain forgiveness through the Church. One can easily see the connection between Lent and the Catholic sacrament of penance.
While Lent isn’t a distinct Catholic practice, the attitude that I need to do something to make amends for sin isn’t either. While evangelicals who observe Lent probably wouldn’t do it in the context of this sacramentalism, it’s easy to do it in that spirit — it’s easy to think that abstaining from certain luxuries is a way to satisfy or make up for my sins. That attitude robs Jesus of the glory of his satisfaction since he lived the life the law commands and died the death the law demands. We cannot add to the prefect work of Jesus.
To be blunt, that’s a cheap repentance and is putting confidence in the flesh. It reinforces the attitude of the Pharisees who Jesus rejected saying: “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 the Holy Spirit gives: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). Self-imposed rules will not bring someone 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 and corporately (see e.g. Matthew 6:16 or Joel 2:12), the Bible gives a stern warning against false fasting which is false godliness. The Prophet Isaiah said: “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure […] Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high” (Isaiah 58:3-4). 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 for the purpose of promoting humility, repentance, mercy, and prayer. Without these corresponding practices a fast is aimless if not outright hypocritical.
The fashionable and savvy Lenten season that is promoted by our culture directly works against the true spirit of fasting. It creates an environment for hypocrisy to thrive in. John Calvin rightly wrote: “It would have been much better to have had no fasting at all, then have it carefully observed, but at the same time corrupted by false and pernicious opinions.”
I know that Lent means a lot to many — Evangelicals, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and Catholics. It’s 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 just not convinced that the Lenten season actually encourages those things. It has a lot of glitter but no gold. Even if you disagree (and feel free to for biblical reasons!) I hope that you can take some encouragement: put no confidence in the flesh — in what you do or do not eat — 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 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).
*This post originally published in March 2017