Giving up Lent (Reposted)

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.

5 thoughts on “Giving up Lent (Reposted)

  1. I find it very interesting that you insist on hearing only Biblical support and arguments for Lenten observance, yet your arguments against Lent are based entirely on Evangelical tradition, not scripture.
    Certainly the specific practice of Lent is not found in the scriptures. Nor is Christmas, and Spurgeon advocates we should give up that festival as well because it is a man-made tradition. I note you didn’t highlight that part of his comments, but I’ll go ahead and assume you don’t observe Christmas since there is no scriptural evidence for it.
    As for the Biblical arguments for Lent that you request:

    Matthew 9:14-15 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

    Matthew 6:16-18 And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

    Romans 14:5-10 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
    You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.

    Romans 14:19-23 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.
    So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

    1 Cor 8:9-13 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

    I would be so bold as to suggest that those last few passages of scripture should give you pause before you actively encourage people who want to observe Lent to stop the practice. Lent is not and never has been a mandated activity that has the power to imperil one’s soul. Rather, it is a season of solemn reflection as we remember the great sacrifices of Christ, and a time of preparation for the joyous celebration of his resurrection. It is good and proper to observe a calendar of spiritual seasons. If we take time to remember and observe Christ’s birth, his death, and his resurrection, why should we not also remember his suffering and that we ourselves are the cause for it? I’d say the Western church could do with a whole lot more somber reflection, repentance and sharing in Christ’s suffering.

    1. Laurie,

      Thanks for commenting! I’ll do my best to respond to your comments/arguments in turn:

      “I find it interesting…” – (Did you mean to type “hypocritical” here? You can accuse me of hypocrisy; I won’t melt. It’s okay. 😉 ) If you recall, the goal of my post is to question why Protestant believers take part in the practice of Lent, because Protestantism (really since the time of the Reformation) has been moving away from such practice, arguing that the practice of specifically Lenten fasting leans on Catholic tradition more than a clear example from Scripture. I leaned upon the words of Protestant theologians, because I was speaking to Protestants about this issue. (Are you part of this group? I’m curious.) I could have argued more from Scripture. Maybe I’ll write a follow-up post, doing so. Or you can read my friend Michael’s comment and post, linked above.

      As for whether or not I celebrate Christmas, you may be troubled to find that I do—but I am willing to admit that it’s as much a cultural practice as anything else. If I did not live in a culture that celebrated the day, I might still do so, and I certainly wouldn’t argue that doing so is a Biblical principle or mandate.

      Matthew 9 – It’s important to note here that Jesus says his disciples will fast—but He does not talk about a specific, prescribed, yearly period of fasting. And as you will recall, I specifically said that I am not opposed to the practice of fasting—not at all. What I was pointing out is the tradition and timing of this specific fast is not Biblically mandated (a claim you have not proven false).

      Matthew 6 – I think you may be in danger of making my point, to some degree. Jesus said to fast, but not to broadcast your fasting in order to gain the approval of others. As I recently discussed with an acquaintance on Twitter, this is really an important issue. Why would a person broadcast their Lenten fast? Doesn’t that bring the focus to themselves instead of Christ? Doesn’t it endanger them by causing them to seek the reactions and praise of men, forfeiting the spiritual reward of fasting? If you want to fast, do it—but don’t tell people about it.

      Romans 14 – Context is key here. The one who adds additional rules to their Christian practice is described by Paul as being weaker in faith. This is consistent with the rest of Paul’s writings, as he time and again argued AGAINST the imposition of man-made rules upon Gospel teaching as a means of achieving holiness (I Corinthians 6 / Colossians 2).

      Now, you bring up the point that Paul urges the mature believers not to criticize or judge those who are weaker in faith and conscience. This is an important point—it is very true, and I affirm it. But I have to ask: was I judging, Laurie? As I read back over my post, I do not make character judgments about those who practice Lent. I don’t call them fools or hypocrites or terrible sinners. I entreat them, as my brothers and friends, to consider my arguments, my position, my questions. I address this issue as winsomely as I know how. If the fact that I’m addressing it at all is what bothers you so much, I’m afraid I can’t help you with that.

      “I would be so bold…” – I disagree with your interpretation in light of these passages. Does not Paul do the same thing (and much more strongly) when he calls upon the Galatians to not add more law and ritual requirements to their Christian practice? I am not accusing my brothers and sisters of sin (as you seem to be implying of me). I’m calling on them to consider if this particular fast, done this particular way, is necessary or founded on Scripture. If I were having a discussion with a brother in my church, I would have the same approach (though I would start with Scripture, as you suggest), and I would have that conversation without reservation, because doing so would be out of love for my brother.

      “Lent is not and never has been a mandated activity with the power to imperil one’s soul.” — Unless you ask Catholic theologian Ronald Conte Jr., who writes that intentionally refusing to take part in Lent is a sin. (This may mean nothing to you, if you’re not Catholic, but it was the quickest documentation I could find.)

      The rest of your paragraph argues that we “ought to” fast, repent, solemnly reflect, and prepare for the joyous celebration of Christ’s resurrection. What’s crazy is I do that, every week, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper at church. Is that the same thing? (If not, why not?) You argue that it is “good and proper” to observe a spiritual calendar, but this is an assertion without supporting arguments. I say that, while people may choose to embrace such things, it’s not necessary, and I lean on Colossians 2 as I say that.

      …So where does this leave us, Laurie? I mean, you took the time and effort to come to my blog and leave a lengthy comment, and I have no guarantee that you will read any or all of my response. You read my post as a condemnation of Christians who practice Lent, and it wasn’t one. If you’re looking for a fight, Laurie, you’re not going to get one. Not from me. I’m not your enemy. Have a good day.

  2. (cautiously commenting after the few above me)
    i don’t practice lent. but i celebrate it. there’s a difference and it’s worth noting. worth noting enough that i decided to click on your post in my feedly, open it in a new window, and log on so i could comment.
    i grew up catholic. rules, rules, rules. oh, and some rules, too. doing what you did because the priest said so. i’m no longer catholic. so i don’t fast from or with anything – but it’s something to celebrate. lent leads up to the biggest foundation of our faith, and that’s not to be taken lightly. i my opinion, it’s more important than christmas – everyone is born. no one else can take the weight of the sin of the whole world at their death, and rise up from that death in the resurrection.
    i’ve got no scripture to back this up. i have no research or theology training. but i thought it was interesting that your post focused just on the fasting part of lent, when it is so much bigger than that.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Erin. I appreciate that. What this post is reacting to is my fellow Protestants who are seeking to embrace these random elements of high-church tradition and piety, seemingly without good reason. And so often, the celebration becomes mere tradition. My questions of .why” are sincere. We need to check our hearts, to make sure we aren’t trying to impress or earn the favor of God or man, because it flies in the face of the Gospel.

      Celebrate the resurrection of King Jesus. Yes, this is good and right. But do it out of a glad heart, rather than obligation or a vain attempt to enact righteousness that God alone can provide.

      Thanks again for reading. Please keep doing so.

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