Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the day that marks the start of the penitential season of Lent where the Church prepares for Resurrection Sunday in a manner similar to its observance of Advent in preparation for Christmas Day. I was not planning on writing about Lent, but after seeing several posts in social media warning Protestants against celebrating or observing Lent, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the matter.
Is it a Roman Catholic thing?
The research I’ve done traces it back to quadragesima paschae (Latin for “40 days before Easter”) spoken of by the bishops at the Council of Nicea in 325. Most of what came out of the Council of Nicea was confirming doctrine, not creating it. I’m sure we could finder older references to this “40 days before Easter”, but since we don’t consider the Nicene Creed to be only a Roman Catholic thing, I think this historical research should suffice for now. Now, as the core doctrines in Roman Catholicism and Protestantism differ; so, too, do the manner in which the churches observe Lent, even if from the outside they look similar.
Commandment to Observe Lent?
There is none. We are not commanded in Scripture to observe Lent. Failure to observe Lent is not a sin in and of itself. Being the sinners we are, we can find ways of sinning in everything we do or abstain from, but for the interest of this question, it isn’t a sin to NOT observe lent.
Is it Wrong to Observe Lent?
No, provided it is done in Faith. Please don’t go to a Roman Catholic church to observe Lent. I’d also encourage you not to invent your own version of Lent without first researching Lutheran or Reformed traditions (which ever confessions you hold to) for observing Lent.
Romans 14:4-12 (ESV)
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall confess to God.”
So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.
Pretty straightforward, in fact. Yes, this is a man-made tradition much like celebrating Christmas and Advent. There seem to be just as many pitfalls for abusing Lent as there are with Advent and Christmas. However, there has been a lot of meaningful work put into the Church’s intention for observing Lent and it has served the church well for nearly 2000 years. If you’re looking for reasons NOT to observe Lent, there are plenty of bloggers posting such lists and really they are basically anti-false-piety or anti-Pharisaical guidelines. But here, I’d like to make a couple of counter-points to the naysayers:
- Lent isn’t a thing unto itself, it’s preparation for Resurrection Sunday. If you’re choosing this season to try to lose weight, or join the Daniel Plan 2.0, or hoping this fast will plant a seed of dominion over a stronghold in your life, or sever a soul tie… you’ve been deceived. Lent isn’t a commandment or a promise from God, it is a season the Church designated for preparing ourselves for the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This isn’t the only way the Church remembers Christ, it is just one way that it does each year. The Believer who rightly understands the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ observes Lent in as a way of preparing for Easter Sunday.
- The 40 days are a teaching tool, not a Law. This is a great time to teach Christ from as the Passover Lamb, when the LORD delivered the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, through the Red Sea (baptism) and into the wilderness for 40 years before entering the promised land… which dovetails into how Christ, after the baptism of John the Baptist, was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted for 40 days and resisting the devil. Whether or not you observe Lent by fasting yourselves, this is a season where we can focus on the significance of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ for more than just a few hours on Resurrection Sunday or at an Easter service. This is vital Bible study for growing in the knowledge of Christ. What is really awesome in all of this, is that none of it has to be done on our own, or by our might, indeed none of it can be, but by the Grace of God and His Holy Spirit in us.
- The focus is repentance, not merit. One doesn’t observe Lent to merit favor, indulgences, forgiveness, honor, recognition, or praise. Being sinners, we err in every good work we attempt when we are tempted by our flesh to seek after these things. The focus is repentance. When we abstain or fast during Lent, we aren’t “giving God” anything, we are humbling ourselves in repentance. When we serve our neighbor in giving of alms or service, we aren’t meriting favor or giving God anything, we are humbling ourselves and loving our neighbor as Christ loved us. As Christians, we understand that this is a year-round commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, but as sinners we know that there are times we need to really focus on our shortcomings in humility and repent for our sin. This tradition provides a time of the year, every year, when the Body of Christ focuses on the gravity of our sin, the Passion of Christ, and our need for repentance and forgiveness in the Name of Jesus.
I keep reading comments in social media of the effect, “we should be penitent year-round, not just during Lent”. That’s an ad hominem argument, a logical fallacy accusing the observer of false penitence. Many of the protestant churches that observe Lent also practice Confession and Absolution year-round… meaning they in-fact are penitent year-round. A solid pastor preaches Law and Gospel every time the saints are gathered in Jesus’ Name for the building up of the Body of Christ. Lent won’t correct bad theology. Indeed, there are many with bad theology pushing Lent. But for those with a solid, Biblical foundation of Faith, there is much good that can come from observing Lent in preparation for celebration of the Passion and Resurrection of our LORD and Savior, Jesus Christ. My primary concern in writing this, is that we not be divisive regarding this Church tradition. As always, if you have any further questions feel free to ask in the comment section or contact us directly… but do please also engage your Pastor(s) on these matters. They have been charged with watching over you, and will have to give an Account to the Great Shepherd.
Romans 14:13-23 (ESV) | Do Not Cause Another to Stumble
Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual up building. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
Romans 15:1-7 (ESV) | The Example of Christ
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
In Christ Jesus,