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In defense of Lent: Part 2

Local News: On Thursday, March 6, at 7:30 the Music Department of Belhaven University will be hosting a Student Composers evening in the Recital Room of the Center for the Arts building. Belhaven's web site explains the evening by saying, "The program will explore new ways to experience the adventure of music-making as the composers and performers open windows into their creative worlds." Admission is free. For more information, go to www.belhaven.edu.

In part 1, we began looking at objections against Lent raised this week in a couple of articles written by Presbyterian leaders. In part 2, we will attempt to offer a rationale for the practice of observing Lent.

1. Addressing the objections

Lent is not inextricably bound up with wrong ideas about merit. The Eastern Orthodox Church’s Lent is even more ascetic than Roman Catholicism’s, and while Orthodoxy has always emphasized works, it would be mischaracterization of the worst kind to insinuate that Orthodoxy holds to a doctrine of merit comparable to Rome’s.

It may be a weighty objection that Christians didn’t start celebrating Lent until the 4th century, but couldn’t it be an equally weighty defense? For the past 1700 years most Christians have found Lent to be a spiritually enriching exercise. Surely that is worth taking note of?

In his article, “Why I Don’t Observe Lent”, PCA Pastor Ronald Barnes explains his philosophical uneasiness about Lent, quoting scholar Hughes Old:

“Protestants, and especially Calvinists, have always opposed the asceticism of both Lent and Advent. Asceticism drives a sharp division between the physical and the spiritual. Much pagan philosophy, especially Manichaeism and Neoplatonism, sees our physical existence as the source of sin and corruption. It is pagan philosophy, not biblical Christianity, which teaches that the physical body is a prison that enslaves the human spirit. This has always been a major point of controversy between Catholicism and Protestantism.”

It is historically inaccurate to say that “Protestants” have opposed Lent and Advent. In the 16th century, some Reformed theologians opposed these ascetic observances, but Lutherans and Anglicans retained the Church Calendar. Many modern Methodists observe the historic feasts and fasts as well. To imply that Lent, with its insistence on self-denial, sets up an unbiblical opposition to the body and all things physical is not true. Asceticism can be understood wrongly, and it can be motivated by an erroneous dislike of the physical body, but asceticism itself is in harmony with the Christian faith. Jesus expected his disciples to fast, not because the body is evil, but because people need to abstain from food at times to better gain control of themselves and prevent their appetites from controlling them.

Thankfully, even as he opposes Lent, Barnes does acknowledge that fasting is a good thing in itself:

“Of course, fasting is good as an expression of self-denial, but for the Church to decree such seasons for fasting as Lent, and thereby bind the consciences of believers, is contrary to the instructions given by the Apostle Paul. In addition it can be asked why would one voluntarily place himself under such rigorous regulations concerning food when Christ has set His people free from such regulations. Lent became a season of penance; forty days of sorrowful penance while waiting for Easter and the celebration of the resurrection. Nowhere in scripture is there any prescription for such an observance.”

Christ may have set us free from any notion of justification before God based on obedience to the Law, but Christ didn’t set us free from the necessity of fasting. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus took for granted that his disciples, as good Jews, would fast—notice he says, “When you fast…”, not if “If you fast….” I appreciate how Methodist, Lutherans and the Anglican Communion make Lent something that is encouraged, but not compulsory. Still, is it so wrong for churches to strongly encourage members to observe seasons of fasting? It is true that Lent itself is nowhere commanded in Scripture. If one wants to get technical and oppose it on those grounds, then for consistency’s sake, one should also oppose a number of other things regularly mandated by evangelical churches that have no explicit basis in Scripture.

For instance, in Scripture, people would be baptized immediately after expressing faith in the gospel. Many Presbyterian churches today require people to go through a new members class before joining or being baptized. Is requiring people to go through such a class requiring an extra biblical requirement on God’s people? Many churches also mandate pre-marital counseling for couples. Of course, counseling is a good thing, but is it biblically defensible to make it compulsory? If it’s wrong to ever require people to do anything not explicitly spelled out in Scripture, then it’s not fair to simply single out Lent.

Barnes went on to say:

“There is no pattern set forth in scripture for forty days of mourning over sin, especially when Christ has offered immediate forgiveness to everyone who repents.”

Seasons of penitence do not in any way overlook the fact that Christ offers immediate forgiveness to all who repent. Such seasons simply serve as reminders of how far we have to go in the process of becoming like Christ. There is still so much remaining sin in our hearts. Setting aside six weeks out of the year to give extra attention to our sin and mourning over it in hopes of putting it to death and experiencing closer intimacy with Christ is perfectly consistent with Reformed theology.

Later, Barnes said, “The Reformers particularly objected to set periods of fasting such as Advent and Lent. Fasting should be an inner discipline rather than the outward and legalistic form which the Reformers found the practice of their day to be… The Reformers discontinued these man-made observances in favor of the God-ordained weekly observance of the Sabbath.”

In saying “the Reformers”, Barnes means only those within the Reformed/Calvinistic branch of the Reformation. As has been pointed out, in the 16th century, the Anglican Church and Lutheran Church, certainly no less Protestant than their Calvinist brethren, never discontinued Lent. To say that because Lent was being observed legalistically in the 16th century, it can’t possibly be observed in a non-legalistic manner is a very unfair dismissal of Lent. Protestants, with the sole exception of Reformed believers, don’t generally look at Sunday as a “God-ordained Sabbath” at all, at least certainly not in the Old Testament sense of the word. Sunday is celebrated because Christ was resurrected on Sunday and it makes sense to worship on that day. Sunday is not observed because a New Testament text tells Christians that the weight of importance traditionally ascribed to the Jewish Sabbath has been divinely transferred to the first day of the week.

Barnes said, “The Reformers viewed the Christian Sabbath as both a weekly celebration of the victory of the resurrection and a weekly practice of self-denial; that is, fasting from the pursuit of labor and entertainment… Self-denial then becomes a way of life, the normal practice of piety, and not a seasonal event.”

Again, Barnes is unfortunately using “the Reformers” to refer strictly to those within the Reformed/Presbyterian camp, excluding numerous respected Reformation era Reformers. Luther regarded Sunday—which, incidentally, he wouldn’t have called “the Christian Sabbath”—as a weekly celebration of Christ’s resurrection, but not so much about self-denial. Among Lent-observing Christians, Sunday is the one day when self-denial is suspended. The rationale is, “How can we fast and be somber while celebrating Christ’s resurrection? Sunday is a day to feast, not fast!” The New Testament nowhere prescribes that Sunday should be a day of fasting from entertainment. Self-denial is vitally important, but to equate Sunday with self-denial seems to drain Sunday of its unique celebratory character.

2. Conclusion

In closing, Barnes said, “The practice of self-denial is to be the daily experience of the believer. The Protestant and Reformed church, for the most part, has treated fasting as an individual and personal matter.”

Could this perhaps be part of the reason why fasting is so seldom practiced among evangelicals today? The Old Testament records both private fasts as well as days when God commanded the entire community of Israel to fast corporately. In this examiner’s experience, taking the lone ranger approach to fasting is next to impossible. It’s only during those times when I know that my fellow church members are fasting also, experiencing the same uncomfortable hunger pangs as me, that I’m able to brave abstaining from food for any length of time. Some of the Jewish festivals of the Old Testament required mandatory fasting. Perhaps this is because God knows that spiritual disciplines are more easily practiced in the context of community, not in isolation.

Recently, Christian writer Donald Miller sent shockwaves through the evangelical world when he confessed on his blog that he seldom attends church. For him, spiritual development can be done any number of ways and churchgoing is not essential. Spirituality is not an “individual and personal matter”, though, and doesn't detaching spiritual disciplines from the corporate community help feed the mindset that the church itself is non-essential? Surely the church has a role in helping to facilitate spiritual disciplines like fasting. This doesn’t mean that people have to observe Lent, but surely it shows that for those who choose to celebrate it, it can create a strong sense of community and be spiritually beneficial.