Feb

22

2013

Justin Taylor|4:38 pm CT

Should Christians Abstain from Lent?

There’s a renewed interest in Lent, even by low-church evangelical Protestants.

For the latest TGC podcast Collin Hansen and Mark Mellinger talk with Ligon Duncan about the origins, theology, and practice of Lent.

Ken Stewart, a history professor Covenant College, weighs in with his own analysis, offering some “Nagging Questions concerning Lent.”

The primary objection to our current rush to re-instate Lent is this: too many evangelical Christians are considering this (and some related questions) with what might be called a “liturgical inferiority complex.” While we do not shout this from the roof tops, we quietly admit to ourselves that our evangelical Protestant tradition as it now exists is somewhat homespun, even threadbare and that it stands in need of being augmented by resources taken from the past. While the Christian past has plenty of riches which may be drawn upon, the point is this: these are not best “tried on for size” from the standpoint of felt inferiority. What is needed (and, I contend is currently in short supply) is healthy critical judgment towards a whole host of things (of which Lent is but one) that might be thought to be “just the thing” to rectify our evangelical Protestant deficiencies.

Agree or disagree, these Reformed arguments and questions are worth listening to and considering.

34 Comments

  1. And here’s a collection of resources from a fairly wide spectrum of Baptist writers (some for, some against)…

    http://baptistbulletin.org/?p=21111

  2. Biblically, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with an extended, special period of fasting (much as happens in some Baptist churches when Communion Sunday comes around). Fasting is never a means of merit (as though temporarily abstaining from certain practices accrues spiritual revenue), nor even a means of drawing closer to God (as though some sort of greater mystic experience is attained through such), but always for the purpose of repentance and requesting something of God, as is the case in every biblical context.

    Lent as practiced seems to be a sort of asceticism/special piety in which Christians abstain from certain things and/or do specific acts of goodness for the purpose of penance for wrongs done. But neither asceticism (soundly rejected in Galatians and Colossians) nor merit-seeking (rejected in the Gospels) are profitable.

    That said, were Baptists to observe Lent as a period of spiritual reflection and special focus on repentance (more than otherwise), I don’t think there’d be any harm. But it is certainly not necessary. And it certainly shouldn’t be an external, publicized thing. As Jesus implied, fasting is something private between God and man.

    • “Lent as practiced seems to be a sort of asceticism/special piety in which Christians abstain from certain things and/or do specific acts of goodness for the purpose of penance for wrongs done.” Nope. Although for Roman Catholics, Lent can be an optional time of penance. It is mainly a practice of metanoia (Gk.), changing the orientation of the mind and heart (toward the mind of Christ). Certainly, protestants who observe Lent do not practice penance and focus on the later. God’s peace!

  3. I have noticed that churches that have lost the gospel often become more interested in ceremony. Form vs function, Mode verses meaning, heart verses exterior. The whitewashed tomb idea of Jesus. This is what would worry me most about a renewed interest in lent. It may come because we have lost a focus on the glories of the gospel of Christ. When you see only ordinary bread and wine you need a gold chalice and silver platter to give the ceremony some gravitas, some something. When you see the cross and the grace of God breaking into your life, you don’t need any rigmaroles. The elements and the words of grace are enough.

    It’s lent’s association with the loss of meaning and even the obscuring of meaning that gives me the most concern.

    But it’s the symptom not the cause.

  4. And the effort to undue the reformation continues. Go study Zwingli’s sausage party in Zurich during Lent that set off the Reformation there.

  5. I believe in Romans 14, God’s provision for disputable matters, so I teach my children to respect another man’s view, even if they should think it wholly unbiblical or unnecessary. That’s an important principle. But if we are to embrace a whole Bible theology, the renewed interest in the celebration of Lent and other liturgical practices requires discernment and examination on a broader scale.

    As Christians, we are to worship God in spirit and truth–Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well, and, by extension, the rest of us. That’s our imperative. But if we unwittingly add to our worship certain liturgical/traditional extra-Biblical practices so as to enhance our faith or even revive what we perceive as missing, we force the simplicity of the gospel to new (old) norms, falling prey to a subtle creeping syncretism in-house, in danger of becoming a people who have a form of godliness but deny its power.

    There is nothing we can add to the cross. May we dare not try.

  6. I don’t celebrate Lent because its not scriptural. The early church didn’t celebrate it. We do far better to focus on what we do see. The church regularly gathered for celebration of the Lord’s Supper. If we say we hold to Sola Scriptura, then let’s apply that to all aspects of our lives.

    • Eric,

      It seems you are clearly using a wrong definition of “Sola Scriptura.”

    • Not Scriptural? I think Jesus set a great example of Lent-

      “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.”
      Matt. 4:1-2

      • Mike

        Jesus lived under the old covenant,under law. He observed the law. Only in death and resurrection was he freed from it. We live united to him in resurrection in the new life of resurrection. We cannot simply assume what Jesus did we ought to do.

        Having said that,no-one is saying who objects to lent that Christians ought not to fast. We are simply saying that liturgically imposed fasts are not part of the liberty we have in Christ. Artificially imposed seasons of repentance were not part of C1 church life and in fact are contrary to our freedom in Christ.

  7. Dave Vander Laan

    Lent isn’t found in Scripture. Neither is Advent. And neither is the Trinity.

    But spiritual disciplines are found in the Bible – though they are not named as such.

    Fasting, reflection, confession, solitude – all these are a part of Lent. All these are revealed in Scripture as not merely helpful but important.

    The Season of Lent has no power to save us. But as we engage in the spiritual practices that are a part of Lent, surely the Spirit can use them to bring us closer to Jesus as he walks toward the cross.

    If spiritual practices/disciplines allow the Spirit to help us fall more in love with and become more obedient to the only one with the power and authority to save us and redeem us, why are we reluctant to allow something like Lent to have a place in our lives?

    • The first and second advent are revealed in Scripture (the event not the celabration) and the Trinity is certainly revealed in Scripture. Lent is nowhere to be found and is a man made ascetic practice.

      “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day..Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement”

      There was an event called the Protestant Reformation. This issue was dealt with then.

      • Hello Michael,

        Yes, the issue of Lent was dealt with during (and after!) the Reformation…but I think you are vastly simplifying the issue if you mean to imply that the Reformers were unified in abolishing Lenten observance. How would you then account for the Lutherans (who, following Martin Luther himself retained Lenten observance while seeking to temper the ways it had been abused under Catholicism) or the Anglicans, who did the same?

      • Hi Michael

        My point had more to do with the disciplines of Lent and Advent – not the words themselves.

        Lent, Advent or Trinity as words do not appear in Scripture but – like you mentioned about the Trinity – they are all revealed in Scripture – just as the spiritual disciplines associated with Lent & Advent are revealed in Scripture.

  8. It’s weird. An evangelical friend of mine told me she was abstaining from soda for Lent, and she complained how tired she was. I asked her why she was abstaining, and everyone (among a group of evangelicals) was sort of shocked that I asked why, when it was an honest question. I asked again, but I never got an answer. I guess it was supposed to be understood that during Lent one picks some trivial thing to “abstain” from for some mysterious reason (although I am aware of much deeper arguments). I felt humiliated and confused. FYI, I’m Reformed and believe that we should not observe Lent. Fast as you wish, yes, practice self discipline, abstain from something if you choose, but don’t do it because of “Lent”.

  9. Thank you for these various perspectives on Lent. So far the comments are surprisingly negative on the subject of asceticism and fasting. The Eastern Orthodox church has fasted during Lent since at least the early 4th century and the tradition of fasting for briefer periods goes back further. Our perspective may seem unique or quaint (or, to some, legalistic and contrary to the Gospel). However, it is not viewed by us as optional. It arises from the very context and view of our life in Christ. It has very much to do with the retraining of the will and the struggle against the passions. This is in line with the synergy of what we call Theosis, the process of becoming more in the likeness of God. These may seem to be foreign concepts to Bible believing Western Christians, but these teachings are quite Scriptural. They “pop out” when you look for them in the Bible. That is why fasting has been practiced in the church from the very start. By addressing the topic of Lenten fasting, you may have un–wittingly come upon evidence of this alternative path. I want to suggest that it is worth the patient effort required to explore this pathway as exemplified by the EO church. It may seem like the “path less trodden” to a 21st century American, but it is the path that leads back to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

  10. I love the idea of Christians fasting because they’re seeking the face of God, in repentance, supplication, and thanksgiving. God is more than enough, and fasting evidences that. He’s never leaving or forsaking us, and so even in our sin, He has not broken fellowship since His Son has paid for all our sins (though by confession he restores the Body to fellowship with one another – and to God’s pleasure). He’s more than enough when we face great obstacles and need His hand to move them. He’s more than enough when we’ve endured great tragedy, and only His comforting presence will hold us together (even as He upholds all existence). And, he’s more wonderful than the greatest gifts we experience here (though every gift comes from Him, so enjoy!).

    I hate the idea of Christians fasting because it’s something that seems spiritually strong, keeps them part of the acceptable crowd, or anything else that isn’t an acceptable reason for the kind of fasting the Lord desires.

    The point about reaching back to the past to bring something that makes us seem deep, old, and wise, is right. That is something completely different from Jesus’ approach, who put the traditions of the elder’s on trial, because they didn’t line up with, and sometimes directly opposed the Word of God. There are both fallacies of novelty and tradition. Neither are true, good, or beautiful on the basis of their newness or old age.

    Keep the faith, brothers. I pray for you all when I pray for the unity of the brotherhood worldwide.

  11. ‘I have noticed that churches that have lost the gospel often become more interested in ceremony. Form vs function, Mode verses meaning, heart verses exterior’

    I agree. Lent is another example of exchanging Spirit for flesh, gospel for law, substance for shadow, external for internal, relationship for ritual, the things above for the things of this world.

    Re fasting, we must distinguish between OC and NC.

    Matt 9:14-17 (ESV2011)
    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. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

    The first thing to note is that there is a fundamental difference between the OC and NC. The OC anticipated the joy of the NC however it did not enjoy it. For this reason (among others) regulations and festivals requiring fasting were appropriate. The arrival of the NC presence of Christ and the joy associated makes calendar fasting inappropriate. Fasting in the NC will not arise from an external imposition (the nature of law) but as an expression of an internal spiritual concern. Where there is a specific spiritual burden or concern the believers heart may well be constrained to express this burden or concern in fasting.

    To sum: a)Institutionalised fasting is not appropriate to the NC b)fasting in the NC will not arise from external imposition but from internal impulsion.

    Lent is not simply about fasting but where it is it is emphatically fasting of the OC kind.

  12. Pastor Duncan’s (whom I respect very much) answer to why have Christmas and Easter but not Lent is unsatisfying. in fact, I didn’t really hear him ever explain why. Each of his reasons for not observing Lent are undercut by the observance of Christmas and Easter. And I respectfully doubt that Christmas and Easter Sunday have no more significance at First Presbyterian than any other Lord’s Day.

    Pastors and academics recognize, as Pastor Duncan does in the podcast, the Enlightenment fallacy of neutrality. The calendar is not neutral (the months are the names of Roman gods for goodness sake!). If we were a little more gracious to the medievals (as some church historians are starting to be), then we might see that they recognized this.

    The biggest threat to Christianity today is not the church in Rome, or that Americans are prone to elevate traditional Christian rituals, like Lent, over discipleship. The biggest threat to the church is that our rituals are increasingly only secular ones. We are Americans before we are Christians. Super Bowl Sunday not only competes with the Lord’s Day, it dominants it. And when we relegate the Christian life to a mere facet of our American lives we fall into Moral Therapeutic Deism.

    My presbyterian church observes the liturgical calendar to resist being conformed to this world. But instead of just arbitrarily picking Christmas and Easter to observe, we follow the entire pattern as a constant reminder of who is our true Lord and sovereign.

    • This is spot on. And in the pre-Enlightenment world, the question as to why we observe the Church calendar would simply not have been asked. People did Lent, Christmas, Easter, Pentecost etc because this is what the Church did together. In our post-Enlightenment individualistic world, we don’t want to “conform”. We want to do our own thing. And this goes to the heart of the Reformation! The Reformation undid the Church calendar. That void was filled by a secular calendar. The more radical Reformation that America grew out from did away with the Church in public life. Now we are left with secular rule – and both sides of politics buy into this.

      So I think I agree with Brad Gregory’s historical and philosophical analysis. The Reformation, with its reduction of the shared Christian life, paved the path towards secularism. The Church calendar issue is just another example of this.

  13. PS

    There is much that I would like to say here but cannot. For those who are interested I have blogged at length on this in the past.

    http://johngreenview.wordpress.com/2012/03/03/lent-or-the-ashes-of-judaism-that-deface-christianity/

  14. Very disappointing podcast, biased and poorly reasoned. Since Dr. Ligon Duncan had taught on the importance of reading the Early Church Fathers at a recent *Together for the Gospel,* conference. I would have expected a better presentation of their convictions concerning liturgy and the church calendar. It would only be fair if you all allowed an Evangelical Anglican to share the counter position on the podcast, that is, the “normative” view of interpretation. Dr. Gerald Bray of Beeson Divinity School could better inform the listeners on the Early Church Fathers and their commitment to God-exalting and Christ-centered worship.

    It is becoming increasingly clear that The Gospel Coalition is NOT a gathering for all conservative Evangelicals no matter their denominational background. Evangelicals who hunger for the Gospel to be made known and preached with clarity and power whether Reformed, Lutheran, or Anglican.

    Apparently, The Gospel Coalition is only for those Baptists and Presbyterians who look to Geneva and Zurich for their theology and hold to the “regulative principle.” I attended the Chicago conference two years and prayed for great things for this organization, but this podcast grieved my spirit.

    • Hey brother,

      I’m non of those denominational categories, and I find that Mr. Taylor and the brothers at TGC minister to my spirit with godly, informed counsel in their posts, books, etc. I don’t always agree, but that does not mean I slam them, I just disagree for the time while I seek more information on that issue. I don’t think the brothers here would condemn you for your disagreement in such matters; I think they would entertain wholesome discussion. And, if your spirit is grieved, keep praying and ask if His Spirit is grieved as well, and if so, over what, and, since He gives wisdom to the one who asks for it, ask for what you should do to play a role in His unifying plan in such matters. I know God will give that wisdom without reproach, brother. God bless, and I look forward to hearing the testimony you share later about God’s working.

  15. [...] Interestingly enough (and thankfully enough), the questions of whether Christians (or, at the very least, evangelical Christians) should observe Lent never came up. There’s been a fair bit about it in the blogosphere so far. Here’s a good article to get your thoughts going. [...]

  16. Justin,

    Wouldn’t a better title for your post have been:

    “Should Christians Perform Lent?”

    After all, “abstaining” from Lent certainly makes it sound like there is some expectation Lent ought be performed, at some level anyway.

    If someone made a post and said, “Should Christians abstain from food?” such a post would assume that the eating food is normal behavior, and they would be correct.

    So what shall we have now, that Lent is normal, and abstaining from Lent is the new matter to debate? That may be for some people in Christendom, but not for those who derive their spiritual practices from the writings of the apostles and from the teachings of Christ in Scripture.

    Since it now appears clear that a goal of TGC is to recommend Lent, why don’t you all give us your reasons – and allow others to examine you with Scripture (instead of refusing to post their comments)?

    • Dear brother,

      You seem dispositionally inclined to argue and critique and make false assumptions even when someone agrees with your position!

      Three quick points:

      1) If it’s clear that TGC’s “goal” is to “recommend Lent,” why did they commission an interview critical of it?

      2) I am not blocking any comments. I don’t moderate the TGC blog. Just as an FYI: including hyperlinks in a comment will almost always send it to moderation. (Though false accusations probably don’t help your cause either.)

      3) I’m sorry that you didn’t recognize the tongue-in-cheek nature of my blog post title.

      JT

  17. Justin,

    I stand happily reproved and corrected – thanks!

  18. Romans 14 answers this sufficiently.

  19. I am a Lutheran and I think many of those commenting are missing the whole point of Lent, at least as it is observed in Lutheran churches. Lent is not about focusing on yourself and what you give up. It is about focusing on Jesus and what he gave up. It is time set aside to “watch and pray with Jesus” as he asked Peter, James and John to do in Gethsemane. It is watching Jesus journey to the cross as the Savior of the world and then rejoicing in his resurrection. Lent is from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday all about Jesus.

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