Every February as Ash Wednesday approaches there is a surge of angst among some evangelicals: should we observe the season of Lent? To be sure, many have made up their minds regarding this question, and they also speak up at this same time. So the resolute detractors and the enthusiastic supporters lift up their banners, and the undecided multitude tries to figure out what to do. Having made up my mind about this several years ago, I decided to just observe the discussion and meditate on it for, well, forty days. While I was observing Lent.
In this post I’ve decided to summarize several main arguments against evangelicals observing Lent and respond to each one. I hope this will help us think more carefully about the spiritual practices we adopt and how we relate to the Christian tradition.
#1: It’s a particularly Roman Catholic practice where people afflict themselves in order to gain favor with God.
It certainly had become that in the centuries prior to the Reformation. But did it start out as the same sort of thing? There is evidence that it didn’t. Initially, Lent was simply a brief time of preparation for celebrating the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday, limited to Holy Week. But other factors contributed to the lengthening of the season. First, since Easter somehow became recognized as the best day to be baptized, this preparatory season became a time for catechesis of new converts in preparation for their baptism on Easter. And with the legalization of Christianity in the early fourth century, there were many new catechumens and an even greater need to be sure that new converts were really converted before their baptism.
Second, Easter Sunday was a key day for lapsed Christians to be restored to full fellowship in the church (and therefore admitted to the Lord’s Supper each week). Whether they had been excommunicated for unrepentant sin or had denied Christ under persecution, they were examined over this period of time leading up to their formal restoration on Easter. During the time we now call Lent, they would demonstrate their repentance by living a godly life, submitting to the scrutiny of the elders, and fasting.
So here are two factors—predating the institutionalized hierarchy of the Roman church—that suggest the history of Lent is more complex than just some perverse Roman Catholic attempt to manipulate people with a false gospel. Lent was a time to meditate on the sufferings of Christ and how those pains were for us, a devotional activity that tends to produce a penitential heart and a desire to be purified of ongoing sin. I think we can agree that this is a good thing.
Oh, and one more point: why claim that Lent is a Roman Catholic thing, but not Easter? How about Christmas? It seems to me that at least in Trueman’s case, his arguments prove too much—he needs to abandon ALL holidays that Roman Catholics celebrate (or have perverted), doesn’t he? As far as I can tell, I can apply his arguments to the celebration of any Christian observance to claim that it’s incongruous for evangelicals to observe it. (And to anticipate his reply: agreeing that the Reformers rejected Lent but not Easter for good reasons, why conclude that this decision should arbitrate the church calendar for all subsequent Christians until Jesus comes?) On the other hand, Wilson isn’t susceptible to this critique, because he doesn’t claim to be consistent: he observes Advent but not Lent, and then admits this is not consistent, although he explains why he’s made this choice. And he does all this in that curmudgeonly manner that often makes him fun to read.
So the argument that Lent is a corruption of the Roman Catholic system that was rightly abandoned by Protestants at the Reformation is not convincing. It originated before the Roman hierarchy existed, even longer before said organization abused it, and it is rooted in the deeply Christian practices of discipleship, repentance, and church discipline.
2. It is an example of mandated asceticism that is forbidden in the NT
Trueman and Fabarez, among others, are particularly concerned about this, and I agree with them in principle. Any participation in Lent should be voluntary, like attending a retreat or a conference: as pastors, we advocate it because it is for the spiritual good of our people, but we do not mandate it because we aren’t permitted to bind fellow believers in that way. But really, I think this is a red herring argument. Among those whom Trueman and Wilson are critiquing, you don’t seem to see churches requiring the observance of Lent but rather promoting it.
But (especially in Fabarez’s case) the argument amounts to, “I don’t observe Lent because it’s not right to require it of others.” That doesn’t compute. Nobody that I know of is saying that if one person in a local church does it, then everyone has to do it. On the contrary, we have people like Robert Webber, Bobby Gross, and many others encouraging people to make this a part of their walk with Christ (along with the other seasons of the church calendar) in community with other believers if possible. As pastors, why not provide solidly biblical, discipleship-oriented resources and promote participation through the various ministries of a local church like small groups or home Bible studies? We can do this without mandating it or even putting undue pressure on people to participate. Claiming that Lent is somehow inherently an attempt to bind the conscience of another unbeliever is wrongheaded: why let a (Roman) corruption of a good thing define the thing itself?
3. It is a cultural fad that promotes superficial displays of piety
Insofar as this is true of particular individuals or local churches, then it is clearly a violation of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6. But any spiritual practice can be done for show, can’t it? Giving to the church, serving in children’s ministry, singing loudly in worship, praying dramatically in small group—all these and more can be done as a way of making oneself look more pious. Why single out Lent? Because it is an ancient practice that has been rediscovered and renewed, and lots of younger people are joining in? Yes, we do need to avoid a bandwagon mentality that allows people the misconception that superficial participation in any special event or spiritual practice will automatically cause them to grow spiritually. But this is precisely why good pastoral leadership is needed in this and other facets of the church’s discipleship life. Pastors have an opportunity to get out in front, lead by example, and give guidance, instead of saying, “Well, Presbyterians (Baptists, etc.) don’t do this kind of thing. The Reformation, you know.” It’s only a fad, and it’s only superficial, if we allow it to be that way.
4. There are other ways of accomplishing the alleged benefits of Lent
Yes, there are. Which one did you employ during the six weeks before Easter? Any of them? Were you intentional and intense in your effort to do so? Did you join together with anyone else in a mutually edifying, one-anothering attempt to help each other grow in Christ? What about in the last year? Was there a season of time where you exerted special effort to do any or all of this? I’m sorry, but this argument makes me feel rather frustrated. Yes, there are lots of ways to put off sin and put on Christ. There are many books and programs to help us meditate on the death of Christ and the glories of the gospel. So why single out Lent as an invalid way to do this?
Look: Lent may not be the only way to grow in Christ, but it is a way. It has been observed with profit by many people for many years. More than that, it’s a reliably recurring time that we can plan for without having to start from scratch and think up some new program every year for a special time of emphasis on mortifying sin and freshly embracing the tragic beauty of the cross and empty tomb. So let’s at least agree that it’s a valid option.
5. Repentance should not be limited to one season of the year
Of course not! Raise your hand if you live consistently in that state of putting off and putting on that the NT envisions. Anyone? Me either. I need a good kick in the pants now and then—a special time of challenge that helps me to see the sin that so easily entangles me, inspires me to look to Jesus who has already defeated the powers of evil, and energizes me anew to run with patience the race set before me. I need that. Don’t you?
Some will go to a men’s or women’s retreat, or a big conference like TGC, or a church will sponsor a special series of sermons or small group sessions to facilitate this emphasis. Those are good things. A renewed, evangelical observance of Lent can provide this opportunity also. What’s more, you can add it to the regular life of your local church because that’s what it’s intended to be: a season of special focus that happens every year and doesn’t require an airplane ticket or hotel reservation. It’s woven into daily life.
Which leads me to this: Lent is designed to be transformative at the level of everyday life and thinking. Rather than a retreat or conference, where regular life is suspended for a few days, Lent refocuses our daily life for a period of weeks. We continue going to work, mowing the lawn, playing with the kids, having coffee with friends, and going to church, but everything is done with a heightened awareness of those fleshly impulses that we are called to mortify and the death Jesus died for us because of them. This is not an argument against retreats and conferences, for they have a place of their own, and they can also play a powerful role in the life of an individual or church. But they tend to create a mountaintop experience which is quickly lost if one is not careful. And that brings one more thought to mind in this regard.
Finally, Lent is not supposed to be a punctiliar experience that jacks us up for a spiritual high, and then we go back to a comparatively lower level of sanctification until next Ash Wednesday. If Christian sanctification is progressive (and it is), then Lent is intended to provide an opportunity for a boost up the curve. When it’s over, we don’t lapse back to where we were. We continue progressing by launching off the gains God provides during the Lenten season. At the end of Lent (on Easter Sunday), we’re not supposed to say, “Wow, I can finally eat chocolate again!” but rather, “Christ is so much more precious to me; I want to be more devoted to him every day.”
So that completes the five objections I wanted to address. There are still a few loose ends, though. For example, I haven’t said anything about Ash Wednesday or fasting. In my next post I’ll try to wrap this up and provide some suggestions for planning ahead for next year.