The period of Lent has been celebrated from around the 2nd century, but there is no evidence of its celebration, nor that of Easter, in the New Testament Church.
In fact the apostle Paul warned in Colossians 2:
‘Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things which were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.’ [v 16-17].
As the Church became progressively dominated by the Bishop of Rome, a 40-day period of preparation for Easter [based on Jesus fasting for 40 days in the wilderness] was made obligatory as an expected behaviour of Christians.
To break or to ignore Lent was regarded as a sin requiring penance.
Over time Lent took on a very legalistic tone, and. today many Catholics believe that giving up something for Lent is a way to get God’s blessings. Most priests actually teach this.
But the fault of ‘Lenten legalism’ lies not only with the Catholics but with many Protestants and Orthodox as well. Man-made laws, no matter how well intentioned, are not to be understood as Christ’s commands.
The Reformers’ Mistake
The concept of Lent was rejected by the Calvinists and Anabaptists of the 16th Century, and had never been practiced by earlier groups such as the Albigenses or the Waldensians, who existed throughout Europe much earlier.
Because they refused papal authority this was one of the main reasons those groups were persecuted in various degrees by the popes of the day.
However the observance of Lent was never eradicated from Lutheran theology although not made compulsory. A number of Lutherans still practice it. Some other Protestant Churches, including even Baptists and Presbyterians, have also introduced the practice in a supposed attempt at being inclusive.
Anglicans have also continued in the Catholic Church tradition of observing Lent despite the Reformation. It has never been an issue in the high Church.
It is supposed to be a time of reflection, devotion to Christ, remembering His suffering and His sacrifice. This is achieved by restricted fasting, giving up of luxuries and attendance at special services and pilgrimages.
As such, none of these things is bad in itself, as long as (a) the participant doesn’t think it will have any effect on his / her salvation, and (b) it is not stipulated by the Church that he / she must be involved. I believe this is where Lenten observance can go wrong – as a legalistic requirement.
What Is The Point?
The point of this week’s newsletter is that some supposedly Protestant Churches have recently begun to introduce doctrines or practices which have, in the past, been regarded as unbiblical, borrowed from Catholic and Anglican traditions.
The use of images for worship, pagan-type rituals and candlesticks, contemplative prayer involving stations of the cross and labyrinths, liturgical dancing and many other practices have never been part of original, New Testament Christianity, but have been introduced in some surprising places over the last few years.
A Baptist Church in Melbourne last year was proudly promoting its labyrinth as a prop for its new experience in ancient worship forms. The problem is that its ancient worship wasn’t ancient enough. Instead of going back to Christ and the apostles they only went as far as the mystical practices of the Catholic Church in the Dark Ages.
There is the danger that Lent falls into the same category: a supposed aid to piety in order to gain God’s approval but is totally useless in that objective.
What Does Jesus Say?
The Bible teaches that God’s grace is freely given and that it can’t be earned or deserved. In Romans 5 Paul writes that God’s ‘abundant provision of grace’ is ‘the gift of righteousness’. We can no more earn any of God’s grace towards us nor pay for the gift of righteousness He has provided by the death of His Son, than we can fly to the moon.
Jesus taught that, if we do fast [and it was not a command or instruction to live a holy life], we should not go about looking:
‘sombre, as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen.’ [Matt 6:16-18]
In some Catholic Churches the priest will rub some ash on a communicant’s head on Ash Wednesday to signify their identification with the Old Testament practice of repentance in sackcloth and ashes. But Jesus’ words to ‘wash your face’ in Matthew 6 seem to conflict directly with that practice.
If Lenten rituals are used in your Church make sure you question them.
Should a Christian Observe Lent?
If a Christian decides, in his / her conscience based on the Holy Spirit speaking through God’s Word, that he / she wishes to observe Lent in some way, he is absolutely free to do it and no-one should stop him.
The purpose should be to focus one’s life on repenting of sin and consecrating oneself again to God. This is always a good thing and we always need this reminder.
However Lent should not be a time of boasting of one’s sacrifice or trying to earn God’s favour or increasing His love towards us. God’s love, grace and mercy have already been poured out on us – it can’t be greater than it already is.
God bless you.