It is that time of the year again; the observance of Lent. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Lent is a 40-day period of spiritual preparation leading up to Easter. Lent has a non-Christian origin and it is, preliminary, a celebration accepted into the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Today, many congregations in the Christian Reformed Church also observe Lent.
The Bible talks about repentance and fasting, but doesn’t mention Ash Wednesday or Lent specifically. We read in the scripture that people repenting in dust and ashes -Mordecai (Esther 4:1), Job (Job 42:6), the inhabitants of Nineveh (Jonah 3:5-6), and Daniel (Daniel 9:3-4). This repentance often was accompanied by fasting. There is an importance of a season of preparation for Easter, and the idea of Lent as an opportunity to devote oneself to prayer and meditation on Christ is not in itself wrong.
However, we are called to “test everything” (1 Thess. 5:21), to “discern what is best, pure and blameless” (Phil. 1:10). Should a Christian observe a non-biblical Roman tradition? Don’t Lenten obligations lead us to legalism? Does the Reformed theology include the practice of Lent? In answering these questions, I am going to provide you with following excerpts from a few reformed preachers and theologians.
Dr. Carl Trueman, The Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary
All denominations and Christian traditions involve elements that are strictly speaking unbiblical but which shape their historic identity. For Anglicans, the liturgical calendar is just such a thing. These reasons are not compelling in a way that would make the calendar normative for all Christians, yet I can still see how they make sense to an Anglican. But just as celebrating July the Fourth makes sense for Americans but not for the English, the Chinese or the Lapps, so Ash Wednesday and Lent really make no sense to those who are Presbyterians, Baptists, or free church evangelicals…. I suspect that the reasons evangelicals are rediscovering Lent is as much to do with the poverty of their own liturgical tradition as anything. When Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals start attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent, one can only conclude that they have either been poorly instructed in the theology or the history of their own traditions, or that they have no theology and history.
Dr. Robert Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California
Christians without conscious confessional commitments or an intentional awareness of the Reformation tend to be rootless. When those who identify with aspects of Reformed theology however, borrow “spiritual disciplines” that the Reformed churches considered and rejected they are unintentionally creating the pre-conditions for greater problems. It has frequently been the case in church history that practices that begin as “indifferent” do not usually remain so. This is why the Westminster Divines (1644) rejected the church calendar. We don’t need a church calendar beyond the Christian sabbath. We’re called daily to die to self and live to Christ…… The history of the church tells us that the road to spiritual bondage is paved with good intentions. A concession to popular desire became church law. What began as ostensibly “helpful” spiritual disciplines became law and the church was taken into what Luther called a Babylonian Captivity from which she was rescued only by an intentional return to God’s Word as the sole magisterial (ruling) authority for the Christian faith (doctrine), Christian piety, worship, and the Christian life (practice). That is why the Reformed churches shed themselves of all manner of “helpful” practices that had been adopted by the medieval church.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
Then the superstitious observance of Lent had everywhere prevailed: for both the vulgar imagined that they thereby perform some excellent service to God, and pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ; though it is plain that Christ did not fast to set an example to others, but, by thus commencing the preaching of the gospel, meant to prove that his doctrine was not of men, but had come from heaven. And it is strange how men of acute judgment could fall into this gross delusion, which so many clear reasons refute: for Christ did not fast repeatedly (which he must have done had he meant to lay down a law for an anniversary fast), but once only, when preparing for the promulgation of the gospel. Nor does he fast after the manner of men, as he would have done had he meant to invite men to imitation; he rather gives an example, by which he may raise all to admire rather than study to imitate him. . . . It was therefore merely false zeal, replete with superstition, which set up a fast under the title and pretext of imitating Christ . . .
John Owen, The Mortification of Sin in Believers
That the ways and means to be used for the mortification of sin invented by them are still insisted on and prescribed, for the same end, by some who should have more light and knowledge of the gospel, is known. Such directions to this purpose have of late been given by some, and are greedily catched at by others professing themselves Protestants, as might have become popish devotionists three or four hundred years ago. Such outside endeavors, such bodily exercises, such self-performances, such merely legal duties, without the least mention of Christ or his Spirit, are varnished over with swelling words of vanity, for the only means and expedients for the mortification of sin, as discover a deep-rooted unacquaintedness with the power of God and mystery of the gospel.
Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David
When it can be proved that the observance of Christmas, Whitsuntide, and other Popish festivals was ever instituted by a divine statute, we also will attend to them, but not till then. It is as much our duty to reject the traditions of men, as to observe the ordinances of the Lord. We ask concerning every rite and rubric, “Is this a law of the God of Jacob?” and if it be not clearly so, it is of no authority with us, who walk in Christian liberty….. Come, then, and for your own good hang up the sackbut and take down the psaltery—put away the ashes! What if men call this season, “Lent”? We will keep no Lent, tonight—this is our Eastertide! Our Lord has risen from the dead and He is among us, and we will rejoice in Him!
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, sermon from John 1
Lent, of course, is a relic of Roman Catholicism. One can easily understand it in such an organization – it gives power to the priest, and so on – but there is, I repeat, no evidence whatsoever in favour of it in the New Testament, and it simply leads to this show of wisdom and human will power. It is people adding their works to the grace of God, and this is essentially Roman Catholic teaching. Well, my friends, let us get rid of this, let us not waste our time with it. We are to be led by the Spirit always.
So, where do I stand on this?
Isaiah 58:5-7 says, “Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to lose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?”
Jesus is interested in the condition of the heart and not the external rituals. Ash Wednesday and Lent are not days of holy obligations. While the Old Testament had a very complex system of days, all foreshadowing the redemptive work of Christ to come, the New Testament celebrates the accomplishment of that single event with profound clarity and simplicity. It is the Lord’s Day. Some Christians may choose to observe Lent while others may choose not to, and both are free to do so according to their conscience. “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” (Romans 14:5). I for one, am hesitant to participate in Lent observance, first of all, because it is not Biblical but consistent with reformed tradition. Secondly, I do not want to re-introduce any Roman Catholic traditions into my life. Christians should be ready and willing to repent, fast, and focus on God throughout the year and not just for a season. If you seriously plan on giving up something for Lent, then give up legalism and superstition.
R Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession
Carl Truman, Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing our Piety