February 23, 2017

For Lent, give up Lent

by Jesse Johnson

Image result for lent evangelicals

A friend of mine was recently asked by a local youth pastor, “What’d you give up for Lent?” My friend quipped, “Lent.”

I can’t help but notice a growth in evangelicals who want to celebrate Lent by “giving something up.” I’ve heard of Christians giving up sugar, soda, Angry Birds, and Netflix (ok, I made up the last one—I’ve never heard of anyone giving up Netflix). For some evangelicals, apparently Lent is the new New Year’s. Those old resolutions were dropped by Feb 10, so time to dust them off and start over on March 1.

That is a bad idea. Here are a three reasons you should give up Lent for Lent: 

History—the idea of giving up something for Lent comes from a few factors—the growth of infant baptism, the increase of Roman Catholic traditions, and ever-changing Catholic approach to meat.

Allowing for some oversimplification, for the first few hundred years of church history baptism was generally practiced on what we now call Easter Sunday. Candidates for baptism would spend a period of preparation where they would fast, not shave, and in some cases not even bathe. While the exact length of this time varied (some say it was a few days, while other sources say 40 days), it would end at baptism, when the believer would be baptized, thus ending his fast.

In some churches, the entire congregation would join the fast (but not the no bathing part), as a form of spiritual preparation for baptism Sunday. With the legalization of Christianity and the Council of Nicaea, churches began to formalize their practices. What the Council requested is that church leaders fast for 40 days (calculated backwards from the Monday before Easter), to prepare to lead the church for Holy Week.

By the rise of Catholicism in the 400’s, infant baptism had replaced believer’s baptism, and the period that was now known as Lent lost its connection to baptism, and became focused on “fulfilling your fast” (Pope Leo’s phrase). This fast was allegedly modeled by the Apostles.

Once Lent became about fasting rather than baptism, the rules grew and changed. Finding spiritual significance to the number 40, Lent became 40 days, not counting Sundays. As the fast spread from church leaders to the laity, it was narrowed, and by the 600’s it was simply abstaining from meat, milk, and cheese for those 40 days (except on Sundays). By the Dark Ages, it had morphed into a fast of meat, but allowing one meal in the middle of the day to fall outside the exception (similar to how Muslims fast today). And, of course, by the modern era that exception went away, but fish was allowed.

This leads to the arbitrary nature of the Catholic approach to meat. The Catholic Church had developed a simultaneous tradition of fasting from meat on every Friday. Until the 1900’s it was even a mortal sin to eat meat on a Friday. But fish was exempted from this restriction.

Other exemptions popped up around the world—here is a story about Venezuelans eating capybara, for example. Canadians were allowed beaver (they lived in water, therefore a fish!), and no, I’m not making that up.

Finally, in the 1900’s, the fasts merged. Catholics (between 14-60 years old) are forbidden to eat meat on any Friday, but different parts of the world are allowed to replace that with other restrictions, and in the United States, that restriction has become Lent. So in the US, you can eat meat on Fridays year-round, as long as you give up meat for Lent.

It even gets more confusing than that. In the United States, Catholics can exchange the meat fast for something else. It becomes like a three-way NBA trade—in exchange for eating meat on Fridays year-round, you give up meat for Lent; so that you can eat meat for Lent, you give up (to chose an example a Catholic Priest actually said) your cell phone for Lent.

The result: giving up your cell phone for Lent fulfills both the Lenten requirement, and the Friday fasting requirements. Although I suppose that’s better than eating beaver.

It can also work negatively. Because one function of Lent is “penance,” in place of a fast you can force yourself to eat something you don’t like. If you don’t like Brussels sprouts, eating them during Lent is a form of Lenten penance. Instead of giving up Netflix for Lent, you could force yourself to watch Downton Abby—voila, a form of penance.

Practicality—By practicality, I don’t mean “fasting is hard, so don’t do it.” I mean, “if your goal is spiritual preparation for Easter, giving up something is not going to get the job done.”

Look, I appreciate Advent. My family celebrates it every night for the weeks leading up to Christmas. I’m not opposed to the liturgical calendar. And I do think we should look forward to Easter in the same way we look forward to Christmas. I’m in favor of talking more about the resurrection, not less.

But the idea of “spiritual preparation” for Holy Week is anachronistic. The early church preparation was for baptism, not for a liturgical day. And the notion that giving up texting, or sugar, or meat, will make you spiritually prepared is bogus.

Self-control is important. Self-discipline is a mark of a believer. Your body works for you, you don’t work for your body. If you find that order reversed, then get serious about self-control and tell your body no. Do that now. Don’t wait until March 1.

Fasting is a spiritual discipline, because it reminds your body who works for whom. But to tie it to a liturgical calendar is misguided. If you are really excited about preparation for Easter, then do a Bible Study on resurrections for a month. Be disciplined in prayer, and be contrite about your sin. But don’t think that spiritual preparation is found in “fulfilling your fast.”

Remember that the Pharisees turned Jesus over to be crucified, but they did so without setting foot into the Governor’s house, so that they would not be defiled for their Passover. Ironic that the Catholic Church celebrates Lent to “spiritually prepare” for Easter, wherein they will celebrate a Mass in which Christ is re-sacrificed!

Biblically—The Catholic Church misses the mark big time in assuming the authority to tell people what they can/cannot eat, and when they can and cannot eat it. Real sanctification is seen in what comes out of a person’s heart, not what goes into a person’s mouth (Matthew 15:11).

When Jesus declared that, the disciples interrupted him and said, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” (vs 12).

As it should be! Religious leaders of works-based systems get offended when it’s pointed out to them that controlling what people eat—as if it had any bearing on sanctification at all—is a sign of false religion, not truth.

The Pharisees wanted to know why Jesus’ disciples didn’t do the ceremonial washings, and Jesus said, “you hypocrites!” He went on:

This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men… You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! (Mark 7:6-9).

This is why for the rest of the New Testament, connecting spiritual growth to abstaining from foods corresponds to the spiritually immature, not to the mature (and certainly not to the “apostolic model” as the Catholic Church claims). “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (1 Corinthians 8:8). If your conscience is defiled by food, then it is a sure-fire sign that it is spiritually “weak” (1 Corinthians 8:7).

If you give up something for Lent as some form of spiritual perpetration for Easter, let me give you this challenge. Read this passage:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations– “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”  (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (Colossians 2:20-23).

Now, ask yourself, in light of this passage, does giving up sugar (or whatever) for Lent highlight your connection to Christ, or to “self-made religion”? Either you are giving up something significant, or something minor. If it is a significant fast, then it is “severity to the body,” which is something Paul particularly says “has no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” If it is something minor, then there is little reward, and only a latent connection to the sacerdotal system of Rome.

A reminder: To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled (Titus 1:15).

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Robert Sutton

    Loved this essay on giving up Lent for Lent- just one point- since Catholic simply means Universal, I think it is essential to add the pre-fix Roman to the word Catholic every time you are actually referring to the Roman Catholic Church not just once at the beginning (reading this back now, it sounds pedantic!). But, in the Anglican Creed for example, we state “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church” but we are certainly NOT referring to the Roman Catholic Church we are referring to the universal nature of the Church. It’s a minor point I suppose but people, especially unbelievers, often think of the Church as one body (yes, I know, technically it is- that’s not my point…) and every time I hear people say catholic I wonder do they mean the entirely separate religion of Roman Catholicism or the Holy Catholic Church of Christ meaning the universal Church open to all whether Jew or Gentile. And if anyone doubts if Roman Catholicism is a different religion, I deliberately went for Communion at a Roman Catholic Church once and was refused the blood and wine of Christ because I had not been baptised into the ROMAN Catholic Church. Despite my protestations as a believer in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour, the priest refused to minister holy communion to me. There, I’ve said it! But again, loved the essay- especially the beaver comment!

    • LeeRaleigh

      I took Jesse’s capitalization of the word Catholic to be the differentiator from the universal catholic church.

      • Robert Sutton

        Thanks. Good point! I didn’t spot that…

      • Yep. That’s what I was going for 🙂

    • Rosie

      I also appreciated this greatly. I have a question for you. I was saved out of the Catholic church 35 yrs ago and not a day goes by that I think of how grateful I am that God did that for me. The Catholic church is an apostate church leading many to hell. They believe that the wine and bread is the actual transubstantiation of the elements performed by the priest and that he has been given power to turn wine and bread into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. Why would you even want to participate in such a heretical event. Members of my family rely and depend on that security to get them to heaven. Just curious.

      • Robert Sutton

        Thanks Rosie, good question! It was more out of curiosity than anything else. They knew I was a Christian but not Roman Catholic. Someone had recommended the place to me as a retreat centre so I was there for a few days of peace and quiet. The quiet I found- peace I did not. I found it spiritually odd. I suppose I was being a bit cheeky really and wanted to see what the priest would do, knowing I wasn’t RC. I wasn’t really surprised, I just wanted that confirmation that it is indeed the Roman Catholic Church itself that is the most important thing- rather than the One to whom the Church is supposed to belong. I was struggling with the question, at the time as to whether Roman Catholics who profess the name of Christ as Lord and Saviour are saved or not. It was all linked in together.

  • Brian Jonson

    Jesse – you need to understand the Roman Catholic church is not the same as the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Orthodox have been true to the earliest church Traditions, including honoring Lent, but they do not “re-sacrifice” Christ since they do not believe in transubstantiation. I am persuaded we should not ignore the liturgical practice of millions of faithful Christians over many centuries. I encourage you to become familiar with the differences between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic.

    • Yep. Good reminder. Especially in the DC area, where there are a lot of Ethiopians especially with EOC backgrounds. But I’m not so sure that’s where the Lent fast breaks into mainstream evangelicalism from…

  • Caitlyn Johnstone

    This article misses much about the Catholic church, but setting that aside to focus on Lent:
    Lent is indeed a time of preparation leading up to Easter, and that celebration at Easter is the powerful sacrifice Jesus offers for his people. Lent provides a framework for people to take the time to reflect on what that sacrifice entailed, what it cost, what that extraordinary love means. The calendar provides another means for people to keep spiritual life at the forefront; there is no way for Easter (or Christmas, with Advent) to catch anyone by surprise. Giving something up is supposed to inform and support that spiritual reflection, and it is meant to be something that is difficult for you. Not because you look good doing it or for personal vanity in the form of sweets and weight loss crusades, but because each time you reach for that item or miss it, you take another moment to reflect on WHY you are embarking on this season. It is a tangible way to interrupt the everyday distractions and keep your spiritual journey – and what it cost our God to give us such a gift – at the forefront.
    Children often start with candy or cookies, as it is something they enjoy and a wonderful way to begin to help them understand. What you choose at Lent should grow. You can also choose something to do, such as additional daily bible readings or doing good deeds that show God’s love to others and cause you to reflect.
    You could easily make the blanket statement that going to church on Sundays or faithfully attending bible studies is a bogus way to improve your spiritual journey, if you see multiple people merely doing it for show. It would be better to teach evangelical youth to understand Catholic Lent than tell them not to take on the beauty, reflection, penitential, and reverential nature of the season. Treating Lent like New Year’s resolutions shows a misunderstanding of the season.

    • sickovitall

      Perfectly said! God Bless! Jesse wrote quite well but it seemed to be a tad dammed by his beaverish slant.

    • This response seems reasonable from a man centered perspective. However, you’ve neglected to respond to any of the cited teachings of Jesus or the apostle Paul that were included in the post. Consider opening up your Bible and looking at the referenced verses in God’s Word to let it shape your understanding on the topic, Proverbs 14:12.

      • Caitlyn Johnstone

        The focus is not on man, but on God and his sacrifice for his people. Men can be more intentional in focusing on that. If the focus is on you as a person, and how well you are doing in your restrictions, you have again missed the mark. Legalism is always damaging, whether in a Protestant or a Catholic.
        While I understand your perspective, it stems from the premise that Catholics abstaining from meat are doing so because the Church “requires abstinence from foods” as in Paul’s letter to Timothy. Meat is not unclean, but traditionally a luxury and seen as a good thing – most holiday feasts center around a meat. It is precisely for this reason that it is given up at Lent. Older people, the sick, young children are not included, as for them it would be a severity of the body and that goes against the intent of the Lenten season.
        Again, it is important to understand Catholic Lent rather than viewing it from an outside perspective, as seems to be happening with many evangelical youth.
        As ‘anonymous’ posted, you are not giving up something in the hope of receiving more grace. It is precisely because God has given his grace and died for his people that Catholics use this season to provide opportunities within everyday life to focus and meditate on His sacrifice.

        • Alex

          Respectfully, your interpretation of Lent and its purposes is not authoritative. In the first section covering the history of Lent, Jesse attempted to demonstrate the historical and underlying purposes which Lent is intended to accomplish. I think he did an admirable job. But for the sake of completeness, allow me to reference a quote from Pope Benedict XVI, “The purpose of Lent is to keep alive in our consciousness and our life the fact that being a Christian can only take the form of becoming a Christian ever anew; that it is not an event now over and done with but a process requiring constant practice.”

          This quote, with its subsequent explanatory remarks, demonstrate that, well-intentioned US Catholics notwithstanding, Lent is – by design – a means of reminding Catholics that grace is imparted through the completion of works. We are not permitted to simply move the goalposts and pretend Lent is *just* a period of reflection upon Easter. It might fulfill that role, but not solely that role.

          At best, Lent is a way of reminding Catholics of the need to constantly request saving grace through a sacramental system which, incidentally, employs specifically prohibited means in order to do so.

          • bs

            Alex, can you give a reference please for your quote from Benedict. Thanks

          • Alex

            Pope Benedict XVI. “The purpose of Lent.” from Dogma and Preaching (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2011).

          • bs

            Thank you

    • Jane Hildebrand

      Caitlyn, could you explain what you meant by the word “penitential” in referring to Lent near the end of your post?

  • Excellent and much needed post Jesse. I appreciated the humor in noting the irony with what’s really going on. Thanks brother!

    • Thanks for reading Jason. I appreciate your ministry brother.

  • Brad Prothero

    I agree with Caitln below. Two additional points:
    1. It is interesting that Christians are quick to point out the bad history of things they do not like but gloss over the bad history of things they do like (many of the traditions around and including Christmas). If we are able to redeem SOME bad history, why can’t we redeem the bad history of celebrating Lent?
    2. Instead of bad-mouthing Lent, as seems to be in style in the Reformed circles these days, why not embrace it and teach it correctly. Why not use this as an op[portunity to teach what a true fast should be. Yes, a fast should be done at any time not only at Lent but if more people are WILLING to do it at Lent, why not help them do it right? I am a Children’s Pastor. There are people (many Reformed, pattern?) that say we should not say “ask Jesus into your heart”. While I understand their point, I disagree. I actually will use that phrase for elementary kids but I make sure to explain what I mean. We use the metaphor of the heart all over the church so why not introduce it to the kids early. Another example is OMG. That phrase is actually in the Bible in some translations. Why not use it as a time of teaching the appropriate use of God’s name.

    The one comment that is ringing in my head is the fact that Christians are known more for what they are against thanwhat they are for. Why not use Lent to show what we are for?

    • Jane Hildebrand

      Brad, we cannot embrace and teach “Lent” correctly because it is not in the Bible. It is a tradition of the Catholic church. And with respect to teaching what a true fast is, God explains that best in Isaiah 58.

      • Brad Prothero

        You are right that Lent is not in the Bible and I should have choosen my words better on that part. What I meant is that we could teach that it is good to consider the sacrifice that Jesus made for us and use a fast to help us grow closer to God during this time. Like I was elluding to in my original post, if people are in the habit of “celebrating Lent” or at least talking about it, why not use this as an opportunity to teach correctly what the Bible teaches about fasting?

        I grew up Evangelical Lutheran and we observed Lent as a time to prepare our hearts and reflect on what Jesus did for us on the cross. We did not fast all the time but we did meditate on Jesus sacrifice. Easter became all the more glorious after truly focusing on Jesus. Since moving to other denominations, there has been times where Easter has become another Sunday (that is a condemnation on my part and not of the churches I attended). In other words, there is value to making this time of the year special. We can shape our church services at certian times because the interest is higher (Christmas Eve, Mother’s Day, Easter, etc).My point is that we could use the increase in people’s interest/tradition/cultural timing to our advantage and teach fasting from the Bible (Is 58) and focus on Jesus suffering for us. This is a better alternative in my eyes than being negative about Lent.

        • Jane Hildebrand

          Brad, I understand what you are saying, but I believe the danger lies in the fact that from a Catholic perspective, Lent has a “penitential” value which contradicts the biblical truth of the finished and complete work of Christ through faith.

          • Brad Prothero

            Exactlly. So we teach them the good practices that are commanded in the Bible as well as why one should do them: to grow closer to God. And if we do it Biblically, we can detach those practices from any one season as well as the entrapments that the Catholics have put on the celebration of Lent.

      • Zee Hall

        The word Trinity is not in the Bible either but is universally accepted.

        • elainebitt

          Jane meant the teaching, not the word.

          • Zee Hall

            I was merely commenting on “not in the Bible”. I’m aware of what she meant.

        • Jeff Schlottmann

          I believe the difference is the trinity is taught in the Bible.

    • Lyndon Unger

      Sorry, but my OCD pinged. What bible “translation” uses OMG?

      Also, I wrote an article on here that was a comprehensive look at fasting in the Scripture: http://thecripplegate.com/what-is-christian-fasting/

      Something to consider.

  • anonymous

    My church had a push for Lent (although it wasn’t called that) a few years ago and there was such a pushback that they thankfully gave up. It just seems like another way to add to the already finished work of Christ. I am certainly not against contemplation and meditation on all the meaning and significance of the death of Christ and all that it means for me spiritually, but that is much different from giving up something to hope that I can receive more grace from Him. He has already given abundant grace and forgiveness through His immense sacrifice as atonement for sin.

  • Emma

    Here in the U.K. The focus on churches is to do something positive for lent, i.e. less about giving stuff up and more about taking something up, good deeds prayer etc. See 40acts or tearfund

    • Good point Emma. Thanks. I think it is very different in the states with the fasting focus.

  • Pingback: For Lent, give up Lent | A disciple's study()

  • Danielle

    By your logic in the second paragraph to the end, we should never fast. Why do you come down so hard on people who choose to hold to a biblical fast in a certain season?

    Additionally, you are completely ignoring a huge swathe of Christians who are neither Roman Catholic nor generic “evangelicals”. Orthodox and many Reformed Christians celebrate the liturgical calendar and traditions, including the long-held belief in infant baptism and celebrating baptism on Easter Sunday.

    Your attack on Roman Catholic doctrines may be appropriate from a Protestant perspective within the context of church mandates, interpretation, and implementation.

    However, for liturgical Christians who are not Catholic, this post is illogical and offensive. The tradition of Lent – using the season as a time of reflection and repentance – is one that can be beautiful and beneficial. To align sincere Lenten fasts with Pharasaical hypocrisy is shameful and ignorant on your part.

    You should stop celebrating the Advent season, perhaps. Extra devotions and reflection on Jesus’ birth is worthless since Jesus was already born, by your logic. Follow through.

    • Jane Hildebrand

      Danielle, as someone unfamiliar with what a liturgical Christian is, may I ask you a question? Does your adherence to a liturgical calendar and tradition hold any weight with respect to your salvation? In other words, if you did not hold to these traditions, would your salvation be jeopardized in any way? Just curious.

      • bs

        I’m not Danielle, but yes, no and no.

      • Danielle

        “bs” is correct. No, it does not. And no it would not. Liturgy and tradition provide a rich connection with our faith history, among other wonderful benefits. They are not means of salvation, any more than your church choosing to sing songs by Chris Tomlin every week, for example. 🙂

        • Jane Hildebrand

          I would give up Chris Tomlin for Lent. 😉

  • Nick Barden

    “By the rise of Catholicism in the 400’s, infant baptism had replaced believer’s baptism…”

    *citation needed*

    • Tyler

      I agree with Nick. Can you please cite your source for this line?

      • Alex

        Well, citation is notoriously difficult on this issue, but some measure of evidence can be presented which supports Jesse’s statement.

        Excluding passages in the NT (which, we begrudgingly agree are used by proponents of both Believers Baptism and Paedobaptism), the earliest reference for mode of baptism can be found in the Didache dating from 100AD. Which speaks specifically of preparatory fasting for baptismal candidates – not something applicable to infants.

        By the time Origen comes on the scene in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries, he speaks of baptism being given “even to infants” (Homilies on Leviticus, 248 AD). But even his phrasing “even to infants,” seems to articulate an incredulous idea necessitating substantiation.

        By the time of Constantine and Nicea, infant baptism was a well established practice and continued as the dominant mode until the Reformation. However, Jesse and others would argue that somewhere between the time of the Didache and Origen the practice of baptism seemed to shift.

        • This comment is my citation 🙂
          Seriously, this is covered in just about any/every church history book. But “Baptism in the Early Church” (Oxford Press), by Ferguson, is probably the definitive work on this.

  • Christopher Clark

    How about giving up Evangelical Protestantism for Lent? ;>)

    • Jane Hildebrand

      And risk that some mortal sin may go un-confessed before the ambulance can get us to the hospital? Pass.

      • Christopher Clark

        You mistake me for a medieval Roman Catholic, Madam.

    • Craig Giddens

      How about giving up Evangelical Protestantism and Lent?

  • Andy Snider

    Hey Jesse – I wrote a defense of Lent a couple years ago, and this reminded me of it. It’s appearing in two parts on parkingspace23-dot-com today and tomorrow, hope it will provide you and others with some food for thought on this topic.

    One other point: Danielle is right. Advent and Lent are parallel seasons. If you’re opposed to the latter in principle, then you should be opposed to the former. Accordingly, you provided a strong piece of the rationale FOR observing Lent when you wrote this: “Look, I appreciate Advent. My family celebrates it every night for the weeks leading up to Christmas. I’m not opposed to the liturgical calendar. And I do think we should look forward to Easter in the same way we look forward to Christmas. I’m in favor of talking more about the resurrection, not less.”

    • Alex

      I think that if you follow Jesse’s train of thought, he is saying that contemplative devotions in preparation for Easter are wholly appropriate – just as they are with Advent in preparation for Christmas. Lent is an inappropriate way to do them for at least three reasons: (1) historically and doctrinally Lent is linked to a sacramental, works-based gospel, (2) Lenten fasting is dangerously close to the prohibited practices of Colossians 2, and (3) Lent is a mandatory practice for the Roman Catholic Church – not a personal, devotional choice.

      • Andy Snider

        Hi Alex – yes, I do follow Jesse’s argument, and I find it unconvincing. Instead of answering in detail here, though, I encourage you to read my evangelical defense of Lent at parkingspace23-dot-com today and tomorrow.

        • Jane Hildebrand

          Hi Andy, I read your defense of Lent on your blog, but wanted to reply to you here if that’s okay.

          I find it interesting that you titled your post “Don’t give up on Lent” which I assume implies that the reader once practiced it in Catholicism, but has since abandoned it?

          Either way, your point of “Lent being so identified with Roman Catholicism that it’s difficult to imagine an evangelical observance of it” is where I believe the danger lies. What I mean is that we have countless numbers of people who have escaped the corruption of Catholicism, now being encouraged to go back and observe a ritual they once believed had penitential value? That would be fine if we had biblically sound believers who were educated and understood the difference on the history and evolving corruption of Lent, but let’s be honest, that does not describe the majority. So my fear is by encouraging the practice of Lent, we give the immature or newly converted souls the misconception that we share “common ground” with Catholicism and the thought of somehow gaining favor with God is heightened by their observance of it.

          I also understand your point of Lent being observed by the early church, but you must admit that it that bears little resemblance to what it has evolved to.

          Don’t get me wrong, I so admire your sharing of the benefits and blessings that observing Lent has had for you personally, but still believe that encouraging this observance to the church will either give a knee jerk reaction to ex-Catholics or worse yet, a belief to the immature that we now share common ground with a dangerous and corrupt system.

          • Andy Snider

            Hi Jane – thanks for your reply, you made some helpful observations. I’d like to focus on two. First: “they’re being encouraged to go back and observe a ritual…” — on the contrary, they are being encouraged to do the things I described in my post out of love for Christ and in special preparation for the celebration of his death and resurrection. From a polemic point of view, they are being encouraged to take back what was corrupted in their former (RC) life. Let me frame it this way: the Reformation tradition has reclaimed some good things that the RC had perverted—why not continue the Reformation by reclaiming the Lenten season? Could it not be a part of the discipleship of an ex-Catholic? (Actually, I know that it can because I’ve seen it.) I mean, we’ve already made some good headway with reclaiming Advent, why not extend that to other seasons of the church calendar, including Lent? That brings me to the second comment I wanted to highlight from your response: “That would be fine if we had biblically sound believers who were educated and understood the difference on the history and evolving corruption of Lent, but let’s be honest, that does not describe the majority.” You’re absolutely right. This is why I appeal to pastors, church leaders, and mature believers: let’s do everything we can to make sure we are discipling ex-Catholics intentionally to embrace the fullness of God’s grace in Christ, to understand the difference between penitence and penance, and not to fear reclaiming what was perverted by their previous religion. To be honest, I see signs of fear in people who talk about ex-Catholics and Lent, and we need to overcome that with boldness in discipleship among the community of true believers as we welcome ex-Catholics into true freedom in Christ!

          • Jane Hildebrand

            Thanks for your reply, Andy. I appreciate your heart and enthusiasm for this issue. I still believe however that the risks outweigh the benefits and could possibly be a stumbling block to our ex-Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ. (I say that as a wife whose husband is a solid Christian, but still cringes a little when they sing, “Holy, holy, holy” at church.) 🙂

            Point being, fear runs deep in those once deceived and asking them to reclaim something they once associated with dead ritual may not always be the best route, even if they are educated otherwise. And while having a structured time of reflection and prayer before Easter should be encouraged and facilitated, having it closely resemble the practice of Catholic Lent (i.e. Ash Wednesday, 40 days, fasting, etc) is neither biblical nor I believe wise. No disrespect intended.

    • Eric Davis

      Andy – Jesse is out of town and away from the internet. Thanks for the friendly interaction, brother.

    • Thanks for the comment Andy. I’m grateful for your charitable tone. I honestly hadn’t seen you blog post on this last year, and I actually missed Trueman’s as well. Which means…and this just dawned on me…that for once, you ant Trueman have a disagreement, and I’m on his side! I’m used to being on the other side of that fence 🙂

  • 072591

    This reminds me of the Deadpool comic from about 15 years ago. There were 2 jobs on the mercenary online forum; one for rescuing a woman, and the other for killing her. He thought it’d be a good idea to get both rewards, until he remembered, “I gave up murder for Lent.”

    So his minion offered to do the killing for him.

    Moral of the story – Lent does not make you holier.

  • Charlie Sutton

    I am Reformed and grew up Presbyterian (OPC being the most recent presbyterian membership). I am, however, now a member of the Anglican Church in North America, and while I have studied Church History (at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), I do not recognize most of what the author states in his historical section. The idea of Easter merely being an occasion for baptism is ludicrous – it was about Jesus Christ’s victory over sin and death as evidenced by his coming bodily out of the tomb. His new life made it an appropriate time for baptism, which recognizes our victory over sin and death because Christ has raised the Christian to new life.

    Many people besides Roman Catholics observe Lent, and have for centuries – Anglicans, Lutherans – including the Missouri Synod, Methodists (who are an offshoot of Anglicanism), and the Eastern Orthodox. As an Anglican I find great value in the Church Year and its focus, season by season, on the various aspects of the life and work of the Lord Jesus. Lent is a season to reflect on the need we have for forgiveness and the reality that our sanctification was not instantaneous, but is rather a lifetime experience. In the Anglican tradition, at least, all the practices are voluntary, and it is likely to be a time of taking up something new rather than giving something up. But the entire point of either giving up or taking on (or both) is to reflect on our need for forgiveness and grace, and those who know the teaching of the vicarious atonement of Christ know that we can add nothing to our salvation by observing Lent.

    This column is one-sided, incomplete, and inaccurate.

    • Well, I”m ok with it being one-sided. And obviously “incomplete.” Inaccurate though is a bridge too far.
      I mean, you can’t seriously be suggesting that the Missouri Synod or the Anglican church (to use two of your examples) developed Lenten fasting independent of the Roman church. Also, I never said Easter was solely about baptism. Obviously it is the celebration of the resurrection. But it was *the* day for baptism for at least 100 years of church history, if not more. And the fast was most certainly connected to that. Again, Ferguson’s book “Baptism in the Early Church” is my main source for this.

  • Julie Yano

    I am a practicing Protestant but raised Catholic. Growing up our family participated wholeheartedly in the practice of Lent. It was a time of sacrifice as we remembered daily through fasting what our Saviour did for us. During Holy Week we abstained from television and radio. Our home was quiet as we prayed and anticipated celebrating our risen Lord. The presence of God was deeply felt during this time, and consequently I’ve never forgotten it and continue to observe Lent along with my Protestant church family. We are looking forward to Ash Wednesday services and beginning our time of prayer and fasting as we recall for 40 days what our Lord did for us.

    • Sweet Julie. Thanks for your comment here. I appreciate it.

  • Jonathan F.

    Thought-provoking piece. It seems to me that advocating practices such as Lent is part of evangelicalism’s slow migration back to Rome. There is no comparison between the conscience-binding practice of Lent (a purification ritual) and the observance of Advent.

    Lent is a purification ritual. If you participate, you are more pure than someone who doesn’t. Advent is not a purification ritual. Advent does not bind the conscience.

    “But,” you may say, “we are just using Lent to mediate on the atonement and resurrection.” Fine, then why call it Lent?

    Saying that “I practice Lent, I just don’t see it as a purification ritual” is like saying “I celebrate the Mass/Eucharist, I just don’t believe that the priest is actually reoffering the body and blood of Christ.”

    Evangelicals need to stop dipping their toes in the Tiber river.

  • Matt

    Hello! I am a Catholic and a former Protestant-who-was-raised-Catholic. After trying to disprove Catholicism, I found that I could not deny it. I have to be honest: I do not plan to come back to this site, so if you have a question, please contact me personally. No offense intended, but when I was attacking Catholicism, I learned that I simply cannot trust information about Catholicism from Protestants (and sometimes even information from some Catholics). At the end of this post there are a couple of Catholic sources for information about Lent. You might be surprised that there are a lot of Catholics who know what they are talking about, some are former Protestant pastors who converted to Catholicism (http://chnetwork.org/converts/).

    As for the Scripture passages (and, yes, I do read, study, and love the Bible), Jesus disapproves primarily of the attitude of the Pharisees, that they are more concerned with observance than with heart. Paul’s comments, too, refer to trust in mere ritual for rightness with God. In context, Paul is condemning ritualistic attempts at justification and legalistic avoidance of certain foods associated with superstitions and pagan practice. These passages refer to legalistic and heartless ritual observance, not a spiritual practice like Lent. No passage in the New Testament condemns fasting in and of itself, let alone community fasts for spiritual purposes. These passages are out of place in a discussion about Lent.

    It ought to be mentioned, also, that Lent makes a lot more sense in its Roman Catholic (or Orthodox, or Anglican, or other) context. Taking Lent (or any other Roman Catholic practice) out of context and examining it in a Protestant Evangelical context is like trying to make the Isenheim altarpiece (look it up) fit into a display of secular modern art.

    The particulars regarding the type of food are not of primary importance in Catholicism, which is why the Church feels free to change those regulations based on culture. The author has missed the fact that the “ever-changing Catholic approach to meat” is an illustration of the unchanging Catholic dogma of Christo-centrism. The important thing is the heart attitude and, for Lent, having a period of time set aside where the whole Church dedicates Herself to self-examination, repentance and uniting our lives to Christ’s. The Church emphasizes that the right heart-attitude is necessary and is the reason for doing what we do. We are soul-body unities, and what we do with the body affects the soul. Denial of the importance of the body is a version of the early heresy known as gnosticism.

    As for the “mortal sin” of eating meat on Friday, the link actually disproves the author’s oversimplification about the mortal sin. Eating meat alone did not constitute a mortal sin: it is the manner in which it is done along with full knowledge of the wrong. (Did the author take the time to read the whole thing and TRY to understand the common-sense nature of the dogma?)

    Perhaps the larger issues here are humility and authority. Perhaps there are reasons for Lent that you just don’t understand. I realize that people are only trying to obey what they interpret from the Scriptures, but the problem comes in when we pridefully assert that everyone else is and was wrong (2 Peter 1:20). It takes humility to defer to greater intellectual and (perhaps more importantly) spiritual lights (everyone likes Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa until they find out they were Catholic), especially if there are some who interpret and teach authoritatively. It was never supposed to be “me and the Bible”, but rather, we are to be part of the Body of Christ. So, who has the authority to interpret Scripture and teach truth authoritatively? (1 Timothy3:15) And then, once we have answered that question, do we have the humility to submit to One who is divinely inspired and admit that we don’t know it all, or should we obstinately continue in our assertion that we alone have the corner on truth?

    In the end, I foresee the classic Protestant response, “But where is it in the Bible?” To which I would answer, “Where in the Bible does it say it has to be in the Bible?” (As far as I can tell, Sola Scriptura is a man-made tradition. The article seems to imply that the age of an idea is proportional to the reliability of the idea, which is the opposite of chronological snobbery, but it is still a fallacy. By that principle, though, Sola Scriptura ought to be given up for Lent and the rest of time because it did not originate with Scripture, the apostles, the Church Fathers, or anyone else before the 16th century.) Which leads us to authority: e.g. how do you know which books belong in the New Testament without implicitly trusting the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, let alone the proper method for interpreting Scripture? Where in the Bible is the list of 27 books that belong in the New Testament and the proper method for gleaning sound teaching (2 Timothy 1:13)?

    So, to conclude, instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, why don’t we practice Lent the way it was meant to be: focus on the meaning AND the practice. Perhaps we should give ourselves to deep spiritual reading from a time before last week and from authors whose spiritual insights are humbling, inspiring, and almost universally recognized.

    Here are a couple of good Catholic resources on Lent I found just by doing a quick search:
    https://www.catholic.com/qa/why-do-catholics-practice-fasting-and-abstinence-during-lent

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09152a.htm

    http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/history-of-lent.html

    http://www.catholic.org/lent/faq.php

    http://dynamiccatholic.com/bestlentever/

  • Matt

    Hello! Just so you know where I am coming from, I want to let you know that I am a Catholic and a former Protestant, but I am posting this comment as a brother in Christ in an effort to make known a different viewpoint. I have to be honest: I do not plan to come back to this site (No offense intended, I just don’t have the time to return), so if you have a question, please contact me personally. I am always be more than happy to engage in conversation with my brothers and sisters in Christ, especially to try to convey the beauty and basis of my Roman Catholic faith. I came here because a friend had a question and wanted my thoughts on this piece. I trust that my comment will be a beneficial contribution to the conversation.

    As for the Scripture passages, Jesus disapproves primarily of the attitude of the Pharisees, that they are more concerned with observance than with heart. Paul’s comments, too, refer to trust in mere ritual for rightness with God. In context, Paul is condemning ritualistic attempts at justification and legalistic avoidance of certain foods associated with superstition and pagan practice. These passages refer to legalistic and heartless ritual observance, not a spiritual practice like Lent. No passage in the New Testament condemns fasting in and of itself, let alone community fasts for spiritual purposes. I think these passages are out of place in a discussion about Lent.

    It ought to be mentioned, also, that Lent makes a lot more sense in its Roman Catholic (or Orthodox, or Anglican, or other) context. Taking Lent (or any other Roman Catholic practice) out of context and examining it in a Protestant Evangelical context is like trying to make the Isenheim altarpiece fit into a display of secular modern art.

    For those who ask “Where is Lent in the Bible,” I would respond, as respectfully as I can, by asking, “1. Where in the Bible does it say it has to be in the Bible and 2. how do you know that you are interpreting the Bible correctly when there are so many different interpretations on matters like this today?” Please, understand I don’t mean to be pugilistic, but Sola Scriptura looks to me like a tradition of man since it is not found in Scripture and was not taught until the 16th century. Also, if we accept the Church’s testimony regarding which books belong in the New Testament, why reject the Church’s testimony regarding other things like the Old Testament Canon, the teaching authority of the Church, the primacy of the pope, beneficial spiritual practices, transubstantiation, and liturgical seasons (all of which are present at the same time in history, and the latter 5 are universally recognized from the start)? Again, I ask these questions in light of Christian unity regarding the sufficient atonement for sin by Christ who is our only Lord and Savior (it took me a while to understand this, but Roman Catholicism does teach salvation by Christ and grace alone), but these disconnects seem like the very basis on which we disagree. Please don’t be put off by them, but take time to carefully consider them. Why Sola Scriptura, and how do we know the right method for interpreting Scripture?

    The particulars regarding the type of food are not of primary importance in Catholicism, which is why the Church feels free to change those regulations based on culture. The “ever-changing Catholic approach to meat” is an illustration of the unchanging Catholic dogma of Christo-centrism. The important thing is the heart attitude and, for Lent, having a period of time set aside where the whole Church dedicates Herself to self-examination, repentance and uniting our lives to Christ’s. The Church emphasizes that the right heart-attitude is necessary and is the reason for doing what we do. We are soul-body unities, and what we do with the body affects the soul. Denial of the importance of the body is a version of the early heresy known as gnosticism.

    As for the “mortal sin” of eating meat on Friday, the site linked to the words is a great illustration of the fact that the Church emphasizes that heart attitude. In order for something to be a mortal sin, the heart has to be in the right (rather: wrong) place. No one can accidentally commit a mortal sin. It is not just about outward acts.

    So, to conclude, instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, why don’t we practice Lent the way it was meant to be practiced: focus on the meaning AND the practice. Perhaps we should give ourselves to deep spiritual reading from the whole history of the Church and from authors whose spiritual insights are humbling, inspiring, and almost universally recognized.

    Your brother in Christ,

    Matt

    Here are a couple of good Catholic resources on Lent I found just by doing a quick search:
    https://www.catholic.com/qa/why-do-catholics-practice-fasting-and-abstinence-during-lent

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09152a.htm

    http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/history-of-lent.html

    http://www.catholic.org/lent/faq.php

    http://dynamiccatholic.com/bestlentever/

  • kbiniowa

    Dear Pastor Jesse:
    I truly hope that the pope does not give up lent for lent.
    It is truly a great time of year!
    During this 40 day period there are tremendous fish fry’s in Northern Iowa and Wisconsin! (large Roman Catholic population)
    During lent, McDonald’s has a sale on their fish sandwiches!
    I do have a question though. If I do not watch or like Downton Abby, are you going to make me watch it ???

    PS – Well done Pastor Jesse….

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  • Brilliant. Thanks Jesse! It’s interesting to me that the area where I minister has one of (if not, “the”) highest RC populations in the country, and the great majority of my congregation has been saved out of RCism. From the moment they were saved, they completely left that world behind (what fellowship does light have with darkness), and for many of them, that meant they were scorned by their families as well. They wouldn’t even entertain participating in something that confuses biblical Christianity at best, and associates with apostasy at worst. I’m with them! As you pointed out from Col. 2, it’s really no different than a Jew who comes to know Christ but then wants to continue to live in accordance with things that have the appearance of wisdom but are actually completely worthless to meaningful and true Christian living.

  • Thanks for interacting everyone, and for being respectful to those that disagree. I’m going to close out the thread, so I’m not tempted to look at it on the Lord’s Day–my hypocrisy apparently has some limits 🙂

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