Approaching Lent as a Reformed Christian

In this post we are going to take an opportunity to deviate somewhat from the theme of the present series, the worship service our churches, and discuss a related topic which yearly creates some buzz within the Reformed corner of Christendom. That topic is the season of Lent. On the outset let me say that this post is not meant to encourage you to observe Lent. Rather it is meant to promote thought about the season from a Reformed perspective. Traditionally understood, the season of Lent is a forty-day period of fasting in preparation for Easter. Lent began on Wednesday the fifth of March, a day typically called “Ash Wednesday”, and continues for forty week days until Easter, which this year falls on the twentieth of April. We are currently in the final week of the season, called Passion Week, which ends with the commemoration of Christ’s cross on Good Friday. Many of us may not have paid much attention to this, since the church year and the “liturgical seasons” do not play a very large role in the Reformed churches and many other Protestant churches as well. There are some historic and sound reasons for this. During the middle ages the observance of Lent became an excessive practice, which emphasized works righteousness, and came to be associated with all sorts of superstitious beliefs. The Reformers condemned these abuses and for this reason rejected most of the Lenten practices of their day, such as the mandatory forty day fast. We do not dispute their wisdom in this.

Today the observance of Lent is enjoying resurgence among many Protestants and Evangelicals. Perhaps you have encountered various “Lenten” activities and practices at the Christian college you attend or at the work place or among extended family members. Perhaps you have seen students on campus with ash crosses marking their foreheads in celebration of Ash Wednesday, or maybe an acquaintance has informed you that he or she has decided to give up a certain luxury or food for Lent. How ought we to judge this growing interest in Lent among Protestants? Is observing Lent in any form one hundred percent wrong? Ought we to reject Lent completely as something that should have no place in the life of a Reformed Christian? Well, we can’t quite say that. The Reformed churches of Dutch heritage have historically taken a balanced view toward Lent and the Church Calendar, while still firmly holding to the Reformers’ rejection of certain abuses of the season. We in the PRC stand in this tradition. In the PRC we do recognize some of the major Christian holidays of the church year which commemorate the major events of the life of Christ. Article 67 of our church order mandates that our churches gather for worship on both Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Many of our ministers preach Lent sermon series that usually focus on the life of Christ and His work on the cross. This is a good Reformed approach, one which rejects excess but also uses the season as an opportunity to focus on Christ.

So, to restate the question: how should we approach Lent? Below are a few things to think about in evaluating the observance of Lent from a Reformed perspective. First, a few aspects of the observance of Lent which Reformed Christians ought to reject:

  1.        We should reject the required observance of Lent. Observance of Lent should not be mandated for Reformed Christians. Historically as Lent became a more and more elaborate celebration, the church began to require Christians to observe certain rituals and devotional practices associated with the season. The word of God nowhere commands this practice. Therefore it is unlawful for the church to make laws where the Word of God does not make them. To require Christians to observe extra-biblical practices (practices which may not be unbiblical in themselves) is to impinge on Christian liberty. In addition to that, it is impossible to compel the heart to be devout. This is one of the biggest problems with mandating Lent. Doing such does not produce spirituality; it produces dead routine and outward actions. Repentance and fasting are only genuine if they arise from a willing and contrite heart, not by one simply going through the motions because they are required.
  2.        The idea that Lent is a special or holier time of self-denial unlike the rest of the year ought to be rejected. As the reformers taught, the only things that Christians are commanded by God to deny themselves are those things that are sinful. And we are called to deny ourselves sinful things not only for a season, but every single day, for as long as our earthly lives continue. The Christian life is a life of constant mortification of sin, of constant battle against the old man of sin, and of constant denial of sinful desires. It must be mentioned in this connection that the most important “holiday” of the Christian calendar is the weekly Sabbath. It is the Sabbath that Scripture mandates all Christians to observe, and it is on the Sabbath that we weekly deny ourselves.
  3.        We should reject the idea the idea that denying ourselves lawful goods (food or whatever it may be) that God has given elevates us to a higher spiritual level than others who do not do so. No one becomes an “uber-Christian” because he or she fasts during Lent. This is a major problem that developed in the thinking of Lenten observance. If I with the right motives decide to fast for period of time, that does not mean I am more spiritual than a brother or sister who continues to partake of food and drink normally. Fasting is an individual devotion that one does for one’s own spiritual benefit; it has nothing to do with your neighbor.

That being said, the idea of Lent as a time for devotion is not in it of itself wrong. We must be careful that—in condemning the errors and abuses of Lent—we do not throw out the whole thing. We can end up unconsciously violating Christian liberty when—out of a desire to defend Christian liberty from the abuses of Lent—we condemn someone who employs his or her Christian liberty by choosing to do certain lawful things during Lent. Below are a few positive aspects of Lent and fasting to consider:

  1.        Fasting is not only a legitimate practice; it is something scripture tells us to do. Fasting is not denying oneself evil things, rather it is denying oneself things that are of themselves good but yet have the potential to get in the way of our spiritual lives. It is abstinence from lawful things in order to devote oneself, for a time, more fully or intensely to prayer and spiritual discipline. Rev. Hanko wrote a nice article on fasting which is well worth reading. The following quotation sums up the matter: the duty of fasting, therefore, is part of self-denial and of the struggle against the flesh. It is an expression of our sorrow for sin, part of ‘keeping under the body and bringing it into subjection’ (I Cor. 9:27), and a help in making sure that our belly is not our God (Phil. 3:19)…Fasting is of use in the battle against the flesh and for spiritual things both because it is itself an act of self-denial and because the hunger that fasting brings on serves as a constant reminder of the need for things more important than earthly bread.[1] This does not mean anyone must fast for Lent. However, fasting is a Christian duty.
  2.        Material things such as food, drink, entertainment, etc. are certainly good gifts of God, but who will deny that they can often get in the way of our spiritual lives? How often do we not find ourselves so busy with the affairs and things of this life, with work, with making and saving money, that we neglect our spiritual lives? Material things, good things, always have the potential to clutter up our souls just as they clutter up and accumulate in our houses. Fasting helps us unclutter and move our focus away from material things to spiritual things. Lent offers a time to do just that, if we do so with the right motives. It offers a time to deny oneself and meditate on the ultimate example of self-denial, which our Lord Jesus presents in His incarnation, life among us, and finally His death of the cross.
  3.        The church year has devotional value. Rather than measuring the year simply by secular time or by sport seasons etc., the church year frames the entire year in terms of the main events in the life of Christ. It gives a truly Christian way of looking at time and the year. Often it can be difficult to discipline ourselves in our daily devotions. It can at times be difficult to decide what to read. The season of Lent can give us some direction. We can use the time to focus our devotions on the life, work, and passion of Christ.

There are a lot of black areas when it comes to observing Lent. But there are also a number legitimate “grey areas” that we ought to leave in the realm of Christian liberty. Whether we consider Lent something not worth observing, or if we use the season as an opportunity to devote ourselves to prayer and meditation on Christ, we must always do these things out of right heart with spiritual motivation. Lent ought never to point us to our own works, but always ought to point us to the beautiful unmerited grace of God in Christ. An approach to Lent that emphasizes the poverty of one’s own works and the sufficiency of God’s grace; that is a Reformed approach to the season.

Justin Smidstra


[1] This article is found in Volume 81 Issue 17 of the Standard Bearer.

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