Should Christians Celebrate Lent?

Today is Ash Wednesday the first day of Lent. Lent is a season of forty days of self-denial in preparation for the celebrations of Holy Week most significantly Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Lent is familiar to many as a Catholic tradition, though the Lutheran and Episcopalian churches have traditionally observed Lent as well. Recent years have seen other denominations take up the practice. Now Lent is a religious season observed by many Christians from a wide range of backgrounds.

The observance of Lent is taught as a time of self-denial through fasting and other forms of self-discipline to increase the spiritual discipline of the Christian. During Lent the individual is purified in mind and heart. For some Lent is a season of repentance and sorrow over sin. The Lenten observances are practiced to prepare the worshiper to better celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Lent is not found in the Bible. Though the Bible does contain examples of forty day fasts (Jesus in the wilderness, Moses on Mt. Sinai) those fasts served very different functions than the season of Lent. No fast in the Bible is presented as the model for all Christians to follow. Jesus assumes that all Christians will fast, but the New Testament contains no command for believers to fast. The New Testament does not command any specific season for fasting. Nor does the Bible forbid the Christian to observe holy days and special religious seasons. Scripture never commands ritual observances but it does give very strong warnings about rituals, holy days and similar observances.

Lent is not necessary as a spiritual discipline. The spiritual disciplines found in the Bible, some call them the means of grace, are things to be practiced on a regular basis. The spiritual disciplines are prayer, Bible reading, church attendance, good works and participation in the ordinances (sacraments). Spiritual disciplines practiced only six weeks out of the year are of little value. Think of an athlete who only trains six weeks out of the year. He’s not going be much of an athlete. Lent should not be observed if it is seen as the primary means by which the individual becomes spiritually strong or receives special spiritual blessing from God.

Lent is powerless as a means to purify the heart. The Bible specifically teaches that actions do not defile the heart, nor can they purify the heart. Behavior comes from the heart. (Mark 7:15,18-23) Impure behavior reflects an impure heart. Yet, right behavior from an impure heart will not purify the heart. (Matthew 23:14) Only the blood of Jesus purifies the heart from sin. Lent may be a good time to reflect on the suffering of Jesus for your sin, but if it is relied on as a means of purifying the heart it should not be observed.

Some observe Lent as a form of penance. Penance believes that enduring bodily suffering or paying a penalty will show true sorrow for sin. When penanced is performed sin can then be forgiven. God’s forgiveness is never given in response to an act of contrition. God’s Word is very, very clear on this topic. Forgiveness is only the gift of God given freely to those who will ask it of Him. Any effort to earn or purchase forgiveness rejects God’s forgiveness. (Galatians 2:21) He will only forgive those who trust Jesus alone for full pardon and eternal salvation. If Lent is done for the forgiveness of sin it should be repented of and the penitent should turn to Jesus for forgiveness.

Lent is not forbidden in the Bible. It can be carefully observed in a way that promotes the gospel, glorifies God and draws believer closer to Christ. Let the words of Romans 14:5 guide your thinking regarding Lent. “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” Keep Lent or do not keep Lent, but do so to the Lord.

What is Lent?

The season of Lent began this week. Lent always starts on Ash Wednesday and continues until the Thursday before Easter. Lent is a season of forty days of self denial intended to be a time of intense spiritual devotion joined with self denial. Many who observe Lent “fast” from specific substances these six weeks. Others severely limit their food intake. Traditionally the Sundays of Lent are not fast days. The Catholic church prescribes that all the Friday’s during Lent be days of fasting from meat. In more recent years people have taken to giving up non-food items. Some will use Lent to “fast” from the internet, television, sports, text messaging, facebook, speeding, complainging and a host of other things. Others see Lent as a time to volunteer at at soup kitchens or attend church services more faithfully. Some churches have special prayer services or community worship services during Lent. In brief, Lent is seen as a season of self denial and spiritual renewal that is kept by Christians of all denominations.

The observance of Lent developed within the Catholic church during the 300’s AD. Because Lent has its root in early Catholicism those Christians who are part of church with a strong emphasis on liturgy and the church calendar tend to observe Lent. The forty days of fasting is based upon Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness before beginning His public ministry. A specific Biblical foundation for observing Lent is hard to find. The Bible makes no reference to a special, church wide season of fasting and self-denial. The Bible does teach self denial, but the self denial it teaches is a lifelong process of dying to self and living according to the commands of God’s Word. The Bible teaches about fasting, but it does not command Christians to fast. Nor does the Bible teach a required season for fasting, or of fasting from certain foods, whether it be on Friday, during early spring or at any other time of the year. Fasting is assumed in the New Testament, but the only commands associated with it are that fasting be done without drawing attention to the fact you are fasting. The summary of this then is that Lent is not commanded or required for Christians. While there is nothing sinful about forty days of fasting and renewed focus on one’s walk with God, those who would participate need to be careful about what is motivating observance of Lenten traditions.

Penance is the theological motivation for self denial during Lent. Penance is a form of self-punishment to show a person is genuinely repentant for his sins. Catholic teaching regarding fasting during Lent states that one is remembering the suffering of Jesus on the cross and uniting himself with His sacrifice. Some outside the Catholic church see a penitential aspect to their participation in Lent. Penance is a punishment of self to show genuine repentance. While this doctrine seems to have some worthwhile points (who doesn’t want to see real proof that a person is truly sorry for his sins?), penance is contrary to the Biblical doctrines of salvation by grace alone. When Jesus died on the cross, He suffered the full punishment of sin. When one trusts Jesus for salvation all past, present and futures sins are forgiven. Jesus endured the entire punishment of every sin the believer has committed or will commit. Since Jesus paid it all no other punishment is necessary. Not only is self punishment unnecessary, Paul says in Galatians that any who teach works of the flesh as part of salvation are teaching a different gospel. The doctrine of penance has an appearance of being spiritual, but it actually denies the fullness of Jesus’ work and relies instead on human effort.

Setting apart a season of self denial does not by itself draw one closer to God. The Bible does not teach self denial for self denial’s sake. The Bible does not teach self-denial as a shortcut to a closeness with God. One grows in Godliness by use of the regular means which God has given to His people. These means are Bible study, prayer, church attendance, good works, spreading the gospel and participating in the ordinances. Self denial to grow closer to God is a good thing, but the regular, year round means of spiritual growth cannot be bypassed by a special season of intense spiritual activity.