Should Evangelicals Observe Lent?

img_4045I know I said we’d talk more about Peter Waldo today, but since then it dawned on me that Lent begins tomorrow. What a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the necessity of the Protestant Reformation.

In the last few years, I’ve noticed evangelicals (including some I know personally) talking about giving up things for Lent. This trend disturbs me, and all the more as I learn the history of the Reformation. I can’t understand why those who have been liberated from the legalism of Catholicism would willingly return to one of its rituals, thinking that a forty day fast would somehow impress God.

As I mentioned in my latest Saturday Sampler, The Cripplegate ran Jesse Johnson’s article on Lent last Wednesday. If you haven’t read it yet. I implore you to at least read the section on the history of the tradition. Johnson explains how a tradition that began as a way to prepare new Christians for baptism degenerated into false spirituality at best and hollow ritual at worst.

Like most Roman Catholic rituals, observing Lent focuses on human works. Penance, fasting and almsgiving enable one to attain greater sanctification, thus becoming yet another means of making oneself acceptable to God. By performing these rites during the six weeks leading up to Easter, one supposedly draws closer to God because of these sacrificial acts of self-denial. The emphasis, as usual, falls on human effort rather than on the Lord Jesus Christ and His finished work on the cross.

Some would argue that Lent teaches us how to practice self-denial. Giving up Facebook, for example, shows us how to die to our addiction to social media. Lent, they insist, helps us develop self-control, therefore making us more godly. Interestingly, the apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, cautioning them against outward displays of self-righteousness.

20 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— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 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 (ESV)

Certainly, self-control is a fruit of the Spirit that Christians should exercise, but it’s a result of salvation rather than a means to it. The Reformers all insisted on returning to the Biblical doctrine that faith alone justifies a person. Lent returns us to a system that the Reformers fought long and hard against. It takes our eyes off the finished work of Christ, bringing us back to man-made religion.

As evangelicals, we must honor the efforts of the Reformers, who extricated us from the legalism of Catholicism. Reverting to the demands of Catholic rituals disregards both the Reformation and (of more serious consequence) the Gospel itself. Dying to self for the Lord is so much more (and so much different) than giving up Facebook or rich food for forty days each year. Please don’t sacrifice your freedom in Christ simply to follow a tradition of human origin.

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