For the past few years, I’ve groaned a little on Ash Wednesday. Not in anticipation of giving up something for Lent — I have never observed Lent and will never observe it. I groan at the thought of evangelicals observing such an unbiblical practice.
As I explained in a blog post I wrote two years ago, “my objection to Lent boils down to the same problem I have with Roman Catholicism in general: it rejects the sufficiency of Christ’s finished work on the cross. For all the talk of Lent enhancing our devotion to Him and drawing us to deeper repentance, we can’t escape its emphasis on human good works. As usual, the attention shifts from what Christ did for us to what we credit ourselves as doing to earn His favor.”
That deviation from the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work on the cross is the most disturbing aspect of Lent, of course. But there’s another aspect that is closely related. Lent exalts human tradition over the authority of Scripture.
Think about how the observance started. Originally, the early church formally adopted Lent in 325 as a period of fasting and penance leading up to baptism (source). At this writing, I can’t find any explanation as to how it became tied to the 40 days (minus Sundays) leading up to Easter, nor do I get how it fits in with the Roman Catholic practice of infant baptism. These questions alone only highlight the discrepancy between the observance and Scripture’s teaching.
Nowhere in the New Testament do we see anything about Christians being required to fast for 40 days. (It could even be argued that, although the apostles occasionally fasted, Christians are never mandated to fast at all. Biblically, it seems to be a voluntarily act governed by the individual conviction of each believer (Romans 14). Consequently, the Roman Catholic demand for an entire church fast for 40 days violates Paul’s clear teaching on Christian liberty.
I can’t help thinking that the following passage in Colossians best addresses Lent.
16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
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 2:16-23 (ESV)
By imposing Lent on all of its members, the Roman Catholic Church totally disregards this passage. It ignores the centrality of Christ, forgetting that all the fasts and observances in the Old Testament were instituted to point people to Him. Again, Romans 14 gives us liberty to observe special days and to fast if we so desire, but no one has the right to place us under obligation.
Furthermore, outward demonstrations of self-denial may make us appear sanctified, but they have no power to really produce clean hearts. Our true cleansing comes only through the blood of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Because Lent is a human tradition tacked on to Scripture, it implicitly goes against the Bible’s authority as our only rule of faith and practice. If you, as an evangelical, opt to observe it, please make sure you do it solely as an expression of love for Christ. Don’t add to God’s Word by supposing that Lent could in any way effect repentance in your heart. The Holy Spirit does that work through His Word.