In many Christian traditions today is Ash Wednesday, beginning the season of Lent.
Over the past several years, there has been an increasing interest in Lent within evangelical churches. It has apparently now become “hip” to add to corporate worship elements from ancient liturgical practices.
Children of the Reformation have traditionally rejected Lent. In fact, eating sausages on Lent was Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli’s “95 Theses moment,” signally his break from the Church of Rome, and other Reformers and Protestants after them have almost uniformly repudiated the observance.
So how should evangelical Christians think about Lent and the Church Year in general? Here are some thoughts:
There are two ways a church can use the Church Year: as a helpful tool or as a legalistic burden. I do believe that it is quite profitable to use the Church Calendar as a tool in the life of a church to remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Celebrating Advent (four weeks focusing on the coming of Christ), Christmas, Epiphany (focusing on events in Christ’s life where he revealed himself as God’s Son), Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Resurrection Sunday, Ascension, and Pentecost are ways to remember the coming, life, ministry, and atonement of Christ that give a biblical narrative to our year. Simply focusing our Scripture readings and hymns on these themes does not add extra-biblical elements to worship.
In this way, a church can legitimately “observe Lent,” if what is meant by that is the use of Scripture readings and hymns that draw the worshiper’s attention to the life of Christ during the forty days prior to Easter. In this way, observing Lent is little more than observing Advent, Christmas, or Easter. It is the use of the ordinary, Scripture-prescribed means of grace (Scripture reading, prayer, singing, the preaching of the Word) in an orderly way that focuses on particular events in the life of Christ.
Some church traditions, however, require the observance of certain practices during Lent in particular (and sometimes Advent) like penitence, fasting, putting ash on one’s head, abstaining from meat, or “giving things up for Lent,” some even believing that such practices earn us merit and favor with God.
Whether or not a church decides to use the Church Year as a tool, this is a point at which things become theologically problematic. As evangelical Christians, we firmly believe that Christ sufficiently suffered on our behalf, and therefore those who believe in him need not “participate” in his suffering in any way, especially not in an attempt to earn favor with God. We are fully favored by God in Christ! So we should deliberately avoid any notion of Lent that creates theological confusion.
But another problem with these Lenten observances is that even if their proponents deny that these practices are intended to somehow earn the worshiper merit with God, they nevertheless add means of grace that the Bible does not prescribe. God has prescribed the use of Scripture reading, prayer, singing, the preaching of God’s Word, and observance of baptism and the Lord’s Table as the only means by which he strengthens the faith of Christians. He has not prescribed “participation in Christ’s sacrifice” through ashes, fasting, or giving things up as means of Christian sanctification.
Yet in the traditional practices of Lent, other “experiential” observances are meant to further impart grace and spiritual strength to the worshiper as he or she identifies with the sufferings of Christ, thus going beyond biblical mandate.
If individual Christians wish to fast or observe some of these other practices as spiritual disciplines, they certainly have biblical freedom to do so. But Jesus also clearly commanded that when we fast, we should do so in secret (Matt 6:16-18), and churches certainly may not make any of these practices a spiritual requirement (Romans 14:1-12).
Now as I mentioned, I do believe that it is well within biblical authority, and even quite valuable, to organize the ordinary means of grace around the theme of a period in Christ’s life during a specific season of the year. In this way, observance of Lent has moved from the category of an element of worship to merely a form or circumstance. Kevin Bauder has made this point with regard to other seasons of the church year, and I think it could equally apply to Lent, as long as no element of worship is added beyond Scripture.
But practices beyond Scripture, such as ashes, fasting, and giving up things to identify with Christ’s sufferings go beyond what Scripture has prescribed.
So we may use the next six Sundays as a tool to remember various occasions in the life of Christ that led him to suffer for us on the cross. We do so, not to participate in his suffering or earn merit with God, but remembering that Jesus cried “It is finished,” having accomplished all the suffering necessary for our redemption.