It appears that it is now cool for Evangelicals to observe Lent.
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.
Let me begin this by clarifying what I mean by observing Lent. 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. 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.
Observing Lent, however, often means much more than this. Typically observances of Lent include ashes, fasting, and “giving up” things so that the worshiper can experimentally identify and in some sense participate in the sufferings of Christ.
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.
Now as I mentioned, I do believe that it is well within biblical authority 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.
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written several books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.