I'm a Protestant. What should I think about lent?
Last week began the liturgical season of the church year known as Lent. Lent is the 40 day period beginning Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Sunday. Traditionally, the season of lent focuses on repentance, prayer, and good works, in preparation for the celebration of Easter (much like the season of Advent is meant to prepare us for the joy of Christmas morning). The ashes of "Ash Wednesday" are meant to remind us that we are dust and will one day return to dust, as well as serve as a symbol of repentance. As fasting is also a biblical sign of repentance and confession in the Scripture, the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) requires members to fast on Friday's during the lenten season.
Like many of you reading this blog, I did not grow up observing Ash Wednesday or Lent - most protestant churches do not (although there seem to be a growing number of Protestant and evangelical churches that observe it). Which leads me to the question I want to briefly discuss in this post: what should Protestants think about Lent?
In answer to this question, a good place to start is to consider what the Reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther taught about Lent. In their writings, they raise two primary concerns about the Lenten season as it was practiced in the church in the 16th century. The first concern, and one that is still relevant today, is that observing Lent and the fasting that went along with it must not be thought of as meritorious in any sense. In other words, our fasting/penitence during Lent must not be seen as a "good work" which earns anything with God. Martin Luther, for example, in one of his Lenten sermons, preached the following:
"But the worst of all is that we have adopted and practiced fasting as a good work: not to bring our flesh into subjection; but, as a meritorious work before God, to atone for our sins and obtain grace. And it is this that has made our fasting a stench and so blasphemous and shameful, so that no drinking and eating, no gluttony and drunkenness, could have been as bad and foul. It would have been better had people been drunk day and night than to fast thus."
Calvin touches on Lent in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.12.19-21, and begins with a similar concern.
"At that time the superstitious observance of Lent had prevailed everywhere, because the common people thought that in it they were doing some exeptional service to God..."
Our first reflection on Lent, then, is to agree with our protestant fathers. Nobody should observe lent believing that it is a "good work" which will commend them to God. Salvation is by grace alone through faith in Christ alone (Eph 2). No one is righteous, no not one (Romans 3). We cannot earn God's forgiveness. If we could, then grace would not be grace.
Calvin goes farther, however. Not only was he concerned that observing Lent had led many people into thinking that they could merit God's favor, but he believed the church had overstepped it's authority in mandating observance of it. He continues in the Institutes, "Wicked laws were passed which bind consciences with deadly chains. The eating of meat was forbidden, as if it would defile a man." Calvin's raising the issue about binding the conscious is extremely important and continues to be relevant today. The question of authority - specifically what authority the church has to bind the conscious of believers - was and continues to be a major divide between protestantism and catholicism. Protestantism, following in the wake of Calvin and other reformed thinkers, believed that the church only had a ministerial and declarative authority. This meant that the church is limited to declaring and enforcing only what God has revealed in His Word, and has no authority to create new laws. As Protestants, we believe that the Bible alone has the authority to bind our conscience in matters of our Christian faith and worship. The church does not have authority to enforce or make laws that bind the conscience without biblical basis.
This issue of authority is why Calvin had a problem with observance of Lent and some of the required fasts associated with it - It's simply not in the Scripture. Calvin was not against fasting, but to mandate that believers observe the season and fast on specific days and specific ways, was for him, an abuse of legitimate authority. As Protestants, we ask: Where in the Bible is it commanded to observe a 40 period of Lent? Where in the Bible are we required to fast on certain Fridays? Observing Lent may or may not be a helpful practice, but if it's not in Scritpure then the church has no authority to declare it as mandatory.
Does this mean that a Protestant should not observe Lent? Not necessarily. Voluntary participation in Lent may be beneficial, as long as your not doing so believing that your meriting something before God,or looking down on others who don't participate as less serious about their faith. After all, the themes that Lent focuses our attention on: owning our own mortality, our sin, and repenting before God, are all important truths that we as Christians should spend time reflecting on. If we are going to fully appreciate the joy of Easter morning, we need to feel the weight of Good Friday. And in order to do that, we must own and mourn our sin that made Good Friday necessary.
I would only add, however, that God has given us the Lord's day as an opportunity to do this every week. Why wait for Lent? Our liturgy at Redeemer includes a call to confession and a corporate prayer of repentance every week, precisely because we believe it is important to humble ourselves before God, acknowledge our sin, and cry out for his mercy to us in Jesus Christ. We also celebrate the Lord's Supper every week, and so are reminded that our sin sent the Saviour to the Cross, but that he went willingly for us, and we enter into the joy of his promise that he will come again and we will share the wedding supper of the Lamb with him in heaven.