Pastor’s Letter: What Ought Reformed Christians to Make of Lent?

What follows is a guest post by the Rev Mr Bill Godfrey, pastor of Grace United Reformed Church, Torrance, CA.

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Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,

I have noticed that every year more and more Christians talk about and participate in the season of Lent, a period of about six weeks that begins on “Ash Wednesday” and runs through “Easter Sunday.” I am concerned to see so many Christians embracing religious observances that have their root in ancient practices that are found nowhere in the Scriptures. As the ancient church pastor Cyprian put it, “Custom without truth is the antiquity of error.” And as the Belgic Confession rightly states, we may not “put custom, nor the majority, nor age, nor the passage of time or persons, nor councils, decrees, or official decisions above the truth of God, for truth is above everything” (Article 7).

As Christians, we recognize no authority but God’s Word as expressed in the Bible. We also heartily believe that the Bible teaches us all we need to know in matters of doctrine, life, and worship. So when we come up with our own ideas for worship and devotion, apart from what is commanded in Scripture, we find ourselves on dangerous ground. A brief survey of the Scriptures shows us clearly what happens when men and women follow their own ideas rather than God’s instructions regarding piety and worship. Therefore, I want to give you a pastoral exhortation regarding Lent.

First, I want to assure you as God’s people that you are under no obligation of any kind to have anything to do with Lent. This practice is nowhere commanded in Scripture. The whole tradition grew out of a fundamental misunderstanding and misapplication of Christ’s forty-day fast in the wilderness before being tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1ff; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1ff). While it is true that Lent is an ancient practice of the church, it is not a biblical practice. And that distinction makes all the difference. We must remember that a practice can still be “ancient” to us and yet have developed hundreds of years after the time of Christ and his apostles. We must always look to Scripture, not to “ancient practices” to find out what is pleasing to God.

Second, Lent changes fasting from what it is in Scripture into something that it is not. What do I mean by this? In the Bible, fasting is not a form of divine worship in and of itself. It has no importance on its own. What God wants from his people, as John Calvin put it, is “true displeasure at one’s sin, true humility, and true sorrowing arising from the fear of God.” Sometimes fasting can help us in this, particularly in times of calamity and mourning. Calvin points to our Lord’s words that just such a time would come for his apostles: “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them” (Matt. 9:15; Luke 5:34-35). That would be an appropriate time for fasting, a time of calamity and mourning which was to be combined with prayer.

So we see Jesus clearly teaching us that withholding from eating and drinking so that we can meditate on our sin or humble ourselves before God can be of spiritual benefit at certain times in the Christian life. But fasting is never absolutely necessary for the Christian, nor is it ever itself the focus of what we do. Again, Calvin rightly observes: “Indeed, fasting is not otherwise useful than when it is joined as a lesser help to these [the disciplines mentioned above].” Fasting itself has “no importance except for the sake of those ends to which it ought to be directed.” Calvin goes on to warn us, “a most dangerous superstition is involved in confusing [fasting] with works commanded by God and necessary of themselves without any other consideration.” To summarize, he rightly argues that while fasting can be helpful at times for Christians, it is never absolutely necessary. While it may help us in prayer and humility before God, we can pray and humble ourselves without it as well.

We might think of fasting in the same way we think about kneeling when we pray. Kneeling helps us to adopt a humble posture before the Lord as we come before him in prayer. But our kneeling is not, in and of itself, an act of worship nor is kneeling necessary for prayer. Kneeling merely helps to put us in a posture for prayer. Fasting is similar in Scripture: It is a posture for prayer that is to help remove other worldly distractions for a time so that we might be focused on our prayers. But fasting itself is not an act of worship nor is it ever absolutely necessary for prayer.

Lent as we know it today did not arise out of this biblical understanding of fasting. Rather, Lent came about as a superstitious misunderstanding both of the purpose of fasting in general and the purpose of Christ’s forty-day fast in the wilderness in particular. As a result, Calvin correctly summarizes, “the superstitious observance of Lent had prevailed everywhere, because the common people thought that in it they were doing some exceptional service to God, and the pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ. On the contrary, it is plain that Christ did not fast to set an example for others, but to prove, in so beginning to proclaim the gospel, that it was no human doctrine but actually one sent from heaven [Matt. 4:2] (emphasis added).” Here we see how a good practice, like fasting, can be turned into a terrible superstition. People began to think that by giving up food or other things for Lent, that these acts in and of themselves were a service to God. Sadly, they were too often encouraged in this by pastors. (It’s a reminder that even the best of pastors in history are still flawed human beings!) But Calvin laments that this could happen to otherwise good men of God: “And the marvel is that such sheer hallucination (which is refuted so often and with such clear arguments) could creep upon men of keen judgment…It was, therefore, mere wrongheaded zeal, full of superstition, that they justified and painted fasting [for Lent] as the following of Christ.”

If we really want to do what is pleasing to God, we should not turn to man-made rituals of which the Bible knows nothing, such as Lent. Rather, we should follow God’s will as expressed in the Bible. We should be displeased with ourselves and our sins. We should humble ourselves before him. We should experience godly grief over our own waywardness so that we turn in repentance and faith to our Lord Jesus Christ. While it is true that sometimes fasting can be a help in doing this, we must never forget that fasting is not an indispensable part of doing these things. And certainly if Lent boils down to nothing more than us giving up something arbitrary and minor for forty days, in the hopes that this gesture will magically accrue to some sort of spiritual blessing, then we have certainly exchanged true spirituality for vain superstition.

Rather, we ought to hold fast to our doctrine of Scripture, so beautifully expressed in Belgic Confession, Article 7:

We believe that this Holy Scripture contains the will of God completely, and that everything one must believe to be saved is sufficiently taught in it. For since the entire manner of service which God requires of us is described in it at great length, no one—even an apostle or an angel from heaven, as Paul says—ought to teach other than what the Holy Scriptures have taught us.

For since it is forbidden to add to or subtract from the Word of God, this plainly demonstrates that the teaching is perfect and complete in all respects.

So, beloved brothers and sisters, even if it seems that the whole Christian world is taken up in chasing after Lent as a means of spiritual devotion, let us be content to do what God has instructed us in his Word and glorify him by our obedience to Christ, for “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:22).

Your servant in Christ,
Rev. Bill Godfrey, Torrance, CA