If you told me ten years ago that I’d be leading my church in the observance of Lent, I would have laughed. We come from a church tradition that associates Lent with stuffy, liturgical churches—and since many of the people in our church came here to escape that kind of atmosphere, Lent was off the table. We’ll just keep preaching through books of the Bible, pause briefly for Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter, and then get on with the expository preaching.
But I think we’ve been missing something. This year, although we’re not going “all in” on Lent (for example, we’re not observing Ash Wednesday), we’re dipping our toe in the water. To understand why, let me say a little bit more about why churches like ours normally skip over Lent, and why we’re reconsidering our approach this year.
Reasons to Resist
Historically, non-liturgical churches (non-denominational, Baptist, Pentecostal) have opposed the observance of Lent for three big reasons: biblical, theological, and experiential.
Biblical: Nowhere does the New Testament command or model the observance of Lent. It was clearly an invention of the church after New Testament times.
Theological: In the New Testament, Paul specifically scolds Christians for continuing to “celebrate special days and months and seasons and years” (Galatians 4:10). And he clarifies that Old Testament feasts and holy days were a shadow of the reality which is now found in Christ; therefore there is no need to celebrate such days anymore. This is important theology—theology that we non-liturgical Protestants always suspected that our Lent-keeping friends didn’t understand. It seemed to us that they were trying to merit God’s forgiveness or approval through their personal sacrifice (“I’m giving up TV for Lent so God will forgive me for getting drunk every weekend.”)…which means they didn’t understand the gospel.
Experiential: This is very subjective and personal, but important: for many of us, our past experience of Lent—whether we observed it personally or saw our friends observing it—was not positive. Rather than drawing people toward God, it seemed to be nothing more than empty ritual.
Why We’re Reconsidering
First, let me respond briefly to the three “reasons to resist.”
Although it’s true that Lent is not modeled or commanded in the New Testament, neither is Christmas. Or Easter. Or Good Friday. And yet we observe those days because they help us to focus on significant aspects of our faith. In other words, there are many things not specifically commanded or modeled in the New Testament, which are nevertheless helpful and good.
The theological argument needs to be addressed carefully. In Colossians and Galatians, the point is that the Old Testament feasts and holy days were shadows which pointed toward Jesus. Now that Jesus has come and completed his atoning work on the cross, there is no need for the shadows anymore! So instead of continuing to observe holy days, we can simply trust and abide in Christ. All true, and all so important to me as a gospel-centered believer. And that means that if I observe Lent with the hope that my sacrificial actions will somehow merit God’s favor, I am tragically missing the gospel. But what if Lent could be observed in a way that actually raises our appreciation for the gospel? In other words, what if Lent could make us more aware of our own sinfulness and need; more in awe of God’s gracious plan; more amazed by what Jesus did to redeem us? To quote Michael Horton: “I believe an evangelical celebration of Lent affords an opportunity to reinforce rather than undermine the significance of Christ's person and work.”
And then, on the experiential level: let’s face it: any observance of the church can be made cold and meaningless. It can happen with communion…musical worship…even prayer. But that doesn’t mean the observance itself should be discarded. Sometimes the role of spiritual leaders is to identify places where we’ve become overly ritualistic, and help to redeem and breathe new life into those things. I think we can do that with Lent.
Having responded to the main reasons that churches like ours normally resist Lent, here are three reasons we are giving it a go this year:
Preparation. The cross and the resurrection are the core of our faith…and yet—I’ll speak for myself here—sometimes I find myself stumbling into Easter weekend with my heart unprepared. As evangelicals, even though we tend to neglect Advent almost as consistently as we neglect Lent, we clearly have a much more intentional run-up to Christmas than we do to Easter. That doesn’t make sense to me. To borrow a phrase from “Come thou Fount,” Lent can help “tune our hearts” to deeply appreciate the events of Passion Week.
Proportion. In preaching Palm Sunday sermons, I’ve often noted that although Jesus lived for about 33 years and ministered publically for three, about 1/3 of the pages of the gospels cover one week of his life! Clearly, what happened during that week—between the Triumphal Entry and the empty tomb—are disproportionately important. Observing Lent is a way to give proper “air time” to the most important events in the life of our Savior.
Discipline. As Christians, we are called to share in the sufferings of Christ (2 Corinthians 1:5, Philippians 3:10, 1 Peter 4:13). We are also encouraged to exercise self-control and discipline over the appetites of our bodies (1 Corinthians 9:25-27). In order to accomplish this, Christians have historically viewed Lent as a time to engage in fasting. Whether we abstain from food or something else (media, purchasing certain items, etc.), fasting helps us to appreciate the sufferings of Christ, receive spiritual “food” from him (Matthew 4:4), and identify with our suffering brothers and sisters around the world. Properly understood, fasting is a tangible way to “die to ourselves.” In so doing, we identify with Jesus’ death and prepare ourselves for Easter Sunday—when the fasting will be over and we’ll join in the resurrection feast!
So this year, let’s take 40 days to slow down and cultivate reflection and preparation. Here are two ways you can participate:
Give up a Tangible Pleasure. Is there some physical appetite that has gained the upper hand in your life—like watching sports on TV, Facebook, Instagram, Starbucks, Netflix…? Why not choose to fast from it during Lent (February 18-April 2), and allow God to replace it with his presence?
Give Up a Spiritual Impediment. Each Sunday during Lent, our messages will focus on a different event from the last week of Jesus’ life. As you listen for his leading, ask yourself: “What might he be calling me to give up, so I can make room for more of him? My pride? My control? My fear?” Allow God to use the season of Lent to purify you and make you more like Christ.