You may have watched friends get ashes on their foreheads to kick off the Lenten season and wondered what all the fuss was about. You may have raised hands in your evangelical church and thought, "Whew, I'm glad I don't have to jump through any hoops to celebrate Resurrection Sunday!" Or you may have decided to give something up for Lent as an act of obedience and dependence on God, even though your fellowship doesn’t participate in this age-old practice.
Lent, the 40-day religious observance that precedes Easter, began last Wednesday. If you grew up in a Baptist church like I did or no church at all, you probably did not observe Lent or celebrate any other Christian holidays besides Christmas and Easter. The other holy days may have seemed mysterious, ritualistic and periphery to the “main events”.
Most importantly, as salvation comes by grace through faith in Jesus, any works-based attempts at gaining righteousness are futile.
A fundamental tenet of the faith is that Christ's sacrifice on the cross was sufficient once and for all, for all mankind. No supplements are needed. Scripture is clear that salvation comes by grace alone, not by works or even spiritual disciplines found in Scripture.
"For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news exactly because we don’t have to do anything but simply believe and receive the free gift of grace by confessing Jesus as Savior.
If you grew up in a Catholic church like many of my friends and extended family did, liturgical traditions like Lent were and perhaps continue to be a touchstone of your faith. They may offer a natural rhythm to your relationship with God that gives you cause to pause, reflect, repent and advance in your walk with Him.
Who is right about Lent?
So who has it right? Why do some denominations follow a set schedule that determines when to fast and when to feast and when to read certain Scriptures? If you attend a Protestant church that doesn’t observe Lent, are you missing out or are you walking in the freedom that Christ came to give?
Whether Protestant or Catholic or a denomination in between (a friend of mine affectionately refers to herself as "Batholic" = Baptist + Catholic), let's try to set aside denominational differences to sincerely explore what Scripture says about observing these days.
40 days in Scripture
The word Lent is an Old English word meaning “spring” and, no, it is not in the Bible. However, many of the components of Lent—prayer, fasting, repentance, and generosity over a period of time—are heavily emphasized throughout Scripture. Jesus Himself modeled many of the disciplines found in Lent during His ministry.
The Bible abounds with specific times set aside for devotion to God, including ones that lasted 40 days (Sundays are skipped, as they are considered "mini Easters").
The Israeli spies spent 40 days scouting out the Promised Land (Numbers 13:25).
The Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years (Numbers 32:13).
Moses fasted twice for 40 days and nights, once after he received the Law on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28) and again when he discovered the infidelity of the Israelites in constructing the Golden Calf (Deuteronomy 9:18).
Elijah fasted for 40 days after slaying the prophets of Baal and fleeing the wrath of Jezebel on his journey to meet God at Horeb (1 Kings 19:8).
And, of course, Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert to prepare for his public ministry (Matthew 4:1–2), and He ascended to heaven 40 days after His resurrection (Acts 1:3).
Can following in the footsteps of these Biblical faith giants by consecrating the 40 days before Easter better prepare our hearts to receive God more fully? Possibly.
The various traditions and ceremonies found in different Christian denominations can give us tangible ways to better understand, practice and deepen our faith. But they can also be prohibitive if we place our religion above our relationship with Jesus.
If our comfort comes more from the clergy or ceremony or culture than from the risen Christ, we are missing the Gospel.
There is only one Church in the Kingdom of God, and we are one body in Christ, so let's try to objectively explore the Biblical accuracy and value (if any) of following a liturgical calendar and observing Lent.
The Facts about the liturgical calendar
The liturgical calendar begins with Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas and the birth of Jesus. It is typically celebrated by Catholics, Episcopalians and some mainline Protestant churches (Presbyterian, Lutheran and Methodist). Although its format has varied throughout the centuries and different cultures, the concepts are primarily the same:
January 6th marks Epiphany, the date when the magi visited baby Jesus.
Lent leads up to Holy Week and ends three days before Easter with Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Saturday).
After Easter, the Church observes the Ascension of the Lord, when Jesus ascended to heaven 40 days after His resurrection.
Approximately 10 days after the Ascension marks the time of Pentecost, when the apostles were given the Holy Spirit and the original Christian church was founded.
Ash Wednesday, Lent, Advent and many other holidays that are celebrated by churches that follow a liturgical calendar are NOT mentioned or observed in the Bible. The early New Testament church did not observe these days as far as Scripture tells us.
Lent was established approximately 325 years after Jesus by the Nicaea Council, a diverse group of 300 bishops and deacons seeking doctrinal unity among key issues of Scripture and the faith. It's unclear whether the original intent of Lent was just for new Christians preparing for baptism, but it soon encompassed the whole Church.
Is Lent legalistic or unbiblical?
Many of these holy days are not included in Scripture, which is "God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). The inference could be that if it isn't included in God's Word, then it would be considered an unnecessary and potentially fallible addition.
Does that mean observing Lent and the likes is unbiblical? I don't think so, and here's why.
Did you know the word Trinity isn't in the Bible either, yet it's the most descriptive word used for the relationship between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit? The Bible teaches many of the concepts that Lent includes, even though the word Lent is never used: prayer; confession; repentance; Scripture meditation, memorization and recitation; charity towards the poor (also known as almsgiving); and fasting.
The general premise behind Lent is to give something up for the 40 days preceding the celebration of Christ's resurrection from the Cross, in order to open our hearts to better understand and receive God's grace. This act of self-denial is an act of humility and dependence that mirrors the apostle John's realization that "He must increase, and I must decrease" (John 3:30).
We should want Jesus more than what we are giving up.
Yet, as believers in Christ, we should crucify our flesh daily (Luke 9:23, Galatians 5:24, Romans 6:6, 8:13). We don't need a liturgical calendar to give us permission to do that.
Also, while we have freedom to fast and abstain from certain foods for the purpose of exchanging carnal pleasures for the treasure of Christ, we can do that any day, not just on appointed days. We must be careful that we don’t fall back into the rituals of the Israelite people who spent more time worrying about what they put into their stomachs than into their hearts.
Christ came to set us free from the regimens of ritual and religion.
If you observe Lent as an affirmation of your salvation and not as a way to earn salvation or merit, then you are possibly on your way to a deeper faith in Jesus. Like any Christian activity, Lent can become legalistic if done from a place of duty instead of delight in Jesus. The impetus behind Lent should always be love, not legalism or self-righteousness.
Sharing in the same spiritual disciplines as Christ should press you further into the heart and humility of Jesus and deepen your love for Him and, therefore, your love for others.
Is Lent works-based?
Denying oneself just for the sake of tradition doesn't make one more reverent of the Lord and His miraculous sacrifice. Lent doesn't make us more pure or holy. Only Jesus can do that. There is no work that can be done to earn our way into God’s favor.
More than being a learner of Lent, I want to be a listener of the Holy Spirit. I want God to tell me directly when I should fast, when I should feast (at least every time after I receive His forgiveness) and when I should volunteer or give to the poor.
But we are a forgetful people (Jeremiah 18:15). Time and time again, God’s people are indicted for their forgetfulness. We need set reminders to help us invoke these spiritual disciplines and, more so, to remember what Jesus did for us. Jesus told the apostles (and thereby us) to partake of the Last Supper in remembrance of Him (Luke 22:19).
Jesus knew we would need reminders.
Spiritual disciplines (observed within or outside the context of Lent) are, therefore, a necessary means to godliness and an authentic Christian faith. They are a means, not an end.
The great error of the Pharisees was that they felt godly because of their outward demonstrations of religion. Instead of ashes, they wore phylacteries on their foreheads – small leather boxes containing Scripture. But Jesus rebuked them for their empty rituals, calling them whitewashed tombs.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside of it may also become clean” (Matthew 23:25-26).
I don’t think Jesus takes issue with outward reminders. Ashes have long been a symbol of repentance and mourning throughout Scripture. But He wants the commandments and contrition to be in our hearts more than on our heads.
“These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts...Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads” (Deuteronomy 6:6,8).
Preparing your heart to celebrate Easter
The goal of practicing any spiritual discipline, during Lent or anytime of the year, is less about doing the activity and more about being - being like Jesus and being with Jesus. It is following in His footsteps and practicing the disciplines He saw necessary to stay close to His Heavenly Father: prayer, Scripture memory and recitation, fasting, and solitude, to name a few.
To be honest, I think Christians can miss out a little when we completely discard the traditions of Lent just because they are not a part of our denomination. I also think we can miss out by doing them simply because they are part of our denomination.
Our heart motivation must always be to see and experience more of Jesus, not just to check a religious box.
But when we take time to reflect on either the coming of Christ or the resurrection of the Savior and the many works in between, the gravity and significance of those days will resonate more deeply. When we join corporately with the Body of Christ to pray and repent and prepare our hearts for the good news of the Gospel, we engage the Kingdom of Heaven.
Before Easter can be fully celebrated, the agony of the cross and the days leading up to it must first be realized.
Lent, then, can act as a tool to help us grasp the significance of the events in Scripture, if done with correct heart motivation and proper doctrine.
What Lent can't do
Lent does not offer any type of salvation or further security of our faith. Just doing the spiritual disciplines in and of themselves does not make a person more holy. If you have received Christ as your Savior, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and have been made positionally holy, or set apart, before God. There is nothing else you need to do.
If you never observe Lent, you can still have a thriving relationship with God and go to heaven. But if you never observe some of the components of Lent – prayer, repentance, Bible study –the authenticity of your Christian faith should be of concern. These spiritual disciplines are vital lifelines to keep you abiding in Jesus.
As an adult, observing parts of Lent and Advent have come to be useful tools for my family and me to prepare our hearts to receive the Lord in a fresh and deeper way, especially amidst the commercialization of all these holidays. The spiritual disciplines found within these Lenten and Advent seasons are a welcome and needed guide to dissuade us against outside distractions.
Freedom in Christ
Because we are free in Christ, we have liberty to pull from all denominations Biblically-rooted practices that can render a more mature faith in Jesus. In heaven, there won’t be Catholics or Calvinists, Baptists or Presbyterians. There will only be worshippers of Jesus, all saved by grace through faith in Him.
In conclusion, if Lent makes you anxious, then don’t do it. If it makes you arrogant, then don’t do it. But if it makes you awestruck for the abundant grace and gifts of God, then go for it!
Allow these spiritual disciplines to enable you to abide in Jesus and draw near to Him this Easter season and every day.