The 2016 calendar is inching closer to February 10 which means a variety of blog articles, Facebook status updates, and Twitter feeds will be providing support for or against the season known as Lent. February 10 is Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the Lenten season.
In order to define our terms, Lent is one of the most significant seasons of the Christian Calendar and is celebrated by a wide variety Christian traditions. Lent is most commonly associated with a period of prayer, reflection, repentance, and fasting that lasts from Ash Wednesday until Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday when Jesus was crucified. These different traditions will take different approaches to the 40 day period of Lent. Some traditions are quite strict with this season, prescribing it as a necessary part of faith and practice. Other traditions take a less stringent approach by providing resources and opportunities to prepare for Easter Sunday while keeping the door of freedom wide open if a person should choose to not observe.
I am a Southern Baptist pastor. Theologically and convictionally, I align most closely with the Reformed tradition in terms of my views on scripture, salvation, congregational worship, and church life. I do not believe a corporate gathering of believers should be bound by a strict liturgy that eliminates freedom in worship, nor do I espouse any extra-biblical tradition that would violate the core principal convictions of being saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. If the Son has set you free, you are free indeed.
So, it would seem someone like me, a Southern Baptist pastor rooted in the Reformed tradition, would be the last person to encourage my congregation to observe Lent. But that is exactly what I have done in years past and will continue to do. Here are a couple of reasons why:
1. Extra-biblical does not necessarily equal enslavement.
To be certain, the season of Lent is an extra-biblical practice. That simply means that Lent is not commanded in the Bible. That’s important. If Christians engage in spiritual activities that are not explicitly commanded in Scripture, we need to have a good reason from biblical principles as to why those activities are edifying to us and glorifying to God. Of course, faithful evangelical Christians engage in a host of activities that are not explicit in scripture, such as celebrating Christmas, because the freedom to worship Christ in the awe and gratitude of his incarnation certainly aligns with biblical principles.
Yet, one of the more common refrains I hear from men I highly respect but highly disagree with concerning Lent is that observing this season “leads people into slavery.” Such indictments against recommending Lent to a congregation carry several problems. First, this is a general, sweeping statement. As I have noted, the observance of Lent does not come in a one-size-fits-all package and without an understanding of how a particular church preaches the gospel of Christ, union with Christ, and freedom in Christ, a blanket condemnation of turning people into slaves through the observance of Lent is reckless. Second, those in the Baptist Lent enslavement camp are guilty of pressing back against the fundamental issue of the 16th century while living in the 21st century. I suppose it’s possible that a Southern Baptist church who encourages Lent might be endorsing a mandatory, superstitious set of regulations by which a Christian can curry favor with God, but I’ve not met a Baptist pastor yet who would ever embrace such a heretical view.
2. Lenten observance does not endorse legalism.
The great H.J. Kuiper, an influential editor of The Banner from 1928-1956, helped provide a balance to Lent by endorsing some elements of the season he found worthy while expressing concern over other elements. One of his concerns was that Lent would promote the spiritual disciplines for one brief time of the year but then cause Christians to become lax in their walk with the Lord the remaining year.
Although I appreciate Kuiper’s concerns and find them much more plausible than the enslavement argument, they are nevertheless misplaced. Although Lent itself is not commanded in Scripture, Feast Days most certainly were. The primary intent of the Feasts were to set aside a period of remembrance and personal piety for what the Lord had done and was doing. Was God suggesting his people “forget” the Lord their God during the periods in between the feasts? Of course not. Today we see a plethora of helpful (although I would admit too many) 40 day emphasis literature and bible studies. Sometimes it is right and helpful to focus ourselves during a period of time on an area of our Christian life. I can’t think of a better time than the weeks leading up to our Savior’s death and resurrection.
Does the idea of fasting, prayer, and repentance lead to legalism? This is nonsensical. What is magical about the word “Lent” or the 40 days before Easter that would cause these disciplines to become legalistic? If that is our approach, then we must never instruct or encourage our people to fast and meditate on the cross at any time of the year. Which is foolishness and unbiblical.
3. We must not become enslaved to a specific tradition.
I read an article last year describing how a person in the Reformed Tradition should not observe Lent because the season conflicted with the traditional interpretation of church life and practice within the Reformed camp. That’s scary stuff. When we base our church practices and spiritual growth solely on what a particular tradition points to, then we become slaves to a tradition and not to Christ – the very thing the Reformation protested against.
4. Practically speaking, the denouncement of Lent becomes laughable.
I had a good chuckle last year when IMB President David Platt called on all Southern Baptist leaders to guide our people into fasting for the IMB Great Commission work. His appeal to pastors fell within the time frame of the Lenten season. I wondered how my fellow SBC pastors and leaders who had come out strong in opposition to Lent would handle Platt’s request. Would they lead their congregation to fast for the IMB with a big asterisks that says, “This has nothing to do with Lent. You will not be enslaved or become a legalist by doing this.” The point is that if calling our people to prayer, repentance, meditation, and fasting during the 40 days before Easter is frowned upon, then we are frowning upon essential spiritual disciplines. The issue is not if we lead our people into these practices, it’s how we lead them into these practice. If we lead them by saying these are “necessary,” then there is a problem. But that is true for any time of the year, not just Lent. If we lead them by saying these are “worthwhile,” then there is benefit.
5. I want my congregation to grow closer to Jesus.
Graefenburg Baptist Church exists to “Glorify God alone by transforming lives in Jesus in order to love more and serve more.” The two key words in our mission is “in Jesus.” We spend a lot of time, well virtually every Sunday, reminding ourselves of the power of the gospel and the utter futility of attempting to live the Christian life apart from the power of Christ in us. And yet, we are a people who pursue holiness. Dependent Responsibility is what we call that. Dependent on the power of Christ in us, but responsible to pursue Jesus. What that means is that we will call our people to obey. We will call our people to engage in the disciplines. We will call our people to pray, to read, and to worship. But we will call them to these things based on the power available to them in Christ, not in themselves.
That doesn’t take a back seat during Lent. We don’t change gears and suggest that over the next 40 days, everything we have learned together about the gospel and our dependence on Christ is put on pause. On the contrary, we teach that based on the power you have in Christ, pursue him these few days leading up to Easter. How could I not take advantage of this incredible time of the year to help my people on their journey?
In conclusion, if you are not convinced of the benefit of Lent and think it isn’t for you, then here is my advice…don’t do it! You have that freedom in Christ! But I encourage you to pick up a book on the cross (how about this one), and grab a family worship guide through Lent (my church will be providing one on February 7), and meditate each day on your identity in Jesus, and by all means, get to worship on Sunday mornings.
Enslavement? I think not. The joy of Christian living? Yes. Yes indeed.