This is the time of year when I receive a lot of questions about Lent. Is it sinful to observe Lent? Is it sinful not to? Is there spiritual benefit in observing it? Or could there even be an element of spiritual danger? I am going to offer a few comments of my own, then direct you to some contemporary writers who have been helpful to me.
This much is beyond dispute: Nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to observe Ash Wednesday, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, or any other holy day. Nowhere are we forbidden. For that reason, these are holidays that some Christians may choose to observe while others may choose not to, and both are free to do so according to desire and conscience. “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind,” says Paul (Romans 14:5). If it’s your conviction that observing these days is consistent with the Bible, then by all means do so. If it’s your conviction that observing them is inconsistent with the Bible, then by all means refrain. And as you celebrate or refrain, be careful not to judge or condemn those who choose the opposite. (You couldn’t go wrong reading Romans 14 this time of year.)
I believe Trevin Wax does a good job of cautioning both camps. To his friends who observe Lent he cautions “to not give off the impression that their brothers and sisters who refrain are ‘missing out,’” since if the practice was that beneficial to spiritual growth, God’s Word would have commanded it. He also warns against inadvertently offending “a weaker brother who found their former Catholicism or Anglicanism or whatever high-church tradition they were a part of to be life-draining, rather than life-giving.” Those who observe these days have a loving responsibility toward those who do not. To his friends who do not observe Lent he cautions “don’t impugn the motives of those who have found spiritual benefit in setting aside a time of the year for reflection on Christ’s passion.” I appreciate Wax’s concern and wisdom. Again this is Romans 14 stuff—basic, not advanced, Christianity.
I expect that the majority of people who read my site hold to Reformed theology, and I think it’s important to consider observing Lent from that perspective. In fact, the deeper I dive into church history and the more I explore my Reformed roots, the more this grows in importance to me.
Carl Trueman points out that those who observe Lent are in some way reaching outside the Reformed tradition. These observances are at home in the Roman Catholic and perhaps even Anglican churches, but not the Reformed. “My commitment to Christian liberty means that I certainly would not regard it as sinful in itself for them to do so; but that same commitment also means that I object most strongly to anybody trying to argue that it should be a normative practice for Christians, to impose it on their congregations, or to claim that it confers benefits unavailable elsewhere.”
I think he makes three valuable points here. The first is that Lent is not a normative or even typical practice within the Reformed tradition. To the contrary, the Reformed tradition has historically opposed it. The second is that Reformed leaders may err when they demand or expect their parishioners to observe these days. They ought to be very gentle with their sheep and not to communicate the idea that Lent is an especially relevant or important practice. The third is the idea that observing these days confers benefits that are not available elsewhere. Those who observe Lent—or even Ash Wednesday, or Good Friday, or Easter—need to be careful not to explicitly teach or even give off the impression that they offer some special benefit or blessing that is not available through the ordinary means of grace.
After showing how the emphasis of these holidays is already ingrained in the week-to-week liturgy of Reformed worship, Trueman makes an astute observation: “I suspect that the reasons evangelicals are rediscovering Lent is as much to do with the poverty of their own liturgical tradition as anything.” And, indeed, that may well be the case. To Trueman’s observation I’d add that many evangelicals, including Reformed ones, are also impoverished when it comes to their historical and confessional roots.
To that point, you’d do well to read Keith Miller, who points out a serious concern with how some leaders speak of Lent: “They denigrate (explicitly or implicitly) their low-church Evangelicalism as unmoored from tradition and underscore how adopting the liturgical practice connects them to the historic church.” But then he asks this: “What if the best way to express trans-generational solidarity with the millions of believers who have walked before you is by eschewing Lent?” He shows how many great Reformed leaders have done that very thing.
When considering the historical-theological angle, you may also benefit from reading R. Scott Clark’s observations: “The history of the church tells us that the road to spiritual bondage is paved with good intentions.” That includes good intentions about holy days. “We don’t need a church calendar beyond the Christian sabbath,” he insists. Thus, “we don’t need a renewed appreciation of Lent. What we need is a renewed appreciation of why the Reformation happened in the first place.” And, wouldn’t you know it, Lent and other practices were at the heart of it.
If you have read this far, I expect it won’t surprise you to learn that I do not observe Lent. I never have and don’t ever expect to. My reasoning is first biblical: I’m hesitant to add practices the Bible does not command, especially when it seems tepid, at best, about similar practices. Then there’s the practical: my church covers this ground every week as we corporately remember Christ’s sacrifice and confess our sins and receive assurance of God’s forgiveness. And then there’s the historical angle: I want to be historic, not innovative, in my faith, and I find eschewing Lent to be most consistent with the Reformed tradition.
To those who plan to observe Lent, I wish you well and trust you’ll benefit from a time you’ve chosen to make special between you and the Lord. To those who plan not to observe Lent, I wish you well also and trust you’ll benefit equally from the so-ordinary, so-wonderful means of grace that are available to all of us all the time.