Outside of the Vatican or maybe Boston, you’d be hard pressed to find a city with stronger Catholic roots than my hometown of South Bend, Indiana. As such, about this time every year, I usually receive a lot of questions about the observance of Lent and whether believers should participate in the practice.
Before I share my thoughts on the subject, for those who didn’t grow up in a tradition that celebrated Lent, allow me to first present an explanation of the observance. Wikipedia states the following about the season:
Lent is a solemn religious observance in the Christian liturgical calendar that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends approximately six weeks later, before Easter Sunday. The purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayer, doing penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement, and self-denial. This event is observed in the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman Catholic Churches. Some Anabaptist and evangelical churches also observe the Lenten season.
In Lent, many Christians commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penance. Many Christians also add a Lenten spiritual discipline, such as reading a daily devotional or praying through a Lenten calendar, to draw themselves near to God.
Simply put, Lent is a yearly time of self-denial and penance in honor of the suffering of Christ.
In more extreme cultures observations of Lent take on more dangerous forms, such as self-mutilation, self-crucifixion, and other radical methods of religious self-denial and penance. In fact, in the Philippines, despite strong warnings against such practices by the Catholic Church, flagellants put on a religious performance – a real-life passion play – complete with costumes, microphones, and an actual crucifixion! Since crucifixion offers a slow and agonizing death, the majority of time the actors have time to be taken down and treated by medical professionals at the end of the performance before it’s too late; though there have been some who weren’t so lucky.
Hopefully we can all agree that such extreme acts are unnecessary, unbiblical, and ludicrous, but what about the typical and lesser forms of penance or self-denial observed throughout the Lenten season? Are these practices still necessary or appropriate for the believer?
To address this fully, we must first seek to understand what was really accomplished at the cross of Christ. Isaiah 53:4-6 tells us:
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Isaiah reveals that Christ was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. This means that through his death, he paid the price for our sin – once and for all time! So the question remains, if my sin was placed on Jesus, then what sin is left in me to atone for? In fact, Hebrews 10:2 challenges our understanding of penance even further by asking, “For if it were otherwise, would not these sacrifices have stopped being offered? For the worshippers, having once [for all time] been cleansed, would no longer have a consciousness of sin.” The writer proposes that if Jesus accomplished what he set out to do on the cross, then no other sacrifice or offering would be required in order to cleanse the worshipper and remove even the consciousness of sin in the heart of the believer.
Of course, that’s the point – through Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. he accomplished exactly what he set out to do, which was to remove sin and make righteous all who put faith in him! As such, true repentance is not found in abstaining from pleasures or denying oneself, rather true repentance is about recognizing who we are in Christ and celebrating the liberation that the cross provides!
Paul challenged the church in Galatia for their failure to hold true to this simple Gospel message:
“But now that you know God – or rather are known by God – how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing specials days and months and seasons and years!” (Galatians 4:9-10)
Despite the Galatian church having initially received the grace of God, Paul was apparently afraid that they were falling back into legalism – attempting to earn God’s love through their religious piety, instead of relying on God’s grace. Though some simply see Lent as an opportunity to practice spiritual discipline, many continue to treat it as a means of earning God’s love and atoning for their sins.
Are the issues with Lent isolated to the Catholic Church?
Though Lent is more commonly thought of as a Catholic practice, dozens of evangelical denominations practice it as well. For me, I personally grew up as an evangelical, yet I used to fast one day a week, not just during Lent, but throughout the entire year. Back then my weekly abstinence from food was unfortunately misguided, as I hoped that by fasting I would appease God’s anger toward my continued failure or obtain a standard of holiness I felt was expected of me. What I came to later realize, well-intentioned though my efforts were, I was really trying to rely on my own form of righteous to attain God’s standard of holiness, instead of relying on Christ for my righteousness.
Does this mean that Lent is bad?
Of course Lent isn’t bad, but I do think that man’s attachment to the practice shows how little we understand what happened at the cross. The overwhelming teaching of the New Testament is that through faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, man is made righteous, free from sin, and united with the Father. The focus of Lent, as described above however, is to offer penance for one’s sins and to make atonement through self-denial. Yet, the gospel reveals that no amount of penance can ever come close to making up for one’s sin.
With this in mind, elevating Jesus through our lives, not self-denial, is the greatest ‘thank you’ that we can offer God for all that he has done in our lives. Although fasting and self-denial may have their place in the life of the believer, they are never to be used as a means of earning God’s love, making up for past wrongs, or atoning for one’s sin. To attempt to do so, is simply an insult to the Cross.
So this Lenten season, go ahead, set aside time to pray, read the Bible, or even fast. Just don’t think that by denying yourself you are adding something to the cross in order to atone for your sins. The beauty of the gospel is that Jesus suffered for our sins, so that we don’t have to. I call this the Great Exchange – his righteousness for my sin, and my sin for his righteousness. This is the message of Easter and it deserves to be remember, not just for forty days, but for all eternity!
Did you enjoy what you read? If so, make sure and order a copy of Lucas’ new book, Good God: The One We Want To Believe In But Are Afraid To Embrace. Additionally, Lucas is giving away a free missing chapter of his book, available at Chapter X: The Story of Authority.