by Teresa Ferraro
Should we celebrate Lent and Ash Wednesday? Lent is the widely-celebrated Christian pre-Easter practice of fasting or giving up something in our lives for 40 days, beginning on Ash Wednesday, in remembrance of Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert, as we humbly reflect, repent, and pray for our sinfulness and need for God. It is said to prepare the believer for Easter.
But do Christians really know where it started and why they practice it? A quick survey of online discussions about this worldwide event reveals a lot of confusion and a very broad span of beliefs and acceptance of Lent, questioning and attempting to answer such things as: Is it biblical? Where did it start? Where/How does this fit into the Christian life? Why do it? What does it do? So, this serves as a brief study and answer to the Christian practice of Lent.
Brief History of Lent
Historically, Lent is one of the many traditions the Roman Catholic Church manufactured and labeled as 'holy', going back to the early years of the Roman church, although there are stories of the Roman church incorporating it into their liturgical traditions after it originated as a Babylonian pagan celebration started by the wife of King Nimrod to memorialize her dead son, Tammuz, (see Ezek. 8:14) and proclaim herself Queen of Heaven. Even though Lent came up through the Catholic church, in today’s Christian world it is oddly practiced by protestants, even extending to evangelicals.
Is Lent Biblical?
The practice of Lent is purely man-made church tradition, enacted and passed down from the Catholic church; it has no biblical foundation. The practices of Lent come out of religious teaching called asceticism, which is to deny self of materialistic things or bodily needs in an effort to draw closer to God or to become more spiritually-minded. Churches use this notion to encourage fasting, celibacy, poverty, sleep deprivation, flagellation, and self-mutilation. There is no Old Testament or New Testament instruction for Lent, though there are plenty of instructions for feasts. Neither is there a reference in the Bible to imitate Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert.
What about Fasting?
Is fasting biblical? Yes. Fasting was practiced in both the Old and New Testaments, though God never instructed for fasting, although Jesus did instruct how to fast humbly and privately since it was already a long-standing tradition used to boast of self-righteousness. Like Lent and smearing ashes, fasting was a man-made tradition of humility and self-denial. God specifically addresses the topic of fasting in Isaiah 58, where He points out that He is not impressed with this religious ritual. Real fasting is not a pious, physical exercise but a condition of the heart, of putting others' needs before self:
Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours. Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high. Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward. Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity.” (Isa. 58:3-9)
As is the tendency of flesh-focused religious teachers, the lesson was lost on Israel, and religious teachers continued to emphasize earthly, materialistic self-deprivation rather than circumcision of the heart, as Paul called it.
Continuing Old Testament teaching, Christ also instructed Israel on how to fast (Matt. 6:16-18), right after telling them they would not be forgiven if they do not first forgive others, a sure indication He was teaching Israeli law and not the gospel of grace. (Note: This is during the portion of Christ’s ministry directed to Israel, as their Messiah, teaching Jewish law, not the gospel of grace after the Cross.) Interestingly, He instructed them to fast privately, which contradicts Lent’s ritual of marking the forehead with ashes in the shape of a cross for a public display of self-sacrifice.
“But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.” (Matt. 6:17-18)
Asking if fasting is biblical is a very different question from asking if the Bible instructs Christians to fast. As we study the Bible, Christians must keep in mind that the majority of the Bible is specifically about or to Israel, who were given the law to live. Understanding that the Cross removed us from the law, Christians were given the gospel of grace primarily by Paul and John, which is significantly different instruction from biblical instruction to Israel.
Fasting was practiced in the New Testament church during the Acts period, including Jesus' disciples and Paul. The early church, having begun among converted Jews, continued to practice Jewish law and traditions, including fasting, and later made allowances specifically for Gentiles when it became apparent God was blending both Jews and Gentiles into His Body. Paul, the apostle of grace, taught the church to put away the law and live by grace. He referred to fasting during his missions ministry (in 1 and 2 Corinthians), twice in his lists of many trials and tribulations and once in the context of the tradition being the only exception for husband and wife (in agreement) to withhold themselves (physical intimacy) from each other for their time of fasting and praying, but he did not instruct people to fast.
“Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.” (1 Cor. 7:5)
The word fast, regarding abstaining from food or drink, is notably absent from the dispensation of grace in Paul's writings, as well as the rest of the New Testament, from the general apostolic letters to the Church through Revelation.
Applying ashes because Old Testament Israel did it shows lack of understanding of the use of ashes in the Old Testament (e.g. part of animal sacrifice ceremony instructed by God, also applied on people as a show of mourning initiated by humans). It also ignores the whole meaning and purpose of salvation by grace through Christ, as well as the New Testament Christian life, which replaced the old testament with a more perfect testament:
“Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.” (Heb. 9:12-15)
Purpose of Lent
Beyond biblical references, why do people practice Lent? Common reasons given are:
1. To commemorate Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert. Nowhere in the Bible or the Gospel of Grace does God ask this of His re-birthed children. If we are saved, sanctified, and made righteous solely by Christ’s Cross through faith, why do people choose to perform this religious ritual?
2. Time of repentance. A specific time of year given to repent? What about the rest of the year? If repenting is to turn away from sin, a 180-degree-turnaround from sin to God, with a contrite heart, a true hatred for sin and a true love, reverence, and intimacy with God, why is this condensed to 40 days? How is this love for God and hate of sin consistent with the annual practice of preceding Lent with the celebration of gluttony, drunkenness, and immorality on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, in preparation for the “sacred tradition” of Easter? How is this anything more than pious religious hypocrisy? This is not living in relationship with God as Father and Christ as our identity and Lord of our lives?
Notice that Lent is directed to believers. (Or are churches putting ash crosses on non-believers?) So, let’s address believers. Should believers repent of sin they are living in? Absolutely! Repent means to turn away from it, stop doing it, and don’t return to it! For help with this, read Romans 6.
Now, let’s address the position of believers, sons (children) born of God. We absolutely must stop prompting Christians to revert back in their thinking to their former identity as lost unbelievers who do not possess God. Too many religious teachers keep Christians separated from God, ignorant of their true identity in Christ as God’s children who now stand before their new spiritual Father perfect and blameless (Eph. 1:4; Col. 2:10).
There is a deep vein in man-made religion to keep Christians working to clean-up their act to impress God and people, ignoring the fact that God already cleaned us and we can add nothing to His perfect, complete work, other than to listen to His Spirit and allow Him to work His will in us. It is vital for Christians to recognize when religion is trying to put the yoke of law on them and to reject it and stand fast in the freedom He gave us.
Christian teachers need to stop treating the born-again children of God like unbelieving sinners who still need salvation. Christians must be taught the basic difference salvation made in our lives so we can begin to recognize it and live it. We are no longer sinners in need of salvation. We are no longer children of the Devil, children of darkness, of wrath, and of disobedience, as Paul called unbelievers. We are reborn of God’s Spirit, new creatures, with God’s Spirit and nature in us, who are now having our minds transformed. Miraculously, we can now hear His Spirit teach us spiritual things that unbelievers are not able to receive! Never forget who and what you are in Christ!
3. Humility of man. Humility is fraudulent as an outward show of effort toward righteousness and is quite different from actually living God’s righteousness. True humility is to acknowledge man is hopelessly void of righteousness, by any means, and that we are only righteous by God exchanging our old sin-nature for His righteous Son's life in us, and that the actual display of God’s righteousness in our lives is also by His work alone, not our self-righteousness. Humility and righteousness is not trying to enact our own works to elevate and prop up our flesh to glory in our own righteousness. Ignoring God’s miraculous and perfect work in men is arrogance, insisting God’s work needs man’s input.
“For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.” (Rom. 10:3)
“Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ. Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, … Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.” (Col 2:16-18, 20-23)
4. To please God. Who pleases God?
“And lo a voice from heaven, saying, THIS IS MY BELOVED SON, IN WHOM I AM WELL PLEASED.” (Matt. 3:17)
“While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, THIS IS MY BELOVED SON, IN WHOM I AM WELL PLEASED; hear ye him.” (Matt. 17:5)
“And there came a voice from heaven, saying, THOU ART MY BELOVED SON, IN WHOM I AM WELL PLEASED.” (Mark 1:11)
“And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, THOU ART MY BELOVED SON; IN THEE I AM WELL PLEASED.” (Luke 3:22)
“So then they that are in the FLESH CANNOT PLEASE GOD. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.” (Rom. 8:8-11)
It is Christ who pleases God the Father, not man. It is by Christ inside the believing human that lets us, God’s children, please our Father, not rituals and traditions. “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6).
Allowing Christians to live in our standing as God’s holy and blameless children gives freedom from human works to let God’s Spirit manifest Himself through the human. In contrast, the works encouraged by religion are a diversion from the Christian life Paul taught: Live and walk in the Spirit. (See Romans 8 and Galatians 5.)
Easter: In Remembrance and Celebration of God’s Perfect Work, Not Ours
As we approach the beautiful remembrance of Christ’ crucifixion and resurrection, let us remember and celebrate His perfect, complete sacrifice as the solitary answer to our brokenness, not just for a day, a week, or even 40 days, but every day for the rest of our lives. Let’s acknowledge in every breath that this is not our life; we are dead; and this is Christ’s life (Gal. 2:20). Let us give each day to Him for His will to be done in us. Let us continuously, year-round, be reminded of the new creation He made of us and stand fast in this liberty He bought for us, never again reliving the old, sinful creature we once were, nor embracing the shame of that old creature, which is gone forever. “There is therefore now no condemnation…” (Rom. 8:1). Let us recognize our death, burial, and resurrection as we realize we were baptized into Him (Rom. 6), and He carried our flesh and our sin-nature to the Cross and killed it then and there so that we would no longer be slaves to the sin-nature or to the law. Let us see that cross as now empty and complete, God’s perfect and finished work. Done. Let us celebrate His finished work and rest from our own, as the writer of Hebrews said:
“Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it. For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. … There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief. (Heb. 4:1-3, 9-11)
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