On Evangelicals Practicing Lent

The Gospel Coalition argued this week that Lent is primarily about Jesus, and so can (and perhaps even should) be practiced by those of us who aren’t in denominations that currently practice it (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, if my counting is accurate). Personally, I stand in a place where I’m open to and eager to learn from practices like Lent, the liturgy (of which I suspect Lent is functionally an extension), church history, and the church calendar, regardless of my status as a staunch protestant evangelical. Perhaps it was my education–reading believers throughout history, particularly before the reformation, will lead anyone to be a little more open to thought that used to sound rather Catholic to my ears–or perhaps it is something in my disposition, but I think that it is likely that many of us could learn a thing or two from certain ancient practices.

My reasons for this are more complex than what I’ll offer here, but briefly, here is an outline: our lives are such that we think and pray differently depending on our posture (and I don’t mean posture simply as ‘how we sit,’ though that is a part of it; I also mean the sorts of things we do with our bodies and minds daily), and so it follows that sometimes we should seek to change our posture to encourage us to think and pray better. Christians have sought to do this for a couple thousand years now, and some of our practices are directly Scriptural (communion, or the Eucharist, comes to mind, as does fasting itself, and baptism), while others are perhaps more cultural, rather than strictly Biblical (reading your Bible daily, for instance, is probably cultural: not everyone could read in history).

My point is simply this: if protestants want to practice Lent, at least to some degree, I’m certainly not one to stand in the way. The Gospel Coalition agrees, even if the Lenten model they suggest is one that makes a few odd moves (I’m not so sure I want to advocate using Lent in the same way that people use the New Year, as a way to list things they desire to stop, and then fight them for a period of time. Likewise, suggesting that we “Do not worry about whether or not our sacrifice is a good one” strikes me as missing the point, as well). But for the most part, when done with prayer and reflection, Lent can be a reminder for us of the time Christ spent in the wilderness, suffering temptation as we do. Beyond that, participating in Lent during this season puts us in fellowship with millions of other believers, acting in ways that we believe will help us worship and glorify our God all the more. There’s something to be said for recognizing that you are not alone in this world, and that something is that fellowship is encouraging.

But many disagree with the practice of Lent for the Protestant. The comments suggest as such, saying things like “If Catholics can’t perfect themselves via Lent, why should we follow it?” and the more cheeky:

What does it matter if you use the word “lent”–words matter– they mean something and you don’t get to make up your own definition and call it “redeemed”. What’s next a devotional on redeeming Monkery? I know, I know it is probably already out there. Really, do you need Lent to get you to turn the TV off?

Where is Jenny Geddes when you need her?

As for me and my house we will be serving up a large platter of sausages.

There are good thoughts here, and I wouldn’t dare deny it. Of course, I hope we are capable of turning off our televisions and praying, even if I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with watching television. I won’t comment directly on the practices of monks, because I’m afraid of digging too deep a hole for one day.

But some go further: one pastor called the post “destructive” and suggested that TGC should offer an apology for it. His complaints, at least the ones that he voiced, are twofold: first, he argues that taking John the Baptist’s ministry leading up to the declaration of the Messiah and turning it into something we can practice is problematic, theologically,¬†hermeneutically, and practically. The second complaint is the comparison of fasting during Lenten season to Jesus’ suffering in the wilderness, particularly the language of “…entering into the Wilderness with Jesus.”

On the first, I think too much is being made of the comparison. Of course, we all know that John’s mission was fulfilled, Jesus came in fulfillment of Isaiah, and we do not need to do so again. We also know that Jesus died and rose again, but we still celebrate those yearly on Good Friday and Easter, respectively. Preaching the cross and the resurrection may be a different sort of celebration than a Lenten fast, but I don’t think the comparison is all that far fetched. Much like we need the reminder of the Gospel, so do we sometimes need to prepare our hearts–which often look more like a desert than a garden–and perhaps Lent can function as a regular time of renewal.

On the second, my response is similar. Of course we do not need to enter into the Wilderness, in that we do not need to suffer that we may be saved, for Jesus already fulfilled that for us. But our fasting is, among other things, a denial for the sake of the glory of God. Fasting functions as a a time to set aside what would normally comfort us to pray, and so remind us where our ultimate comfort lies. In fact, we should probably partake in fasting far more often than we do, and following Lent is just one way that believers have attempted to keep the reminder in their lives.

I’m not convinced Lent is a requirement for all believers (this alone probably solidifies me as an Evangelical), but to dismiss it outright seems to ignore the way Evangelicals tend to use Lent: as a reminder during a set time of year that we rely on Christ for everything, even in times of plenty. If we can remember Jesus’ birth during Christmas and the resurrection at Easter, I have trouble seeing the problem with suggesting Christians partake in Lent.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out for the Lutherans, who encourage and practice Lent as fervently as Catholics and Anglicans. And you can’t accuse Lutherans of shameless popery. ;)

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    This is evangelicalism, bro! We can accuse anybody of anything, because Jesus!

  • jamesfarnold

    Fair enough, David. I’d forgotten about their Lenten practice. My bad.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kevin.greenlee1 Kevin Greenlee

    Some day you should dig yourself into the monk hole, because seriously… (who said that anyway?)

    As for Evangelicals redeeming Lent, I’m fine with that. Dig into the treasures of the Church! I do think though, that Evangelicals who choose to celebrate Lent should also think about celebrating the rest of the Church calendar. 40 days of fasting, in the liturgical calendar, are matched by 40 days of feasting and celebrating the resurrection after Easter, and that balance is important.

  • http://twitter.com/fernandorojas fernando rojas, jr

    As a firm advocate of Lent for everybody (even back when I was an Evangelical), my thought is often this: many Evangelicals have little problem celebrating Easter or Christmas; why then do we neglect the preparatory periods of Lent and Advent? From the other side of the high-church fence, the calendar, liturgy, ritual and attitude is the same. As an Evangelical, I would be convicted — why should I embrace the “happy” feasting holidays of the church calendar, and shun the fasting holidays?

    In cultivating a Lenten attitude, I also like to offer up the suggestion of taking something up as well as giving something up. In addition to, say, giving up TV, make a firm commitment to read your Bible for an hour daily, or volunteer at your church, or wake up earlier — some sort of positive work that can bring you closer to God.

  • http://twitter.com/fernandorojas fernando rojas, jr

    On the linked post, and his demand “where is it written that we enter into the wilderness with Jesus when he already did that for us?”

    The Bible’s pretty clear that we are baptized with Christ, eat the Last Supper with Christ, enter the garden to pray with Christ, pick up our crosses with Christ, follow the Via Dolorosa with Christ, are crucified with Christ, die with Christ, are resurrected with Christ, and soon will ascend with Christ. A particular “enter the wilderness with Christ” verse doesn’t spring to mind right away, but I’m pretty okay with it.

  • jamesfarnold

    Good thoughts, Kevin. I think if we are going to participate in Lent, we should also participate more broadly in the Church calendar.

    By and large, though, I’m certainly not opposed to evangelicals participating in Lent.