Lent as we know it today did not arise out of this biblical understanding of fasting. Rather, Lent came about as a superstitious misunderstanding both of the purpose of fasting in general and the purpose of Christ’s forty-day fast in the wilderness in particular. As a result, Calvin correctly summarizes, “the superstitious observance of Lent had prevailed everywhere, because the common people thought that in it they were doing some exceptional service to God, and the pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ.
Pastor’s Letter: What Ought Reformed Christians to Make of Lent?
Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,
I have noticed that every year more and more Christians talk about and participate in the season of Lent, a period of about six weeks that begins on “Ash Wednesday” and runs through “Easter Sunday.” I am concerned to see so many Christians embracing religious observances that have their root in ancient practices that are found nowhere in the Scriptures. As the ancient church pastor Cyprian put it, “Custom without truth is the antiquity of error.” And as the Belgic Confession rightly states, we may not “put custom, nor the majority, nor age, nor the passage of time or persons, nor councils, decrees, or official decisions above the truth of God, for truth is above everything” (Article 7).
As Christians, we recognize no authority but God’s Word as expressed in the Bible. We also heartily believe that the Bible teaches us all we need to know in matters of doctrine, life, and worship. So when we come up with our own ideas for worship and devotion, apart from what is commanded in Scripture, we find ourselves on dangerous ground. A brief survey of the Scriptures shows us clearly what happens when men and women follow their own ideas rather than God’s instructions regarding piety and worship. Therefore, I want to give you a pastoral exhortation regarding Lent.
First, I want to assure you as God’s people that you are under no obligation of any kind to have anything to do with Lent. This practice is nowhere commanded in Scripture. The whole tradition grew out of a fundamental misunderstanding and misapplication of Christ’s forty-day fast in the wilderness before being tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1ff; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1ff). While it is true that Lent is an ancient practice of the church, it is not a biblical practice. And that distinction makes all the difference. We must remember that a practice can still be “ancient” to us and yet have developed hundreds of years after the time of Christ and his apostles. We must always look to Scripture, not to “ancient practices” to find out what is pleasing to God.
Second, Lent changes fasting from what it is in Scripture into something that it is not. What do I mean by this? In the Bible, fasting is not a form of divine worship in and of itself. It has no importance on its own. What God wants from his people, as John Calvin put it, is “true displeasure at one’s sin, true humility, and true sorrowing arising from the fear of God.” Sometimes fasting can help us in this, particularly in times of calamity and mourning. Calvin points to our Lord’s words that just such a time would come for his apostles: “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them” (Matt. 9:15; Luke 5:34-35). That would be an appropriate time for fasting, a time of calamity and mourning which was to be combined with prayer.
So we see Jesus clearly teaching us that withholding from eating and drinking so that we can meditate on our sin or humble ourselves before God can be of spiritual benefit at certain times in the Christian life. But fasting is never absolutely necessary for the Christian, nor is it ever itself the focus of what we do. Again, Calvin rightly observes: “Indeed, fasting is not otherwise useful than when it is joined as a lesser help to these [the disciplines mentioned above].” Fasting itself has “no importance except for the sake of those ends to which it ought to be directed.” Calvin goes on to warn us, “a most dangerous superstition is involved in confusing [fasting] with works commanded by God and necessary of themselves without any other consideration.”