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Q&A: Should Christians Celebrate Lent?

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Q&AWhat Exactly Is Lent?

Lent is the 40-day Catholic religious season of preparation before “Easter Sunday” (though many other denominations within Christendom also participate). The Lenten season begins on “Ash Wednesday,” with many solemnly marking their foreheads with ash in the shape of a cross, repenting, and “fasting” (or giving up certain foods or pleasures) until “Easter Sunday” – a period of about six weeks in all. 

During this time, some give up smoking or alcohol, others give up television. Still others give up fast food, video games, or even cursing & crude language (imagine that!). People can vow to give up anything, so long as they think it will ‘prepare’ them for “Easter Sunday.” All of this is supposedly done to commemorate Jesus’ 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness (cf. Matt. 4:1-11). Thus, Lent is an official religious period of repentance and fasting. Fasting from something. Whatever you choose.

Should Christians Celebrate Lent?

While fasting, repenting, and remembering our Lord’s suffering and resurrection are righteous things to do, Lent is a perversion of these things in several ways.

First, those who observe Lent – particularly the most devout – often smear ash on their foreheads on “Ash Wednesday” as they begin their period of fasting. But Jesus said,

16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:16-18, ESV)

Jesus’ command to “wash your face” and to ensure that “your fasting may not be seen by others” seems in conflict with “Ash Wednesday” and the often-public nature of the observance.

Second, while God is pleased with – and indeed commands – our repentance, Christians should be repenting of sin all year long – not just for the six weeks of Lent. Additionally, if something is immoral or evil for six weeks, it is immoral or evil all year long. Christians should never engage in anything that is opposed to God’s Will (cf. 1 John 3:4-8).

Third, nowhere in the Bible does the Bible reference “Lent” or any of the special Catholic holy days. The Catholic Church requires fasting to be observed on “Ash Wednesday” and “Good Friday” by anyone between the ages of 18 and 59, and to refuse is to be guilty of sin. The real sin is to give tradition the same authority as God’s commands (Matt. 15:8-9). 

Fourth, the only holy day for Christians today is the Lord’s Day (Acts 20:7; Rev. 1:10). To place religious significance on any other day is to depart from the New Testament pattern (Gal. 4:8-11; 2 Thess. 2:15; 1 Pet. 4:11; 1 Cor. 4:6). The Lord’s church in the New Testament practiced no such thing as Lent.

Fifth, the Catholic teaching of Lent requires the abstinence of certain foods. Yet the words of Paul are a strong indictment of this teaching

1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. (1 Tim. 3:1-3, ESV) 

Sixth, Christians are to give special attention to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection every first day of the week (1 Cor. 11:23-26). 

Seventh, openly observing Lent gives approval to its perversions and endorses the Catholic denomination that sanctions this religious season. Some may be thinking, “What’s the big deal, Ben? You’re blowing this out of proportion. I practice Lent because fasting and repentance are good things.” While you may think observing the Lenten season is your own prerogative, 1 Corinthians 8:10-13 offers this warning: though you may have justified Lent in your own mind, what is your public participation teaching others? Are your actions in essence endorsing non-Biblical holy days, temporary penitence, Catholic doctrine, and attention-grabbing fasting?

It is a mistake to view New Testament Christianity as merely being opposed to the observance of Lent. In reality, Christians aim to be more holy and righteous than those during the Lenten season because we repent and think about the Lord’s death and resurrection all year round! We refuse to restrict our most sincere period of devotion to a mere six weeks. 

Many legitimately think God wants them to follow this religious practice. Those who religiously observe Lent should be respected, not ridiculed. God demands sincerity in our worship and our service to Him. Yet sincere actions are vain if they are not done with the authority of Jesus (Col. 3:17)

(Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.)

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31 Responses to Q&A: Should Christians Celebrate Lent?

  1. K. Rex Butts March 6, 2014 at 3:26 PM #

    If Christians in the first century had the freedom to be a part of certain religious festivals or not and eat certain meats or not, then I believe Christians today have the freedom in Christ to participate in the observance of Lent or not.

    Grace and Peace,

    Rex

    • Ben March 6, 2014 at 8:48 PM #

      Thanks for your thoughts K. Rex Butts. Please see my response to Joshua Freeman.
      -Ben

  2. Joshua Freeman March 6, 2014 at 3:37 PM #

    “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. The one who observes the day observes it in honor of the Lord…Therefore let us not pass judgement on one another any longer…” (Romans 14:5-6, 13) AND “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” (Colossians 2:16). It seems as though Scripture says it is okay and none can pass judgement on it if done for God’s glory.

    • Ben March 6, 2014 at 8:46 PM #

      It is important to understand the context of the verses you just quoted. Concerning Romans 14, Paul was writing to a mixed (some were Gentiles, while others were former Jews) congregation in Rome. Some were coming out of a pagan background. Others (the former Jewish Christians) had a background in Judaism and thus were accustomed to keeping the Sabbath day holy and were enjoying the annual religious feast days. Interestingly, the latter were the Christians Paul considered “weak.” What does that say about Christians today who hold any day/season other than the Lord’s Day as special? In contrast, the Gentile Christians continued working on Saturdays and paid no attention to Jewish feasts. Paul does not condemn the Jews for honoring the special Jewish days, but implies they are “weak” for doing it and that they would eventually cease observing them when they became mature Christians.

      Additionally, the special days/observances in Romans 14:5-6 & Col. 2:16 were not products of false religion (e.g. Roman Catholicism). They were scruples ingrained in the minds of Christians with a Jewish heritage – a seasoning of the conscience from a culture that observed these days for hundreds of years. Some, evidently, were concerned about not doing something they had done their whole lives rather than introducing a new practice.

      Clearly what Romans 14:5-6 & Colossians 2:16 teach is that it is most certainly wrong to BIND the religious observance of things like Lent or Christmas on others, and the implication is that weaker Christians consider, literally, “a day more than a day.”

      Here’s the million dollar question: Why would someone want to introduce a special religious season (such as Lent, not counting its background in false religion) to Christianity when it has no real spiritual value? When we value Lent — much more bind it on others — we are encouraging a materialistic view of Christianity by replacing spiritual substance with mere ritual and symbolism.

      • Beth March 7, 2014 at 1:22 PM #

        Why do you assume that there is no spiritual value? I do not observe lent every year, but I have observed it on occasion, and it did have spiritual value for me. Perhaps the real issue is one of the heart, and one’s approach to fasting in general.

      • Chuzzlewit March 11, 2014 at 2:21 PM #

        Ben,
        Could you explain your derivation for an implication that it is the “weak” who regard a “one day above another” (NAS) in Romans 14 and Colossians 2?

        Thanks!
        Martin

        • Ben March 18, 2014 at 1:22 PM #

          To me, it certainly seems to be Paul’s implication based upon Romans 14:1-2. Additionally, we can take into account the implications of Old Law being nailed to the Cross (Colossians 2:14) while still observing elements of the Old Law. This, combined with Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 8:10-13 of formerly Jewish brethren who still could not bring themselves to stop observing the Jewish dietary laws. Thanks for asking for the clarification.

  3. ken gardner March 6, 2014 at 6:22 PM #

    Very good article, Ben. Ken Gardner

  4. Jeremy Schopper March 6, 2014 at 6:53 PM #

    It is anachronistic to say that the RCC began or “owns” the rights to Lent. Lent, along with many other rituals or celebrations practiced by the RCC among many protestants began well before there was a “RCC.” Somewhere in here Romans 14 seems to apply.

    • Ben March 6, 2014 at 8:56 PM #

      Thanks for the good observation. In my limited research, it certainly seems that various Lenten practices were being born as the Catholic apostasy movement was in full swing. Note this article from what seems to be the original Catholic Encyclopedia (http://oce.catholic.com/oce/browse-page-scans.php?id=a2058cbcf9652a36290262d8c8f3ce13). All of this is of course beside the point. In response to your Romans 14 comment, please see my reply to Joshua Freeman.

  5. Kaitlyn Richardson March 6, 2014 at 7:01 PM #

    This is something that I have been wondering about for quite a while, and you put into an amazing perspective! Thank you so much for this insight, and it will help while I study with someone I’ve been working with who is Catholic!

  6. Katrena March 6, 2014 at 7:41 PM #

    THANK YOU! I am in tears, and as a bible believing Christian, I needed this exact article at this exact time. I have been praying for the opportunity to share the gospel with a denominational friend, and this Lent season has opened that door. I ask for prayers as I continue to plant the seed to my dear friend. And, again thank you and your work for our Lord.

  7. christinamariesteiner March 7, 2014 at 2:01 AM #

    I would like to offer an alternate perspective:
    Lent is a man made tradition like that of Christmas Trees, Birthday cakes and eating Pork-and-Cabbage for New Years. Taken in that spirit I would be very careful of condemn the hearts of one who gives up potato chips for a month before Easter.

    • Ben March 7, 2014 at 11:26 AM #

      Lent is a religious season, birthdays are not. This article is merely asking whether or not Christians should religiously observe Lent. Let us not trivialize a basic question. I’m not condemning anyone. I merely asked this question in light of the Bible, and Scripture has saturated my answer. Everything we believe and practice should be done in light of the answer to, “What does the Bible say?” Indeed, I can’t condemn anyone. Only God can condemn (cf. Psalm 75:7). I can merely point people to His Word.

  8. Douglas Young March 7, 2014 at 11:02 AM #

    Should we also condemn first century Jewish converts for continuing to keep Sabbath? I think not.

    • Ben March 7, 2014 at 11:40 AM #

      “We” can’t condemn anyone. It is Jesus Who judges all of mankind (cf. John 5:22) in light of His Word. We can only ask, “What does the Bible say about this practice?” Since Jesus is the Judge, all that we do must be done by His authority (Col. 3:17).

      In light of the New Testament, we can firmly conclude that any Jewish converts who continued to hold – and bind – the Sabbath as a religious day were wrong. The Sabbath Law is now clearly inoperative (cf. Col. 2:16); the Mosaical Law has been “nailed to the Cross” (Col. 2:14). It is one thing to observe a holiday because of culture (cf. Rom. 14:5-6), it is entirely another thing to give a tradition of man the same authority as a commandment of God (cf. Matt. 15:6-9, Mark 7:13).

      • Douglas Young March 7, 2014 at 11:50 AM #

        Ben… You simply cannot assert that “Jewish converts who continued to hold… Sabbath as a religious day were wrong.” Colossians 2 disproves that. If you honor a day, honor it to the Lord. That was Paul’s command.

        Was Paul in error for his actions at the temple in Acts 21?

        • Ben March 7, 2014 at 12:05 PM #

          Please see my reply to Joshua Freeman. Yes, I believe the Scriptures do teach this.

          Concerning Paul in Acts 21:23-26, yes I believe Paul was in error (though some of my peers would disagree, and I sympathize with their arguments). The apostles were capable of sin (cf. Gal. 2:11), just as you and I are today. I believe it was a moment of weakness for Paul. Incidentally, his attempt to ‘win over the Jews’ by making this “vow” failed miserably.

          Again, let’s just do Bible things in Bible ways. I’m merely asking what God’s Word says about observing Lent.

  9. nellierae March 7, 2014 at 11:52 AM #

    Thank you, Ben. I appreciated your scripture-saturated answer.
    You are a blessing to me, and others in guiding us back on track to: “Everything we believe and practice should be done in light of the answer to, ‘What does the Bible say?'” which is hard to do because it calls us to humble ourselves and submit to God’s authority.
    Thank you.

  10. Nick Gill March 7, 2014 at 12:42 PM #

    “Jesus’ command to ‘wash your face’ and to ensure that your fasting may not be seen by others’ seems in conflict with ‘Ash Wednesday’ and the often-public nature of the observance.”

    Jesus introduces the section of his sermon from which you draw your critique of Ash Wednesday observance with the following, ““Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” Farther along in the passage, he says this:

    “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”(Matt 6:5-6 ESV)

    When your family eats in public, do you apply this command from Jesus in the same way that you apply the “wash your face” command to observers of Ash Wednesday and Lent? The commands are given in the same passage, with the same context and the same authority.

    If the command against public prayer can be interpreted to allow praying at public meals, etc., why would you not grant the same interpretational leeway to the Ash Wednesday practice?

    • Ben March 7, 2014 at 12:46 PM #

      No Christian should pray to be seen by men. This is the point of Jesus’ words in Matt. 6. Those who put ashes on their foreheads for Ash Wednesday need to examine their motives for their actions, so as to ensure Matt. 6:5-6 is not a direct indictment of their hearts.

      • Douglas Young March 7, 2014 at 12:49 PM #

        What if their motives are pure?

        • Ben March 7, 2014 at 12:52 PM #

          In the case of a pure motive, read the article. A pure heart will always ask, “What does the Bible say?”

          • Douglas Young March 7, 2014 at 12:54 PM #

            So Paul’s motives were impure?

          • Ben March 7, 2014 at 12:56 PM #

            I don’t doubt Paul’s motives in Acts 21. One’s motives can be pure, but wrong at the same time. Those who worship God must not only worship Him in Spirit, but also Truth (John 4:24). To worship Him in truth, we must worship Him in ways that are authorized by Christ (Col. 3:17).

  11. Ben March 7, 2014 at 1:39 PM #

    A reminder of my Comments Policy: http://www.plainsimplefaith.com/my-comments-policy/

  12. J D March 7, 2014 at 5:34 PM #

    I really like your statement, “Those who religiously observe Lent should be respected, not ridiculed. God demands sincerity in our worship and our service to Him.” I did notice that you wrote about your convictions with kindness. Sometimes that’s a quality that is hard to find. Your last statement, “Yet sincere actions are vain if they are not done with the authority of Jesus (Col. 3:17).” does not match the verse you quoted. That verse does not say that everything we do must be authorized by Jesus. It says to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. I feel sure you equate those two statements, but they are far from equal. We do many things that are not authorized by Jesus. We do them to honor Him, and in reflection of our interpretation of his teachings, and with hopes in our hearts that He is pleased with them. (There are thousands of examples … Wednesday night Bible studies, multiple cups in communion, owning a church building, having multiple staff for various interest groups in a large church, etc). We cultivate arguments to strengthen our positions on these, but the truth is Jesus never authorized any of those things. As such, some Christians observe Lent without specific authority as a specified time period, but in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Just as Paul never forbade eating meat sacrificed to idols, nor abstaining from that same meat. It was a matter of freedom. There is a sense in which all of our “sincere actions are in vain”, earning for us nothing. I’ll end by saying I respect your conviction, that you have put together a set of reasons that convince you that you are honoring God in this conviction, and for your kindness in presenting it for others to read and .. even critique. I’m glad I read them.

    • John March 7, 2014 at 7:42 PM #

      Here is a thought. Jesus said, “When you fast ….” and gave instructions on fasting. He didn’t say what days to fast, how long to fast, or even if you should fast alone with with others. A season of fasting (along with confession and praying) is always a good thing, especially with your brethren, and it doesn’t or shouldn’t be limited to Lent. I like the idea, because the idea is very biblical. It is not commanded, it is optional, and it is up to our judgment when and how to do it. I would think that even challenging the congregation periodically to have a season of fasting, prayer and meditation should be a good thing.

      • Ben March 7, 2014 at 7:44 PM #

        Great comment John!

  13. christinamariesteiner March 8, 2014 at 7:22 PM #

    There is no debate that the practice of Lent is a made-up tradition not mentioned in the Bible. There are some believers that follow this tradition as if it were a commandment, as did the Pharisees of Jesus time, binding on others what God’s Law does not command.

    As new testament Christians we have a unique opportunity during this season to reach those who are already striving to worship God and honor his Son during this time of year. That is an awesome responsibility and a “teachable moment” to share what it means to truly love and honor Christ, and how we show that love by becoming obedient to his word (John 14:15).

    It is perhaps the greatest pity that so many are striving sincerely to profess the name of Christ, but do not know how to come in contact with his blood. In that spirit I feel that we should be very excited about Lent, Easter, Christmas and other religious holidays and not squander these opportunities to share the Good News about Christ, Salvation and sharing the will of God more perfectly (Acts 18:24).

    I value your opinion, Ben and thank you for bringing up the topic and giving me an opportunity to reflect on some ways that I can plant seeds about Christ’s love and share the Gospel during this season.

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