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For centuries, Christians across the globe have participated in a season known as Lent - the 40 day period (excluding Sundays), between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. However, as Protestants, we ought to take seriously what the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians:

“Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess. 5:20-21) How do we, as Protestants test celebrations, rituals, and seasons like Lent? We have to do the hard work of studying the Bible, asking that God would use His Word to shape us and our activities. So the question is, Does Lent pass the test of Scripture? 

A Brief History of Lent
Around A.D. 313 the emperor of Rome, Constantine, converted to Christianity and began to make Christianity more popular via its legalization. With this new favorable disposition toward Christianity came an influx of people wanting to be baptized. Those responsible for discipling church members were faced with a dilemma - were these new Christians genuine believers or people looking to please Roman leadership? The solution in many churches was the development of a 40 day period of rigorous Bible study and spiritual disciplines, with a laser-focus on the death of Jesus and a life of holiness. Fast forward to the time of the Reformation (A.D. 1500’s), and this 40 day period was a time of serious fasting, devotion, and ritual, all mandated by the Roman Catholic Church. The Church instituted the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday as a season of obligatory devotion. It was as if the Roman Church was saying, “If you want God’s pleasure and favor, do these things.” Reformers like John Calvin and Martin Luther rejected the entire notion of someone being able to win God’s favor with practices and rituals. Other Reformers were very wary of the whole season of Lent because they recognized that you cannot compel a person’s heart to love God through required practices. Since the Reformation was a period of ecclesiastical reformation - that is, an intentional reforming of the Christian church according to Scripture - many Protestant churches today have held onto some Reformers’ rejection of Lent. But we are still left with the question, Does Lent pass the test of Scripture?

The Test of Scripture
What sets apart the Roman Catholic Church’s Lent is the atmosphere of obligation surrounding the season. If the Roman leadership says that participation in Lent through required fasts and other rituals is necessary (they do), then Catholics are obligated to participate, with either the explicit or implicit understanding that such participation pleases God.

As Protestants, we hold to the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura, which states that Scripture alone is our ultimate authority and standard, not the proclamation of church leadership. With Sola Scriptura as our foundation, we’re able to approach Lent from an entirely different perspective, for we can ask, “Is participation in Lent, including participation in any fasting or other devotional practices tied to Lent, commanded in the Bible?” The answer is a resounding “No!” Lent is nowhere commanded in the Bible. We’re even told in the book of Colossians that we are to let no one pass judgment on us when it comes to seasons, rituals, and celebrations (Col. 2:16-23). However, elements of Lent, including self-denial, prayer, repentance, and sacrifice, are commanded by God to His people (Matt. 6:16; Luke 9:23; Col. 3:5; Heb. 13:16). And even a cursory reading of Scripture reveals that God has given His people regular rhythms that help in their spiritual formation and growth (see Rom. 12:1; 1 Cor. 11:23-26, 14:26; Col. 3:12-17; Heb. 10: 23-25, 13:16). 

Participate in Lent and Do Not Participate in Lent
Lent, then, certainly passes the test of Scripture if the activities of Lent - fasting, repentance, prayer, serving others, etc. - are done in faith and are not obligatory. The moment that we as Christians place demands upon those around us that are either not found in Scripture or are contrary to Scripture we are acting sinfully. If we participate in Lent out of mere obligation or ritualistic guilt, then we are not participating in faith. And as the Apostle Paul wrote in the book of Romans, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).

So what does it look like to practice, for example, fasting in faith? It means that you are certain God accepts you because of Jesus alone - not because of your devotion and practices (Gal. 2:16). It means that you recognize your fasting has not elevated you to a level above or beyond Christians who are not fasting (Rom. 14:3, 10-12). It means that in the midst of your fasting, you still metaphorically beat your chest alongside the tax collector, crying out to God, “be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). It means that at the center of your fasting is a genuine desire to taste and see the beauty and glory of Jesus. So if your desire is to “get right with God” this Lent, fasting may not be for you. A better practice in that case might be to meditate on the book of Galatians or the book of Romans, in order to better grasp the fact that Jesus got right with God for you.

The purpose of Lent is to intentionally hold onto God’s grace through regular rhythms of repentance, fasting, and self-denial, not to gain the favor of God but to be closer to your Father in heaven. Picturing ourselves as a garden, Lent is the season during which we ask God to remove the weeds of selfishness, greed, pride, and hopelessness as we deliberately remember that God’s grace - justification, sanctification, adoption, and redemption - came only through the Lamb of God who suffered, died, resurrected, and ascended.

Additional Resources on the Church Calendar
"Not Holy; But Helpful" by Rev. Daniel Hyde
"What Time is it? A Defense of the Church Calendar" by Gregg Strawbridge