Last spring, I wrote about my skepticism about the newfound trendiness of lenten fasting among Evangelicals of my generation. The trend continues apace.
Here’s Glenn Packiam, pastor of New Life Downtown in Colorado Springs (it’s a “parish” of the more famous New Life) explaining why his charismatic and low-church congregation is holding an Ash Wednesday service today:
So, no, you don’t have to observe Ash Wednesday. You don’t have to have a service or even go to one. But it is a beautiful way to join with the Church—for the past 1200 years—and with the people of God—for thousands of years before that!—and humbly repent and seek God’s face. It is the beginning of a fast season, Lent. Lent—like every other season of the Church Calendar—is about marking time around the life of Christ. We tend to mark time around our own events; there’s nothing evil about that. But there is another way to keep time. Christians for centuries have marked time in way that reminded them of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, in short, this is about being centered on Christ and being connected to the Body of Christ, historic and universal.
Packiam is endemic of how most Lent-adopters talk about church history: They denigrate (explicitly or implicitly) their low-church Evangelicalism as unmoored from tradition and underscore how adopting the liturgical practice connects them to the historic church. But what if the best way to express trans-generational solidarity with the millions of believers who have walked before you is by eschewing Lent? That’s the argument I want to support below.
Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy
Here’s the thing. Evangelicalism has been around for centuries and its practice is strongly rooted in the past. In the churches I’ve attended over the past decade (sometimes called Young, Restless, and Reformed), most worship songs are rearrangements of lyrics penned by eighteenth-century figures Isaac Watts, Augustus Toplady, and Charles Wesley. And what’s true of the songs is true of the theology, long-dead folks like John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon are revered, a phenomenon summed-up by the famous Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy t-shirt on the cover for Colin Hansen’s article describing this movement.
In their sermons and theological treatises, these YRR Homeboys said quite a lot about keeping the season of Lent. Here’s a sampling of takes from the sixteenth (John Calvin), seventeenth (John Owen), eighteenth (Jonathan Edwards), nineteenth (Charles Spurgeon), and twentieth centuries (Martyn Lloyd-Jones).
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.12.20 (1536)
Calvin is clearly hostile to describing lenten fasting as an imitation of Christ.
Then the superstitious observance of Lent had everywhere prevailed: for both the vulgar imagined that they thereby perform some excellent service to God, and pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ; though it is plain that Christ did not fast to set an example to others, but, by thus commencing the preaching of the gospel, meant to prove that his doctrine was not of men, but had come from heaven. And it is strange how men of acute judgment could fall into this gross delusion, which so many clear reasons refute: for Christ did not fast repeatedly (which he must have done had he meant to lay down a law for an anniversary fast), but once only, when preparing for the promulgation of the gospel. Nor does he fast after the manner of men, as he would have done had he meant to invite men to imitation; he rather gives an example, by which he may raise all to admire rather than study to imitate him. . . . It was therefore merely false zeal, replete with superstition, which set up a fast under the title and pretext of imitating Christ . . .
John Owen, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers (1656)
Owen is a very interesting case because he wrote extensively on the Christian practice for mortification of the flesh. However, he was very clear to differentiate the gospel practice of mortification from practices of “popish devotionists.”
That the ways and means to be used for the mortification of sin invented by them are still insisted on and prescribed, for the same end, by some who should have more light and knowledge of the gospel, is known. Such directions to this purpose have of late been given by some, and are greedily catched at by others professing themselves Protestants, as might have become popish devotionists three or four hundred years ago. Such outside endeavors, such bodily exercises, such self-performances, such merely legal duties, without the least mention of Christ or his Spirit, are varnished over with swelling words of vanity, for the only means and expedients for the mortification of sin, as discover a deep-rooted unacquaintedness with the power of God and mystery of the gospel.
Later, in the same piece, he specifically condemns the practice of abstaining from “sin for a season.”
And herein is the Roman mortification grievously peccant; they drive all sorts of persons to it, without the least consideration whether they have a principle for it or no. Yea, they are so far from calling on men to believe, that they may be able to mortify their lusts, that they call men to mortification instead of believing. The truth is, they neither know what it is to believe nor what mortification itself intends. Faith with them is but a general assent to the doctrine taught in their church; and mortification the betaking of a man by a vow to some certain course of life, wherein he denies himself something of the use of the things of this world, not without a considerable compensation. Such men know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. Their boasting of their mortification is but their glorying in their shame. Some casuists among ourselves, who, overlooking the necessity of regeneration, do avowedly give this for a direction to all sorts of persons that complain of any sin or lust, that they should vow against it, at least for a season, a month or so, seem to have a scantling of light in the mystery of the gospel, much like that of Nicodemus when he came first to Christ. They bid men vow to abstain from their sin for a season. This commonly makes their lust more impetuous. Perhaps with great perplexity they keep their word; perhaps not, which increases their guilt and torment. Is their sin at all mortified hereby? Do they find a conquest over it? Is their condition changed, though they attain a relinquishment of it? Are they not still in the gall of bitterness? Is not this to put men to make brick, if not without straw, yet, which is worse, without strength? What promise hath any unregenerate man to countenance him in this work? what assistance for the performance of it? Can sin be killed without an interest in the death of Christ, or mortified without the Spirit? If such directions should prevail to change men’s lives, as seldom they do, yet they never reach to the change of their hearts or conditions. They may make men self-justiciaries or hypocrites, not Christians.
Jonathan Edwards, An Attempt to Promote Agreement in Extraordinary Prayer (1745)
Edwards ridicules the no-flesh-but-fish rule while discussing how the capture of the French fortress of Louisbourg (on an island named Cape-Breton by the English) during King George’s War heralded the ascendance of the gospel and the downfall of superstitious Roman Catholic countries.
And one thing with relation to the taking of Cape-Breton, though it may seem trivial, yet I do not think to be altogether inconsiderable in the present case; and that is, that thereby the antiChristian dominions are deprived of a very great part of their fish, which makes no small part of the food and support of popish countries; their superstition forbidding them to eat any flesh for near a third part of the year. This they were supplied with much more from Cape-Breton than from any place in the world in the possession of papists. And the contention of France with the Dutch, deprives them of most of their supplies of this sort, which they had elsewhere. When the prophet Isaiah foretells the depriving Egypt of its wealth and temporal supplies, under the figure of drying up their rivers, this is particularly mentioned, that they should be deprived of their fish.
“And the Egyptians will I give over into the hand of a cruel lord. And the waters shall fall from the sea, and the river shall be wasted and dried up; and they shall turn the rivers far away, and the brooks of defense shall be emptied and dried up. The fishers also shall mourn, and all they that cast angle into the brooks shall lament, and they that spread nets upon the waters shall languish.” Isaiah 19:4-8.
This is expressed in the prophecies of drying up the waters, i.e. the supplies of Egypt; and this probably is implied in the prophecies of drying up the waters of that city which is spiritually called Egypt. And it may be noted, that this is not only a supply that the church of antichrist has literally out of the waters, but is that part which is eminently the supply and food of their antiChristian superstition, or which their popish religion makes necessary for them.
When it can be proved that the observance of Christmas, Whitsuntide, and other Popish festivals was ever instituted by a divine statute, we also will attend to them, but not till then. It is as much our duty to reject the traditions of men, as to observe the ordinances of the Lord. We ask concerning every rite and rubric, “Is this a law of the God of Jacob?” and if it be not clearly so, it is of no authority with us, who walk in Christian liberty.
He is especially critical of Lent’s call to mourn as if our Lord was taken away.
Come, then, and for your own good hang up the sackbut and take down the psaltery—put away the ashes! What if men call this season, “Lent”? We will keep no Lent, tonight—this is our Eastertide! Our Lord has risen from the dead and He is among us, and we will rejoice in Him!
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, sermon from John 1 (1962)
Lloyd-Jones is blunt in his appraisal.
Lent, of course, is a relic of Roman Catholicism. One can easily understand it in such an organization – it gives power to the priest, and so on – but there is, I repeat, no evidence whatsoever in favour of it in the New Testament, and it simply leads to this show of wisdom and human will power. It is people adding their works to the grace of God, and this is essentially Roman Catholic teaching. Well, my friends, let us get rid of this, let us not waste our time with it. We are to be led by the Spirit always.
Evangelicalism is a tradition too
I’m sure that an Evangelical Lent-adopter would protest that he isn’t going to do Lent in a “popish” way and thus evade the censure of the YRR Homeboys. If that were the case, why did none of these figures advocate for a reformed lenten fast instead of condemning the practice entirely? Furthermore, if the point for the adopters is to participate in an ancient tradition along with saints of previous centuries, it doesn’t make sense to radically alter the practice as traditionally performed.
My point is simple. Evangelicalism is a tradition with attendant folkways and liturgical practices. One of the practices low-church Evangelicalism has long embraced is not participating in lenten abstention. As a traditionalist, I walk in the steps of these historical homeboys and am the richer for it.