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.

Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David (1885) and sermon on Song of Solomon 1 (1886)
Spurgeon expresses general reservations about all traditions of men.

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.

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Posted by Keith Miller

Keith Miller is an Assistant Solicitor General in the Federalism Unit of the Arizona Attorney General's Office. He is married and has four children. You can follow him on Twitter.

  • Clearly you are using a different meaning when you suggest that Evangelicalism is a tradition. Evangelicalism on the whole does not emphasize it’s relationship to the historic church. So when Packiam and others emphasize their desire to look to the historic tradition of the church, they are talking about something very different than what you are talking about when you talk about Evangelicalism as a tradition.

    I am not suggesting that Evangelicalism does not have a history or that many icons of Evangelicalism have been against traditional spiritual practices like the liturgical year. But I do get concerned that people attach anti-liturgical practice to Evangelicalism. Liturgical practice also has a long history in Evangelicalism.

    I can quote from just as many people that are also icons of Evangelicalism that would support Lenten fasting. Quoting does not really get us far. Especially when many that you are quoting are more about being against Rome than being against fasting.

    • Keith Miller


      I’m actually quite curious as to which icons of Evangelicalism support lenten fasting. Do you have any quotes handy?

      I agree that quoting will only get you so far. Think of this as the supplemental appendix to my post from last year where I laid out my argument in more detail.

      • Luther for one supported reforming Lent not abolishing it. And that has been the Lutheran position. The Anglican tradition has always supported lent. The reformed line through Calvin and the Puritans have been against lent, but that is only one of three major Protestant traditions. Many of that same line have also been against recognizing Christmas also because of its origins in popish devotion.

        I am part of a low church tradition. And I respect non-participation in Lent when it can’t be done out of real devotion.

        But I also think that one of the problems of the Evangelical church is that much of it wants to ignore that there is a church outside of the Evangelical Church. So I wholeheartedly support participation in practices that recognize that the church is much greater than our small tradition. We don’t get to Calvin without Rome. And we can’t get to modern Evangelicalism without a historic church. And historically, the church has supported not only fasting, but Lent.

        That, of course, does not means that we should support all tradition. But that we should respect tradition and at least be open to its proper use.

        • Keith Miller

          Luther’s view of the subject wasn’t quite as irenic as you’re making out. Here’s an excerpt from a sermon ( on the point:

          Secondly, if you should be pressed to eat fish instead of meat on Friday, and to eat fish and abstain from eggs and butter during Lent, etc., as the pope has done with his fool’s laws, then you must in no wise allow yourself to be
          drawn away from the liberty in which God has placed you, but do just the contrary to spite him, and say: Because you forbid me to eat meat and presume to turn my liberty into law, I will eat meat in spite of you. And thus you must do in all other things which are matters of liberty. To give you an example: if the pope, or anyone else were to force me to wear a cowl, just as he prescribes it, I would take off the cowl just to spite him. But since it is left to my own free choice, I wear it or take it off, according to my pleasure.

          Now, he went on in the same sermon to explain that he would be careful not to practice this freedom in a way that would offend a weaker brother not convinced of the freedom to eat sausages. But that would not be reason enough to adopt the practice in Evangelical churches, right?

          • I didn’t say he was irenic. I said that he taught that we should redeem and reform Lent not abolish it. Which is what he did. He had strong words for improper fasting and Lent as a good work. But he continued to recognize Lent, as have those churches that followed his teaching.

          • Keith Miller

            Maybe the rub comes in what it means to “recognize Lent.” If we’re going to have any Church calendar at all, observing a season prior to the annual celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection makes perfect sense. Having that period be 40 days of fasting makes folks in my tradition more skeptical.

          • I guess that is the question. Because your quotes, and the broader teaching of some of those you are quoting are not objecting to fasting, but the actual recognition of a period of time of repentance and fasting. Again, this includes celebrating Christmas and having any other special days or fasts or any church liturgical calendar at all.

            I am not advocating for a particular type of fast. As I said last year, I think the word fasting should be reserved for actually fasting from food, not for cutting back luxuries or social media, etc.

            So when I suggest that we observe Lent I am suggesting that we observe 40 days of prayer and repentance that prepare out hearts to properly celebrate the resurrection of Christ with the whole universal Church. (That may or may not include actual fasting from food.)

            But I have a hard time believing that the quotes above were objecting just to fasting and not objecting to the liturgical calendar around Lent.

  • RMackey

    One comment: you used the wrong spelling of “mourn.” (“He is especially critical of Lent’s call to morn as if our Lord was taken away.”)

    • Keith Miller

      Thanks. Fixed.

  • jakemeador

    Keith – I’ve been kicking around writing something about this but don’t really have the time, so I’m just going to comment here, if that’s OK.

    a) One concern I have is that by not participating in Lent, evangelicals aren’t simply differentiating themselves from Rome, but from most Christian traditions. The Eastern Orthodox practice Lent. The Copts practice Lent. The Ethiopian Orthodox practice Lent. So rejecting Lent isn’t the same in relation to the historic church as, say, rejecting the Bishop of Rome as the head of the church. In doing the latter, we’re actually doing the same as many other Christians and traditions. In doing the former, we’re… kinda alone. And that should weigh on our minds and hearts way more than it usually does.

    b) I’m not trying to be snarky in saying this, but you’ll probably be unsurprised to learn that I’m not sure one can coherently speak of low-church evangelicalism as a “tradition.” What are your confessional documents? What is the church body associated with it? What power does that body actually have? Independent, congregational, baptist churches are, by definition, going to really struggle to link themselves in a meaningful way to any broader Christian tradition b/c one of the cornerstones of their ecclesiology is the independence of the local church.

    c) Given that, I think the point Adam is making is important–the Lutherans and Anglicans didn’t reject Lent. Only the Reformed and Radicals did. And this is one place where I’d probably part ways with the Reformed tradition because I think this is probably an (understandable) over-reaction against the excesses of late medieval Christianity. By the late medieval era, if you threw a dart at a calendar you were as likely as not going to hit a feast day for some obscure saint that brought with it all sorts of rules and procedures that Christians were bound to. The Reformation did away with much of that, thankfully.

    That said, 1) the idea that God would appoint certain times for certain practices is not odd–the Sabbath itself is a kind of sanctification of time, 2) there is precedent in scripture for a time of fasting and preparation prior to a momentous event in the life of God’s people–Moses has 40 years of preparation in the wilderness before God calls him, Jesus has 40 days in the wilderness before his public ministry begins, Paul spends time in the desert before beginning his preaching ministry, etc. 3) so what I think we can take from this is something like the following: we need to preserve the Reformation ideal of not binding the conscience on a matter where Scripture has not spoken explicitly, however, it is perfectly fine for a church body to take up a shared fast in the days prior to Advent or Easter as a time of penitence and reflection on the meaning and significance of Christ’s entering the world and the giving of himself at Easter–and if there’s no obvious reason not to, we should use the forms given us to shape that fast rather than make something up ourselves.

    d) I agree with the point you raised last year about the danger of treating Lent as a spiritual New Year’s Resolution or some kind of 40 days to be a better you self-improvement program. That being said, I think your proposal to reject Lent based on that argument is misguided and actually reinforces the deeper problem.

    What kind of culture misrepresents Lent in such a fashion? A culture that is deeply individualistic and that purposely cuts itself off from the many things given to us at birth by the reality of family, local history, local place, etc. It’s a culture that sees the self as something the individual is free to create however they wish (which is at the root of most of our sexual silliness these days). Lent can come alongside that as a “hey look guys, it’s a spiritual-sounding self-help program!”

    That said, the solution to me doesn’t seem to be to cut ourselves off from that legitimate heritage we have in the church. That simply is another way to be individualistic and reject what has been given to us and to chart out our own spiritual path. Far better, it seems to me, to restore the idea of Lent as a season of penitence in which the church together mourns for and repents of their sin as we move toward Good Friday, a day that marks the full consequences of that sin.

    e) Last thing–I think one helpful idea (and we’ve done this at my church in the past) is to have 40 days of lenten fasting followed by 40 days of ascension celebration. So we mourn as we move toward Good Friday and rejoice as we move past Easter. Last year we even had an ascension party with music, dancing, food, etc. It was fantastic.

    • Keith Miller

      What a fantastic comment, Jake. Thanks for the engagement.

      1) Your first point is good, but doesn’t prove a great deal. Evangelical Protestantism diverges from both Rome and the Eastern churches on any number of key issues (off the top of my head: number of sacraments, apostolic succession, intercession of saints, use of icons in worship, etc.). I agree: let us disagree with these other traditions only with great care.

      2) Of course Evangelicalism is a tradition. You don’t need an authoritative institution handing out membership cards in order to be a tradition. I am a Seahawks fan, a tradition I adopted from my father. I have never been certified as a “12” and I don’t think that any Official Seahawks Fanclub could excommunicate me from rooting for Russell Wilson, but it is still a tradition. In the run-up to the Super Bowl I changed my Facebook profile pic to a throwback Seahawks’ helmet. Why? Because I wanted folks to know that I deeply embraced the tradition of Steve Largent, Jim Zorn and Dave Kreig and wasn’t unmoored from the past.

      I’ll address your other points in a subsequent comment.

      • jakemeador

        Keith – So one of the questions maybe needs to be around the definition of tradition and what we want a tradition to do. (Or perhaps it’s simply a debate about movements vs institutions?)

        • Keith Miller

          Yes, let’s define “tradition” and list its aims and goals. Initially, I would think that the term is closer in its meaning to “folkway” than it is to “institution.” Do you disagree?

          • jakemeador

            Keith – Apologies for not responding sooner. I’ve been thinking over a response.

            Re the aims and goals of traditions: I’d say the goal within Christianity is to sustain and cultivate the life and work of the church. Tradition shapes and sustains us by helping us to read scripture, by helping give a shape to the rituals and customs of our lives, and by giving us a rich and healthy inheritance that we are able to build upon. To make this more concrete–my brother-in-law started the RUF at Nebraska in 2000. His successor took over in 2008, but because of the work Bart did in building and developing RUF, Steve’s task was different and Steve was freed up to pursue other work because of the foundation Bart laid. Ideally, that would happen with each successor. That’s a simple example of course, but it’s a nice kind of “ideal situation” example.

            Re folk cultures: My initial thought is that folk traditions strike me as being very limited in a couple important ways. First off, it seems susceptible to the problem of any democratic approach–you better have a good group of people serving as “the people,” if you get my meaning. Adams has that old quote about how the American constitution presupposes a moral and religious people. “It is wholly inadequate for any other,” he said. (I think we’re seeing that lived out in quite clear terms today.) So you need good folk to get good folk culture–and the good folk have to come from somewhere. Which is where the institutions are so vital. The other point here is that folk culture seems to have the exact same problem as institutions in that it’s easy to maintain the forms without the reality beneath them. Ask me about my family here in Nebraska sometime–the ones that still live in Nebraska have all been deeply shaped by the culture here, but of my eight cousins, I’d say there are only two or three who are financially independent–and all of my cousins are around 25 or older.

            All that to say, I don’t really see any reason to trust folk culture by itself on this stuff. I don’t want to denigrate it because it’s enormously important for the ways it shapes a person organically over a lifetime without the person even realizing it. But you need institutions standing behind the folk culture that provide it with more of a structure and framework. And I kinda wonder if your Seahawks example above doesn’t prove my point–you’re talking about a kind of folk culture associated around the Seattle Seahawks. But, of course, that folk culture only works because of more formalized institutions–the National Football League, the Seattle Seahawks, the city of Seattle, the groups that funded the stadium, the companies that create merchandise, etc. The folk culture can’t exist without the institutions.

    • Keith Miller

      I am very intrigued by a celebration season moving on from Easter. Both the Ascension and the sending of the Spirit (Pentecost) seem to be worthy anniversaries to commemorate.

      • jakemeador

        Here’s a video from the party, for what that’s worth. I’ll get in touch with our pastor and see if I can get some of the other stuff we did last year. It was pretty cool.

        • hcat

          What town is this? Here in California, if you released burning things into the sky like that, you’d all go to prison for a long time!!

      • Yvonne

        Surely you realize the Catholic church celebrates Pentecost for the 50 days after Ascension Thursday? A time where kneeling and fasting is forbidden in anticipation of Christ’s return?

    • hcat

      I was in Ethiopia during their Lent, and their fasting food could basically be described as “high carb.” If there’s any food my wife tries to keep me from nibbling, it’s bread! Being a So Cal native, i find it hard to contemplate any sort of fasting from food without thinking of how good I’m going to look as a result of it :-)

  • ChrisM

    It appears to me that the bottom line in whether or not believers should observe Lent is to ask if the practice is in keeping with the Gospel. The five Reformed theologians quoted here state strongly that it is not. The Gospel proclaims that Christ alone is our salvation (justification) and that He sent His Spirit to live in us to guide us to become like Him (sanctification). When any fellowship of believers is encouraged by their leadership to observe Lent, those who devoutly desire to please God could conclude that Colossians 2:16-23 doesn’t really mean what it says. The self-denial of Lent encourages our natural proclivity to be dependent upon self to become more holy (legalism) thereby diminishing the practices of daily abiding in Christ and all the other ways of grace inherent in walking in the Spirit. Lent doesn’t make believers more pleasing to God. Only the Holy Spirit can change one to be more like Christ. He is the Author and the Finisher of our faith.

    • Nathan

      So would you say that Christ’s self-denial in the wilderness for 40 days kept him from dependence on the Spirit?

  • davestrunk

    This is a good point, but surely overwrought. I don’t think that there’s any debate (nor should there be), that a significant historical direction of evangelicalism is that it is primarily ahistorical. Noll and many others have noted that in a movement largely emphasizing “new birth” and personal conversation/relationship with Jesus Christ, that what gets lost is a sense of historicity and tradition that one brings in understanding one’s faith. Here, I’m thinking of an evangelicalism defined from the First Great Awakening on, which would include Edwards, Spurgeon, and Llloyd-Jones. But, lest we take it too far, these guys might be “Reformed” soteriologically, they are low-church folks. Sure, it’s a tradition, but by its nature is a more ahistorical tradition.

    In other words, evangelicalism lends itself to a tradition of not-much-tradition by its very nature. Lots of evangelicals don’t practice Lent, but do you really think it’s because they are conscientious objectors like the writer here? Of course not. Most of the ex-baptists that walk into my presbyterian church haven’t even heard of ash wednesday.

  • Kaleb


    Do you actually believe that I am participating in Lent “without the least mention of Christ or his Spirit,” and “varnishing it over with swelling words of vanity,” and that I suffer from a “deep-rooted unacquaintedness with the power of God and the mystery of the Gospel”?

    I was especially struck by this quote:

    “…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!”

    In the Orthodox Church we don’t observe Ash Wednesday, but we have a direct counterpart at the start of our Lent, which we call Forgiveness Sunday. On Sunday evening, each of us asks for and receives forgiveness from every other individual in the parish. The above quote is ironic because while we are doing this, the choir is singing Easter hymns:

    “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

    “The angel cried to the Lady Full of Grace, Rejoice, O Pure Virgin! Again I say: Rejoice! Your Son has risen on the third day from the tomb! With Himself He has raised all the dead! Rejoice, all you people!

    “Shine! Shine! O New Jerusalem! The Glory of the Lord has shone on you! Now dance for joy and be glad, O Zion! Be radiant, O Pure Theotokos, in the Resurrection of your Son!”

    Yep, I guess you’re right, not the least mention of Christ there….

    • Keith Miller


      That service sounds wonderful. Forgive my ignorance, but does Orthodoxy not practice the “lenten exile” of the singing of the Alleluia the way the Roman church does?

      • Kaleb

        We sing *more* Alleluias during Lent.

        As to the matter of the “Lenten exile” (which is an Orthodox concept), while I can’t really speak for Catholics, I do think that more broadly you seem to have missed the point.

        In Orthodoxy people often make reference to “the joy of the fast.” True enough, Lent can be a difficult time (our fasting practice is quite rigorous), but it must be understood within the context of the central feast of our church year, Pascha–which is the common Orthodox name for Easter.

        Lent is not a service we are performing for God; rather, it is a gift given to us: a preparation for Pascha, which is itself a gift. We often hear the analogy of running a marathon–and by the end of Lent it is normal to be worn down. But it is always pointing toward Pascha, and that is why we sing more Alleluias during this time: We are looking forward and praising God for working to deliver us out of the exile of our sin.

        So when Pascha comes, we have abstained from all vertebrate animal products (including dairy) for 40 days + Holy Week. We’re tired. We’re hungry. Maybe even a little anemic. And into this context comes our midnight Pascha service, celebrating the Resurrection with lively songs of praise. This is followed by a giant all-night dinner full of all the foods we had abstained from during Lent.

        The experience is like no other: It is basically a sort-of mini-resurrection, as we cast off the deathly Lenten exile and enter into a celebration of Christ’s victory over death. But Pascha absolutely could not be what it is, if it weren’t preceded by Lent.

        In the Lenten-Paschal cycle, we receive a temporal experience of God’s eternal work of salvation for us. Think of Lent as our mortal lives where we struggle with sin and the difficulties of life that it brings about–as St. Paul put it, running a race. Then we celebrate Pascha (which is a 50-day season, not just a single day) in anticipation of our resurrection, where we will be freed from death, freed from sin’s exile and live eternally with God.

        That’s what Lent is all about.

        Now I’ll leave you with an excerpt of a sermon text. This is from St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal sermon, which is repeated every Pascha in every Orthodox parish:

        “Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

        “Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.”

  • Thomas

    I would like to address the quote from Calvin, in particular, this snippet:

    “…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.”

    Is this sound reasoning, or do we simply accept it because Calvin was smart and it comes from his hand? Christ did not die repeatedly either, yet we celebrate Easter every year. Christ was not born repeatedly, yet we celebrate Christmas every year. Is it also not possible then that we commemorate Christ’s temptation every year? Or has that just gone too far?

    The Church prescribes worship on Sundays. Am I supposed to deduce that we are not to worship on other days as well? Or in the same thought pattern, because I know that we are to worship every day, should I reject the prescribed Sunday worship?

    On the notion that Christ fasted “once only”, I find that ludicrous. Christ was a Jew. The Jews fasted 2 days out of every week. When the rich man came to Christ and told Him that he fasted 2 days a week, Christ did not scold him, but told him to do more than fast. When Christ gave the sermon on the mount He did not instruct us on ‘if’ we fast, but ‘when’ we fast.

    The reality, my brothers, is that prayer and fasting go hand in hand throughout the Bible and we are called to do both, and as often as possible. Having the Church remind us of this is never a bad thing.

    • Jesus did say, “When you fast”, not ‘if you happen to fast’. Or ‘I don’t fast because it might be misconstrued.’

      • Thomas

        When John’s disciples questioned Jesus on why they did not fast Christ responded that the time will come when the bridegroom is taken from them; then they will fast. If we are Christ’s disciples, we are to pray and fast. The reality is not that Lent is bad, but that we should be doing what is prescribed in Lent all year round. The Church knows that we fall away and is constantly giving us these reminders.

        • Thomas

          Moses, Elijah, and Christ all show us the significance of the 40 day fast. To say this is un-Biblical blows my mind.

    • Keith Miller

      Calvin’s reasoning may indeed be sound. There is no biblical evidence that Christ intended to lay down a law for the anniversary celebrations of Christmas or Easter, either. If you go in for the regulative principle of worship–like the Calvin-influenced Westminster Divines–you get rid of the whole lot of ’em.

      I’m not sure he’s right on this point, but I will acknowledge that Calvin’s logic points in that direction.

  • Andrew

    Okay, so which Mere-O contributor will be writing a post to rebut Keith’s argument? ;-)

  • BrendtWayneWaters

    Isn’t it ever so slightly presumptuous to be “sure that an Evangelical Lent-adopter” even gives a rip about the YRR Homeboys’ stance on this issue, let alone that s/he would try to “evade [their] censure”?

  • Kevin White

    It’s no blow against an ahistorical mindset to bypass more recent history closer to one’s own pedigree. It’s merely expressing a different preference for eras. Skipping back and directly appropriating something much earlier is almost guaranteed to be missing a whole history of interaction and/or critique. It pays to follow the root line down when you can; you certainly see surprising and interesting things.

    It’s also worth noting that a good number of liturgical and church year customs are surprisingly recent and/or region-specific. For example, in many places the ashes are sprinkled on top of the hair instead of smudged on the forehead. (Making less of an awkward contrast between the gospel reading and the penitential symbol, I might add.) While Lutherans as a rule retained Ash Wednesday after the Reformation, many Lutheran churches did not resume the ash ritual until the mid-20th century. In fact, a lot of Protestant churches heavily modified their liturgical practices midcentury, dropping their distinct forms of pastoral garb and standardizing on a modified form of vaguely medieval vestments and reordering their received liturgical texts. Often drastically. A lot of churches dropped their own received historical models in favor of fashionable reconstructions of Hippolytus and other early sources. That’s why the 1979 American BCP, for example, reads and is structured so differently from earlier editions.

    That is a lot to say that history really matters, but a clumsy reappropriation of old practices and sources–especially when the appropriation follows current trends and concerns–can leave you just as ahistorical as you started.

    And yes, I would apply that caution to a lot of YRR types. Don’t just grab Calvin, Edwards, and maybe Spurgeon. Try to get some Packer, Princetonians, and Anglo-Scottish Puritans, and maybe some Boice, Aquinas, and Athanasius if you can really manage it. Aim for an arc if you can, not just individual points. Even if the old-books reading can only be a hobby and not a degree program.

    • Keith Miller

      Thanks, Kevin. I couldn’t agree more.

  • ThistletownKen

    This is just a little rant I wrote about evangelicals (and I are one) who trash lent. It is meant to be tongue in cheek but hopefully gets some kind of point across.

  • ThistletownKen

    Here is a little piece about evangelicals (and I are one) who trash lent. It’s meant to be tongue in cheek but I hope gets its point across.

  • Don Bryant

    I simply don’t think it follows that since Roman Catholicism practiced Lent in one way then we must not practice it in any way, particular because certain significant others chose not to. I do not owe John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards or Evangelicalism that much! To be truly a learner who find them valuable and faithful does not translate into “don’t practice Lent.”

  • Dominick Santore

    Im not sure if this adds anything to all the dialogue here. Coming from a non-denom church, i have learned to appreciate some of the liturgy and traditions of the “older” (High?) churches. i attended a lutheran lental service last night and the message, Hymns and liturgy was wholeheartedly Christ-Centered. I notice in the program flyer when I got home that they explained Lent, Ash Wednesday and the idea of giving up something for Lent. I found it to be woderfully pastoral in its written execution, especially the last part. It described giving something up for lent(fasting) as an act of Christian freedom within the season. It finishes by stating that scripture never gives such a command (in relation to a lenten season) so your free to do as your conscience guides you. Growing up Catholic, i was nervous about attending (since people like to address lutherans as “catholic-lite”) but found it to be a wonderful service and grounded in scripture and as i said earlier, Christ-centered. Although, they explained Ash Wednesday, they neither had ashes to give nor required it, but did acknowledge it as a reminder to us of our sin and need for God’s grace. Curious on your thoughts whether Lent (as a tradition) needs or should be abandoned or is there any place for at all?

    • Keith Miller

      Thanks for your kind comment, Dominick. My judgment on the issue is the same I came to last year (

      I cannot make a simple conclusion like Lent is always wrong. It has surely been practiced by sincere believers for century upon century. But, if Evangelicals are to maintain their fidelity to the Scriptures and wisely discern their historical and cultural context they will adopt this practice only with the greatest of care.

      I hope that helps.

      • Dominick Santore

        Very much. Growing up Catholic, I understand your points very well. Being introduced to the Lutheran Faith, I can appreicate your last statement on “adopting this practice with the greatest of care” I have appreciated the lutheran stance on the lenten traditions as being done in light of Christian freedom and not as a “legal” adherent demanding to be done. They are firm on their understanding that salvation sits squarely on the shoulers of Christ alone. Thanks again

  • Caleb

    Keith: Spurgeon expresses general reservations about all traditions of men.

    Caleb: And we should have just as many reservations about the evangelical tradition – also a tradition of man. Should we attend to the critiques of certain traditions that have emerged in the last 500 years? Absolutely. But simply saying that we evangelicals have a tradition too and it rejects all other church traditions is just as thoughtless as a millennial evangelical with ash on his head.

    • Keith Miller

      Caleb, your point is a good one.

      I’m was not attempting to claim that the anti-lenten history presented here is dispositive, merely that it balances the scales of tradition. You’re in a stream of church tradition if you observe lent, and you’re in a stream of church tradition if you don’t.

  • Randy Greve

    Is the implication of this essay that Christians in traditions who do observe some healthy form of Lent as penitence, fasting, and almsgiving by God’s grace as an act of self-examination and preparation for Easter are less “biblical” than those who do not? Is it not possible to preserve the good intent of the season while avoiding its abuses and misunderstandings (which the reformers and their tradition rightly critique) as an authentic expression of the biblical call to individual and corporate repentance in a tradition that goes back to the 4th century?

  • bgcurtis

    I wrote this originally in response to a FB page that had posted your blog. Others (below) address some of the same points,so pardon some repetition. Here goes:


    Well . . . although I approve of the main point, the good Doctor (of blessed memory) doesn’t get the historical diagnosis quite right. Lent long preceded “Romanism.” Here’s why:

    (1) We ought to associate Romanism with the ascendency of unbiblical devotional practices endorsed during the papacy of Gregory the Great (r. 590-604 AD), and thereafter.

    (2) We ought to associate Romanism with the Western developments of the Church, via Latin language and the rule of the bishops of Rome.

    (3) If so, then Lent is neither originally Romanist, nor distinctively Romanist.

    (a) The Lenten Fast long preceded Gregory the Great; we read of it in Socrates Scholasticus’s _Church History_ (ca 430 AD?) and elsewhere as already long established.

    (b) The Lenten Fast was very widely observed throughout the regions, languages, and patriarchates of ancient Orthodoxy, both East and West, as well as the Oriental Orthodox Churches (Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and other “Churches of the East”). A thousand years ago, when there was a Patriarchy in Samarkand that pastored more professing Christian than Rome, and which knew little or nothing of Roman church order, the Lenten Fast was observed by professing Christians throughout Central Asia and Mesopotamia.

    So, denouncing Lent as “Romanist” misses the greater point. If you must critique Lent, you must critique all of ancient Orthodoxy on the question of prescribed, seasonal fasting.
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    But which is more godly on the question?

    1) The typical contemporary Reformed congregation that never proclaims a fast, much less a penitential fast?

    2) The Churches that practice the ancient Orthodoxy of an annual prescribed penitential fast?

    • Steven Douglas


      Great point. We are encouraged to fast scripturally. Yes, it ought to be private and between God and the individual, but Jesus did not say that people could not fast together or at the same time. Jesus celebrated the fasts and the feasts of his people the Jews. I understand he is the fulfillment and Paul says we need not be held to them, especially as Gentiles, but we are not condemned for observance out of devotion. There are times we should be fasting corporately, and I think we are at some point unfaithful if we dont.

  • Steven Douglas

    So I am an Evangelical who observes Lent, but not in the way you – or the Reformers – describe. As long as we center on church tradition – “This is the things we do and have always done” – we lose sight of Christ. If we focus on a fast or on what we are giving up, we run into either boasting of what we give up, which is condemned by Christ, or we lose sight of Him as we are consumed by our loss. The problem is that these approaches start from the wrong place.

    So can there be a way to observe Lent devotionally; that will actually help us to love and appreciate Jesus more? Your suggestion is, “no.” I would suggest, “yes.”

    Lent looks at Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness (c.f., Matt 4:1-11). In this important section of Scripture we see several things happen: Jesus is tempted in his physical needs, his trust in God’s care, and his worship. These are the very areas where Israel was tempted when they were in the desert, and they failed each temptation miserably. Jesus passes the test, but not through divine authority or show of power, but through humble, human, obedience. Jesus takes on the mantle of Israel – humanity, really – and is victorious.

    And this human victory is vital for his role as Messiah and sacrifice on our behalf. If he had sin, his role would be negated and we would be left in our sins. But it is also not happenstance that Jesus was tempted. He had to be tempted to experience human frailty. Hebrews 2:17-18 says, “…He had to be made like his brothers [us] in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Further, it says on Hebrews 4:14-16, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

    Jesus has identified with us and therefore become our sympathetic high priest. Lent is merely a time for us to explicitly identify ourselves with him over forty days – just as his fast lasted forty days. This identification can be done with perfunctory legalism, or it can be done with deep devotion. Fasting, or giving up perfectly healthy and good things – that is, self-denial – is something Jesus called us to. By identifying ourselves with him in his time of temptation and suffering, we are reminded of our own temptations and our sins. We truly lament them – hence the ashes as a symbol of our grief over and hatred of our sin. The ashes are administered in the shape of the cross and made from the last year’s palm fronds – which are themselves symbol of victory – in order to remind us that we find victory over sin only in Christ.

    This does not mean Lent is the only time to do this identification with Christ and repentance from sin, but it can be a rich time of planned cultivation and meditation on the depth and truth of the Gospel for us.

    We Evangelicals tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to anything structured, because it involves the risk of legalistic phariseeism or a lack of personal devotional depth. Neither have to be present. Further, we are Evangelicals, not Fundamentalists, right? Which means we evangelize. So I pose a few questions, how will you reach the traditionalist Catholics and Mainliners who will never come to your church but show up to work or the store with a big black cross on their forehead? Could it be more effective to also wear that cross and enter into conversation with them, teaching them of the depth and richness their own tradition entails that may never have been fully explained to them? Could the deepening of their symbols actually drive them to relationship/closer relationship and more dependence on Christ? And could it do the same for us?

    • Darryl Hart

      Steven, so are you implying that you don’t identify with Christ the other 316 days of the year? In other words, why single out 40 days? And why these 40 days? Why not Rick Warren’s? In other words, Lent is a Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Practice that is foreign to born-again Protestantism and Calvinism. Lutherans and Anglicans didn’t go far enough in attending to what the Bible requires.

      • Steven Douglas

        Hopefully we identify with Christ every day.

        Questions for you: do you celebrate Christmas? Do you celebrate Resurrection Day? Do you take the Lord’s Supper? Have you been baptized? Have you been married in a wedding ceremony?

        If you have answered yes to any of the above, congratulations, you participate in outward, symbolic acts of devotion. They are not the devotion itself, but the act of devotion performed in front of others. And it is healthy for you to do so.

        Lent is merely a similar outward act of devotion in an attempt to appreciate Jesus’ sacrifice and hardship on our behalf, similar to our partaking of the Lord’s Supper is an attempt to identify ourselves with Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for us.

        If the outward form becomes the devotion itself, if it is “just what we do,” Then it is not devotional and is dead “faith,” but just because something is done outwardly dies not mean it is inherently dead faith or sin. It is merely a means.

        Do you engage in evangelism? That is a commanded outward form of devotion in an attempt to win others to Jesus. So is a little smudy black ashen cross.

        I would be curious to hear what you believe the Bible “requires” that has not been accomplished by Lutherans and Anglicans.

        • Who says I don’t believe in outward forms? What, if I do then the more outward forms the merrier or holier? Have you not remembered that the early church had to wrestle with what to do about outward forms, or the Reformation? The solution by Paul and Reformed was not to add Lent to the mix.

          So where do you think the Bible requires Lent? Or is it simply optional, a piety enhancement?

          • Steven Douglas

            If you have really read what I have posted, you will see I am not advocating a more the merrier approach to outward forms, but from both a Lutheran and Reformed perspective, we represent and testify to Christ in our ever word, thought, and deed. We say something (either true or untrue) about God to the watching world with all we do.

            While Paul is clear that we add nothing to our justification by our words and actions – “it is the gift of God so that no man may boast” – and isn’t that the matter both Luther and the Reformers sought to avoid? Even so, even Paul said 5hat in his sufferings he was filling up what was lacking in Christ’s suffering. Paul also went to the temple and fulfilled the requirements of a nazarite pledge, offering a sacrifice and shaving his head. Was that justification or devotional obedience? Paul said and did nothing that would contradict the observance of Lent unless that observance was relied upon for justification. I have yet to meet a Catholic or a mainliner who viewed it that way.

            Again, Lent is not at all about justification, but about devotion, in the same way baptism is about devotion. Baptism does not and cannot save us. Faith does, and that’s a gift. Lent’s devotional time is merely an opportunity to, as Luther said, “tune the heart” for worship as we meditate on what Christ has accomplished for us and the depth loving service our God and King took on for us.

            Obviously the Bible does not require it and we can debate all day about the Regulation Principle, but observing an optional devotional time should not be an impediment to our faith, our theology, or our fellowship.

    • Keith Miller

      Steven, thanks for reading. As to whether your strategy of adopting the religious form of the Roman Catholics and Mainliners will entice them to reform their understanding of Lent, I suggest that the exact opposite may occur. Lent has a certain cultural meaning and if you observe its form, the observer will likely assume that you mean it the way most people do.

      Here’s what I wrote last year on this point:

      Lent has become the spiritual cousin of the New Year’s Resolution. In light of the Colossians passage noted above, Evangelicals ought to know that fasting won’t make them better. The wider American culture doesn’t. A friend of mine was recently asked the What are you giving up for Lent? question by two of his non-believing co-workers. He was not observing the fast, but both of them were! From my experience, it almost seems as though modern spiritual-not-religious people have constructed a Lent which fulfills the Reformers’ worst nightmare. Self-improvement is the watchword, not humility towards God.

      • Steven Douglas

        Keith, thanks for the engagement. I have not found that to be the case. While serving as a chaplain for an assisted living community made up of largely Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Catholic residents, Lent and other “traditional” elements of worship were part and parcel. I could not just ignore them. As a baptist, many of these things were foreign and I had an initial knee-jerk reaction because they were inherently outward form. But as I studied them, their purpose, and their practice, I found a devotional richness. As I talked with our residents about their traditions, I found that many had a good understanding of the meaning underlying the forms. I had the opportunity to use those outward forms to point, from the pulpit and in the hallways, toward the deeper meaning underneath the form.

        I agree we don’t need the outward forms, they are the development of men. We don’t need to even celebrate Christmas – And some don’t! But where we need to be really careful is that we are not perceived as rejecting these people because their form is unnecessary.

        The form could lead to unfaithfulness or act as a “place-saver” for genuine faith, but that is where faithful preaching, teaching, and engagement is needed. I have seen plenty of unfaithfulness in Baptist and other Evangelical churches. It is how we respond that is important. We must not be mere argumentative theologians but pastors of hearts. Let’s not throw the babies out with the bathwater, and let’s remember that sometimes the bathwater is all the baby knows. Jesus can cleanse even that.

        • Keith Miller

          Let’s not throw the babies out with the bathwater, and let’s remember that sometimes the bathwater is all the baby knows. Jesus can cleanse even that.

          Eloquently put. Thank you for your heart on these matters.

  • Inasmuch as Lent might be about “laying down a law” or earning grace it would certainly be vile. But in my experience (as an Evangelical who has been practicing Lent the past few years) this is not the case. Fasting is certainly accepted as normative by Christ (“When you fast …”). But, it is to be done privately (between me and God) not as a public exposition of supposed righteousness. And anything like this undertaken for the purpose of drawing closer to Christ cannot be a bad thing, can it?

  • Bob T


    Good article. More time needs to be spent on understanding the “regulative principle” (RG) of worship handed down by our Reformed brethren who escaped Rome. RG is a Biblical principle for the visible Church. What believers want to do as individuals is another type of liberty but when institutionalizing Lent inside a visible church it takes on another meaning for the average member – one that attracts the flesh more to the extra-biblical form then to those forms of worship that Scripture “actually commands.”

    You might say Christ did give us a Church calendar – he commanded us to worship on the Lord’s Day weekly through the preaching of his word, and to regularly commemorate his death and Resurrection in a meal as both a means of grace and “remembrance” of what he accomplished for us. Even baptism of our members is a constant reminder of the work of Christ and
    the Spirit. All are “commanded” by our Lord. We are commanded to sing praises, discipline our members and make disciples as we war against the flesh by the Spirit. Need we more?

    Why do men believe they need to go beyond what God has commanded in Scripture and invent human institutions or traditions (whatever you want to call it) outside of the clear teaching and commands of Scripture when it comes to worship or mortification of the flesh ?? Maybe it is because Lent (man made rules of engagement) is easier to accomplish than actually resisting temptation ? Who by failing to keep Lent or failing to practice Lent altogether is one step closer to holiness ?? And can one who has “kept Lent” believe they are any holier toward God if he continues to harbor sin in his heart? Those who find relief in keeping Lent are easily deceived as to the true nature of “putting off” and “putting on” the old and new man (Eph.4, Gal 5). These deal with fruits of the Spirit and of the flesh, not human calendars or fasting.
    Fasting for individuals is certainly not prohibited but it is never
    called a “fruit of the Spirit” for all the good it may be accounted to
    obtain for it’s adherents.

    As Calvin rightly put it – fasting has a purpose but it is not “the thing itself” that we are called to do. Taking a historical event (like Christ in the dessert) and making it a “regulative” principle is not only unbiblical but a dangerous hermeneutic; e.g. should all Christians be living communal lives since a group of early Church historically sold all their possession and lived among their members (Acts 4:32-35)?

    Many attempt to avoid the embarrassment of these observations by making the tradition of Lent “voluntary” but we all know what pride, conscience and peer pressure does for those who do not partake… they are looked down upon as folks not interested in spiritual growth. When in fact, they are the most interested, but only through those means by which God himself ordained in his Word. The Pharisees but a hedge around the law for the reason that if they did not trespass the hedge they felt they would not
    to break the law … it was not long before that hedge became the law.
    Bob T

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  • hcat

    I think there are spiritual disciplines that are useful. Colossians tells us that there are spiritual disciplines that are useless. It was disappointing that not even Dallas Willard ever really gave us a good analysis of this.

  • hcat

    Mardi Gras is one argument in Keith’s favor. Ramadan is another.

  • K. Tanner Barfield

    What a great article with fantastic quotes. I fail to understand why any protestant would partake in Lent. The pope must be laughing his hat off every time a protestant joins Rome in one of their religious rituals. Thank you!

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