Is Lent Biblical? Should Christians observe Lent? The Catholic Church and a surprisingly large number of Protestant Christian denominations do observe this religious practice. Yet, neither the name Lent nor its customs are found in the bible as a pattern to follow. The word “lent” comes from the Old English word for “long.” This is simply because the time of year it takes place is when the days are growing longer in spring.
Should Christians observe Christmas, but not Lent?
One could correctly argue that the word Christmas, coming from “Christ Mass” (a Catholic Church service honoring the birth of Christ) is not biblical. Its customs are also not following a biblical pattern. However, I believe that Christmas does honor Jesus as the Son of God, and provides a good opportunity to tell the story of the Good News. Unto us a Child is born, who will take away the sins of the world. For those reasons, I welcome the practice of a Christmas celebration, as long as it includes honoring the Christ of Christmas.
Nevertheless I strongly believe that Christians should not participate in Lent. Why? Let’s see why it does more harm than good to its observers, and to the Good News Gospel of Jesus.
Is Lent Biblical? The ashes say no.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. Christians and Non-Christians have seen people wearing ashes on their forehead even if they do not understand why it is done. The reasons ashes are worn are the reasons Christians should not do it.
A Presbyterian liturgy guide explains why to wear ashes and what is said as the mark is given. “On Ash Wednesday we are to be marked with ashes for two reasons; to indicate we are fasting, and to “Remember, man/woman, you are dust and to dust, you will return.”“
The first reason clearly promotes biblically wrong behavior. The explicit instructions Jesus set for fasting are to not dress or act in a way that tells others you are fasting. “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.” Matthew 6:16
The second reason, we being dust and ashes, is even more wrong per the Bible. We were never ashes, but we were a pile of dust before God breathed His spirit into us at creation. Once the spirit came in, this flesh became merely an earth suite housing an eternal being. Mankind is one with Father God and in right standing and full fellowship with God. “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” Genesis 2:7
The fall of the first Adam separated us from that fellowship. The perfection of the second Adam, Jesus, fully restores the relationship. We become what the Bible describes as a new creation, as if born again. Our flesh may be just dust, but it is not what or who we are. He accounts us as righteous. All of our sins are forgiven, and we are not returning to the dust. At death, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead will unite our spirit with Christ in the place He has prepared for us in heaven.
Is Lent Biblical? The other Lenten Practices say no.
The rest of the ritual behavior is not biblical because it runs contrary to our redemption. Here is a customary explanation of what is to be the focus of our works during Lent. This also comes word for word from a conservative denomination of the Presbyterian Church.
“Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten Season. Lent is a forty-day period of prayer and self-examination in which we reflect upon our sins. We recognize that we sin, not only in our worst deeds. But also in our best deeds, because everything we do is in some way corrupted by our pride and self-centeredness.”
It sounds humble, and spiritual, to exercise self-discipline, self-sacrifice, and be contrite – remorseful. We are told to endure personal deprivation, fast more, pray more, and do more good works. With ashes literally on our foreheads, we are to focus on and admit that we are still sinful creatures. We are to see ourselves as dirt and ash, made of dust and sooner or later returning to dust.
Lenten penitents are to recognize their sinful nature and this demands they perform more good works and focus on repentance. Yet the New Testament recommends repentance from dead works.
So Lent is not biblical, but why is it harmful?
The problem is not just that Lent is not Biblical. The problem is that Lent is harmful. Remembering our shortcomings, and depravity, hoping to impress God with our works of contrition, is counterproductive. Our confessing sinfulness reinforces sin consciousness. Just adding human effort to humble ourselves and wallow in our unrighteousness does nothing to eliminate it. We are unwittingly denying the efficacy of the cross alone. His blood is what makes us righteous, and it is what makes us more than a pile of ashes.
“Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the [Holy] Spirit as the result of obeying the Law and doing its works, or was it by hearing [the message of the Gospel] and believing [it]? [Was it from observing a law of rituals or from a message of faith?]” Galatians 3:2 (AMPC)
Christians should be observing how glorious salvation felt the day we were born again. Rejoice that we are now free from guilt and shame. All our past, present, and future sins are washed away. If we believe Jesus paid for it all, then communion celebrates our liberty. The Lord’s Supper should take the place of ashes. Our self-condemnation adds nothing to salvation.
I submit there is a better way to celebrate the upcoming Resurrection Sunday, aka Easter. Double down on praise and thanks. Worship more, dance more, and confess more who we are, not who we were. Pray more, but not prayers of sorrow, prayers of faith. Believe that what you were promised in His Word is yours, by faith.
Act like salvation worked!
The ritual of Lent does not change from one year to the next. Next year the same issues will be there to condemn you. A true appreciation for salvation is best expressed by acting like it worked. Deny the accuser of the brethren any right to bring the sins of your past, present, or future to your remembrance. If Jesus remembers them no more, why are you? When you sin, just apologize, thank him for forgiving you, and move on. Being saved by grace does not mean you will now act perfectly all the time. What it means is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are now able to treat you as if you do.
Your job now is to trust Him to remove your sin, not just feel sorry for it. Act like your fellowship is not broken. Give more all year with a cheerful heart, not for a short time out of guilt. Let His love remove forever any sackcloth or ashes from your remembrance. Remember instead the honeymoon of when you first believed. Remember his blood really has and continually does wash you white as the whitest wedding dress there is.
- Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash