The Lenten Brouhaha

One of the results of having grown up in a Reformed Baptist home is that while many of my RB brethren understand the insidious nature of certain religious practices, I have no experience of them.  Sometimes I fail to appreciate the spiritual peril from which I was preserved.

Lent is a good example.  It never struck me as anything other than one more silly thing which Catholics do – certainly not as a danger to be avoided.  I’m simply baffled by the idea of Calvinists observing Lent.  Consequently my response has been admittedly silly.

I saw a comment Wednesday about Lent and Christmas which got me thinking: while I celebrate Christmas, the folks who also celebrate Lent are probably the same pImageeople who mouth absurdities about putting Christ back in Christmas – as though He could be excluded from anything!  The result was my admittedly low-brow tweak of Treebeard celebrating Ash Wednesday, “Putting the ‘Ent’ Back in ‘Lent.’”  It was gentle mockery of a childish practice, nothing more.

But perhaps I was mistaken.

It has slowly dawned on me this week that the folks at The Gospel Coalition have reached down from their lofty pinnacle to tell the rest of us that Lent is all about Jesus and that we really ought to consider celebrating it.  Childish practice turns sinister when respected pastors tell me that I ought to engage in it.  How should I respond?

Earlier this week Pastor Richard Barcellos entered Matt Smethurst’s comment thread and thoughtfully engaged the issue.  Now in case you didn’t realize it you ought to know: TGC doesn’t do thoughtful engagement.  They’re fine with critics who rant and rave and can be easily dismissed, but they hesitate to approve comments which involve serious critique.  Rich’s comments predictably disappeared, but he helpfully reposted at the Reformed Baptist Fellowship.

Take the time to read his entire remarks.  Both of his points involve careful exegesis, and both demonstrate how the rationale behind Lent turns the gospel on its head.  It takes the very things which Christ has done for us and requires us to enter into them and – to some degree at least – to do them for ourselves.  Yes, we are to imitate Christ, but not in every way.

“’…entering into the wilderness with Jesus’? What does that mean and where has God revealed that it is His will for us to enter such? The fact is that Christ already entered the wilderness for us and won! This statement betrays a hermeneutic that is too horizontal, allegorizing, and misses the point of Christ’s wilderness experience. He was driven there to be tempted as our representative and win; unlike Adam in the garden and Israel in the wilderness, Jesus does not give-in to the devil.”

Christ’s redemptive ministry was unique, and he expressly does not require us to repeat every aspect of his ministry.  I would add that Hebrews 10:11-14 teaches us that it is the height of folly to attempt to recreate the sacrificial aspects of Christ’s earthly ministry!

One of the arguments which Rich hints at is that Lent necessarily moralizes the gospel.  It places the burden of redemption on our own shoulders when Christ, our second Adam, has already shouldered that load.  With that in mind, consider Calvin’s words on Lent, which have been helpfully provided this week by Dr. R. Scott Clark.  Calvin saw the practice of Lent as an example of the legalism of the Roman church growing out of its failure to acknowledge the uniqueness of Christ.

Image“Then the superstitions 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 so it is; Lent is nothing but a burden laid on the backs of the church by those who thought we needed to contribute righteous acts to our own salvation.  So how did we arrive at the point where those who claim the role of defenders of the gospel are encouraging Christians to shoulder this burden again and to engage in a legal fast not commanded in Scripture?

I believe Pastor Jeremy Walker gives the answer in this delightful post from a year ago.  Note the connection he makes between the failure of Sabbath observance and the rise of Lenten superstition.

“Frankly, it seems odd to me that many of those who have proved very quick to abandon all manner of patterns and habits and convictions of Christians over decades or centuries, retain Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter (Resurrection) Sunday as set in stone in the calendar, one of the high points of the Christian year (which pattern, we are informed, provides the central event in the church year – the climax of worship, expectation, and celebration, an exercise of the church’s discipline). If you’re not sold on Easter, you might be dismissed as one of the “diehard Reformed” for whom “this [Easter] Monday is like every other Monday because Easter Sunday is like every other Sunday.” To say that Easter Sunday is like every other Sunday is not to suggest an upgraded view of Easter Sunday but a downgraded view of every other one.”

Whenever Christians forget the calendar which God has given them, they inevitably invent their own calendar.  While God’s calendar is one of remembrance of His redemptive acts, the calendars of men are always more burdensome, in some way involving us in the heavy lifting of our own redemption.

This is merely a symptom of the greater disease of legalism.  All men will follow some law; those who deliberately ignore the law which God has given them must invent a new law for themselves.  In the same way that anarchy always gives way to police states, so antinomianism always gives way to authoritarianism.

And with that observation, TGC’s support of Lent begins to make sense.  The “New Calvinism” has generally adopted the mild antinomianism of New Covenant thinkers like D.A. Carson, the elder statesman of the Coalition.  Any rejection of the law, no matter how mild, leads down the path of legalistic entanglement.  Isn’t it fascinating that the very folks who scoff at Sabbath observance are now telling us we ought to enter the wilderness with Christ and do battle with the Devil!  And in the next breath they will suggest that we who observe the laws of God are placing ourselves under a burdensome regulation!

Let this little dust-up remind you of a fundamental truth: there are two types of Christians – those who follow the laws of God, and legalists.



February 15, 2013 · 7:40 am

31 responses to “The Lenten Brouhaha

  1. P-Loner

    excellent as always Tom, thank you!

  2. Good stuff, TC! PS: Is your middle initial G?🙂

  3. just applying the hermeneutical tactics I learned at TGC.

  4. BTW, someone texted me this morning, pointing out that other comments over at the TGC post disagreed. Maybe the difference is that I got practical, suggesting they apologize and take it down.

    • Perhaps, but I suspect it is more sinister. The objecting comments which they tend to approve are often either terse or passionate. It is easy to set such comments aside: “Look at the absurdity of our critics!” What they consistently hide are comments like yours, which are calm, reasoned, biblical, and which demand a refutation which it would be very difficult to make.

      To put it simply, I don’t think they like the idea of having to actually defend themselves. Perhaps it’s beneath them.

    • I made a brief reply and suggested they rethink the whole thing, giving up Lent for Lent. My reply was brief. Perhaps yours exceeded a word length (although I have seen some long replies at other posts there).

      I believe the allegorical and ahistorical treatment of scripture here undermines the gospel and shows, once again, why the Puritans, and evangelicals who share their gospel-driven aspirations, generally don’t embrace Lent.

      The author writes that Lent “prepares the way for the Lord” just as John the Baptist did. But that implies that the Lord hasn’t come already and finished His work; or, at least, that He has to keep on coming, every year, through the liturgical calendar, to keep working on the salvation he hasn’t finished yet.

      Further, it implies that some seasons and days are more holy than others and sanctification is attained during those few sacred times. This is contrary to the gospel-created reality that all of our lives are to be holy to the Lord.

      Why not this Lenten season, seminary students, pastors, devout Christians of all kinds, think deeply about what Christ has earned once and for all in the cross and, so, give up Lent for Lent?

      • John,

        I saw your comment after I had composed my answer. It is an excellent comment, and more or less corresponds with Rich’s comment. Why they left it up after taking down Rich’s I do not know. I do believe that TGC has a history of squelching debate if it seems at all critical of their own people. As for the comment length, Rich’s comment was up, and they took it down. Various readers will draw their own conclusions, but it certainly looks bad.

  5. Reblogged this on The Lighthearted Calvinist and commented:
    “All men will follow some law; those who deliberately ignore the law which God has given them must invent a new law for themselves.” Amen.

  6. MikeR

    As a child I observed Lent was all about works–what are you giving up this year, was the question all the Catholic children were asking. Every year I gave up giving things up as an ignorant Protestant, and still unbelieving, child. It’s not just growing up in an RB home, it being observant of the world around us.

  7. This is an excellent reminder that “It is finished!”

  8. Thanks Tom, I made some folks mad or disdainful when I tweeted I didn’t need this Romanist add-on called Lent.

  9. Andy Spaulding

    Well said Tom. As I was reading this, Colossians 2:20-23 kept coming to mind. “Romanism is ideally suited to the fleshly, carnal, unspiritual man. But the Gospel of God and its true spiritual worship is boring and unintelligible to the unspiritual man.”(John Owen- Apostasy from the Gospel)

  10. But I LIKE DA Carson and some of TGC!

  11. I wish to go on record as appreciating this excellent article.

    –D. Scott Meadows

  12. Pingback: Why Lent? « Perennial Student

  13. I’m giving up the Pope for Lent, just like the RCC did!

  14. Good thoughts. I’m interested to know how exactly they commended the observation of Lent? Were they recommending Lenten fasts, or simply contemplation of the Savior? I think there is a big difference.

    • Hey Drifter – I mean Parson – if you read the linked articles you’ll see that they commend both. They seem to say that giving up something (a fast, albeit a rather paltry one) is a good way of contemplating the Savior. I see not one, but two problems with this. First, commending a fast unknown in Scripture will inevitably lead to a requirement, as Scott Clark noted in the article linked in the comments here. Second, why should we contemplate the Savior any differently during Lent? Is he not to be contemplated during the rest of the year? As Jeremy Walker might put it, the Christian has been given 52 holy days every year on which to contemplate the Savior and nothing in Scripture suggests that we need anything more or less.

      • Thanks, Rev. Chantry. I certainly agree with what you’re saying about commanding “paltry” fasts and trying to use it as a yoke for others, or as a way to get closer to the Savior. I agree that the Sabbath is the first day of the week, but I’m not convinced that it can’t be helpful to have additional days to hear sermons on the person and work of the Savior. God never said the church couldn’t meet more than 52 times per year. As a Baptist, Lent is certainly not something from your heritage. Though I would not want to be too harsh with brothers or sisters from the Reformed Anglican or Continental traditions who may have a custom of hearing sermons on the atonement this time of year, without joining to it a superstitious keeping of days or silly fasts. I can’t say there’s anything wrong with hearing sermons about Jesus on any day of the year. Thanks for your post, brother!

      • I agree with you. I wish we had time and energy to hear sermons every day! I believe we’re on the same page with this.

  15. If one is looking to Christ alone, then we do good works NOT to get us closer to God, but FROM our relationship established by him through faith alone, per Eph. 2:8-10.

    The Lenten tradition is to try to get one to God, not flowing from God.

    Years ago, after Anglicanism, I gave up Lent for Lent, and see Jesus as my righteousness, rest, and law-keeper. Also, post-Presbyterian, I am sad to see TGC embrace a popish relic (pun intended).

    Traditions such as Lent are brought in to fill up a gospel-vacuum that’s developed. If one’s faith is shakey, then traditions appeal.

  16. Aren’t we given 365 “holy days every year on which to contemplate the Savior” ?