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 people 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.
“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.