Should Evangelical Christians Observe Lent?

wildernessIn the words of Juliet contemplating her new heart throb Romeo, said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet had a mad crush on Romeo who belonged to a long-time rival family in their fair city of Verona. Romeo was smitten too, of course, and listened in on Juliet’s soliloquy from below the balcony. As soon as he heard Juliet’s idea for a name change, he was ready to do anything to win his heart’s desire. Experience shows that changing names or meanings of words may work for a while but like a rubber band, they snap back to their etymological roots.

Such is the case with “Lent.” Growing up as a practicing Roman Catholic, I observed Lent. We were prepared by the nuns of our school to “give up something” for Lent. I can’t say that I remember why, except that the race to hold out to the end began on Ash Wednesday. On that day we were taken to the church and the Monsignor put ashes on our foreheads. For the next forty days we struggled to get by on fewer candy bars, and sweets, and fish sticks on Fridays.

The term Lent derives from an Anglo-Saxon word lencten meaning “spring” and lenctentid which means “springtide” and stands for the March (the month) and also from a Latin word meaning fortieth.[1] Since becoming a follower of Christ, I have discovered that not everything I learned at St. Mary’s Catholic School was wrong; just some things; and one very important thing. That thing is what Lent is all about in the Roman Catholic Church.

Lent belongs to the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. Church authorities claim that the practice of Lent has tradition and apostolic origins. They teach that the apostles of Jesus prescribed it and this rule can be seen from the writings of the early church fathers (AD 200-400).

The biblical grounds come from two Bible stories: Moses’ meeting with God on Mt. Sinai and Jesus’ resistance of Satan’s temptations while in the wilderness (Matt 4; Luke 4). One Catholic writer cited these stories as biblical justification saying:

Of course, the number “40” has always had special spiritual significance regarding preparation. On Mount Sinai, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, “Moses stayed there with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating any food or drinking any water” (Ex 34:28). Elijah walked “40 days and 40 nights” to the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb (another name for Sinai) (I Kgs 19:8). Most importantly, Jesus fasted and prayed for “40 days and 40 nights” in the desert before He began His public ministry (Mt 4:2).[2]

So, I was very surprised to see a blog directing evangelical Christians to a devotional written by two evangelical pastors for spiritual practices during the forty days of Lent. I was even more surprised to see the idea spoken well of by an evangelical who writes for an evangelical organization. I have not read the entire devotional and found nothing in what I did read that gave me cautions. However, my concern is that evangelicals want to borrow from another tradition that they don’t really know. So, let me mention a few cautions for evangelicals who might think these are good ideas.

1. Recognize that there is in each heart a “bent” toward self-meritorious works. Something inside every one of us wants to take some credit—even the least little bit – for earning favor with God. But the gospel is all of grace. The “thing” I mentioned above that distinguishes Lent as Lent is called “penance.” “Doing” penance is the vernacular among Roman Catholics for “a supernatural moral virtue whereby the sinner is disposed to hatred of his sin as an offence against God and to a firm purpose of amendment and satisfaction.”[3] It is this last little phrase that separates “penance” from “repentance.” Repentance is turning away from one’s love for sin and to Christ believing his work on the cross as the only sufficient sacrifice for one’s sin. Penance is different. Penance includes doing something – even the least little thing that I can do to make reparations to God – something that satisfies God’s justice. Lenten penance is the pathway of reparations. Penance may include saying the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross or some act of charity as Pope Benedict’s Lenten encyclical advises thus earning merit with God.[4] Some verses that use the word “repentance” have the word “penance” instead, in the official Catholic Bible and liturgy. While the Catholic Church teaches repentance, it puts great weight on the notion that we can do something morally virtuous to answer the charges of sin against us. This is a different gospel (Gal 1:6); not the gospel of Jesus or Paul or the Bible – anywhere. In fact, the notion of gaining favor with God through personal merit undermines grace entirely and promotes pride.

2. Penance is a gospel-killer for gospel-trusting evangelicals. Lent is not about Jesus, as the bloggers want us to think; it’s about “climbing up to God.” The doctrine of doing penance to “make reparation to Divine justice,” is the very thing Paul warned against in Romans 10. Penance is not of faith. Paul said, “But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Rom 10:6-10; cf., Deut 30:14)

Paul says that we can’t do anything to gain a right standing with God. We cannot climb up to meet with God; he must condescend to us, which he has done in his Son. Yet in Pope Benedict’s 2013 encyclical Catholics are encouraged in Lenten practices because, “The Christian life consists in continuously scaling the mountain to meet God and then coming back down, bearing the love and strength drawn from him, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God’s own love.”

3. A reading into the text. The Roman Catholic Church’s biblical foundation for the practice of Lent is bad exegesis and worse pastoral application. Two things matter here and they are important. First, nowhere in the New Testament do we see the apostles teaching a tradition of Lent. Nowhere do they teach that we are to imitate Moses’ forty days on Mt. Sinai with God or Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. These were one-time occurrences in salvation history. Surely, we learn from Jesus about spiritual warfare, but no one can reduplicate his redemptive purposes in the defeat of Satan in the wilderness or at the cross. Second, and by way of implication, the Lenten practice is based on very poor exegesis (reading out of Scripture) and qualifies as eisegesis (reading into Scripture). We must read the Bible according to its own rules.

4. The same gospel that saves sanctifies. I have been concerned about the rise of Roman Catholic practices of spirituality among evangelicals. One seminary that I know of uses exclusively Roman Catholic writers in their course on spiritual formation. Consider this: it he Roman Catholic Church gospel errs on the matter of grace and works for salvation, they err on spiritual formation, too. The gospel is all of grace. It is God alone who justifies the ungodly who deserve punishment not mercy. But, praise to his Name, he gives mercy to the undeserving! “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8, 9). I am not suggesting that evangelicals never read the works of Roman Catholics, but only that they be read with gospel-logical discernment. Thankfully, evangelicals in history are also getting a renewed focus, and they should be read. Read the Puritans, the 17th, 18th and 19th century evangelicals; study their lives (Heb 13:7) and learn how to grow in grace through the gospel rather than through self-reparations.

5. Celebrate your Christian freedom in Christ. This last comment was my son-in-law’s idea when we were discussing this matter. Surely the high point of our salvation is the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul says that if Christ isn’t raised from the dead, our faith is empty of any saving power or grace. Perhaps we should view the Easter season with joy and feasting rather than sorrowful introspection. Christ’s cross is our greatest freedom! Christ went to the cross willingly motivated by the joy set before him (Heb 12:2). Perhaps we should consider flipping the tone of the seasons of Easter and Christmas. Let Eastertime become the time of celebrating our freedom in Christ: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). So, feast! Feast on Christ and celebrate with good food and spiritual company! If you want a time of introspection about sin and repentance (not penance) (which should be a daily discipline anyway) perhaps Christmastime could serve that purpose. After all, Christ’s incarnation was in order to “save his people from their sin” (Matt 1:21). His coming reminds us of our need. But don’t allow yourself ever to fall into despair – look to have your joy of salvation renewed in Christ.

[1]Matt Smethurst, “Lent is about Jesus: A Free Devotional Guide” [on-line]; accessed 16 February 2013; available from and Fr. William Saunders, “History of Lent” [on-line]; accessed 17 February 2013; available from; Internet.

[2]Saunders, “History.”

[3]“Penance” [on-line]; accessed 18 February 2013; available from; internet.

[4]Benedict XVI, “Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI for Lent 2013” [on-line]; accessed 18 February 2013; available from; Internet.


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