Should Christians Observe Lent?
Although I first came to faith in Christ in a non-denominational church, my Christian training was primarily in a Baptist context. Today, I don’t consider myself Baptist (at least not in the same way most contemporary Baptists do). However, I’m thankful for the influence I received at that time and wouldn’t change my experience for anything.
One thing Baptists make clear is they are not Catholics. Many Baptists even hold the idea they are not Protestants, either. Thus, as a Baptist, I was never introduced to the liturgical calendar. That belonged to the Catholics and the Protestants. As far as Baptists are concerned, the liturgical calendar is an extra-biblical observance—somewhat like their “sinner’s prayer” and altar calls—but connected to a works-salvation theology.
It wasn’t until I studied church history apart from the exclusively-Baptist and quite erroneous historical accounts found in works like B.H. Carroll’s, The Trail of Blood, and Orchard’s, The History of Baptists, that I understood what the liturgical calendar was all about.
The Christian calendar is not a biblically-mandated observance that assists in earning one’s salvation. Rather, it is a yearly pattern of observances whereby the church, the body of Christ, can remind itself of the life of Christ in the context of grace, by which we have been saved in Christ Jesus.
As we approach the season of Lent, the question often comes up (as a pastor I get asked about it frequently), whether or not Evangelicals (non-Catholics) should observe Lent. Lent is a season in the Christian liturgical calendar beginning 46 days before Easter Sunday (called Ash Wednesday). In the early church, it started as an expansion of the fasting period required for catechumens (those being prepared for baptism) before they were baptized—usually on Easter.
The 46 days are taken from Mark 1:13 where Jesus fasted and was tempted for 40 days after his baptism. The six extra days account for Sundays on which Christians are not to fast because Sunday is the Lord’s day. The Lord’s day is considered a day of celebration as it was the day of Christ’s resurrection.
So on to the question: Should Evangelical (non-Catholic) believers observe Lent?
Three reasons Christians should consider observing Lent and one reason they should not:
Lent can serve as an intentional season for believers to seek repentance.
As Christians, we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Period. We have no capacity to change our unregenerate state on our own. When Jesus died and rose again, he did so to redeem all who place their faith in him as Lord and Savior. But salvation is not the end of the Christian’s journey; it’s just the beginning. We are called to a life of sanctification—the work of God to conform us to the image of his Son, Jesus (Romans 8:29 cf. Philippians 2:13).
This means the Christian life is a life of repentance.
Repentance is the continual act of confessing (agreeing with God) and thereby turning from our sin and idols to Christ as our redeemer and Lord. Regeneration is God’s work; repentance (also a gift of God) is our responsibility. And there is nothing so refreshing and meaningful in the Christian’s journey as drawing nearer to Jesus during intentional and concentrated times of repentance.
Lent can serve as a time of preparation for deeper worship and a greater time of celebration at Easter.
Just as Sunday, the Lord’s day, is the weekly observance of the victory of our Savior over death and sin, Good Friday and Easter are the times of the Christian year that correspond with the actual dates of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
It is a season marked by joy and celebration in the church. It is a time of rejoicing that King Jesus died and rose victorious over sin and death to redeem sinners and inaugurate the kingdom of God through the New Covenant of his blood. It is a time when the church reflects on the goodness and grace of God poured out to a broken and depraved world.
By sharing (in some fashion e.g. fasting) in the sufferings of Christ during Lent, we may find a greater awakening of our hearts to the majesty of our King and his gracious work on Calvary (Philippians 3:10).
Lent can serve as a testimony to a spiritually dead world, one lost and broken by sin and idols.
The life of a Christian should be characterized by our witness for Christ. The Great Commission was our Lord’s last command and should be our first priority in service. But it’s no secret believers often find it difficult to initiate those socially-awkward conversations that are meant to confront the world with their need of a Savior.
Observing Lent, as a time of intentionally sharing in the sufferings of Christ and repenting of our sins, will likely raise questions about our faith with those in the concentric circles of our life. Co-workers, family member, and neighbors will likely, in some capacity, notice, or at least come into contact with, our revived and intentional focus on Christ and his suffering for us. That’s not to say we use our observance of the season as a tactic to initiate gospel conversations. That’s shallow and manipulative. But I am pretty certain a loving witness will be a natural by-product of a renewed and deeper walk with Christ.
Lent could serve to be a stumbling block in some cases.
This is one reason not to participate. If you see Lent as a season of penitence for the purpose of earning favor with God, or if you tend to view your Christian life in terms of performance-based acceptance, you may not want to observe the season. It could be dangerous if it reinforces that theological error.
There is nothing you or I can do to earn favor with God. Your being good does not make God more happy with you, and your failure does not make God angry with you. All of God’s wrath for sin was poured out on Jesus Christ 2000 years ago. As a believer, you are saved by the grace of God. That means no matter how good of a day you may have, you haven’t earned a stitch of favor with God; and no matter how bad of a day you might have, you are not outside the reach of his grace. But many struggle with the idea of needing to be good, or needing to suffer, or needing to work so they can keep God happy with them.
The only salvation available to humanity is the salvation rooted and perfected in the finished work of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1 cf. Romans 8:1).
The bottom line is Lent is not mandatory. It’s not a precept. It’s a tool from tradition, from our Christian heritage toolbox. If it serves to draw you into a deeper, more committed relationship with Christ, then observe it. If it doesn’t, don’t. But whatever you choose to do, don’t make it a matter of contention between believers. We’re all on a journey to draw closer to Christ.
About Scott Postma
Scott lives in North Idaho collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. He helps people cultivate their capacity to perceive and appreciate the good, the true, and the beautiful by sharing rich insights into the arts and humanities, meaningful perspective on faith and culture, and valuable tips on writing and teaching. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.