Scott Postma

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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.

The liturgical calendar is a yearly pattern of observances whereby the body of Christ can remind itself of the life of Christ.

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.

 Lent is a 46-day season (40 calendar days plus 6 Sundays) for Christians to fast and repent in anticipation of the Easter Celebration.

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.

 [photo credit: Sarah Korf via photopin cc]

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.

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27 Replies

  1. Michael Koronka

    My Mom was baptist, My dad was catholic, As a youngster I attended both and by age 6 I chose the Baptist church. I do not know why I chose the Baptist church, but the worship seemed more genuine.
    Today I attend a SBC church although I just consider myself a Christian and all I want to do is please my Lord because I love him so much. He saved me from a world of sin and the pit of hell.
    These catholic rituals have done more damage to the universal church than most people could realize.
    I personally do not like anything about the catholic church because I know many catholics and their biblical understanding and relationship with God is extremely poor.
    Even in the Baptist church today, they are so eager to baptize someone that they will accept a persons desire to be baptized without much thought. In my church alone, most people that have been baptized either stop attending, or attend once in a while, or exhibit behavior that goes against the Holy Scriptures.
    When someone desires to be baptized, A pastor or church Elder should really talk with that person and explain what they are doing and how their lives must change. Not that a person can cleanse themselves, but, If you are going to profess publicly that you accept Jesus as Lord over your life, Then your life must reflect that profession. No more hanging out in bars, pool halls, and no more getting high and other such behavior that can bring shame to your profession of faith.
    Many Pastors and Church offices today treat each church like a baseball trading card with all the statistics. My pastor knows each SBC’s church baptism rate. How sad is that.
    I and many others in Christ do not like Christmas or the trees or even the egg thing at Ishtar. That is right Ishtar, not easter.
    The catholic church has many Babylonian customs incorporated into their church and many protestant churches adopted many of their phony customs and we must stop it if we are to please God.
    Jesus called on us to remember Him whenever we commune together. The Body and the Blood. This is all that we should do. Not the other stuff.
    Everyday is the Lord’s day, not just Sunday. I worship My loving Jesus all day, everyday as it should be for a Christian. We should all honor God with every part of our very being and be Thankful that God did for us what we could never do for ourselves.
    Calvary should be on every Christians mind everyday of their God given Lives.
    The church today needs to review the 7 churches in Asia and find out which one are you? Hopefully we can reflect that of the Church of Philadelphia, the only Church that was not admonished.
    Jesus last word to the Church was the Revelation to the Apostle John and it is overlooked by many Pastors today.
    Revelation is the easiest book in the Bible to understand and yet too many Pastors run from it. Why is that? What are they afraid of? truth? There is no reason for biblical illiteracy in America and yet it is at an epidemic proportion.
    It is time for an AWAKENING and who is going to stand up? We need Pastors to put away petty differences and stand for the word of God. It seems most just want a comfortable American dream and great retirement.
    Please Pray for the churches in America and around the World, Especially our persecuted brethren.
    Which part of scripture tells us to have a birthday party for Jesus? Which part of scripture tells us to put on the latest fashions and have annual celebration of the work of the Cross and hide boiled and decorated eggs and buy baskets and candy?
    Repentance should be daily because we all sin everyday of our lives, even if it is unintentional. Fasting and prayer should be done on a personal basis and not be advertised. It is between the person and God.
    We need to give the Helper more acknowledgement in our lives and pray to the Helper or Holy Spirit. Jesus did send the Helper as he said he would.
    We have to remember that during worship, the Eyes of Heaven are upon us searching the hearts of man.
    Curtail invitations after sermons, most are emotional decisions at the moment.
    There needs to be more new believers classes that take the person deep into the scriptures.
    Pastors need to ensure Sunday School teachers are being led by the Holy Spirit and not their own desires. It easy to sort them out, just observe them for a while. See if their commentaries are scriptural.

  2. Ken Burk

    Jesus told us that “by their fruits you shall know them.” Applying this idea to the practice of lent, what has it produced? Mardi Gras/Carnaval, the Catholic habit of one last bash of sin before lent! The UnBiblical self-flagellation that follows those orgies is itself damaging and useless against sinful passions. (See Col. 2:23.) We are called to be holy year-round, not to have a schedule of sin before regret.

  3. Alison

    I enjoyed the article. I grew up in the Church of the Nazarene and converted to Catholicism. I’ll be honest in the fact that the title of the article seems to suggest that Catholics aren’t Christians. This thought seems to be a quiet, pervasive undertone in a lot of Evangelical communities. In my opinion, it shouldn’t matter what road you take or the music you listen to while on that road … as long as it is headed to Christ. One inclusive loving body of Christ. Just my two cents.

    1. Alice, I can see how the title might suggest that thought. But certainly we would all agree a Christian is one who has placed his or her faith in Christ alone. That being said, there is a universal distinction between Catholic and Protestant in each denomination’s worldview and theology. However, both do share a rich tradition of core beliefs about Jesus that should not be overlooked. And sometimes certain traditions are more prominent in one worldview or the other. I hope the article highlights those traditions and celebrations that would draw believers into a deeper fellowship with our Redeemer. Thanks so much for reading and interacting on the blog. Many blessings to you.

  4. Hey Scott, great post! I was raised Baptist myself, developed an appreciation for the church calendar in more recent years. Love this: “If it serves to draw you into a deeper, more committed relationship with Christ, then observe it.” Amen! God bless ya!

    1. Thanks, Rob. Honored you stopped by. Lots to appreciate in the church’s diverse worship treasure box. Blessings!

  5. Andrea Benito

    Pastor. I so appreciate this particular commentary. I had considered participating in Lent this year, but did not do so, simply because I was conflicted on the subject itself. My husband’s family is largely Catholic & I being the “good Baptist” (previously) thought it was & saw it as an empty attempt to prove one’s worthiness, pompous even. But now I believe, is ok if done w/ the right intent. I now see it in a different light, a blessing for the advancement of a closer, more intimate relationship w/ Jesus. I did miss the opportunity this year but wish to put more study into the subject and use it as a means of heart preparation for the purpose of gratitude, and a closer walk w/ The Lord. As you know or may not know Ed and I go exclusively to the church of HIS choice. I was riding the fence for a few years going back & forth from the church that was so dear to my heart and the place where The Lord & my husband was trying to lead us. Finally, I submitted fully (and how The Lord has blessed us & finally, finally, we are yolking in unison w/ Christ, were even reading the Bible and pray daily together, can u believe that!) This Christian church we attend does observe lent. I’m excited for next year’s lent season and plan on taking that opportunity to prepare my heart for the Easter season. Thnx so much for touching on this!
    Love you guys!
    Andrea

    1. Andrea,
      It’s such a blessing to hear how the Lord is working in your life! I’ve found Lent provides spiritual prompts in my day-to-day life when it’s easy to get busy and take the Lord for granted. Thanks for sharing your journey. As always, blessing to you and your family.

  6. VERY thoughtfully written Scott! I appreciated the information you gave about the 6 extra Sundays. I’d never heard that before {since the whole idea of participating in Lent is new to me}…that the Lord’s day is a celebration, therefore there was no fasting. Excellent post!

    1. Thanks, Caryn. Glad it was helpful. Likewise, the Christian calendar was new to me until just a few years ago. I’m still getting acquainted with it, but it has been a fascinating and insightful part of my spiritual journey. Peace and blessings!

  7. Michele

    Scott, I grew up Catholic but was baptized in Christianity Nov 2009. The first lent I observed as a Christian was strange. I wasn’t sure if I should fast and follow prior traditions or not. My sisters all went to Catholic schools, but I did not (many years difference amongst siblings). I am the most spiritual of everyone. I don’t blame my parents, they did what they could, what they knew, and were taught. Your ‘bottom line’ is exactly what I have learned more recently, it’s supposed to bring you closer to God. I never knew that before. We were told to not eat meat on Fridays, but then there were exceptions (I’ve had priests give us grace for a Friday wedding). I also never knew about not fasting on Sundays. Unfortunately I was never one to question why we did or didn’t do things, I just did. I now try to question the reasons for things. Thanks for reminding us all!!

    1. Thanks for sharing your journey, Michele. What a great point you made: “I was never one to question why we did or didn’t do things, I just did. I now try to question the reasons for things.” I once heard someone say a dishonest skeptic has her mind made up and doesn’t want to be confused by the facts. But an honest skeptic wants truth, but wants an explanation for it. Thanks for reading and for sharing. Peace and blessings!

  8. Scott, thanks for the thoughtful look at this oft misunderstood season. I really appreciated your reason to NOT participate as well. Well said!

    1. Thanks for reading, Jason. I appreciate your thoughts on the topic as well. I’m posting the link for others to read. http://bit.ly/NBmK7H Peace and blessings.

  9. Growing up I attended a Baptist school and Baptist churches. After we were married my husband attended Liberty University, which as you know, has it roots in Baptist theology. As a child I thought Lent was something only catholic churches participated in since my catholic friends would tell me what item they were “giving up” and I had not been taught about Lent through school or church. As an adult in my early 40’s I have found myself searching God’s word more and more on my own to gather it’s truths and traditions and solidify my faith. (Sad to say it took me this long to step away from the spoon feeding.) Your post has been great since I’ve been reading a lot about Lent this year and have been trying to decide how I’ll take part in this tradition as a way of identifying with Christ and showing gratitude for His indescribable gift of salvation. I love how you mentioned that it can be used as a tool to open conversations with those around us about our faith. Thanks Scott!

    1. Kim, Thanks for commenting. I relate very well to your journey. I also appreciate the way you said, taking part is “a way of identifying with Christ and showing gratitude for His indescribable gift of salvation.” You’re absolutely right! Peace and Blessings!

  10. Angela

    Thank you, Pastor Scott, for a very insightful post regarding an oft confusing subject.
    Having been born & raised Catholic, including attending 3 years of parochial school, I am well familiar with the Lenten season, & saw how legalistic of a practice it can quickly become. As a child, however, I loved the thought that if I gave up dessert, for example, & took note of that ‘suffering’ in a journal, I could use that time, when I was not eating the dessert, to consider Christ’s suffering, on my behalf, on the Cross. In adulthood, I sadly began to mock the season, saying I was giving up smoking, surfing, or some other such nonsense, that I was not actively involved with at all.
    Later, the Lord graciously drew me to become involved in a non-denominational, expository style of teaching church, where the senior pastor spent a great deal of time on hermeneutics, the history of the early church, & etc..
    One thing in particular that I was extremely blessed to sit under for many years, was his Easter week teachings. He taught every night from “Palm Sunday” to Easter Sunday, regarding what that day would have been like for our Lord and His disciples. So 8 amazing teachings, that vastly deepened my understanding of, & anticipation for celebrating the unfathomable gift of Christ’s glorious resurrection. I especially loved his, “Good Friday” teachings…since I had always struggled with even the name of that, ‘terrible, wonderful day.’ He always ended our Good Friday night teachings with, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!” The Lord used his teachings to lead me to a place regarding Lent very much like what you so graciously explained in this post.
    I now know that Lent is a gift of time that I can choose to give myself, to more purposefully prepare my heart to be renewed each year, in the unspeakable joy of our risen Lord. Maranatha!

    1. Thank you, Angela. I love your statement that “Lent is a gift of time that I can choose to give myself, to more purposefully prepare my heart to be renewed…” That’s it! Peace and blessings!

  11. Elizabeth

    Excellent thoughts. Very helpful! Thank you!

    1. You’re welcome, Elizabeth. I’m glad it was helpful. Peace and blessings!

  12. Christe

    Thank you for sending this. I needed the insight & will be practicing Lent for much better reasons this year.

    1. Christe, you’re welcome. I’m glad it met a need. Peace and blessings!

  13. Toni

    Thank you for so willingly sharing your knowledge. God bless.

    1. You’re welcome, Toni. Have a blessed week!

  14. Tammy

    Thank you for this great article. I’m glad you posted this. Very helpful.

    1. You’re welcome. Glad it was a help.