Why Lent?

A Facebook friend posted a link to this column by Tom Chantry, and adds this comment: “How come many (most?) Reformed Baptists get this and many (most?) Presbyterians don’t?”

I’ve never been a Reformed Baptist (and during the years I was a Baptist I had no idea there was such a thing), but I’ve been a Presbyterian now for over twenty years, and the wife of a Presbyterian pastor for the last fifteen, so I have some idea about what Presbyterians think. And the approach to Lent that is decried in this column is foreign to my experience.

Some of the criticisms are directed toward a blog entry at The Gospel Coalition. I was not familiar with The Gospel Coalition; when I looked at their website, the only TGC blogger whose name I recognized was D. A. Carson, who Chantry refers to as “the elder statesman of the Coalition,” “a New Covenant thinker,” and one who is mildly antinomian. I have not read a great deal by D. A. Carson, so I have no idea whether those are apt descriptions. (I don’t even know what it means to be a “New Covenant thinker.”)

I agree with the criticisms of that blog entry in terms of its poor hermeneutics. Allegorizing either John the Baptist’s ministry of preparing the way of the Lord, or Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, to make them models for our observance of Lent, is using the Scripture out of context.

“Make room for him in your thoughts and activities and affections” is a good lesson for us to learn, but it is no more fitting to base it on John’s ministry than on the “no room at the inn” motif at Christmas. (And that would be true even if the usual notion of Mary and Joseph turned away from one inn after another because they were all full were accurate, which seems highly improbable.) Likewise, we may find ourselves in a “wilderness” of some kind at various times in our lives, but the suggestion of “entering into the wilderness with Jesus” is likely to create misunderstandings both about Jesus’ purpose in the wilderness and how we should view our own “wilderness” experiences.

It seems to me quite a jump, however, to go from pointing out poor hermeneutics in one blog entry to claiming that Lent “places the burden of redemption on our own shoulders when Christ, our second Adam, has already shouldered that load.” This view of Lent as an attempt to “contribute righteous acts to our own salvation” is the one I always heard when I was Baptist. But I’ve discovered, since becoming a Presbyterian, that a fair amount of what I heard in Baptist churches about the beliefs and motivations of people in other Christian denominations was simply not accurate.

No doubt there are people who view Lent as an opportunity to contribute to their own salvation – perhaps it is a widespread view. (Though from listening to a Catholic priest explain the differences between the Catholic view of salvation and the Protestant view – and where the Protestant view of the Catholic view misses the mark – I suspect that some of those who have that view do not mean by it what we think they mean.)

But similar criticisms could probably be made of Sunday worship services, or prayer, or Christianity in general. The fact that some people have wrong beliefs or motivations in some Christian practice does not make the practice itself wrong.

Over the years and moves, I have attended seven different Presbyterian churches (not just as a visitor but on a regular basis for at least six months), and I have not seen Lenten observance as a form of legalism. It is a season set aside to give special attention to turning from sin to God, and to disciplines such as prayer and fasting.

One could argue that we don’t need a special season for that. It is always the right time to turn from sin to God, it is always the right time to pray, and fasting is a discipline that need hardly be limited to a particular time of year. I would agree with that – yet that doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from a special focus on these things as a particular time of year.

We just finished the season of Epiphany in the church year. That season is set apart to focus on God revealing Himself to us. We see God revealed in the Scriptures. We see God revealed, above all, in the person of Jesus Christ. We see God at work in our lives and in the lives of people around us – and in God using the people around us to teach us about Himself.

All of that is appropriate to think about anytime during the year, not just during the weeks from Epiphany (January 6) to Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent). Yet it is the nature of people to recognize times and seasons and to focus on different things at different times. When God set up the yearly festivals for the people of Israel, He was using that human tendency, not trying to break it.

We can’t focus equally on all the things that are important all the time, and I’m not sure we would even want to try to. Instead, we focus on one things at one time and another thing at another time. The important thing is not to overemphasize one point, or to leave out another that we value less or are uncomfortable with.

Churches that do not observe the church year will still set aside times for a particular focus on something. At some of the Baptist churches I used to attend, it was the norm to have a missions conference once a year. They didn’t ignore missions the rest of the year, but during that one week they put special emphasis on missions.

The question is, who will figure out what to focus on and when? The pastor? The elders? Certainly we trust our church leaders to use wisdom and discernment in planning worship, outreach, and other aspects of our life together. But they are also prone to the kind of selective focus that gives greater attention to what interests us personally and to downplay those areas that make us uncomfortable.

Following the church year, with its varied times of both repentance and celebration, with certain days marked out to remember certain events from Scripture or aspects of God’s nature (Trinity Sunday, for example), draws on the wisdom of many Christians over the ages who developed these traditions. It is a discipline that pushes us to pay attention to things we might have forgotten or set aside as less important.

For much of the church year, my husband uses the lectionary readings as a discipline to keep him from selecting only Scriptures and sermon topics he feels more comfortable with. This Lent, he is beginning a sermon series on prayer (which is too big a topic to fit in a couple of months – the series will end up lasting until Pentecost), because this season is a time when we focus on that spiritual discipline.

There is nothing in the Bible that says we need to follow the liturgical year. Certainly there is nothing that says we need to celebrate the season of Lent, from Ash Wednesday until Easter. I would never say that Christians who do not observe it are wrong.

But I do see value in observing it, and I am glad I am part of a church that observes it. It is not a burden; it is not legalism; it is a disciplined focus on things that are always important, but that are easy to let slide. Lent brings them back to the forefront of our thinking, and keeps us thinking about them over the next several weeks. Not so that we can forget them after Easter, but so they will be more a part of our lives as we move into a different focus during the Easter season.

Next year, when Lent comes around, we will focus on the same things again. Not because we will have forgotten them, or slid back into old sinful habits (though that happens too, and Lent may be what arrests that slide), but because throughout our lives, we have to learn some of the same things over and over again.

The circumstances of our lives will be different, and the learning may be deeper. But the yearly cycle keeps bringing us back to the timeless truths we need to hear, and to obey.

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