Back in February 2010 Mike Horton participated in a “The Village Green” segment for Christianity Today with his article “Lent—Why Bother? To Lead us to Christ.” Mike continued the discussion on our blog by responding to a question that was asked about the practice of Lent in light of the Regulative Principle of Worship. Since the season of Lent is again upon us, we invite you to reconsider these these two conversations. You might also enjoy reading a side-bar article on the church calendar that Mike wrote for Modern Reformation in the January / February 2001 issue of MR.
Lent—Why Bother? To Lead us to Christ
While Israel’s neighbors celebrated the cycle of seasons as shadows of the realm of the gods, Israel celebrated the interventions of God in historical events of judgment and deliverance. The major feasts include Passover, Firstfruits (Pentecost), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and Tabernacles (Sukkot). In commanding these feasts, God was incorporating them into his unfolding drama, anchored in his promises and their future fulfillment in Christ.
Unlike the Old Testament, however, the New Testament does not prescribe a church calendar. Furthermore, Lent became associated in the medieval church with all sorts of rules and superstitions. For the most part, the Protestant Reformers continued to celebrate Lent, but in a more evangelical way. They inveighed against the connection between fasting and penance “as a work of merit or a form of divine worship,” as Calvin put it. Lent is still celebrated today in Lutheran, Anglican, and many Reformed churches.
However, many of the English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians went further, arguing that such observances fostered superstition, constrained the conscience where God had left it free, and undermined the Christian Sabbath as God’s appointed holy day. (At the same time, the Puritans did call for special days of thanksgiving and fasting, by order of Parliament!)
In my view, these special days are valuable chiefly as a teaching opportunity. To be sure, every Lord’s Day is a celebration of Christ’s saving work. Paul seems to have allowed freedom to celebrate old covenant feasts, but upbraided those who bound Christian consciences on the matter, especially with fasts and abstinence.
I believe an evangelical celebration of Lent affords an opportunity to reinforce rather than undermine the significance of Christ’s person and work.
Lent is a 40-day preparation for the observance of Christ’s passion and Easter. It gives us an annual opportunity to trace the history of redemption. We learn that the number 40 is associated with a trial, a preparation, even an ordeal that leads either to blessing or curse in the stories of Noah, Moses, and Jonah. Recapitulating Adam’s trial and Israel’s 40 years of testing, Jesus was taken by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days, fasting instead of following Adam and the wilderness generation of Israelites in demanding the food they craved (Matt. 4:1-4). Resisting Satan’s temptation with God’s Word, Jesus was the Last Adam and Faithful Israel who fulfilled the trial not only for himself but also for us, as well as bearing the curse for our covenant-breaking.
New disciples in the ancient church were instructed daily in Christian doctrine and practice for the 40 days of Lent, leading to their baptism on Easter Eve. They realized that they were quite literally wrestling with demons from their pagan heritage. Isn’t our culture just as toxic? Are we really making disciples, or just superficial converts?
When unburdened by superstitious rites, Lent still holds tremendous promise if we will recover its evangelical purpose; namely, leading us and our children to Christ by his Word. Hopefully we can all agree that this goal remains the central mission of the church every Lord’s Day.
From the February 2010 issue of Christianity Today.
Lent and the Regulative Principle
Not trying to start a fight, I am trying to humbly submit this question: when did the Reformed start participating in the “we do it for pragmatic beneifts” woship stuff instead of “But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the … See More imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture (WCF 21.1)”? Truly wondering how our confession just quoted squares w/ Horton’s statement in the CT article: “Unlike the Old Testament, however, the New Testament does not prescribe a church calendar”? Again, I’m not trying to be malicious, but humbly submitting myself to your guidance, how should we think about Lent in terms of WCF 21.1 and not the pragmatic benefits (which too many use to vilify so much un-godliness in the church today) of it?
Mike Horton responded:
Great question, Justin, and thanks for raising it. You quote my statement, “Unlike the Old Testament, however, the New Testament does not prescribe a church calendar.” Before that remark, I listed Israel’s various festivals. My point was that we cannot use these old covenant festivals as a justification for new covenant festivals, such as Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ascension Day, etc.. In other words, observance of these Christian holidays cannot be considered as necessary for true worship. Some (most of the Westminster divines) would eliminate (did eliminate) all Christian holidays, although they encouraged special days for thanksgiving. The Continental Reformed tradition did not do this, however, and continues the tradition of calling stated services on these special days. With respect to the regulative principle, it’s definitely a line-call and there are those on both sides of the issue who affirm the principle. I hope this helps!
Modern Reformation sidebar article from Mike Horton: A Year of Signposts-Following the Church Calendar