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Thoughts about Lent

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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

Justin asked:
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
Tagged in: calendar lent RPW

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  • Dr. Horton, terrific to hear your thoughts on this! I did not know that Continental Reformeds were more flexible (and dare I say reasonable?) about applying a puritanical version of the Regulative Principle on the traditional Christian calender. It's fascinating to me that certain modern Puritans seem to want to apply WCF 2.1 over and above the plain meaning of scripture, "do not let anyone judge you ... with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day." (Col. 2:16). The Regulative Principle--intended to protect scripture, and Christian liberty, instead seems to be used too often to subvert it, wounding love and unity. One reason I adhere to the Lutheran/Anglican Regulative Principle (easily provable from the Bible), rather than that of Oliver Cromwell.

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  • Guest - Alberto

    I'm wondering about this. If I were a member of a Reformed church, and they called services for "holy" days, but I refused to go for the reasons given by Presbyterians, could I remain as a member in good standing?

    I've encountered at least one Continental Reformed minister that is not enthusiastic about observing these special days; at least that's the impression he left me with.

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  • Needing some supplies from the hardware store i walk in the store Wed Morning. The employee mixing paint i notice has a spot on his forehead that looks like paint. Mindlessly. i say hey you got some on your forehead.I keep walking to the isle he does not reply. Trying to remember what i am this store for. oh yeah it hits me its Ash Wed.I grab my items and head to the check out which this employee is ringing up my stuff. I say to him I am just Truly Thankful for the Imputation of Christs Righteous which without none of us could stand.I then said thanks and he smiled.

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  • Guest - Mike

    @ Stephen I think Dr. Horton's point was that we have liberty to observe lent or not to observe it according to the conscience and intention. We, furthermore, have no right to bind anyone's conscience to observe or not observe lent along with any holiday other than the Lords Day (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, etc.). To say that people go over board and take it wrongly is an argument against that person not the actual practice (if that makes sense). Hope this helps...

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  • [...] (Don’t worry, fellow regulative principle proponents. I’m not saying that churches must require celebration of these special days.  Our Puritan forebears were especially reluctant to celebrate special days, excepting the 52 or so Lord’s Days each year. Still, I do think these special days can be beneficially observed and in a way consistent with the regulative principle. For more on this topic, check this out.) [...]

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  • Guest - Jean Cortese

    I'm a senior citizen now and my parents have been deceased for many years. Every spring I think of my father because he was a farmer and that is when he planted seeds; when I visit the beach I remember the times we went together; when I hear certain songs that my mother liked, I think of her; I have their photographs displayed in my house. I love these reminders of them. When Lent starts each year, I try to devote time to thinking about our Lord, his journey and trials and try to improve my thoughts and attitude towards others. I think most families remember important events (weddings, births, deaths, awards) and to not do that for our Lord and Savior, makes no sense to me. It seems that some Christians spend a lot of time trying to prove other faiths are wrong. That time would be better spent honoring Jesus by studying His life and learning to be more like Him. A yearly calendar is is a guide to help us do that.

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  • Guest - Hughuenot

    Years ago, after Anglicanism, I gave up Lent for Lent, and see Jesus as my righteousness, rest, and law-keeper.

    Also post-Presbyterian, I am sad to see TGC embrace a popish relic (pun intended).

    Traditions such as Lent are brought in to fill up a gospel-vacuum that’s developed. If one’s faith is shakey, then traditions appeal.

    If one is looking to Christ alone, then we do good works NOT to get us closer to God, but FROM our relationsip established by him through faith alone, per Eph. 2:8-10. The Lenten tradition is to get one to God, not flowing from God.

    Please see this: http://reformedbaptistfellowship.org/2013/02/14/to-lent-or-relent-some-thoughts-on-a-recent-post-at-the-gospel-coalition/#comments

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  • Guest - Hughuenot

    So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not[d] seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God.

    Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations —“Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using— according to the commandments and doctrines of men? hese things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. {Col. 2:16-end; NKJV}

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  • Guest - Neo

    It's all as filthy rags, Dr. Horton...

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  • [...] in Indianapolis, there will be Ash Wednesday services at Redeemer Presbyterian and Soma Church. Michael Horton on why Lent is a good teaching opportunity. Daniel Hyde on why Lent is not holy but helpful. Calvin [...]

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