Why do we as Baptists overlook the Lenten season and yet observe Christmas?
Let me deal with the first part of your question first, as the answer to your second part should be obvious by the time I finish. At the onset we should define “Lent” and take a look at its origins.
Lent, according to the encyclopedia, is a religious season and observance in the spring of the year. The term came from an old English word “lencten,” which meant springtime. Lent is commonly associated with such liturgical groups in Christendom as the Roman Catholics, the Lutherans, and Anglicans. However, this is not necessarily the extent of the observance of Lent, for many heathen groups have apparently observed a type of Lent as well. In fact, it is possible that the Roman Catholic Church put Lent into its practices anywhere between the second and sixth centuries—possibly borrowing certain festivities from the Babylonians who worshiped the “queen of heaven.”
Other sources have indicated the possibility that pagans in such diverse places as Egypt and Mexico observed a Lenten season in honor of Osiris, the great mediatorial god, and the sun god, respectively.
To the ancient writer Cassian is attributed this statement: “As long as the perfection of the primitive church remained inviolable, there was no observance of Lent. But when men began to decline from apostolic fervor of devotion and gave themselves overmuch to worldly affairs, then the priests agreed to recall them from secular cares by fasting and setting aside one tenth of their time for God.”
Isn’t this commentary sad? I’m sure you’re aware of the decline in Bible-believing Christianity during the centuries after the canon of Scripture was completed. In those first centuries the regard for the authority of the Word of God diminished, and people began substituting Scripture with tradition and works-oriented practices. Things deteriorated throughout that whole period of the Dark Ages, as superstition and ignorance prevailed.
Whenever people have not understood that salvation is by grace through faith alone, they have superstitiously tried to gain approval and merit from God through manmade practices. They employ human devices to keep religiosity going somehow.
Down through these unfortunate chapters in church and secular history, there were small clusters of Bible-believing Christians, the forerunners of our present-day Bible-believing Christians. These brave souls remained faithful to the Word of God and didn’t get bogged down with the unscriptural baggage that the “Church” took on. They didn’t come out of the Roman church because they had never been in it. However, it is interesting that apparently even the reformers didn’t observe Lent. Yet churches bearing their name certainly have continued the practice. Unfortunately, while the Protestant Reformation did sweep out some or even many of the cobwebs of extrabiblical practice, it did not totally do the job. To this day “Protestants” still look like the Roman Church in varying degrees, and of course we know that many groups under this designation are moving back in the direction of the “church” out of which they came. We call it the ecumenical movement.
So we see the background of Lent. Its dubious and unclear origins and associations should make us wary of including it into our lives. But that is just the beginning. Of far greater importance is the source of our faith and practice, the Word of God. We’ve touched on this already, but we need also to ask the question, Do the Scriptures teach Lent? Does the Bible instruct us to observe Lent? The answer is no. Nothing anywhere within the pages of God’s Word indicates that we should observe Lent, as such. In fact, if anything deals with the matter, it opposes the practice. Paul wrote, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. . . . Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days” (Col. 2:8, 16).
This passage in its most literal sense deals with the believer’s observance of Jewish events, but it teaches a principle as well. Paul emphatically stated that we as believers should not and need not put ourselves under any man-made rituals that are mere shadows of the real thing. Believers are not bound to a liturgical calendar that says that we should give up something in order to get God’s approval. Along those lines, may I be so bold as to say that often those who observe Lent the most fully are the ones who put the least stress on living a separated, consecrated life, as outlined in the Word of God. We see the hypocrisy of it all by noting what they can do before and after the Lenten season. Those actions—not what they give up during the Lenten season—reveal their true character and concerns. Mark 7:5–16 applies to this discussion.
I know that those who observe Lent attach varying degrees of significance to it. Yet it remains true that Lent has a works stigma; and we as Bible-believing Christians want no part of salvation by works in any form. For this reason we must oppose Lent, along with the hypocrisy surrounding it. If someone wishes to observe the birth of Jesus Christ, so be it. If he wants to set aside a time to contemplate Jesus’ suffering and death, no one can stop him, though he should focus all the more on Jesus’ resurrection, ascension, present ministry, and return instead.
Do you see the difference? Someone can remember Jesus’ birth on December 24 or 25 or any other day, for that matter, without putting salvation and works into it. In Lent, on the other hand, unregenerate people decide what little thing they can give up. They think that instead of experiencing the new birth and truly being a child of God, they can keep a ritual that will make them all right with God. As one person said, “One gives up chocolate bars. Another does not eat butter. Another smokes one cigarette per day instead often or twenty. Still another refrains from drinking only one glass of beer or wine or whiskey per day!” What a poor substitute these rituals are for the real thing—the righteousness of Christ found in the one who has experienced the new birth.
As believers we know we don’t have to limit God to 40 days per year of getting near Him and doing something for Him. We have the blessed privilege of communion and life with Him 365 or 366 days a year. Our responsibility to obediently walk with Christ in close relationship is equally important every day of the calendar. Christians don’t give up anything to pacify God or prove anything to Him. Rather, we refrain from anything evil because of what the Lord has done in our hearts, and we thus have new desires, a longing to please Him.
Anyone tempted to go back into works-oriented thinking should heed the apostle Paul’s words: “But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. . . . Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 4:9, 10; 5:1).
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