by Pastor Brian Phillips

When the Lenten season begins, so does open season on Lent.  Particularly enjoyable are those who, with great vehemence, vitriol, and (for alliteration’s sake) venom, argue against Lenten observance, claiming it reflects a too curmudgeonly view of Christ and His work.  Not all Lenten detractors object in such a way, and their more thoughtful critiques warrant further conversation.

Of particular interest were posts by Douglas Wilson (here) and Carl Trueman (here), because they both pose their objections to Lent and Ash Wednesday as being distinctly Presbyterian or Reformed objections – an intriguing claim, given the varied nature of Presbyterian and Reformed response to both (see here and here, for example).  Wilson offers four “Presbyterian caveats” to support his willingness to “sit this one (Lent) out.”  Condensed, while hopefully capturing his point, they are:

1 – Ash Wednesday is a violation of Matthew 6:16.
2 – Lent is inconsistent with the Old Testament pattern of feasting, particularly now that Christ has come.
3 – Lenten observance reveals the “rootlessness” of evangelicals.
4 – It is more important to fast during Advent because the season is commercialized.

Now, I would like to turn Wilson’s caveats into questions and then argue the opposite of his conclusion – that is, Presbyterians (by that, I refer to Reformed Christians and, if I may, Protestants in general) can and should observe Lent.

1 – Is Ash Wednesday a violation of Matthew 6:16?

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is traditionally observed by the imposition of ashes on the forehead in the shape of the cross.  In other words, while it is a day of mourning over sin, the mourning is not without hope – it points to the cross, to the work of Christ.  It is not the sour-faced ash-sitting that some describe.  Rather, it is a service in which we confess our sins, seek the Lord in repentance, and look to the cross.

But, does the imposition of ashes violate Christ’s words in Matthew 6:16 – “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”  It sure could.  In fact, I bet some people violate Matthew 6:16 every Ash Wednesday.  And then continue the violation by social media-ing their Lenten fasts and sacrifices, ad nauseum.

If you parade the ashes about, putting off a good scrubbing as long as possible, hoping to be noticed, then, sure, you are violating Christ’s command.  But, while pastors should instruct their congregations about the dangers of that, we must be humble enough to admit that we cannot pinpoint why someone got the ashes.  After all, Christ’s admonition in Matthew 6:16 is one of several that address the motive for good deeds, whether giving to the poor (v. 2), prayer (v. 5), or fasting (v. 16).

Ash Wednesday is not a default violation of Christ’s words any more than praying out loud is a default violation of Christ’s words in verse 5.  Nor would we stand by a Salvation Army bell ringer and berate those who give as “self-righteous hypocrites.”  Christ is attacking the self-righteousness of the Pharisees who gave, prayed, or fasted to be seen.  He is not attacking the humble attempting obedience.  The question, then, is whether the ashes are received to be seen by others or to be reminded again of Christ and His cross as the remedy for our sin?

2 – Is Lent inconsistent with the Old Testament pattern of feasting, particularly now that Christ has come?

Wilson writes, “In the Old Testament, there was one public day out of the year where they were instructed to afflict their souls (Yom Kippur, Lev. 23:27).”  That is an excellent argument for observing Ash Wednesday – one public day on which we afflict our souls.

He continues, “Everything else about their prescribed calendar was made up of feast days. There was always room, of course, for private disciplines (Num. 30:13), just as there is room for that in the Christian era (Matt. 9:15).”  Lent is a season for the private discipline of fasting.  Jesus, after all, describes fasting as a private discipline (Matthew 6).  Pastors and individual churches may recommend Lenten observance and provide resources for encouragement during the season, but there are no Presbyterians (or any Protestants), to my knowledge, arguing for the mandatory observance of Lent.  It begins with a day of public “affliction of soul”, but it continues through to Easter with a private, non-mandatory fast.

Wilson quotes the Westminster Confession XX.1 here: “But, under the New Testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish Church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of.”

Fine and good.  But, if the Westminster Assembly had intended to rule out seasons like Lent by such a declaration, then XXI.5 is horribly out of place.  There they wrote:

“The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner” (emphasis mine).

It is worth noting that Chapter XXI addresses “Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day,” that is, things done by the Church for the benefit of Christians.  Lent begins with a day of repentance on Ash Wednesday, and continues with a “holy and religious fasting” that is encouraged by the Church.  I would argue that both are in keeping with the pattern of the Old Testament (even as described by Wilson) and with the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Wilson argues that “Deliverance should not be commemorated with long faces.”  Agreed, but this is only an argument against improper fasting, as prohibited by Jesus.  But, given that Lent commemorates the 40-day fast of Christ in the wilderness, and is suspended on Sundays for feasting on the day of His resurrection, it could be argued that Lent highlights the work of Christ, rather than detracting from it.  It highlights feasting through fasting.

To be continued…