I’m truly saddened by the number of my friends on Facebook who are celebrating Ash Wednesday and Lent this year. The common denominator of course is that they were all educated theologically at Dallas Theological Seminary. I have other friends who did not attend DTS who are celebrating. I give them a pass. But the ones that did attend DTS, should repent of this heinous revelry immediately.
Once again, the seminary where I was trained is showing it’s bad fruit. They really don’t teach theology well, unless it is Dispensationalism. (This is not the fault of the historical theology department. They do an excellent job, but are not given enough courses to make a long-term impact).
But that is not the point. The point is that for some reason, students can come out of that seminary and think it’s perfectly fine to celebrate Ash Wednesday and Lent. Do they not realize that we are Protestant? Do they not realize that this is a tradition of men and condemned in Scripture? Do they not realize that these holy days are not prescribed by God, but by fallen men? Do they not realize that their participation in Ash Wednesday and Lent strikes at the gospel itself?
Why does it matter?
It matters most because it goes against the principle of Sola Scriptura. The Bible alone is sufficient for all the we need in our spiritual growth. God has very clearly given us means of grace by which we can grow spiritually, the preaching of God’s word, the sacraments of baptism and the LORD’s supper, and prayer. Anything else is an addition of men. Such additions are condemned by most of the Reformers (Even Lutherans originally condemned the practice of Lent, but have now been drawn back into it).
Here is what R. Scott Clark wrote:
In other words, the very practice of Ash Wednesday and Lent are simply made up observances and this is the problem. It is not that one might not learn something valuable by abstaining from this or that for 40 days or that there is no value in gathering on Wednesday 40 days before Easter to remember the suffering and death of our Savior. The problem is that the human heart is an idol factory (Calvin). Once it is given license to create and impose Christian observances, it never ends. What begins with good intentions becomes a form of bondage. This is not a new problem. The Apostle Paul opposed this very thing in his epistle to the Colossians:
If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles (στοιχεῖα) of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in a self-made religion (ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ) and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence (Col 2:20–23; NASB95).
In the case of Ash Wednesday and Lent we have the very thing against which the Apostle Paul warned: “will worship” (ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ). Christians have added and imposed upon other Christians the very sort of abstinence and man-made religious practice condemned by the Apostle. The elementary principles (στοιχεῖα) to which Paul refers are not observations about nature (as some commentators think) but rather he is most likely referring to the fundamental principle of law. Someone was seeking to put the Colossians back under the law of abstinence as a mark of piety and Paul was not having it. This is typically the Lutheran explanation of the passage so it is striking to see leading (even confessional) Lutherans doing what their own tradition tells them they ought not.
Clark also points out that the practice was not adopted until the medieval period when the Roman Catholic Church had a holy day for almost every day of the year. And this is the problem. Many may think that it is harmless in celebrating something that has been celebrated over the past 500 years or so, but we should never bind someone’s conscious over man-made tradition, which Colossians clearly condemns.
I suspect that many who do participate in the annual tradition do so out of a desire to lead a more holy and godly life. What true believer doesn’t desire as such, especially given that we are told to “Be holy, for I am Holy.” But holiness never comes by man-made inventions. Just look at the examples we have been given in Scripture. There was the incident involving a golden calf, where the people decided to make their own god, and got up to dance, sing and commit sexual atrocities. I’m not comparing the two events, other than to say that the spirit behind both is the same. We are basically saying to God that His ordained means of grace are not enough.
The people who want Lent feel the need to add something to our religion. It’s part of our fallen human nature. But we are to walk by faith and not sight, trusting in God’s means for our spiritual growth. Remember that He who began a good work in us, will complete it on the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). We must take this by faith that He will do so. Our adding to it, adds nothing to it but our own self-righteousness.
Some might also point out that we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). Since this is so, how? Are we to invent holy days and prescribe things to be done on these days? This is just as heinous as those who tried to add to the gospel by having Gentiles participate in circumcision. Paul warns against those who do evil works (Philippians 3:2). They were adding to the gospel and its work.
So how are we to work out our salvation?
In the means that God has given us, through worship on the LORD’s Day, remaining under the preaching of God’s word, continue in prayer and fasting (when the Spirit leads, not when men lead), continue participating in communion and baptism, continuing on in the fellowship of the saints. These are the means God has given to us to grow spiritually. To say that these are not sufficient and to say that we need to add to these things, is to say that God’s ways are somehow deficient in their effectiveness. But the moment we do, we moved from the gospel of Christ, back to the very cause for the Protestant Reformation in the first place. Yet, we should soundly reject such practices because such are based on fleshly desires, not the words of Scripture.
Remember in the true Gospel of Christ, we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone which is by grace alone from the Father. We add nothing to our righteousness by participating in man-made holy days. We profane the gospel instead by saying the righteousness of Christ, given to us at the moment of our salvation, is not enough. I hope you can see how absurd that is.
For more on this, read D.G. Hart’s blog, Playing with Lenten Fire.
- “Relevance” Leads Back to Rome by R. Scott Clark.
- Five Reasons Not To Observe Lent at The Pulpit & The Pen
UPDATE: Steve Simmons of Fifth Street Presbyterian in Tyler, TX, posted on his blog, Lent… If Borrowed Should Be Returned:
Special holy days seem to be filling the void left by the diminished use of a regular evening worship on the Lord’s Day. Seasons of prayer and fasts are sought after while little is done to promote the ordinary routines of prayer meetings. As I wrote recently, more preaching and more prayer are the places we need to live if we long to be visited by reformation and revival. It is the place our church needs to live.
Please know that I am not on a crusade to wipe out all traditions and practices that are not my own. My crusade is to wipe out the mindless and sentimental borrowing from other traditions. And, I am really not even on a crusade to convince all of my PCA brothers that they ought to return to the paths of our fathers in these matters—though I would be delighted if that happened. My crusade is mostly about encouraging the congregants of our church to give some thought about these things before being drawn into them—sentiment and sincerity do not make a practice sound.