Wednesday, February 22, 2012

When Did "Lent" Become Protestant?

Since my kids are home on school vacation this week, I have been able to check some of the blogs I used to read with regularity. Along with Facebook posts, I have noticed a surprisingly high number of "devotionals" and essays about Lent, Ash Wednesday, and how the respective authors plan to observe this liturgical season.

All of said authors are Protestants, and most would claim allegiance to Reformed theology. What I'm trying to figure out is this: when, and more importantly why, did "Lent" become part of the spiritual landscape for Bible-believing Christians?

I'm not knocking the observance as a spiritual discipline, mind you. If someone finds a way to draw closer to Christ, more power to him (or her). I'm just genuinely confused as to why a born-again believer feels the need to "give up" something at a particular time of year in order to increase intimacy with Christ....when the whole premise of the Christian faith rests on the completed work on the Cross (and daily obedience to the Lord's commands.) An article in Christianity Today, which, once upon a time, was a Protestant Evangelical magazine, begins thus:
There is something decidedly public about Ash Wednesday. Walking around all day with a gash of gray ash across one's forehead—this is among the most visible Christian things I do each year. This is a rare day when I cannot and could not hide my Christian commitments and my Christian aspirations, even if I wanted to.

This year, I will be joining many Episcopal priests in taking the public witness of Ash Wednesday one step further. On Wednesday, my colleague Catherine Caimano and I will put on cassocks and surplices, and go to a corner near Duke University Hospital with small containers of ashes and copies of a litany of repentance from the Book of Common Prayer. We will offer "the imposition of ashes" to people in the street.
This whole mindset seems to fly in the face of Matthew 6:6, which discourages such showy displays of public "piety": But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

More importantly, however, is the fact that in terms of devotion to Christ, we should be seeking to live in holiness all the time. Boxing obedience into a six-week period every year contradicts what the whole Christian life is supposed to be about: picking up our cross daily, in joyful obedience to the One Who has already redeemed us. Mark 7:8-9 seems to warn against the ritualistic observance of such man-made traditions, which by definition foster a sense of "spiritual smugness".

Note the image at the top of this entry. See the flawed logic? We should be turning away from sin EVERY DAY. Not during the man-made "season of Lent". And forgoing chocolate (or gum, or Facebook) has nothing to do with holiness -- and NO, it will NOT lead you closer to God. Sorry to burst any bubbles out there.....that's not what the Bible teaches.

What are your thoughts? Can there be value in going an extra mile, so to speak, at a particular time during the year?


lyn said...

very well put Marie, I agree with you wholeheartedly. We see the slippery slope continue as many unite with other religions and their practices.

Thanks for posting this piece


Ma said...

I did the Lent thing when we were Catholic, I agree with your thoughts here, too.

If someone wants to fast, give up, whatever, that is between them and the Lord.

Neil said...

Good points. My kids have usually done things for Lent, but not in a public or dramatic way. Too many people use it as a diet tool. I like the idea of focusing on something positive -- e.g., read the New Testament during Lent. But as you said, anything we do for Lent should be good to do all the time.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

I used to work with a Catholic who gave up chocolate for Lent. So he'd sit there picking out the chocolate chips from his chocolate-chip cookies!

That is an example of legalism and not a heart for sorrow towards sin.

Elizabeth Marie said...

I think Lent has its place. I never did until about three or four years ago. Last year I didn't do it, and I have no judgement for those Christians who choose not to. For me, I find it to be a good time to get rid of whatever is distracting me most from God at the time - and it DEFINITELY brings me closer to Him. It does bother me when people give up junk food and stuff like that for Lent, ok if you're actually doing it to obey God but most people do it to lose weight. It's definitely a case by case thing, not black and white at all. But I do see where you're coming from. ~Liz

lyn said...


This is totally off topic, but I couldn't find your e-mail address.
I thought you may be interested in this video { } about W. Houston's 'spiritual journey'. You mentioned it to me and I added the link to this video to my post.
Thanks again for letting me know about this, it helped in my post.


Anonymous said...

Of course, you can and should pray, fast, and gives alms anytime of year. No church that observes Lent says you can't do that year round. As human beings, however, we sometimes fall into a rut. This includes our relationship with God. We sometimes need a reminder, a date, an excuse, to do more than we are currently doing. That is why we have holidays and holy days to commemorate a significant event. We observe our shared history around these occasions.

Lent is 40 days of our preparation for the Easter season just as Jesus spent 40 days in the desert to prepare himself. The Easter celebration and the joy of the resurrection is so much greater when you have taken that Lenten journey with Christ.

Just because people sometimes take a minimalist, superficial, or legalistic approach to Lent does not mean you should throw out the whole thing. Other people go deeper into their faith as a result of their Lenten observances.

Michael Peterson said...

I find Lent helpful and I think of myself as an evangelical Protestant.

Anonymous said...

I am a member of a southern baptist church that has started to observe lent. When I saw the ash crosses on there head and smelled the ashes burning I guess I had such a uneasy feeling . A feeling that they where practicing a ritual. I am torn and dont know what to do. I believe in fasting if not made public. And even giving up things that come between me and the Lord. I love my church family and dont know what to do. But im not confortable with this and I dont know why. :-(

Marie said...


I wrote this post a year ago and since then have become even FIRMER in my convictions: there is something seriously syncretistic (and therefore spiritually wrong) with Bible-believing Christians taking part in this romanist ritual. Sadly, it doesn't surprise me that a Southern Baptist church would start practicing this tradition - the SBC embraced contemplative spirituality long ago (another pagan practice inherited from Medieval catholicism) and has been growing increasingly ecumenical.

Aron said...

I generally don't post to any website, but felt compelled to comment. I too have been alarmed by churches of many evangelical backgrounds adopting the traditions of the Roman Catholic church. Observing Lent is one of those that on the surface appears "good"and worthy of participation. If we look beneath the surface it is no more than an effort by man to earn the love and acceptance of God. All wrong. God already loves us and it's evident in the FREE gift of salvation by believing and accepting the work of Jesus dying on the cross for us. Don't let the world fool you.

Marie said...

Thank you, Aron.

Since writing this a year ago, I've done just a little research on the origins of Lent, and now feel even MORE strongly that what you just wrote is true. Thanks for chiming in.