Giving up Liberty of Conscience for Lent?
There’s no doubt that Lent has become fashionable for many evangelicals. Churches and individuals with the label Reformed have also begun to observe Lent. They feel the need for something fresh in their liturgical calendar. Some look for a spiritual “detox”. Perhaps this satisfies conscience nagging them that self-denial and repentance are daily duties. They feel that it adds something of value. The truth is they are giving up far more than the tiny dimension of luxury they may choose to forego for a time. They are giving up true liberty of conscience by bowing to mere commandments of men. God alone is the Lord of the conscience. Thus, trading liberty of conscience for Lent is unconscionable.
Conscience is of course the issue. People will say that we should leave it up to individual consciences to determine whether they think it is right. But the only question that matters is whether God has revealed it to be right. Unless conscience is rightly informed by Scripture and obedient to God’s will in Scripture it will be in slavery to the commandments of men.
There is nothing new under the sun. Lent was also becoming increasingly popular in British Churches during the early seventeenth century. It accompanied other ceremonies and the church calendar. Much like people arguing for Lent today, different tacks were taken to justify them. It was claimed they were merely beneficial. Other people said that they were indifferent things: neither morally required nor morally wrong. Some sought to draw their reasons from Scripture. Others that it was essential to keep them on the basis of various general principles. George Gillespie examined these arguments and found them wanting.
Is Lent Necessary?
Gillespie observed that people often Scripture did not bind them to keep certain holy days or other ceremonies. Instead, they argued that it was necessary to keep uniformity by imposing such things. Even if it wasn’t Scriptural as such people had to obey once authority required it. Gillespie showed that church authority can only require us to obey what Scripture commands. (See Deuteronomy 12:32; Matthew 15:9; Acts 17:25; Matthew 4:9-10; Deuteronomy 4:15-20).
People today acknowledge that Scripture never commands us to observe Lent. They do not want to claim with Roman Catholics that such penance earns us grace or is a necessary obedience to Church authority. They will say that it is a necessary prelude to observing Easter. This in turn begs the question of whether Scripture commands us to observe Easter as holy days. Conscientiously observing man-made ordinances takes away Christian liberty (Colossians 2:21). Gillespie argues that:
The celebration of set anniversary days is no necessary means for conserving the commemoration of the benefits of redemption, because we have occasion, not only every Sabbath day, but every other day, to call to mind these benefits, either in hearing, or reading, or meditating upon God’s word.
Is Lent Beneficial?
Frequently it is said that observing Lent is a beneficial if not necessarily Scriptural practice. We are told that it is good for us to have such a season of self-denial and penitence. There is also devotional value in this type of focus, they say. The great question is whether God has appointed it for our edification. Surely Scripture is sufficient in teaching us how to be edified? Why should we add our own inventions? In fact “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22). Obedience to God’s will is always better than worshipping and serving Him as we see fit.
Gillespie says that an emphasis on external things and physical disciplines can obscure the spiritual. This is not beneficial. Disciplines such as fasting are profitable but only for a little (1 Timothy 4:8). Borrowing things from Roman Catholicism only tends to confirm Romanists in their own religion. They also become stumbling blocks that harm the edification and conscience of weak believers.
Gillespie uses a strong argument. Anything that has been abused for idolatry and superstition should be removed from the worship and service of God. This assumes that such things are not commanded by God or something without which God’s commandments cannot be fulfilled.
Is Lent Scriptural?
Gillespie addresses whether there was Scriptural authority for the man-made inventions being promoted. It was said then and today also that Lent adopts the example of Christ. Christ fasted for forty days in the wilderness. This example does not provide a commandment. Christ says we must keep and teach to observe His Commandments. Samuel Rutherford for instance, echoed John Knox’s argument against Lent. If we “in imitation of Christ’s forty days’ fast, will fast from flesh in Lent” then we must do everything Christ ever did. We “must walk on the sea and work miracles, if all Christ’s actions be our instructions”. In other words, Christ’s fast was testimony to and preparation for His unique ministry and echoed Moses and Elijah. Few today fully fast for forty days and forty nights consecutively. We do not even know what time of the year it was when Christ fasted.
Is Lent Indifferent?
Another argument was that these things were indifferent. They were neither morally required nor morally wrong. This is one of the arguments used in favour of Lent. They say that this is a grey area where we don’t have a clear black and white. People can choose whether they want to engage in such things. The question is whether such practice is truly indifferent. Only Scripture can determine this. We have seen various reasons which prove that it is not.
Religious service and devotion to God are not things without moral significance. Fasting, prayer and such things are not indifferent. They are matters regulated by God’s Word, particularly Christ’s command. Obeying man-made ordinances is not something that is indifferent (Colossians 2:20-23). Christian liberty in things that are indifferent cannot ever mean that we can add to God’s moral precepts or prescribed worship. Biblical principles must also be applied to indifferent things. These include whether it might cause someone else to stumble (Romans 14:21). It must not bind us (1 Corinthians 6:12). It must truly edify (1 Corinthians 10:23). Even these principles are not satisfied in observing Lent as something indifferent.
Is Lent True Fasting?
David Calderwood showed how fasting is an extraordinary means of worship in response to extraordinary circumstances. It is not something triggered each year by Ash Wednesday.
The right manner of fasting is to fast when some judgment is imminent, some great work to be performed. And as for the private man, when he is greatly tempted to sin, and cannot overcome his temptation, then is it fittest time for him to fast. The Paschal fasts were also abused for the Paschal communion following, as if Easter communion required greater preparation than any other communion in the year.
This was the position adopted by the Westminster Assembly in their Directory of Public Worship.
THERE is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.
Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.
Nevertheless, it is lawful and necessary, upon special emergent occasions, to separate a day or days for publick fasting or thanksgiving, as the several eminent and extraordinary dispensations of God’s providence shall administer cause and opportunity to his people.
We must acknowledge that Lent does impose on the conscience. It adds required practices in areas of worship that God has regulated. Observing the man-made tradition of Lent does surrender true liberty of conscience. The Westminster Confession (20:2) reminds us that:
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in any thing contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith or worship. (see Acts 4:19; Acts 5:29; 1 Corinthians 7:23; Matthew 23:8-10; 2 Corinthians 1:24; Matthew 15:9).
In all matters of faith, life and worship, the conscience is subject to the authority of God alone. We must be able to show that our practice is Scriptural (Isaiah 8:20). Our faith must be in God’s commandment not human tradition when we engage in His worship and service. Without this, it is sin (Romans 14:23). As John Calvin put it.
The controversy is not about flesh or fish, or about a black or ashy color, or about Friday or Wednesday, but about the mad superstitions of men, who wish to appease God by such trifles…it is not an error of small importance, or one that ought to be concealed, when consciences are bound by the contrivances of men, and at the same time the worship of God is corrupted
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