Lent: Of Good Intentions, Spiritual Disciplines, and Christian Freedom

Carter Lindberg tells the story of how the Reformation began to break out in Zürich in 1522:

During Lent of 1522, Zwingli was at the house of Christoph Froschauer, a printer, who was laboring over the preparation of the a new edition of the epistles of Paul. In order to refresh his dozen tired workers, Froschauer served sausages. Was it just a coincidence that the number of participants and the manner of distribution recalled the Lord’s Supper? This public breaking of the Lenten fast flouted both medieval piety and and ecclesiastical and public authority. The Zurich town council arrested Froschauer, but not Zwingli, who himself had not eaten the meat. Zwingli, who held the eminent post of people’s priest at the Great Minster church in Zurich, could have smoothed everything out. Instead he made a public issue of the incident by preaching a sermon, “On the Choice and Freedom of Foods” (23 March 1522), that was soon enlarged into a printed pamphlet (16 April 1522). Almost certainly influenced by Luther’s earlier (1520) treatise on Christian freedom, Zwingli argued that Christians were free to fast or not to fast because the Bible does not prohibit the eating of meat during Lent. ‘In a word, if you will fast, do so; if you do not wish to eat meant, eat it not; but leave Christians a free choice in the matter.’ (Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, 161).

The recent controversy over the endorsement of Lent by some leading evangelicals is something that has been developing for several years. Christians without conscious confessional commitments or an intentional awareness of the Reformation tend to be rootless. Lacking a tradition of piety of their own they drift from one new thing to the next or borrow eclectically from this tradition and that like three-year olds playing dress up. When those who identify with aspects of Reformed theology however, borrow “spiritual disciplines” that the Reformed churches considered and rejected they are unintentionally creating the pre-conditions for greater problems.

As Lindborg tells the story, a Lenten fast was considered a matter of liberty but as the Reformation progressed through the 1540s the Reformed discovered that such ostensible adiaphora (matters morally indifferent) tend to become requirements. Some ministers in the English church learned this when they tried to exercise the freedom not to wear certain ecclesiastical garments (vestments), which they considered sacerdotal (tending to turn ministers into priests). When they objected to being required to wear the vestments, they were told that it was permissible to wear vestments because they were adiaphora. To which they replied, “If they are adiaphora, then we choose not to wear them.” Then they learned that the vestments weren’t actually regarded as adiaphora but rather they were really required. They were only called adiaphora to make conformity seem plausible. It has frequently been the case in church history that practices that begin as “indifferent” do not usually remain so.

This is why the Westminster Divines (in the Directory for Publick Worship, 1644) rejected the church calendar and why the Dutch Reformed churches rejected most of it. Judging by the Dutch church orders from the 1570s, the first impulse of the Dutch ministers was to reject the church calendar altogether on the grounds that it has no warrant in God’s Word but, over time, they weakened and conceded the so-called “evangelical” (Easter, Pentecost, Christmas) holidays under popular pressure. By 1619 the consensus of the churches was:

67. The congregations shall observe, in addition to Sunday, also Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, with the following days. Since in most cities and Provinces of the Netherlands, besides these the days of the Circumcision and Ascension of Christ are also observed, all ministers, wherever this is still the custom, shall put forth effort with the authorities that they may conform with the others.

A concession to popular desire became church law. This happened in the pre-Reformation church too. In the late patristic period and early medieval periods the churches elaborated on the divinely instituted sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) with so-called “sacramentals,” popular practices that were eventually codified and declared by Fourth Lateran Council (1215) to be sacraments. Voila! Two sacraments became seven.

What began as ostensibly “helpful” spiritual disciplines became law and the church was taken into what Luther called a Babylonian Captivity from which she was rescued only by an intentional return to God’s Word as the sole magisterial (ruling) authority for the Christian faith (doctrine), Christian piety, worship, and the Christian life (practice). That is why the Reformed churches shed themselves of all manner of “helpful” practices that had been adopted by the medieval church including an extensive church calendar, the use of musical instruments in worship, and spiritual vows (e.g., monastic vows) that had no basis in God’s Word. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore and do no submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).

The history of the church tells us that the road to spiritual bondage is paved with good intentions. We don’t need a church calendar beyond the Christian sabbath. We’re called daily to die to self and live to Christ. We don’t know when the Lord Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary but we do know that he was. We know he was crucified, dead, buried, raised, and ascended but we have no example of special services to remember those events in the apostolic church. The Mosaic church had an extensive church calendar (“new moons and sabbaths”) but that was fulfilled by Christ and has been abrogated. The creational sabbath has been transformed by the inauguration of the new creation in the resurrection and thus we see the apostolic church gathering for worship on the Lord’s Day or the first day of the week. We don’t have any food laws because the dietary restrictions have all been fulfilled in Christ. We may not call unclean what God has called clean. The dividing wall has been torn down. In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male, female, slave, or free. The 613 commandments are done. The moral law stands. The gospel stands.

The Reformed reformation of Christian worship was not the act of a collective kill-joy. It was an act of purification and a re-assertion of Christian liberty. That’s why the Reformed churches distinguished between elements of worship (Word and prayer) and circumstances (e.g., time, place, and language). The Word (read, preached, and visible in the sacraments) is God’s Word and prayer (said and sung using his Word) is our divinely authorized response. The elements are inviolable. The circumstances are mutable because they are morally indifferent. We have no moral stake in the time of the services but we have everything at stake in whether worship is conducted according to the express revealed will of God.

When Christopher Froschauer led the Lenten Rebellion of 1522 he may not have understood all that he was signifying but we know what it means: We’re free from all the “good ideas” that people continually invent and free to obey God according to his Word. The churchly understanding of what that means is publicly expressed in our confessions. We don’t need a renewed appreciation of Lent. What we need is a renewed appreciation of why the Reformation happened in the first place.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. “When those who identify with aspects of Reformed theology however, borrow “spiritual disciplines” that the Reformed churches considered and rejected they are unintentionally creating the pre-conditions for greater problems.”

    How true, and easily this happens. I am concerned by many in our Reformed church in South Africa’s embrace of Catholic mysticism. Teachings of an Eastern “true self” and “union with God” are replacing biblical truth.

    Thanks that I can learn from you! Blessings.

  2. Since the subject of this thread is Lent (and fasting) we might as well add the imposition of ashes to the trash heap. I struggle to comprehend why any protestants, but especially confessional Lutherans, continue in this practice. Worse yet, many confessional Lutheran congregations had, in fact, dropped this activity under the guise that it was “too RC” many years ago only to resume it in recent decades.

    • So I should no longer assume that when I see people with ashes on their foreheads, they must be Roman Catholic?

      Does anyone know if others, like maybe some Eastern communion, practice this as well?

  3. Thanks for another very helpful post! Truly “always reforming” means resisting the almost constant temptation to adopt practices that seem to promise a better or deeper or more exciting experience of our relationship with God, but what we really need is a renewed appreciation of what God has already given us in his Word and sacraments. Our tendency to want to look beyond the Word is really a temptation (ultimately) to seek out idols.

  4. Alberto – if you Wiki-P “Lent” you’ll see a list there of those denominations that observe the church calendar and therefore Lent. Of those who observe Lent the ones who impose ashes vary quite a bit. The ones I know about are the Episcopalians, some Methodists, some Lutherans, and even some within Presbyterianism – e.g., the PCUSA.
    In other words, it’s inconsistent.

    But if you see someone with the ash mark on his/her forehead they’re more than likely an RC, just by virtue of overwhelming percentages. Where I have to shake my head is when I see an RC with Lenten ash marks on a television news program who is a political figure well known for his grafty and corrupt methods. Gives a whole new meaning to “2K.”

  5. I found this truly helpful in its discussion about “adiaphora” and how that allowed me to critically explore even those issues not involving Lent. I am fairly new to the Reformed faith and find this very helpful in working out/synthesizing some of my latest convictions. Thank you!

  6. I think you have misunderstood why evangelicals are doing this. In my experience, it is motivated by love for Christ, not legalism. But that’s just my experience. What seems ironic to me is the strong condemnation of the practice from various Reformed voices, because it is perceived as legalistic, is inherently kind of legalistic. What happened to Christian freedom? We are glad to observe some of the church calendar, but we look down on those that observe parts that we don’t.

  7. My PCA church is implementing the “Christian Calendar.” The pastor’s argument was that everyone follows a calendar, whether that is the football, basketball, or whatever calendar; therefore, one might as well follow the Christian Calendar. However, I would argue that the Christian Calendar would be the Lord’s Day calendar.

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