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Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Collin Hansen wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition entitled Should You Cancel Good Friday? which has brought to the attention of many a conversation they have never had before. What is Lent? Why celebrate it?

As a committed Protestant, I am committed to the Church Calendar, not because I want to be a slave to it, but because I am aware of its inevitability. We all follow some calendar. The question is which calendar? I ask that question because Protestantism is grounded in a Trinitarian view of the world. In its best expression it does not isolate ideas; it brings ideas together to form a coherent system.

I suggest that Lent is highly Trinitarian. As the Trinity is a communion of love, so Lent provides a means to express that love to one another in the community. Where sins are confronted and battled, there you find a vigorous Trinitarian community and vision. Lent is service to the community by giving us a season of determined battle against sin for the sake of our neighbors.

It offers a vision of history that undergirds the biblical history and that reflects the normal routines, liturgies, and rituals of human beings. Lent is a form of restructuring our lives. All Christians need a re-structuring of order in their own lives. All Christians need to re-balance and re-form areas where there is disproportionate indifference. We all undergo a Psalmic journey of lamentation and feasting. Lent draws us into this journey.

In essence, Lent reveals the God who suffers in the Person of Jesus Christ. God’s image-bearers are formed from the dust of a fallen Adam to the glorification of the risen Final Adam. To disconnect Lent from the Church Calendar is to disparage history.

It is true we live in the age of an ascended Lord, but this same Lord guides a Church that is still broken, suffering, and healing from brokenness and suffering again and again. The removal of Lent is to proclaim an over-realized eschatology.

It is true that Lent can be abused, and history teaches us that it has. But it is also true, as Luther so memorably stated, “the abuse of something is not an argument against its proper use.” So if Lent can be proven to be profitable, then is there a legitimate way to benefit from it without falling into some its former abuses. Protestant Christians are not bound by Romish structures of food or rituals. We use wisdom in forming healthy habits for a Church and individuals while not binding the Church or the individual to a particular habit.

Lent and Wilderness

Lent teaches us that Satan’s gifts are easy to master. They come with first grade instruction manuals. They are made to be mastered quickly and enjoyed rapidly (fornication, drugs, alcohol; various temptations). God’s gifts are a little harder to master. They require self-control and patience. They anticipate spiritual growth; they demand a kingly attitude to grasp kingly wisdom. God’s instructions mean you have to seek others in the community to understand them properly. You have to exercise and express a theology of patience built into a theology of blessings.

In the wilderness, a garden stripped of colors, fruit, and water, Jesus faced the devil again in a re-match. He knew well that temptation had a triumphant history of subtly winning arguments. Jesus wasted no time and rebuked temptation. just like He would do with the demons and the demonic-like religious teachers of the day.

We are not to sit in temptation’s classroom. God already said we are to flee it; to rebuke it with the only source of authority that is permanent and stamped with divine truth.

The Church finds herself in a wilderness scenario. She is stripped of her former glory. But she is destined to journey from glory to glory like her Lord and Master. As in Luke four, we need to sit in Yahweh’s school house. We need to be instructed by the two-edged sword that muzzles the Tempter and tells him to not come back again. He is not welcome and neither are his offers.

Lent offers us a 40 day class on temptations and the glories and rewards of resisting it.

But Why 40 Days?

Lent follows the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. His fasting for 40 days speaks to the evil and the hardness of heart of the Israelites who succumbed to the Serpent’s whispers. So as the Church walks with Jesus from wilderness to Golgotha she re-lives the messianic journey. The 40 days are symbolic for that wilderness testing, and as a result it is chronologically set before the Great Paschal Feast, commonly referred to as Easter.

Should Lent be Observed?

Ligon Duncan and others in the Southern Presbyterian tradition argue that Lent has a history based on merit. Lent was a way to earn something. The Reformation fixed this soteriological error, and therefore Lent is no longer to be observed.

Duncan and others also go on to say that celebrating Easter and Christmas offer no such harm (he also believes that a National Holiday like Thanksgiving is also a uniquely American holiday to be celebrated). There is no doubt Easter and Christmas, and even Thanksgiving–to a lesser degree–offer wonderful benefits. But the question and the opening presupposition is that Lent is not biblical therefore it should not be practiced in the Church. If that is the case, then the question is not whether one day (or Season) is more beneficial than the other, but rather is it explicitly stated in the Bible or not? If the “explicit reference” argument is used, then Duncan will have to conclude that this is faulty reasoning.

I concur with Vance Freeman that “each of his (Duncan’s) reasons for not observing Lent are undercut by the observance of Christmas and Easter.” Mr. Freeman also concludes:

The biggest threat to Christianity today is not the church in Rome, or that Americans are prone to elevate traditional Christian rituals, like Lent, over discipleship. The biggest threat to the church is that our rituals are increasingly only secular ones. We are Americans before we are Christians. Super Bowl Sunday not only competes with the Lord’s Day, it dominants it. And when we relegate the Christian life to a mere facet of our American lives we fall into Moral Therapeutic Deism.

The formation of godly habits is the issue at hand. In other words, is there an adequate time of the year where the Church should have an explicit focus on the cross of Jesus and how that cross must shape our understanding of sin? Is there room for setting aside a season for a cruciform hermeneutic? I believe there is.

As Peter Leithart so ably summarizes:

Lent is a season for taking stock and cleaning house, a time of self-examination, confession and repentance.  But we need to remind ourselves constantly what true repentance looks like.  “Giving up” something for Lent is fine, but you keep Lent best by making war on all the evil habits and sinful desires that prevent you from running the race with patience.

If this is true, then Lent serves an enormously important role in the life of the Christian. Naturally, to quote Luther’s first thesis, “the Christian life is a life of daily repentance.” A faithful understanding of the Lord’s Service provides that for us weekly. However, an extended period where our sins are deeply brought to our attention by the preaching of the Word and prayer (and fasting) are regularly considered, practiced and meditated upon can provide great benefits for all Christians on each Lord’s Day and throughout the week.

The legalism concern is legitimate. We are all tempted to fall into this trap, but it does not have to be so. If we view Lent as a time to additionally focus our attention on mortifying our sins and killing those habits that so easily entangle us, we can then consider the cross in light of the resurrection, not apart from it. If we do so, Lent will become legalism’s greatest enemy and repentance’s best friend.

Howard Hendricks,1924-2013

.The famed professor of Dallas Theological Seminary, Dr. Howard Hendricks, died after serving at DTS for more than 60 years. You can hear his last sermon entitled the Ultimate Final.

Among his many publications, Wikipedia lists the following:

Books

Journal Articles

  • “Reaping the Rewards of Senior Ministry.” Bibliotheca Sacra vol 157 is 628, 2000. 387-396.
  • “Me, Myself, and My Tomorrows.” Bibliotheca Sacra vol 157 is 627, 2000. 259-270.
  • “Rethinking Retirement.” Bibliotheca Sacra vol 157 is 626, 2000. 131-140.
  • “The Other Side of the Mountain.” Bibliotheca Sacra vol 157 is 625, 2000. 3-14.
  • “Lord, Change My Children’s Father.” Fundamentalist Journal vol 5 is 2, 1986. 51-52.
  • “A Shirt for Timmy : Teaching Children to Pray.” Fundamentalist Journal vol 4 is 11, 1985. 53-54.
  • “The Art of Family Living.” Fundamentalist Journal vol 3 is 9, 1984. 39-41.
  • “Preparing Young People for Christian Marriage.” Bibliotheca Sacra vol 128 is , 1971. 245-262.
  • “Review of ‘Leading a Church School.'” Christianity Today vol 13 is , 1969. 31-32.

Sermon: I Corinthians 15:29-34, Fifth Sunday of Easter

People of God, this is the fifth Sunday of Resurrection. We are journeying in this Easter glory. But the beauty of the Gospels is that after Easter glory there is more glory in the Ascension, and then Pentecost descends upon us like fire, and Reformed people become Pentecostals for a day.

Every part of this journey is important. We cannot overlook one for the sake of the other. The work of Jesus and His bride are one work. The Bride is not working separately from Jesus, rather Jesus comes along and strengthens the bride/church to fulfill her mission. The story of the world is the Husband and the Bride working together to bring glory to the Father by the work of the Spirit.

These events are all a part of the overall plan of God to redeem the world and his people, but particular events like the Resurrection possesses a certain key to unlock the mysteries of God’s work in the world.

Jesus’ resurrection sets into motion the events that will ultimately lead to his giving the Father the kingdom. The Father raises the Son from the dead, and the Son gives the Father the kingdom. Paul says in verses 24-26 of  I Corinthians 15 that Jesus “must destroy every rule and every authority and power and reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” This is our End-of-the-world map. The Apostle does not enter into speculations about the End, because he knows that the plans of God are higher than his own plans, and what we see is not always a picture of what is truly happening. We have a limited view of what is happening in the world. We tend to view the world through our own erroneous lenses when we are called to read the world through the eyes of faith; to believe that Jesus is doing what he said he would do. More

Fourth Sunday of Easter: The Empty Threat of Death, Part III, I Corinthians 15:20-28

First Sermon

Second Sermon

People of God, this is the Fourth Sunday of Resurrection! We are still immersed in this season of joy and celebration. And we have chosen I Corinthians 15 as the background theme to this feast. Why? Because the resurrection is God’s response to death and Caesar. God does not make false promises. He fulfills His creation purpose: to renew all things and to make the Light the center of His universe. Namely, that Light is Jesus. The Light is so powerful that the darkness of the tomb cannot contain it.

The great Princeton Seminary professor, B.B. Warfield, enjoyed saying to his students: “Gentlemen, I like the supernatural.[1] We are believers in a supernatural God who made an unknown tomb to be the center of a supernatural faith.

Out of this empty tomb God is making something new. We call it the New Creation . This New Creation  was not the invention of man; it was the entrance of God’s kingdom into this world. It was not the Church that created a story to keep their dying faith alive, it was the resurrection of Christ that created and sustained the Church. As F.F. Bruce wrote:

“The early Christians did not believe in the resurrection because they could not find his dead body. They believed because they did find a living Christ.[2]

The tomb is empty because the threats of death are empty. And this is the apostolic goal in this chapter: to re-affirm and to revel in the resurrection of the Messiah. More