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.

Sermon: Prayer, Liturgy, and Time, I Timothy 2:1-2, Part I

People of God, we are coming to the end of the Church Year. In two weeks we begin the journey of Advent. Advent is a season of expectation and hope for the Christian. We will walk through the expectations of the First Century saints and see the glory of that expectation fulfilled in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Now I know that many of you who grew up in broadly evangelical churches will find this idea of a church calendar strange. Why the changes in liturgical colors? Why is a calendar even needed? Or why shouldn’t we just allow the pastor to preach whatever he is comfortable with, and allow that to form our themes for the year? These are important questions to consider. And let me say up-front that there is nothing sinful or erroneous about preaching about the crucifixion during Christmas. Or about the resurrection during Lent. But one of the questions I think is worth considering is “what is the nature and purpose of time?” Why is time important?” Is there wisdom is being shaped by a historically driven calendar, rather than a calendar of our own making? I believe there is much wisdom in it, and I think the Church has been wise in following this calendar throughout the centuries. So why is time important?  First, time is important because it shapes us as a people. We are a time-oriented people. Everyone of us has 24 hours in a day. The way we choose to use this time is crucial in developing our character and personality. If we are always late to events we are telling the world that order does not matter. If we seldom meet deadlines we are telling the world that discipline does not matter. And the examples abound. Time is important. Time is ethically and sociologically important. Jesus believed this was the case. He said things like “The time is at hand.” The kingdom was near when he arrived in the first century. Later in Mark 13 he says “these things shall come upon this generation.” If time didn’t matter to Jesus he would have said, “these things will happen upon a non-specified generation.” But Jesus was very clear to his first century audience.

But another reason time is important is because it belongs to Christ and His Church. Jesus is the Creator of time. Before the world began there was no need for time, but when Jesus set the world into motion with His words time began to tick cosmically.

We are part of a culture that sees time as individualistic. As Christians, many times we isolate ourselves from others. We like to do things our own on our own times. So we rationalize that time for us is not the same as time for them. The reality, however, is that time is God’s, and He has specifically given time to His Son, and His Son beautifies, glorifies His Bride by giving her time.

To use a marital dialogue, Jesus is saying: “Beloved, I want to help you to use your time wisely.”

So over the centuries, the Church has listened to her Bridegroom and fashioned herself around a Calendar. There are feast or holy days that we as a Church in Pensacola, Florida celebrate together with other little underground churches in Iran and in China. We share Fourth of July only other fellow Americans, but we share Easter with the whole Christian world. And this is no trivial thing.

I also want to say that it is a good thing to honor our national holidays. God has been good to this country, though this country has in many ways failed to live as God desires. One crucial feature of a Christian is that he possess a heart of gratitude for those things God has given him. Here is my point: We need to honor special days in our Calendar, but ultimately national holidays are to be submissive to ecclesiastical holy days. The work of the Church will carry a place of greater importance in God’s plans. Nations will come and go, but the gates of hell will never prevail against the Church.

I say all these things as we come to the end of the Church Year. But within that Church Year we can take some time to reflect on certain American holidays. We have the opportunity to consider these holidays and use them in a way that mirrors  the Christian gospel. And I can think of no better opportunity to do this than with Thanksgiving. I Chronicles 16: 8: “Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples!”

We are entering a brief season of thanksgiving. Of course, we must always give thanks, but when a holiday comes along that stresses thanksgiving we think it is a great time to consider this topic. But as we know we tend to replace the important thing for the less important. And we do as a people in this season need to prioritize Thanksgiving over turkeys and touchdowns.[1] Though many of you testify that Thanksgiving with turkey and touchdowns is an even better combination.

So time is of the essence! It helps shape us and it reminds us of our allegiance to Christ and the Church. Liturgy and time go together. One cannot exist without the other.

N.T. Wright says the following:

“Good Christian liturgy is friendship in action… the covenant relationship between God and his people not simply discovered and celebrated like the sudden meeting of friends, exciting and worthwhile though that is, but thought through and relished, planned and prepared — an ultimately better way for the relationship to grow and at the same time a way of demonstrating what the relationship is all about.”[2] More

Historical Horror

Leithart describes in chapter one of Defending Constantine the horrors of Christian persecution. These Christians were tortured in the most brutal form because they refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods under Diocletian (22). One particularly gruesome example is of a Christian named Peter.

(He) refused to comply with the order of sacrifice. Soldiers stripped him, hoisted him naked, and whipped him until his body was a bloody pulp, his bones sticking through the flesh and skin. Still he refused to sacrifice. The soldiers brought vinegar and salt from the mess and poured it over his wounds. Finding raw meat unappetizing, even when spiced up, they decided to cook him, slowly roasting parts of his body while trying to keep him alive. He was still refusing to sacrifice when he died.