It is not inherently sinful to give up something or fast for forty days, even if those days happen to precede Easter. But observing Lent can be a sin. For some it is an errant religious ritual rising from a works-based philosophy. For others it is an empty religious ritual observed because others say so and do so. Whatsoever is not of faith is sin. A person might voluntarily choose any day or set of days to fast (or give up something). He or she should not make a display of it (see Jesus’s words in Matthew 6:16ff. “When you fast...”). Starting a season of sacrifice and fasting with a mark of penance certainly does that.
Observing of days (or not) should be a private matter of the individual and not a public imposition on others (see Romans 14). This calls in question church-wide observations of church-sanctioned days that are not commanded -- whether they be Lent or Independence Day or Christmas. Let all be fully persuaded in their own minds. It is ill-advised to bring an unauthorized day into the church to all members to observe. For example, we might celebrate Christmas as a family at home, yet leave it out of the church and not set it before others who are offended by it. Further, preachers should not impose a so-called “church calendar” upon the membership in his preaching. It violates the Romans 14 principle.
The reasons for observing Lent in a free church tradition often come out of left field, while some might appeal to something like the “normative principle.”
- A biblical model, “… the Lenten fast is modeled after Jesus’ 40 day fast in the wilderness, so it too has a biblical origin…” To say that Lent is based on Jesus’s fast in the wilderness is one of the “left field” arguments. It is “reverse exegesis” -- doing something and then looking in the Bible for justification.
- The “if you do this” argument: “Neither Christmas nor Easter is found in the Bible, yet these holy days are universally celebrated in Baptist churches.” Bart Barber answers this argument well, writing, “having taken some steps in a bad direction is no good reason to continue further along the path.” It is also not true that these days are universally celebrated Baptist churches. Some churches oppose them, while others leave them out of the church gathering and for each family to determine what they will do in their homes. Similarly, in Christianity Today Steven R. Harmon claims, “All Baptist congregations observe some sort of calendar in their worship.” All Baptist congregations do not observe some sort of calendar in their worship -- unless one is including that we number our days by the Gregorian calendar. Baptists have no official or “Christian” calendar. And even if we did, that is not proof that it is a good thing.
- If God did not forbid something, then it is acceptable. This is a derivative of the normative principle, but is too loose to hang our hats on. There are many things that are forbidden by the fact that God commanded something else. The practice of Lent incorporates some things that God forbids -- such as announcing our fasting and setting days for others to observe.
See Part 1