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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

The Vindication and Blessing of Lent

Published Friday, March 26, 2021 By Michael Farley

Every year I help plan worship services for the season of Lent at my Presbyterian church, and every year I am reminded that this is a bad idea by Carl Trueman’s essay and surrejoinder that invariably cross my desk.  Having engaged in liturgical scholarship about Reformed participation in ecumenical liturgical movements of the past two centuries, my sympathies and concerns lead me to see biblical and practical wisdom in celebration of the liturgical calendar.  Thus, I offer here my “sed contra” to Trueman’s concerns in defense of the blessing of Lent.

Before the argument, however, we must clarify what Lenten observance actually involves in modern Protestant churches.  There are three primary ways that Lent comes to expression in Protestant churches.  First, Lent supplies a set of biblical themes emphasized in the content of Scripture readings, sermons, songs, and other prayers in weekly worship on the Lord’s Day.  The primary themes are the suffering and death of Christ as the atoning sacrifice for our sins, lament for the sin and its cursed effects that make Christ’s passion necessary, and Christ’s call for his disciples to count the cost of discipleship and to take up our cross to follow him.  Lent also features a few additional gatherings for corporate worship on some other days of the week, e.g., Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday.  Some of these services may involve some biblical symbols that visibly illustrate various seasonal themes in a tangible fashion, e.g., applying ashes, stripping the communion table, or blowing out candles in conjunction with biblical readings.  Finally, some individuals engage in a renewal of personal spiritual disciplines (e.g., prayer, fasting) during this season, and churches sometimes provide devotional resources to guide reflection and prayer.

Trueman offers three primary reasons why these practices are, at least potentially, a bad idea for some Christians.  His first and chief concern is ecclesiological.  There is no explicit biblical command for Christians to construct an annual liturgical calendar, and thus the church has no authority to make observing Lent a normative requirement or expectation for members.  Trueman fears that congregations threaten to violate the liberty of Christian consciences by observing Lent as part of their corporate life together.

Second, Lent is unnecessary.  The distinctive biblical themes of Lent are already present in the weekly practices of public worship and the daily rhythms of private worship.  All of the biblical truths that the liturgical year highlights over the course of several months are all implicit in the theological meaning of the Lord’s Day itself, and all of the spiritual realities embodied in any symbols or practices associated with Lent or other seasons are also inherent in the regular liturgical elements practiced every week throughout the year.  There is no specific kind of grace that is solely available through following the liturgical calendar.

Third, Lent is not a part of the historical identity and practice of some Protestant church traditions.  If the liturgical calendar was not an intrinsic feature of a particular church tradition when it developed its distinctive, historic identity, then churches in that tradition should view it as a foreign element incompatible with that denominational identity.  If Christians in such church bodies wish to practice the liturgical calendar, they should consider moving into a church that has historically followed the calendar in order to respect the integrity of their “non-calendar” church.

On all these points, I believe that Trueman is right in what he affirms theologically and historically, but wrong in what he denies liturgically, because his concerns do not undermine or even address the way that modern Protestants observe the season of Lent or the reasons they find the liturgical calendar biblically, theologically, and practically compelling. 

First, the practices of Lent in modern Protestant churches do not overstep the boundaries of church authority or violate liberty of conscience.  I know of no Protestant church that teaches that the liturgical calendar is a normative requirement for all Christians. On the contrary, when churches observe Lent, they do so as an exercise of the freedom that rightly belongs to them.  Every church has the freedom to make decisions about what biblical texts and themes will shape the content of the liturgical life on the Lord’s Day in a given season.  (Nothing in the Bible, after all, tells First Baptist Church what biblical texts should shape their sermon series in the next six months.)  Churches also have the freedom to organize corporate worship services on other days of the week and offer devotional resources to their members as optional opportunities for growth.  If it is not an illegitimate imposition on Christian liberty for a pastor to choose to preach through the book of Romans for many months and to shape the content of liturgical forms and devotional resources around the themes of that book in a particular season, then it is not an illegitimate imposition for a pastor to choose to preach through biblical texts on the suffering and death of Jesus for six weeks every spring.  Far from being an imposition of something foreign to the Bible, the liturgical calendar is mostly a framework of biblical texts and themes that churches may freely choose in order to shape the content of biblical liturgical elements around the person and work of Christ for six months of the year.  

Because observing Lent is not an unwarranted exercise of church authority, Trueman’s second argument that the liturgical calendar is unnecessary is, well, unnecessary.  While he is right that it is, strictly speaking, unnecessary in the ways he describes, that fact does not entail that it is unwise for churches or individual Christians to choose freely to observe Lent.  The themes of Lent are biblical, and the practices are biblical and spiritually salutary when done for the right reasons.  Furthermore, observing Lent as a season provides an opportunity to focus on a particular dimension of the gospel embodied in the theological significance of the Lord’s Day, which is so dense with meaning that no single perspective or celebration can exhaust it.  Thus, the liturgical calendar actually should enhance our appreciation of the Lord’s Day because it provides a six-month explication of its Christological core from incarnation to second coming. 

Third, Trueman’s objection about historical identity is oddly ahistorical.  His appeal to this line of argument fails to grapple with historical context and to distinguish the different historical reasons why various Protestant traditions rejected the liturgical calendar in the past.  In some cases, Protestants employed a highly narrow concept of biblical warrant necessary to establish at least the permissibility of a specific practice.  Trueman, however, clearly does not accept this sort of Puritan rationale, for he approves of Anglicans and other traditions observing this season.  Some Protestants also rejected Lent specifically because so many Christians understood its disciplines in legalistic terms and felt a misplaced sense of guilt and obligation due to the Catholic Church’s erroneous claims about its divine origin and sanction and the church’s authority to require it.  Yet the cultural and ecclesial context has changed, and modern Protestant observance of Lent no longer connects Lent to these particular theological claims.

Why then should we treat the origin and early liturgical development of an ecclesial tradition as permanently binding?  It would be odd for a Protestant scholar to treat the contextual pastoral judgments and liturgical forms of any post-apostolic era as universally binding standards beyond all reform.  Did the reformation of the church reach its zenith of perfection in the 17th century and then cease for all time if the historical reasons for the shape of its reform in that era no longer apply to modern practice?

Trueman compares Presbyterians and Baptists embracing Lent to other nations celebrating American holidays.  This analogy, however, is not fitting because the content of the season of Lent is not something foreign to Presbyterians and Baptists.  It is instead the vicarious suffering and atoning work of Jesus Christ, which is part of the core of the Christian faith shared by all Christians.  Rather than rejecting the calendar as alien, Presbyterians, Baptists, and other church traditions can view the liturgical calendar as a gift of the catholic church that can enable them to embody with greater liturgical fullness the theology of the cross and communion with Christ that is already theirs.

Trueman is right that it is possible to pick-and-choose from the liturgical calendar in an eclectic way that fails to appreciate the theological balance within the whole system.  For example, it is all too common among Protestant churches newly embracing Lent to observe Lent as a whole season followed by a single day devoted to Easter.  In the traditional church calendar, however, Easter is not the short conclusion to Lent but rather a seven-week season for extended focus on the truth and implications of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.  Celebrating a season of Lent and a day of Easter creates a calendar that is not proportional to the relative importance of the resurrection in biblical theology.

Still, I am hopeful about even such partial and disproportional movements toward the liturgical calendar because observing Lent is one way of choosing catholicity over the sectarian tendency to pit the local congregation or the particular denomination against a liturgical framework observed by the majority of the world’s Christians.  The liturgical calendar is a blessed discipline that keeps the church’s worship and teaching rooted and centered on the central books of the biblical canon recounting the acts of God in Jesus Christ that are the foundation of God’s entire mission in creation and redemption and the shared foundation of the global church.  And in this increasingly polarized cultural world, American evangelicals in particular hardly need more emphasis on our personal rights to stand apart from other Christians within our nation and around the world who are different.  It seems foolish to me to dismiss the wisdom and impact of using our freedom to choose to stand on common ground with other Christian traditions not only by professing a common creed, but also by joining together in visible practices that embody that creed in action across boundaries of language, culture, history, and nation.

Once we see that Trueman’s objections do not address the actual reasons that modern Protestant churches observe Lent, we can see more clearly that all churches are free to embrace the season primarily because it blesses the people of God to be drawn back in a very intentional, extended way every year to the way of the cross.  Lent makes both our need for repentance and God’s grace loom large by devoting extended time to attend to the story of Christ as the Suffering Servant and sacrificial Lamb of God who must enter our sorrows and bear our death for the sake of our sin.  Lent gives space for lament to loom large by giving us God’s own language to protest the pain and injustice born by a weary and wounded world bruised and broken by the fall.  It is not a substitute or an alternative to practices that Christians should pursue during the rest of the year; rather, at its best it functions like an annual retreat that gives us space to reflect and renew our commitments to count the cost and follow Christ in the way of the cross.  And that blessing makes this Presbyterian glad to accept Lent as a gift, even if it took my church tradition a long time to perceive it as such.

Rev. Dr. Michael Farley is the pastor of spiritual formation at Central Presbyterian Church (EPC) in St. Louis, Missouri.  He has served as an adjunct professor of theological studies at Saint Louis University and as an adjunct professor of worship at Covenant Theological Seminary, and he has published articles on liturgical history and theology in journals such as Studia Liturgica, the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, the Calvin Theological Journal, and The New Mercersburg Review.

  • Michael Farley

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