Yesterday, on Ash Wednesday of 2017, I posted an article written by Carl Trueman, a professor of Christian theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, which he wrote a few years back in anticipation of the upcoming season of Lent. That article can be found here. To be honest, this is an exploration of my own convictions. I posted Trueman’s article as a means to think through what I thought on the topic. A couple of dear friends asked some important questions, and I wanted to honor their friendship and questions with a well-thought out response. I’ve also invited them to post a response, “An Old Dusty Story: Ash Wednesday.”
A reader must first know that Professor Trueman does not mince words and is quite convictional. In another place—after reflecting on Machen’s comment that it was tragic that Luther and Zwingli were prepared to split the Reformation over the Lord’s Supper but that it would have been a greater tragedy for them to think the right convictions regarding the Lord’s Supper were worth splitting over—Trueman said that “there is nothing worse than Christians who don’t have strong convictions on things. I would rather be wrong about something that’s important, than not think that’s important in the first place.” I agree with him. That convictional zeal might help the person who wonders why Trueman would hold such a fast line on this issue in the first place.
Further relevant is my own experience with Lent. I grew up in two religious traditions which have had profound impact on my own thinking regarding regular holidays. First, I grew up LDS—and that fact actually bears more weight in this discussion than the fact that—second, I heard the gospel and was baptized into a Southern Baptist church. I left one set of traditions for a church that championed sola sciptura, and it didn’t even mention the liturgical calendar. This changed when I started dating my now wife, who had grown up Methodist. She was a committed member of the Wesley Foundation, a collegiate ministry of the UMC. Attending with her was where I came in contact for the first time with prayer labyrinths, fastings, and, most relevant, the liturgical calendar. I say that to say I am not standing on the outside of an experience condemning it, but rather, as one who had previously taken ashes and now asking about the effectual nature and hopes of the ritual.
This is also where my own experiences cause me to proceed with extreme caution. Growing up LDS, I swam in religious traditions designed to provoke religious experiences and provide deep assurance at every stage of life. Indeed, that is the purpose, temples, sacraments, ordinances are all important aspects of a Mormon’s religious life. There are guiding principles for tithing and even diets. Imagine my surprise when I left Mormonism and first read Col. 2:16-23. Imagine my surprise when I read that questions on the eating, drinking, or festivals (read yesterday as Lent) or regulations of those things “have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” Deadly consequences await the one looking to his or her fast as the means to mortify their flesh. When Luther preached on Lent, he wrote, “we have adopted and practiced fasting as a good work: not to bring our flesh into subjection; but, as a meritorious work before God, to atone for our sins and obtain grace.” That’s damning. We should not lightly and thoughtlessly do anything in Christian worship.
I do not necessarily believe that an Protestant evangelical cannot celebrate Lent, but I would question why he needs to celebrate Lent. I hope the difference is clear. Trueman does a far better job arguing this point than I could, so let me summarize what I believe is his argument. First, the liturgical calendar became an important aspect of the cultural influence that the Church could exercise on the people—but not necessarily in a malicious sense. In a world that has now lost persecution and death under Caesar, how would one signal the fact that they are—in fact—dedicated followers of Christ when Caesar sits on St. Peter’s throne in Rome? Second, Trueman acknowledges that in the Roman, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions the liturgical calendar is just that—a calendar…nothing more. So, in that metric, there isn’t a great deal of harm done in performing the rituals of that tradition—anymore than, for example, Protestants celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. Third, and importantly, Protestants in the Reformation rightly jettisoned the shackles of ritual in worship services, and he argued that when rightly ordered Protestant worship services should declare that each and every Lord’s Day. Finally, Trueman speculates— and I have come to agree with him— that Lent and various liturgical practices are adopted by evangelicals because evangelicalism in many forms is a diseased, anemic movement.
This, I believe, is why you see four routes that young people who grew up in evangelicalism take when they taste freedom: either, they leave church and esteem it as a “movement” altogether incapable of answering life’s important questions (which, in many of its present forms is unable to do so); or, Protestants compromise and return to Rome or the Orthodox traditions; or, evangelical continue to figure out whatever “works” in order to grant them their “religious experience” fix in order that they might have assurance; or, hopefully, Protestant evangelicals return to the Reformation and rediscover the gospel.
Aside, Albert Mohler argued similarly the importance of confessional, Protestant evangelicalism—compared to its many popular forms— is the only form of evangelicalism which is capable of surviving cultural relativism. He said, “Evangelicalism—as an “ism”—is a particular moment in history…Modern evangelicalism lacks the theological substance either of the Reformation or the Reformers.” Only the Reformers can answer what Trueman and I see as a profound problem in evangelicalism; the solution is not borrowing from other traditions to construct a meaningful Christian life.
Therefore, again, I do not necessarily believe that an Protestant evangelical cannot celebrate Lent, but I would question why he needs to celebrate Lent.
Here are my positive alternatives.
First, Lent is an unnecessary flourish in Christian liturgy. Every worship service should feature the confession of sins and the application of the gospel, which alone can grant assurance. People need to look back to the cross for assurance that their sins have been absolved. The feeling of our “need” to experience Lent as a counter-cultural marker against the commercialism of Easter is solved by this: just stop buying candy, Peeps, and dressing up as bunnies for Easter. You don’t have to have those things to celebrate Easter, and that is—perhaps— even more radically counter-cultural than the imposition of ashes.
Second, there is an important rhythm in the Christian life. Yes, the old covenant featured a calendar which marked unique seasons in the life of the nation of Israel. No, the church should not import that pattern in old covenant into the rhythm of the life of the Church. Those ancient days were to train the nation to look forward to a moment when God would provide atonement, a greater Passover, etc. The old covenant calendar was transfigured in Christ, our atonement, Passover, etc. Now, the church does have a calendar, and she does have a rhythm. Now that sin is done away with, she returns to the very first rhythm which existed before the fall. Six days of work with a seventh day for rest. And, on that day, we look back to the work of Christ and thank him that we no longer must keep a calendar.
Third, I am concerned, but I have not nailed down my convictions on this, that Lent might violate the command of our Lord: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Luther preached, “Lent has become mere mockery because our fasting is a perversion and an institution of man.” While no one is disfiguring themselves in Lent, there is certainly nothing secret about publically marking the beginning of a forty-day fast in preparation for Easter.
Finally, and of greatest concern to me, I believe, like Trueman said, that the practice of evangelicals coopting Lent has more to do “with the poverty of their own liturgical tradition as anything.” Explaining that poverty would be a task too great for this post, but I will trust that readers are—at least—familiar with evangelicalism in its current state. Protestant evangelicals do not need to borrow practices from Romans, Orthodox, or Anglicans.
To that point, my friend, Tim Olson, asked the valuable question: is there a place for borrowing valuable practices from other traditions? He asked what the difference is between an evangelical coopting Lent and a person of German heritage benefiting from the glorious invention of tacos. I think there is, but Tim, I would never surrender tacos even though I’m Scottish, English, and French. The point is well-taken. I think, however, that might be a non-sequitur. Food is an incarnate effect of tradition, which developed after successive generations who lived in real places in real time with access to specific ingredients that others did not have (until very recently). I still argue that Lent and the imposition of ashes is an unnecessary practice for evangelicals rooted in the Reformed tradition. A properly ordered worship service, will, again, demonstrate all the truths that Lent hopes to communicate: men will return to ash.
Now, many very thoughtful people practice Lent, and I’m not sure of their justification for doing so can overcome all the aforementioned reasons I think it’s unnecessary. I’m more concerned that well-intended Christians are looking to mysticism, experientialism, or liturgy as a means through which they can have “religious experience.” Lent is a moving experience because elemental rituals display a biblical analogy. Pastors encourage parishioners to look to those elements as a means of grace, whether or not they communicate it that way. The Church, however, is given two ordinances by which she is to commemorate biblical analogy. The Lord’s Supper looks back to the substitutionary death of Christ, his finished work for believers and the fellowship of saints, and the future feast with the Lamb. Baptism looks back to the many ways that God brought his people through waters of judgement and cleansed them of sin, it signifies the death of sin and the resurrection into new life, and serves as a public sign of identification with body of Christ. The Lord’s Supper looks back to reach forward, and baptism, if you will, looks back and marks the beginning of eternity. Lent, as many evangelicals appropriate it, looks back to human mortality—to something that was taken care of at the cross.
Lent, in that respect, is unnecessary. Indeed, we are all mortal, but “Christ tasted death” and “death has been swallowed up in victory.” So, why look back? Why look to Rome for a tradition that accomplishes nothing that a rightly ordered Lord’s Day would do? Why “pause” the reality of the resurrection to ponder what would happen if the Father had never sent the Son? Praise the glory of His grace that He did send the Son! I don’t have to wonder!
So, while Lent is not forbidden for the Protestant evangelical, I wonder why any would bother to reach to Rome and pick it up? Rightly order your worship services and you would experience “Lent” every single Lord’s Day, and you won’t even have to wait until Easter for death to be vanquished.
 Martin Luther, “The Fast and Temptation of Christ,” Sermons by Martin Luther, ed. & trans. John N Lenker, 1906, PDF (Accessed March 2, 2017) http://www.martinluthersermons.com/Luther_Lenker_Vol_2.pdf, 108.
 Rod Dreher,. “The Benedict Option: A Conversation with Rod Dreher.” Interview by Albert Mohler, Thinking in Public February 13, 2017 (Accessed March 2, 2017), http://www.albertmohler.com/2017/02/13/benedict-option-conversation-rod-dreher/.
 Carl Trueman, “Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing our Piety,” Reformation21, February 2015 (Accessed March 2, 2017), http://www.reformation21.org/articles/ash-wednesday.php.