The Discipline of Lent


As we approach the beginning of Lent (Ash Wednesday is March 1st this year), I am beginning to mention the history of Lent and referring to it as a season of repentance, fasting, prayer, and works of love (almsgiving). I’m also starting to hear the old-saw response from some Lutherans. Here’s a note from Bill as an example:

This is in no way Lutheran!!!!!!!!! We are saved by God’s GRACE not WORKS of discipline. We cannot cleanse our own hearts.
I would like to know who is responsible for this error so that I can speak to them.
I’ll post my response to Bill as an open letter.
Dear Mr. Lindeman,
You are correct. Lent is not about our giving up something to somehow please God by our good work.  Lent is about what Jesus Christ gave up to pay the penalty for the sins of the world — His holy and innocent life. This is the message of the Gospel.
 
If during Lent Christians choose to give up something or rededicate themselves to helping those in need as a way to proclaim the salvation Christ has won for all by His suffering and death, then such activities are sacrifices that glorify God. Yet as you say in your note, nothing we do through discipline, self-denial, or good works can ever earn the Lord’s forgiveness or repay Him for what He accomplished for us.  We are saved by grace.
 
Though the Scriptures do not mention Lent, it has a longstanding tradition in the Church. Though we are not certain how it developed, by A.D. 350 the forty-day fast that we now have was already part of the Church’s practice in most places. Many identify the Second Festal letter of Athanasius in A.D. 330 as the earliest reference to a forty-day day fast leading up to Easter. 
 
For Christians living in the Fourth Century Lent had two major emphases: First, it was seen as a time of repentance and denial of self. All Christians were to examine their lives according to the Ten Commandments and other Christian ethical precepts and repent where necessary. They were to remember what it cost their Savior to save them, The second emphasis of Lent was as a time of instruction and preparation for those who wanted to become members of the Christian Church, i.e., the catechumens. During Lent they learned the Christian doctrine by studying the Creed. They were led step by step through prayer and special rites toward baptism. The instruction of the catechumen led to baptism and receiving the Lord’s Supper in the service on Easter.
 
At the time of the Reformation, some Christians wanted to eliminate Lent since Scripture didn’t command it. Luther, however, urged that it be kept, for he saw Lent as an opportunity for the strengthening of faith. “Lent, Palm Sunday, and Holy Week shall be retained, not to force anyone to fast, but to preserve the Passion history and the Gospels appointed for that season” (Luther’s Works AE, 53:90). Here Luther instructs that Lent should be preserved, in part, because it reminded Christians of the Passion (suffering and death) of Jesus and encouraged them to meditate upon it. However, no one should be forced to participate. It should be voluntary.
 
Lutherans retain Lent to this day, because we see it as a salutary outward discipline that gives Christians a wonderful opportunity for spiritual renewal. As Lent begins, we are invited to struggle against everything that leads us away from love of God and love of neighbor by exercising the discipline of Lent: repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love (almsgiving). These may become specific occasions and opportunities for spiritual renewal during this season of renewal as we come face to face with the sin that hinders our walk with Christ. Living out a discipline takes our Lord’s words about self-denial seriously (Matthew 16:24). In the Lenten discipline, we come face to face with the Gospel of Jesus Christ as we focus (or refocus) on His self-sacrificing passion, death and resurrection, which has brought us acceptance, forgiveness and redemption by God. Through that same discipline, we make a loving response to God who gives us the power to live anew.
Blessed Lent,
Pastor Scot Kinnaman
And to you too, dear blog reader, my prayer is that you have a blessed Lent and a joyous Easter celebration.
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