Results tagged “lent” from Reformation21 Blog

Critiquing Expressions of Devotion


Is it appropriate for Protestants to embrace the observance of Lent--or, even further, any of the Orthodox holy days and seasons? Members of Protestant and Evangelical churches in our day have made these frequently asked and widely disputed questions. Others have thoughtfully raised the issue of the lack biblical and historical support for Protestants embracing Lent. For instance, Carl Trueman wrote about Ash Wednesday, in particular, on this site a number of years back. I wholeheartedly agree with what he had to say. I also urge you to read Richard Barcellos' excellent response to a recent TGC devotional guide on Lent. I am certainly more than a little concerned with the growing Protestant evangelical infatuation with the orthodox church calendar and orthodox expressions of devotion. My concern is not so much Roman Catholicism and other orthodox traditions for practicing these rituals. After all, it's who they are and what they do. I fundamentally disagree with their theological foundation, not their expression. Nevertheless, I would like to offer a few thoughts--not so much on the question about the appropriateness of Protestants observing Lent but on the question of the appropriateness of critiquing someone's personal expressions of devotion to God.

First. I do not agree that it is never appropriate to question or criticize a person's expression of devotion to God.  Biblically speaking, sometimes critique is necessary because one's devotion may be misplaced or in error, as Paul did with the unbelieving Athenians (Acts 17:23).  Other times it is necessary because of ignorance, as Priscilla and Aquila did with Apollos (Acts 18:24-26) or as Paul did with the believers he met in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-6).  In each case critique is matter of truth, love and, ultimately, honor to the Lord.

Additionally, the idea that criticism of personal devotion to God is verboten relativizes spirituality beyond any truthful examination or discussion, which ultimately means that Christian expressions of devotion are not so much matters of truth as, well, matters of expression, subjective "existentialities" that have truth and value relative to the person who expresses the devotion.  In other words, my expression of devotion to Christ is mine and that's the end of the discussion.  The problem with this is that it is just the same old liberal argument that one's faith is an existential act that is beyond any test of factual scrutiny.  The further problem is that this also means that my faith is essentially irrelevant to anything outside of my personal, mystical experience. If my action of devotion is beyond critical evaluation, then the object of my devotion is beyond critical evaluation; words like truth, error, heresy--even right and wrong--cannot be meaningfully used in any discussion of Christianity or, for that matter, of religion, period.

Second.There is a right way to make such a critique.  No one--least of all liberals--functionally believes that it is never appropriate to criticize one's personal faith.  Hypocrisy abounds, as witnessed by the fact that the greatest champions of religious tolerance are most often the greatest offenders; find a car with a 'coexist' decal and you are likely to find in it someone utterly intolerant of any form of Christianity that assents to absolute truth or the exclusivity of Christ as Savior. For this reason, I completely ignore shouts of protest about critiquing expressions of faith that start from the assumption that all critiques are off-limits; those who say this are almost never willing to play by their own rules.

Still, every critique must be God-honoring, which means not only with a view to the purity of doctrine but also with regard to the peace of the church and our witness to a skeptical world. Christ-like love, respect and gentleness must underlie every inquiry and, when necessary, every firm admonition. Critique should never be mean and it must always be respectful, but in today's climate "mean" and "respectful" are constantly redefined by those who all too often find everyone but their own tribe to be mean and disrespectful.

Third. Christians--and by that I mean those who believe in sola Scriptura, that the Bible alone is God's authoritative voice in this age--above all people ought to be the most open to the scrutiny of their faith and its expression. To start, we do not merely believe in absolute truth, we believe it is found in the Bible as God's Word.  We further believe that, as sinners, without God's intervening correction we will misapprehend what the Bible says, misapply what it teaches--and, worse of all, make up unbiblical doctrines and perform unbiblical expressions of devotion to God.  A truly humble Christian is that son or daughter of God through Christ who, like the wise son spoken of in Proverbs, loves instruction and does not despise reproof. Simply put, I want to know what is an appropriate expression of devotion--and I want to know what is not an appropriate expression of devotion.  If it is possible that what I express in my practice is in conflict with sound doctrine or could lead me further into confusion or into outright error, then I want to know.

Fourth (and last). Just because an expression of devotion to God is unfamiliar, outside of my tradition or not immediately clear to me does not mean it is wrong.  But all of those reasons make it an appropriate candidate for biblical examination, which will result in one of three things:  I discover that I am wrong to be critical and acknowledge the biblical freedom of others to express their devotion as they have been expressing it; I discover I am right to be critical and must find a loving way to challenge those who so express their devotion to biblical reexamination and, ultimately, repentance; or I discover I am wrong to be critical and may myself choose to widen my biblical expression of devotion.

Lent me your ears

In 1528 Catholic and Protestant theologians met in the city of Berne to debate a series of topics associated with the burgeoning Reform movement in Switzerland. "The Ten Theses of Berne" focused on issues such as the nature of the Lord's Supper, prayers to the saints, purgatory, the veneration of images, and clerical marriage.  As a result of the disputation, a majority of Bernese ministers signed the Ten Theses, which also received legislative sanction, thereby consolidating the Reformation in that city.

Theses I-III provide a particularly clear and succinct summary of the Reformed understanding of the church, illustrating that the first principle of Reformed ecclesiology (i.e., the doctrine of the church) is Christology (i.e., the doctrine of Jesus Christ). They state:

I. The holy, Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, abides in the same, and does not listen to the voice of a stranger.

II. The Church of Christ makes no laws or commandments without God's Word. Hence all human traditions, which are called ecclesiastical commandments, are binding upon us only in so far as they are based on and commanded by God's Word.

III. Christ is our only wisdom, righteousness, redemption, and payment for the sins of the whole world. Hence it is a denial of Christ when we acknowledge another merit for salvation and satisfaction for sin (cited from Arthur C. Cochrane, Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century).

These three propositions rebuke the major errors of medieval Catholicism: they refute papal primacy; they undermine the authority of extra-biblical tradition; and they deny human ability to merit salvation. What is striking, however, is the way they do so, i.e., by means of a beautiful statement of Jesus Christ's status as the church's supreme King, Prophet, and Priest. Because Christ is the sole King in the church, the church cannot be ruled by the pope. Because Christ exercises his sovereign supremacy over the church through his prophetic Word, human custom and tradition that are not derived from Scripture have no binding authority in the church. Because Christ made full satisfaction for sin and fully merited our salvation, no other mediators and no other contributors to our salvation may be sought. These three theses demonstrate that the Reformed understanding of the church is a confession of the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ before it is a critique of ecclesiastical error or a call to ecclesiastical reform.

I have read with interest exchanges about Lent, Ash Wednesday, and the broader usefulness of the liturgical calendar on this site (see here, here, and here) and around social media over the last several days. These discussions have taken on new importance as an increasing number of evangelicals have come to regret handing over the liturgical keys to marketers, managers, and youth ministers in the eighties and nineties and, as a result, are now searching for a richer ecclesiastical expression of the Christian faith. Many hope to find resources for renewing Christian worship in the broader catholic tradition. I would count myself among that number. 

However, as we seek to engage the catholic substance of the Christian faith, I believe it is important that we do so in a manner that is consistent with Protestant principles. And I believe we couldn't do much better than to look to the Ten Theses of Berne as a guide for how to do so. 

How might we judge the value of various catholic practices and resources as we seek to renew Christian worship in the present? I don't pretend to offer the last word on this important question in such short space. But, with the Ten Theses of Berne as our guide, I would offer this as a first and fundamental word: Only those traditions that acknowledge the sole Kingship of Christ in the church, by demonstrating submission to and derivation from the supreme authority of his Word and by relying wholly upon his all-sufficient priestly mediation, are worthy of our attention and appropriation. These traditions alone have the promise of his blessing and presence. These traditions alone will profit the church and honor the Lord who purchased her by his blood.

So let's pursue Reformed catholicity, and let's debate the observation of Lent. But let's agree to debate these issues on the only foundation upon which the church may profitably succeed in debate, the sole supremacy of Jesus Christ in the church, our Prophet, Priest, and King. Otherwise, we're not really talking about Reformed catholicity.

A Lenten warning

Just in case someone thinks that the observance of Lent is not the start of a slippery slope, consider the following sad case of a man who thought it did not matter much . . .

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Not relenting

I know I have been here before, but it is that time of year when we hear of those noble spirits who will be relinquishing chocolate (Book of Additions, chapter 1, verse 28), smartphones (Second Letter to the Accretions, chapter 5, verse 3) and new tattoos (Superstitions of St. Jeff, chapter 24, verse 9) for Jesus over the course of this season they call Lent. My esteem for such demonstrations of commitment can scarcely be calculated.

What I find particularly hard to fathom is how some of the very same people who, in the name of grace, want to emphasize our freedom from such impositions as certain aspects of the Ten Commandments, are happy to overlook what seems to be the plain teaching of the letter to the Galatians, beloved of anti-legalists everywhere:
But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have laboured for you in vain. (Gal 4.9-11)
Or there is the clear thought of Colossians:
Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations--"Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," which all concern things which perish with the using--according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. (Col 2.20-23)
So, here's a thought: how about giving up semi-Roman Catholic dogma, humanly-mandated asceticism, and empty gestures? Rend your heart and not your garments, and do so not because it is a particular time of year, but because you have a particular kind of heart with its particular manifestations of rebellion. Self-control is never out of fashion. Repentance and confession may have their particular seasons in the life of the saints, but it is worth remembering that when our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said "Repent," he called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

Giving up Lent

Because, judging by the annual jamboree, this piece on Lent (and other festivals) is still relevant.

This Lent I am giving up . . . reticence

I will make no bones about it: I am an Old World (for which please read 'continental European') Christian, of Puritan inclination, and a Dissenter - specifically, a Particular or Reformed Baptist. That means several things. By conviction and heritage I belong to those who left the Anglican communion as a matter of conscience, sick of its halfway reformation and unwilling to conform to the general shabbiness and unscriptural demands of the Act of Uniformity. My conscience with regard to the extra-Biblical trappings of mere religiosity is tender. My attachment to simplicity of worship as a gathered church is sincere. I am sensitive to those doctrines and practices over which my forefathers spent their energies and shed their tears and sometimes their blood, both from within and then from without the established folds of their day. I see things with an awareness tuned by walking the streets, graveyards and memorials of men and women who suffered and sometimes died for conscience' sake.

Out of such an atmosphere I cannot help but be sickened by the seeming obsession with Lent and Easter at this time of year, and Christmas at the end of the year. Please do not misunderstand me: conscience also demands that - where the cultural vestiges of a more religious society patterned to some extent on the significant events of the life of Christ provide for it - I take every legitimate opportunity to make Christ known. If an ear is even half-opened by circumstance, I willingly and cheerfully speak into it, and seek to make of it a door for the gospel. I do not see the point of making a point by not preaching about the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord if some benighted soul wanders into the church with at least some expectation of hearing about his humiliation and exaltation.

But what chills my blood is the unholy elevation of things not mandated by the Word of God. I find it odd that some of the very people who obsess about contextualization and resist 'religion' have swallowed hook, line and sinker the empty traditions of men, that the men who wear Mickey Mouse T-shirts (quite literally) all the year round besides dress in sombre suits every April, telling us with one breath that all of life is worship and so tending to level out our experience and the Biblical rhythms of our relationship with God (especially dismissing the one-day-in-seven pattern established at the first and the new creation), and with the next telling us that this is Holy Week, and we are somehow falling short if we do not build it into some unholy jamboree. Meanwhile, those who trumpet their credentials as the true heirs of the Reformation either seem willing to stop with the house half-clean or seem quite keen to redecorate it with the junk that their more enlightened forefathers were in the process of throwing out (establishing the principles of the matter even if they never quite got round to that corner of the attic themselves).

Whether or not it is a vestige of the Emerging/Emergent appetite for a range of 'spiritualities' or an enthusiasm for an over-ripe liturgical renewal, I cannot say, but I wonder if it is in part a matter of distance both of time and space. This alleged 'recovery' of Lent and Easter is not actually a matter of historical sensitivity and an inheritance regained but of historical unawareness and an inheritance lost. Whether or not it is the high-grade muppetry of entire churches being urged to tattoo one of the stations of the cross on some part of their anatomy, or some gore-drenched re-enactment of the unrepeatable sacrifice, or some spotlit image-fest in which a total insensitivity to physical representations of the Christ - the image of the invisible God - is displayed, or some be-robed priest-figure half a step away from incense and obeisance, it does not come from Scripture and it does not belong in Christ's church. It is a replacement of God's order with man's notions, a disruption of God's regular rhythms of true religion with the unholy syncopation of mortal religiosity. As John Owen somewhere says, where genuine spirituality is substantially absent, men will turn either to fanaticism or to ritual - or perhaps to both - in an attempt to fill the void. Whichever way you sniff at it, and whichever way the wind blows, to the trained nostril it all begins to smell a touch Romish.

But there is a solution. This year there are - if you wish to see it this way - fifty three Easters. Most years there are fifty two. Each is a high and holy day, an opportunity to remember and rejoice in the one thing that the saints of God are commanded to remember and rejoice in: the Lord of Glory - the incarnate Son - who was crucified but who rose again, in whom we live eternally, and for whom we perpetually look with eagerness, our eyes straining for the first glimpse of the one whom not having seen, we love, who will shortly appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. Each is a day of sober and grateful remembrance and recollection of his being and his doing. We have our regular (if not all of us a weekly) meal at which we remember the Lord's death until he comes, celebrated usually on the day of resurrection. On these days, putting aside the trappings of the world, we begin the cycle of time on our weekly peak, equipped by communion with God in Christ by the Spirit for the challenges and the opportunities of the days ahead.

Frankly, it seems odd to me that many of those who have proved very quick to abandon all manner of patterns and habits and convictions of Christians over decades or centuries, retain Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter (Resurrection) Sunday as set in stone in the calendar, one of the high points of the Christian year (which pattern, we are informed, provides the central event in the church year - the climax of worship, expectation, and celebration, an exercise of the church's discipline). If you're not sold on Easter, you might be dismissed as one of the "diehard Reformed" for whom "this [Easter] Monday is like every other Monday because Easter Sunday is like every other Sunday." To say that Easter Sunday is like every other Sunday is not to suggest an upgraded view of Easter Sunday but a downgraded view of every other one.

I try not to be a Scrooge (although I cannot help but shed a silent tear that I am now literarily reduced to trying not to be a Grinch, but it's only a silent one and fairly dry, because Dickens' plotting makes many modern soap operas look like masterpieces of restraint and reason). I try not to be whatever is the Easter equivalent of a Scrooge or a Grinch (probably something that destroys bunnies or steals eggs). Again, for the record, I delight in the incarnation, and love to explore the excellence and wonder of Christ's coming into the world. I love to do so at any time of year, and find it grievous that I am sometimes not expected to handle those truths or sing incarnation hymns apart from at the dead of winter. Neither do I for one instant deny the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the only Redeemer of God's elect, in the glorious good news that the church of Christ declares.

But when we are told that this is the time of year when Christians begin to think again about the death and resurrection of Christ, does it not prompt the question of what we are supposed to be doing for the rest of the year? When men speak after their so-called Holy Week of the abating euphoria of the resurrection, surely they are explaining why a merely annual remembrance is insufficient? Christ Jesus is the risen Lord for 365 days of every year (plus the extra one when required), and we have a weekly opportunity for the distinct recollection of his death in an atmosphere conditioned by his resurrection. To flatten the whole year, perhaps rising only to a few unnatural annual peaks, is to miss so much, to lose so many things, to gain so little.

Christ died to set us free from empty things. Men died to liberate us from the rigamarole of unscriptural traditions and man-made routines and performances of religiosity. I hope that you will hear a voice from the blood-washed streets of the Old World, where those battles and the cost of their victory are ground into our consciousness, where the issues and enemies are neither distant nor tame, and where the lines remain clearly drawn in the collective memory of some of the Lord's people, and consider whether or not the prizes so hardly won ought to be so quickly abandoned.