Blog 203: 4.12.19 - 4.12.24
Calvin is here dealing with the subject of church power and discipline, and resumes his consideration of the subject of fasting. He has a marvellous three-point directive to ensure that fasting does not degenerate into religious superstition.
First, we must remember the directive of Joel, who counsels us to rend our hearts rather than our garments (Joel 2:13). Fasting in and of itself is of no value to God unless the heart is affected. It can only be valuable as it assists us to grow in dissatisfaction with sin and self. The fasting of hypocrites, therefore, is a gross abomination according to Calvin.
Second, we must avoid the idea that fasting is a work of merit, or even that it is a necessary element of worship. In itself, says Calvin, it is indifferent; to mix it with what God requires in worship is both to dilute the worship and exaggerate the importance of the fasting.
Third, we must take care not to be so over-strict in our fasting that we give men the false idea that they have done something worthwhile merely by having fasted. Calvin alleges that by heaping praise on the practice some of the early church writers have done more harm than good.
The basis of Lent, therefore, is tenuous: for a specific period the Church called on people to imitate the example of Christ and to refrain from eating food. But as Calvin points out, Christ did not fast habitually, and what he does he does that we may admire him, not necessarily imitate him. For Calvin, therefore, it is not always pertinent to ask WWJD - What would Jesus do? It is perhaps enough to ask WDJD - What DID Jesus do? - that we might admire him.
The excesses of the practice of fasting is seen in the way in which the Church bound the consciences of men by insisting on it on many different occasions, all of which became an occasion to praise fasting, rather than to praise God.