My Purpose in Writing This
Ash Wednesday kicks off the season of Lent this year on February 26 (2020). Lent is a season of repentance with a focus on prayer and fasting. Traditionally, fasting has been set aside for food, but now we more frequently use it for other things, such as fasting from social media, video games, and other things. As part of this season of repentance, this fasting is typically termed as “giving up” something for Lent. But why do we do this? Why do we “give up” something for Lent?
Originally, I was going to write a historical account on Lent’s beginnings in the history of the Church, but I’m going to steer away from that and take a different approach. As such, these are my own personal thoughts on our traditional practice of Lent.
Whatever the perspective, what you should know about Lent is that there is a clear purpose to the season and its traditions. As the season of repentance, Lent prepares us for Resurrection Sunday (Easter). Our sins put our Lord and Saviour on the cross, who willingly sacrificed Himself for the forgiveness of all our sins. So, it is only proper that we spend the 40 days before Easter in repentance, imitating the fasting traditions of Christianity’s heritage from Judaism as well as our Lord’s own fasting in the wilderness.
Keep in mind also that both in and out of the season of Lent, every Sunday is a mini-Easter, praising God for the Good News of His salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord. Lent, leading up to Easter, is an emphasis of this fact.
Misunderstandings of Lent
Every year around Lent, I hear a lot of Christians criticise the season largely due to a misunderstanding of its purpose, often due to the spread of misinformation about it. One of these criticisms is that Lent is a works-righteousness season, which is completely untrue. No one is saying that by fasting—or “giving up” something—during Lent helps you earn your way into salvation or God’s favour. I have never heard anyone say this; but if someone does, they, too, have a false understanding of Lent’s purpose.
Another criticism is that some say Lent—especially Ash Wednesday—is legalistic (Law-focused, no Gospel). This, too, is completely false. Is there Law during Lent? Absolutely. The Law reveals and convicts you of your sins; that’s what brings the sinner to repentance in the first place. But the τέλος (telos)—the goal, the end—of repentance is always forgiveness in Christ, which is Gospel. Lent is not solely a Law event; it is a Law-Gospel event.
So is Ash Wednesday. Yes, there is the black theme to Ash Wednesday on the pastor’s vestments as well as the altar, and there is the imposition of ashes. Yes, Ash Wednesday—and all of Lent—is the confession of the Christian, “Dust I am and to dust I shall return” (cf. Genesis 3:19). Or, in Job’s words, “Therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). But what is it that marks you?
At the end of the Ash Wednesday service—and at the end of repentance—it is not your sins that remain, but the cross. Upon your forehead on Ash Wednesday is the ashes of the cross, which points proleptically forward to Good Friday and the Resurrection. At the end of Ash Wednesday and repentance, you are not marked by your sins; you are marked by the cross. That is, you are marked by Christ Jesus.
In that same regard: There is no forgiveness without repentance. There is no Gospel without Law.
Lent: The Season of Repentance
Along with these false understandings of Lent is also the false thinking, “I don’t have to give up anything for Jesus.” This is true, but also not true. Let me explain.
You absolutely do not have to give up something for Jesus in order to be saved. Always remember, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). This is not what the “giving up something” in Lent means. Your salvation has already been won for you in Christ.
Here’s what it does mean: the whole point of repentance is to give up your sin. We can never give up anything for salvation; that’s why Christ gave Himself up for us in the first place. Yet as converted people (more on that later), we are certainly expected—indeed, required—to give up our sins. Yet not by our will, but by God’s will.
Think of the act of repentance. Why do we repent? We don’t repent so we can keep living in that sin. Repentance is not some tool to sate your guilty conscience about doing something you’re not supposed to do. As Paul says:
What shall we say, then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? We were buried, therefore, with Him by baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.Romans 6:1-4
While he does not use the word here, Paul is talking about repentance, specifically in Baptism. Baptism, after all, begins with repentance. The Greek word for repentance is μετανοέω (metanoeō), which is an act of changing one’s mind and behaviour, or, in a word, being converted.
What happens in conversion? Often, we think of it as becoming a Christian, which is true. A person who is converted is changed into a Christian—they are changed from being a son of disobedience to a son of righteousness. Yet it is more than simply “becoming a Christian,” which is not an individual choice but specifically the monergistic work of God through the Holy Spirit.
The key word is change. In conversion, you are literally changed into something new—walking in newness of life. Even dictionary.com is helpful, defining conversion as to “change in character, form, or function.” One of its other definitions even says conversion is a “spiritual change from sinfulness to righteousness,” otherwise known as justification by faith.
A person who is converted into a Christian literally changes from being a son of disobedience into being a son of God (Ephesians 2:1-10). As such, they change in function as well—that is, they live differently. Only a person who has been so utterly changed into a new creature in Christ changes in function, which is repentance. The converted Christian functions in the constant state of repentance, renouncing their sin before God and trusting in Christ’s mercy to forgive their sin, the result of which changes their mind and behaviour. The Christian gives up his or her sin to God in repentance.
Hence the season of Lent. The whole point of Lent is, ultimately, to give up our sins to God. Certainly, this is something we ought to do every day of our lives, not just during the 40 days of Lent. Yet Lent serves to heighten our godly senses to the sins we have permitted in our lives. We all have them. It might be pornography, anger, gluttony, lying, or what-have-you. As Lent prepares us for Easter (and the mini-Easters in-between and after), it brings us to give up these sins to the Lord to help us turn away from these things, but also to remember these sins were nailed to the cross with Jesus.
So, Why Do We Give Up Stuff?
Hopefully by now I’ve helped you see—or remember—the whole point of Lent: a season of repentance, which is the confession of sins as well as trust and faith in the forgiveness of sins in Christ. And this, in turn, comes with the purposeful turning away from—or giving up—of certain sins in our lives.
If you finally understand this, you might now be thinking, “Okay, I get it now. So, why do we give up stuff for Lent when it’s about giving up our sins?” It’s quite simple, really: Because by giving up certain mundane things, this habit teaches us to give up our sins.
In other words, this is Christian discipline. We all have our favourite sins. Even Christians. Some of us become so good at justifying our sins too, manipulating our understanding of God’s grace in repentance to continue living in sin. Lent helps us begin a habit of giving up something so that when it inevitably comes to giving up sin, it’s much easier because we’re already in that pious discipline. I myself will be giving up pizza for Lent because I eat far too much of it! Because of this, this has helped me realise I actually need to repent of gluttony.
(Note: At this point, I feel it’s necessary to say that you are absolutely not required to give up something for Lent in order to be a “good Christian.” While I encourage it for good Christian discipline as well as to realise a deeper area of sin in your life, Lenten fasting in any form is by no means a requirement. That would make Lent legalistic.)
Let’s talk about the phrase “giving up.” Another way of thinking about this is instead of calling it “giving up” something for God, let’s instead call it “sacrificing” for God. After all, that’s what giving up means, doesn’t it? When you give up something, you’re sacrificing it, aren’t you? We do this in marriage all the time, sacrificing certain things for the benefit of our spouses.
Let’s consider the word “sacrifice” biblically. In the Hebrew Old Testament, it’s the word זבח (zavach); and in the Greek New Testament, it’s the word θύω (thuo). In the sacrificial system of the Law in the Old Testament, the Israelites sacrificed animals for various offerings. That is, they had to give up specific animals to God in order for their sins to be forgiven, such as an unblemished lamb. They literally gave up one of their best lambs for God rather than for themselves, which God reciprocated for their own benefit to cover their sins. (Of course, these were never enough, hence why Jesus sacrificed Himself with His holy and innocent blood.)
These were offerings—they were offered up to God, hence the Hebrew word עלה (alah—no, this is not the same word for the Muslim Allah). This verb means to “go up” or “ascend,” which was often used in conjunction with the burnt offerings and others as the smoke and smell of the sacrifices went up/ascended to God.
One example of this word “sacrifice” appearing in the New Testament is with the Passover lamb (e.g. Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7)—an Old Testament practice—as well as describing Christ as the Passover Lamb of God (1 Corinthians 5:7).
We don’t make such animal sacrifices today because they’re no longer necessary since “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed” once for all (1 Corinthians 5:7; Hebrews 10:1-18). Yet we still make certain sacrifices today. As Peter says, “…you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). (The word for “sacrifices” here is θυσία [thusia], the noun form of its verbal origin.) Luther calls this the priesthood of all believers. As priests, fulfilled in Christ and through Christ, we offer spiritual sacrifices to God, which He accepts because of Jesus Christ.
Ultimately, these sacrifices must be our sins, placing them upon the altar of Mt. Calvary upon which Jesus’ blood was shed to cover all your sins. To help us in this spiritual discipline, we can give up—sacrifice—certain things to God to help us in our right repentance, whether that’s food, social media, etc.
Lenten Sacrifices/Giving Up Properly Understood
In conclusion, then, the purpose to giving up stuff for Lent is to aid us in our giving up our sins to God in repentance. By sacrificing certain things we don’t necessarily need to live and function, this pious habit helps us to sacrifice our sins to God.
This fasting does not make you holier or more acceptable to God; neither does it earn you salvation. Rather, they are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ because of what He has done, which was fulfilling the Law and dying for you, and then rising again for you. This activity in Lent also helps the strengthening of our faith, hence the heightened focus on prayer as well. The Holy Spirit grants this strengthening to us through prayer and meditation on the Word, proleptically looking toward the cross on Friday night—upon which our sins were nailed and died—and the Resurrection on Easter morning, the tomb in which our sins remain.
Lent prepares us for Easter, in repentance laying our sins before the foot of the cross upon the altar of Mt. Calvary, upon which Christ’s holy and innocent blood has been poured as our final, Passover Lamb.