Is Lent Legalistic?
Ash Wednesday kicks off the season of Lent in just two days, leading up to Resurrection Sunday (aka Easter). Before we get to the issue of when you fast (not if), it is necessary that we first address some misinformation concerning Lent.
Thanks to social media, both information and misinformation spread like wildfire. Around the beginning of Lent every year, misinformation is spread that Lent teaches works righteousness and that it is legalistic, which is nothing more than a lie.
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 end, the goal—of the Law and repentance is always forgiveness in Christ, which is the Gospel. To say that Lent is solely a Law event and not a Law-Gospel event is a failure to understand Lent and the Law-Gospel structure in which it functions.
As Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, it begins with a black theme as seen on the pastor’s vestments, the altar, and the imposition of ashes. This is because 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, furthermore, 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 Resurrection Sunday. Even more, the ashy cross also points to your Baptism, causing you to remember that you died (returned to dust) in your Baptism and rose to new life in Christ (Romans 6:1-14). While the beginning of Ash Wednesday and each day of Lent might begin with Law, they always end with the Gospel. Therefore, Lent is primarily a Law-Gospel event with the cross always remaining prominent. You carry the ashy cross on your forehead all the way through Lent, up to Resurrection Sunday.
Thus, 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.
When You Fast
One of the key Scriptures the tradition of Lent is based on is Matthew 6:16-18, “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.”
Two things are vital here. First, twice Jesus says, “When you fast,” not “if you fast.” The ESV’s English translation of this phrase in vv. 16 and 17 agrees with the Greek. In v. 16, it is written, “Ὃταν δέ νηστεύητε,” thus translated, “Whenever you fast.” Jesus repeats the phrase again in v. 17, although “when/whenever” (ὃταν [hotan]) is missing; but as this phrase is repeating the subjunctive phrase of v. 16, retaining the “when” is a legitimate translation choice. What is clear here is that Jesus expected the people who follow Him to fast. However, we must not fall into the danger of using this in a legalistic sense. A little later, we will look at the purpose of this fasting and repentance. Jesus’ words here are not a command but an expectation.
The second vital thing of what Jesus says is that fasting is done in secret. This flies in the faces of how many Christians today practice fasting. Social media posts flood everybody’s newsfeed of what “I’m giving up for Lent.” Like Pharisees, they set up their supposed humble fasting before others because they want everyone to see how pious or godly they are. This is not how Jesus advised fasting to be practiced. Rather, it is to be done in secret. Can you tell someone what you’re fasting from or “giving up for Lent” if they ask you? Sure, if you want, so long as it serves the mutual fellowship and edification of the saints and not your ego. Should you publicly set it before others to boast of your pride? Absolutely not. And please, spare me the masking of your ego with “what if” scenarios (unless if you’re fasting from social media, you should probably let everyone know so they don’t think you died or something).
What can you fast? People mostly fast from food, but you can also fast from other things: social media, alcohol, Netflix—anything you feel that might become an idol in your life due to your excess use of it. For example, last year I fasted from pizza, which might seem silly, but I chose to give that up for Lent because I ate far too much of it during vicarage.
Fasting/Giving Up for Lent
Now that you are fasting for Lent, we can address another misunderstanding, which is the thinking that “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). The “giving up something” in Lent does not mean sacrificing something to earn God’s favour and, therefore, your salvation. Your salvation has already been won for you in Christ.
What it does mean is that the whole point of repentance is to give up your sin. We can never give up anything for salvation; that’s why Christ gave up His own life for you in the first place. Yet as followers of Christ, we are certainly expected—indeed, required—to give up our sins by the Holy Spirit.
After all, what is the purpose of repentance? We don’t repent so we can keep on living in sin; that would defeat the whole purpose. Repentance is not some tool to satiate your guilty conscience so you can keep on doing what God forbids you 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. “Repent and be baptised, every one of you,” Peter says (Acts 2:38). The Greek word for repentance is μετανοέω (metanoeō), which means to change one’s mind and mindset. When your mind or mindset is changed, you change; therefore, you repent, giving it up to God, never to do it again as long as you are able (always praying for the Holy Spirit’s guidance).
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 senses to the sins we have permitted in our lives. We all have them. It might be anger, gluttony, pornography, lying, too much time on social media, whatever. As Lent prepares us for Easter (and the mini-Easters—each Sunday—in-between and thereafter), 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, hence the ashy cross on your forehead on Ash Wednesday.
With all this being said, why do we fast/give up stuff for Lent? We know it’s not to try to earn God’s favour since it is already yours in Christ and it’s definitely not to brag about it before others. But why do it? Why practice this church tradition of giving up trivial things for a temporary period of time? Because when we give 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 really good at justifying our sins too, manipulating our understanding of God’s grace so we can continue being unapologetic hypocrites. In giving up something seemingly mundane in Lent, the tradition of fasting helps us begin the habit of giving up sin in repentance. When I gave up pizza for Lent last year, for example, my fasting helped me realise I needed to repent of gluttony. This year, I’ll be giving up social media for Lent because it has been an easy avenue for sin, the only exception being when I publish another article and post the link on the blog’s social media pages so y’all can know when there’s a new post. This is going to be some serious fasting for me and extremely difficult. So, to help myself not to “relapse,” I’ll be replacing the temptation to scroll endlessly on social media with reading a book.
Let’s talk about the phrase “giving up.” What we really mean when we say “giving up” in Lent is fasting, but another way to think of it is “sacrificing.” After all, that’s what you’re doing in Lent when you’re “giving up” something, isn’t it? When you give up something, aren’t you sacrificing it? We do this in all our relationships—sacrificing certain things for the benefit of our neighbour, whether spouse, friend, parent, sibling, whatever.
Let’s consider the word “sacrifice” biblically. In the Hebrew Old Testament, the word is זבח (zavach); and in the Greek New Testament, the word is θύω (thuo). In the sacrificial system of the Law in the Old Testament, the Israelites sacrificed certain 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 or the firstfruits of their crops. They literally gave up one of their best lambs for God rather than for themselves, which God reciprocated through the blood of the lamb to cover their sins. (Of course, these were never enough, hence why Jesus sacrificed Himself with His holy and innocent blood; see Hebrews 10:1-18).
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 God, 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; cf. Hebrews 10:1-18). Yet we still make certain sacrifices today, though for different purposes and goals. 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, the Passover Lamb, 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.
Giving Up/Fasting Properly Understood
In summary, the purpose to giving things up 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 healthfully (like pizza or social media), this pious habit helps us to sacrifice our sins to God whenever we repent.
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, not because of what you may or may not be doing in your fasting. Fasting also helps the strengthening of our faith, hence the heightened focus of prayer in Lent 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 with Christ—and the Resurrection on Easter morning, with whom we also rise into new life in our Baptisms, our sins remaining in the tomb.
Lent prepares us for Easter, in repentance laying down 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.