Recently George Sinclair wrote an article in favour of observing the season of Lent. One of the most helpful parts of that post was his list of ideas for studying Scripture, praying and serving others.
George’s position is what I would liken to a “Lent as useful tool” type. George and other evangelicals who adopt Lent do so because they see the general practical benefits of a season of confession and contrition. They aren’t bringing in the baggage of Roman Catholic sacramentology generally.
Now there might be some of this baggage in the cross on the forehead at Ash Wednesday. Intended as public symbolism, the ash mark on the forehead offers a public display of the inward posture. In that sense, it starts looking like a sacrament of baptism or the Lord’s supper. If things get sacramental, then a person may need to evaluate this as a case of conscience.
Careful with the “Ought”
When churches like George’s are aiming to use Lent as a tool and promoting good, godly, and gospel-centred focus in it, they might find it beneficial. However, normally it does become a matter of conscience. Pastors need to be careful then about how they are binding consciences with ceremony or practice.
For example, recently I strongly exhorted my church to attend our monthly prayer meeting. But I had to do so carefully so as not to bind their consciences that the set time, date and format was biblically demanded. The same goes for seasonal ceremonies like Lent. Once you have put them into the calendar and added an “ought” to them, it can become a problem.
I personally think that the appeal of Lent for many Christians is the good gospel instinct to want to repent of their sins, and enjoy the forgiveness of God in Christ. However, I wonder if part of the new popularity of Lent comes from the gaping vacuum of repentance-less Sundays.
Is there regular confession of sin in the order of service on Sundays in the churches that are newly practicing Lent? I’m sure traditions like George’s Anglican church have always had a confession time. But I wonder if the ‘non-liturgical’ churches, now observing Lent were confessing their sins weekly?
For Reformed evangelicals or those sympathetic to the TGC statements, a pastor will have to decide whether they should follow the Reformed instincts to pare away Lent from the burdens of the people.
If Evangelicals wish to adopt Lent as a tool, will they also ask for confession of sins and assurance of pardon in their Sunday services too? What better seasonal practice than the weekly reminder of the cross, and the liberty of pardon in the gospel. Follow up with the preaching of the Word in a supernatural event and you can put the lenten instinct into practice. And then you might have no need for a formal “Lent” anymore. The itch will be scratched, the need will be addressed, with no confusing Roman Catholic theology required.
Don’t Go Retro
If you participate in Lent and go to an Ash Wednesday service, then take George’s advice and focus on the Scriptures, the gospel, and a true devotional posture to God alone.
Whatever you do, don’t let yourself get drawn into the cool factor. It’s tempting to like Ash Wednesday simply because it seems so retro. As Carl Trueman warned, “As an act of piety, it costs nothing yet implies a deep seriousness”. Sadly we are all tempted with low-cost pieties and acceptable virtue signals. Observers of Ash Wednesday and Lent should be especially sensitive to these temptations.
In it all, whether you are observing Ash Wednesday and Lent in a gospel-centred way, or you are not bound to those practices in gospel freedom, you can nevertheless confess the beauty of the gift of God:
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. (Isa 61:3).
This gift is given in the gospel of Jesus Christ, the great exchange of our sins for Christ’s righteousness. It is a gift that knows no bounds of season or feeling, but replaces our ashes of shame and the dishonor of our offense against God.
What joy to walk in this freedom, since “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1).
For helps in doing one-to-one bible reading as George’s article suggested, go here.
For another evaluation of Lent see Tim Challies’ fair assessment.