Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (Today - Feb 13th) and continues for 40 days (not including Sundays) leading up to Easter. Traditionally this is a time for self-denial and penitence. Modern practice among many Roman Catholics, as well as mainline protestants (i.e. Lutheran or Methodist) often involves "giving something up" for Lent.
As a kid, growing up in a Lutheran church we observed Lent but "giving something up" usually consisted of soda or chocolate among my peers and what followed was 6 weeks of complaining that sounded something like, "MAN... I WISH I COULD HAVE CHOCOLATE."
If there ever was a lesson in "missing the point"... that was it.
But what really IS Lent about? Should I even consider the practice of it? And, What, if anything, does it have to do with me?
Three main questions. Three responses.
What is Lent REALLY About?
The short answer: Jesus.
The longer answer: There is a fundamental difference in theological understanding and belief between traditional Roman Catholic belief and protestant belief when it comes to Justification and Righteousness in Christ. The Protestant Reformation came about and (the dis-unity continues) really on THIS point of Justification, or, HOW is one made righteous and RIGHT with God. Roman Catholics use a term called "Infused Grace" and it basically means, that Jesus' Life, Death, and Resurrection made righteousness possible for those who are In Christ, (Justified by Christ's merit) but is MADE right with God by their own personal justice and holiness. (Source: Catholic Encyclopedia)
Martin Luther took issue with that and, with all due respect to my friends and family who are Roman Catholic, I'm glad he did. Luther, and other reformers (like John Calvin) argued for what is called "Imputed" righteousness. Which basically means that the righteousness of Jesus is given to men from outside of themselves. It echoes the reformation doctrine of Justification by Grace through Faith Alone. It is an "alien" righteousness in that it does not come from within man but, comes from another source, namely the God-Man, Christ Jesus.
In Catholic Tradition, Lent then serves as a process by which the faithful can make themselves holy by beating their bodies (self-denial of certain foods, caffeine, etc) and thus fulfill their "part of the deal" by earning, in some way, the justification that is available to them because of Jesus.
Paul has some very clear things to say to this understanding of ANY practice for the purpose of making oneself right in God's eyes:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
The practice of anything, to self-redeem is empty. Paul is very clear. However, in the very next Chapter (Colossians 3), Paul encourages the believers to putting off sin and putting on fruit that could only come from one filled with the Holy Spirit (kindness, compassion, etc.) so, work in our faith is important but our work, our labor comes from a position of "already righteous in Christ"and not from a postion of "I need to earn my righteousness by my work."
I do not view the possible practice of Lent in the way that a catholic would view and practice lent because I do not view justification and righteousness in that way and I don't view Jesus' Work in that way. I am a product of the reformation is that I believe the Bible is clear that ALL my righteousness comes only from Christ and that those who are in Christ are completely Justified and made righteous! That does not mean that transformation of life (desires, mind, attitudes, and actions) isn't important but rather comes from a renewed and redeemed heart.
Should I consider the practice of Lent?
In light of THIS understanding of Justification, (Here, Here, Here) I believe that we can use and, in fact, redeem this mere human tradition to lift up the greatness of Jesus' righteous-making work... NOT to seek to earn something, or justify ourselves, but to follow Paul's command in Colossians 3 to "put to death what is earthly in you" and seek to loosen the grip of the World that lingers far too long on our hearts, minds, wills, and desires.
I'm hoping to set aside some time each day to ask the Holy Spirit for conviction for specific things in my heart that are still too often tied to this world as I move, day-by-day along the calendar, toward the celebration of Easter. Not to make me righteous, but to remind myself that Christ is righteous, that His promises for me are True and Trustworthy, and out of my position of accepted, righteous, co-heir with Christ I can pursue holiness by His Grace.
What does this have to do with me (you)?
If you are hoping that this activity will do the work of changing your heart or removing your sin, you will be disappointed. Only the work of God, in Christ, by Grace, through Faith (belief) at work in your heart by the power of the Holy Spirit can bring about a transformed heart. Thankfully, God is really good at what He does.
If you are planning on giving something up (chocolate, caffeine, movies, facebook, tv, etc.), GREAT. But don't miss the point by complaining that you just want your coffee back or "can't wait" until April so you can look at facebook again. Rather, offer up that time (or dependance on something) as an opportunity to see if there are things that are trying to master you and your heart and walk in repentance. Martin Luther said, "All of the Christian life is repentance" and he's right. But that doesn't mean that we can't focus some extra time on repentance as we look to the Cross and the coming celebration of Jesus' victory over sin, death, hell, and the grave!
I look at any opportunity for reflection and honest examination as a good opportunity. The devotional guide posted above might be a tool that will encourage you to carve out some extra time for just that. Not as a means of grace, but as a response to Grace.
I hope you are encouraged because if you are IN Christ Jesus, you are already righteous.
I hope you are encouraged that your ability to LIVE as the Scriptures command, although impossible for you on your own, is possible because Christ is perfect.
I hope you are encouraged as you are given grace to see the areas of your life that are still tied to earthly and temporal things and can celebrate the freedom of repentance and forgiveness in Jesus.
May Jesus continue to build his Church and purify his people (his Bride) as he makes her ready for the Wedding Feast that will have no end.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Lent Devotional (pdf) - "Journey to the Cross"
"Stop Loving The World" - William Greenhill (Sermon turned to small book)
"Counted Righteous In Christ" - John Piper (Free PDF e-book)
Pretty Much All of Romans but specifically Romans 6