Lent is the forty days before Easter in the Christian liturgical Calendar. It starts with Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Thursday. It is traditionally celebrated in the West by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans. Until fairly recently, for most evangelicals, the very hint of liturgical calendars and days like ‘Ash Wednesday’ and ‘Holy Thursday’ would have been enough for them to run a million miles. No longer. Liturgical calendars are de rigueur. Evangelicals are outing as ‘liturgy-men’ and proud of it. Celebrating Lent is where it is at in modern spirituality. A cursory glance at many evangelical websites will make this plain. Goodness, even Michael Horton has jumped on the bandwagon. Everyone’s loving lent.
Have conservative evangelicals got it wrong all these years? Have they been too strict, too stuffy, and too legalistic (an ironic claim in this context if ever there was one)? Do we need to invest in the ‘Big Tradition’ and rediscover these disciplines? I guess, my tone in writing so far will reveal where I stand on this issue. I am appalled at how casually evangelicals are buying into traditions that are essentially Judaistic and sub-Christian. At best these are a pointless distraction but the reality is much worse; they are actually an indulgence of ‘fleshly’ religion which draws away from Christ. Strong words, I know. Not likely to please many. Such sentiments will be castigated as intolerant and narrow-minded for sure.
Let me say, at the outset, I don’t mean to be unkind or harsh. As Brian McLaren would protest, how can a mild-mannered guy like me ever be misunderstood in this kind of way? In fact, if Lenten-men were simply those who have observed it for centuries then I probably would have said nothing. However, when those who were traditionally free from this kind of childishness (a word I shall later justify), even slavery (another word I shall endeavour to defend), begin to lapse into religious shadows that in Christ are fulfilled and abandoned, I feel compelled to protest. I am jealous that Christ is being lost in the paraphernalia of human religiosity. Indeed, all who grasp what it is to be a believer who has died and risen with Christ ought to be jealous for Christ’s glory and care deeply when they see believers submitting to what Scripture calls ‘weak and worthless elements‘ and being enslaved by them (Gals 4:8).
Paul writes, in a context closely allied to the matter in question (rites, rituals and regulations),
Gal 3:1-5 (ESV)
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain-if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith.
The Galatian Judaizers were advocating Christ plus the Mosaic Law, and especially its emphasis on rites (Gals 5:2, 6:12), purity laws (Gal 2: 11), and liturgical calendars (Gal 4:10). For Paul, the whole methodology and minutiae of the Law, symbolised in circumcision, was addressed to man in the flesh and not the Spirit; it is a methodology (a religion) for flesh (Gals 3:3, 4:21-31; 6:12) that is fulfilled and finished in Christ. It is my conviction that adopting liturgical calendars, special festivals, dietary laws, symbols of penance and self-humiliation, and bodily self-denial rites as an end in themselves or as part of a religious calendar is to embrace the old covenant of law as a means of relationship with God and is seriously regressive in our walk with God (whatever protests are made to the contrary). When the Christians of Galatia are tempted to do this, Paul says, ‘I am afraid I have laboured over you in vain‘ (Gals 4:11). In accepting these principles of law ‘Christ will be no advantage to them‘ (Gals 5:2). Thus the Galatians are urged,
Gal 5:1 (ESV)
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery
Of course, those evangelicals who advocate Christian Calendars are at pains to point out that liturgical observances do not save. They do not affect our justification or standing before God. Nor are they to be imposed as a rule upon the church, but are a matter of Christian freedom. Indeed, the legalist, it seems, is someone like me who opposes rites and rituals, certainly any promotion of them. I am apparently denying freedom in Christ to those who wish to worship and serve as they wish. The irony is rich. For, of course, it is precisely those who promote such practices that Paul regards as legalists. Indeed it must be so, for they are promoting OT law not NT gospel; if you promote law you are ipso facto a legalist.
no nt mandate
Show me one text from the NT epistles teaching that Christians should live by religious calendars, or dietary laws, or observe special feasts, or abstain from foods, and so on. It cannot be done. Such rules and regulations in the NT are conspicuous by their absence, which is singularly odd because one would expect that if such disciplines are so helpful the NT would be replete with exhortations to pursue them. But it is not, for they are not (helpful). The silence of Scripture here is deafening.
They do not ‘save’, their evangelical protagonists agree. Yet, if this is so, and it is, why commend them? If I can grow in my Christian life fully without religious rules and rituals, and I clearly can since the NT never advocates them, then what is their purpose? Moreover, we should not be so confident that these ‘disciplines’ will remain a matter of ‘freedom’ in the consciences of those who embrace them. The witness of history and Scripture is against this. What begins as voluntary soon becomes established tradition and finally binding truth. Whatever we give ourselves to we become slaves to (Roms 6:16).
It is little wonder Paul is so opposed. He has great patience and sympathy with people who have been converted from legalistic religion. He bears with weak consciences in Jewish converts who cannot feel free to eat certain meats etc. He knows it can take time for these consciences to find their full freedom in the gospel (Roms 14,15). Yet he is in no doubt that these consciences are ‘weak’. They are not gospel-trained consciences fully aware of their freedom (from religious legalistic observances) in Christ. However, while he bears with weak consciences, he has no patience for those who promote and teach the value of ritualism to others. He is opposed to this root and branch and challenges any teaching that suggests or imposes such practices. There is simply no freedom given in the NT to promote and champion Judaistic practices however ‘Christianized’. The reality is, that there is no such thing as ‘Christianized’ Judaism (or at least the only version is its fulfilment and finish in Christ) only ‘Judaized’ Christianity.
Some of the above is contention I have not yet proved. Let me regroup before engaging.
I am opposing religious calendars, man-made rules, and religious rites for holiness for two reasons:
- because the NT nowhere recommends or suggests them for the life of godliness.
- because the NT actually opposes them and suggests they deflect us from Christ.
I have made the case for my first contention, follow me as I now make the case more fully for my second contention: the NT actually opposes them and suggests they deflect from Christ.
The key NT text refuting calendars and man-made religious disciplines for holiness is Colossians 2/3. I urge you to read this text carefully and prayerfully. It is a clear and powerful criticism of all attempts to introduce religious ritualism into Christianity. Below, I want to outline its main thrust and thesis.
christianity is christ
Paul’s central and vital point in this chapter (and in Colossians as a whole) is that Christianity is essentially a relationship with Christ by faith. Everything that matters is found in Christ alone. Christ is supreme (Col 1:15-21). God’s great revealed secret, hidden in the past (in OT events, figures etc) is Christ (2:2). In Him, lie all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:3). Further this revealed secret is that Christ lives in God’s people (1:27). This union between Christ and his people is the sum of what the gospel and Christianity is all about. As Paul writes,
Col 2:6-7 (ESV)
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught…
Living in our union with Christ is the be-all-and-end-all of Christianity. We are ‘filled’ or ‘complete’ in Him, the one in whom God’s fullness dwells (2:9,10). We have no more than Christ and need no more than Christ. Indeed there is no more than Christ (Col 1:15-19). Paul reminds us too that this union is a union of death and resurrection. That is, to be united to Christ is to participate (by faith and through the Spirit) in the death and resurrection of Christ (2:8-11). Like Christ we have died to this world (and so, as we shall see, to all its religious observances) and live in resurrection life to God. Our ‘life is hid with Christ in God’ (Cols 3:3). This means that Christ in heaven is the source, story and raison d’etre of our life. We find and enjoy life as we set our affections on Christ in heaven. As we put to death what is earthly (living for the things of this world as well as the sins of this world) and set our minds and hearts on the invisible world perceived only by faith we triumph in faith. This, and this alone, enables us to grow in grace. In this way alone ( looking to Christ in heaven and putting to death what is earthly) are we, ‘filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.’ (Col 1:9,10).
This is what it means to be ‘connected to the head’ (Cf 2:19). To live other than by the faith union that puts to death what is earthy and lives by a heart absorbed with Christ in heaven is to fail to ‘hold fast to the head’ (2:19) and results in being ‘disqualified’ (2:8); or, in Galatian language,in being ‘severed from Christ’ (Gals 5:4). It should be obvious that if we look elsewhere other than to Christ as the source of our life and power we are cutting the link of faith. Only by a conscious living in, looking at, and living for Christ can we become ‘mature in Christ’ (Col 1:28).
Paul does not urge that the Colossians live in Christ in a vacuüm. He writes because some were teaching otherwise.
Col 2:4 (ESV)
I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments...
What precisely the Colossian heresy was need not concern us here. Scholars delight in discussing such matters but rarely reach final conclusions. In any case, the main components are clear and it is these that interest us. It was a mixture of philosophy (2:8), mysticism (2:18) and Judaism (2:8, 11, 14, 16,17). Singly, and as a whole Paul is opposed to these influences on Christian life and practice. He says they ‘delude’ (2:4) for they are based on ‘plausible arguments’ (2:4). They appear to promote sanctity (2:23) yet are merely ‘empty deceit… human tradition… elemental spirits of the world… having an appearance of wisdom… self-made religion… things on earth… not according to Christ’ and more (Col 2:8, 20-23, 3:2). Paul will have no syncretism of Christ and anything else.
Now, we should underline that what Paul is dismissing is not merely philosophy (what has Athens to do with Jerusalem) and mysticism (what has Eleusis to do with Jerusalem) but also Judaism or the Law (what has Sinai to do with Jerusalem, or better, the New Jerusalem ). For many this dismissal of Law in Christianity is a bridge too far. I confess, I do not really understand why. Paul is consistent and clear in his proclamation that Christians are not ‘under law’ (Roms 6:15; 7:1-6; Gals 4:21; 5:18; 1 Cor 9:20). While Christians can learn from the Old Covenant as we see how it points to Christ, we are in no way obligated to it. It has no rights over us or claims upon us. We are not called to obey it, nor to adopt it in any way. In fact, we are told that there is a basic incompatibility between the forms of Judaistic Law and Gospel Christianity. Jesus makes it clear that the gospel cannot be contained in the old forms of religion that belonged to law.
Mark 2:21-22 (ESV)
No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins-and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
This is vital to grasp. Paul tells us the difference is profound; the law belongs to the old age and old world while the church belongs to the new age and new world. It is those ‘alive in this world’ to whom the rules and regulations of law (moral, religious or otherwise) are of any relevance (Col 2:20). But Christians are not ‘alive’ in this world they have ‘died’ (2:11, 3:3) and they live in an age beyond this age and a world beyond this world. They ought not to ‘submit’ (whether voluntarily or involuntarily) to regulations that belong to human religion (2:20) for they belong to an age which is passé.
This temporal distinction between the present and the future is tied into a spacial distinction between what is ‘earthly’ and what is ‘heavenly’ in Scripture. This latter distinction is one that many modern evangelicals are reluctant to admit. Yet it is clear and vital. It is part of the distinction between the old and the new, the law and the gospel. Jesus is ‘from above‘ and brings in a reality that is ‘from above’ (Jn 3:31; 8:23). ‘Earthly’ things were revealed in the OT but as the one from heaven he reveals ‘heavenly things‘ (Jn 3:12). Because he is from heaven he returns to heaven and on his return unites his people to him there. We find our identity not in the earthly Adam but the heavenly Christ, not in the natural but the spiritual (1 Cor 15:45-49). As a result we are a ‘heavenly people’ (Eph 1:20; 2:6) and our interests are to do with the realm where Christ our life is found (Gals 4:26; Col 3:1,2; Hebs 3:1; 11:6; 12:2). The Law and its forms are ‘earthly’ and part of the elementary principles of ‘this world’. They are merely an earthly copy or shadow of heavenly things (Hebs 8:5; 9:23). Thus they have nothing to do with the believer who is not ‘alive in this world’ but shares the resurrection life of Christ, a spiritual and heavenly life (Col 2:8-11). This distinction is wrongly dismissed as dualistic and gnostic by some who should know better. It is not. It is the plain teaching of Scripture. Ritual and rite are not merely passé but also unable to lift the soul above this world. They cannot remove us from the realm of ‘flesh’.
fleshly, childish, enslaving, and inadequate
The law is Judaism. It belongs to the first creation, the earthly, the natural, this world. It is called by Paul ‘the elemental spirits of the world’ (2:8). Paul similarly describes the law in Galatians. He writes,
Gal 4:1-5 (ESV)
I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
His point is that Law, as a religion, functions much like a ‘disciplinarian’ or ‘nanny’. These are hired to oversee children and in the past were expected to do so with firm discipline; they did not so much teach as control. Law as the above text points out treated those under it as infants, as childish.
Although God-given, it was given to man in the ‘flesh’ (Roms 7:1-6; Gals 3:3; Cf Hebs 7:16; 9:13,14). It was a ‘religion’ that attempted to curtail and curb human behaviour by external rules and religious regulations but it could dig no deeper. It could not change hearts. It could not give life (though it promised it for obedience) and it could not produce holiness. When Israel was exiled the failure of law to influence flesh was proved. This is why Paul says of law and all religion that is about undertaking rules, regulations, ritualistic restrictions that it are ‘of no value in preventing the indulgence of the flesh‘. Mark these words well for they are very important. However, holy and virtuously self-denying many rites and rituals seem to be THEY ARE OF NO VALUE IN PREVENTING THE INDULGENCE OF THE FLESH. They may deny the body but they could not curb ‘the flesh’, that Adamic nature we have so opposed to God. This is true of the rites not only of the law or Judaism but of every other religion. In fact, from this perspective, Paul puts the Law or Judaism on the same level playing field as all other religions. They all are elementary or rudimentary. Paul tells the gentile Galatian believers who are being encouraged by Judaizers to embrace the Jewish Law that they would be as well going back to their old pagan religions for the law was no more effectual than they.
Gal 4:8-11 (ESV)
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.
Let the force of this sink in. In Galatians, Paul uses two plural pronoun groups, ‘we’ and ‘you’. ‘We’ applies to Jewish believers and ‘you’ to gentile believers. In Ch 4:1-5 he speaks of ‘we’. We Jews, he observes, were enslaved to the law (the elemental principles of the world). In 4-8-11 the gentiles were enslaved to their false religions; however, if having being freed from these they now embrace the Law then this is tantamount to a return to their old religions; they are turning back to ‘weak and worthless elementary principles of the world’ and to slavery once again. Paul’s comparison shocks and is intended so to do.
It is impossible to read Gals 3:21 – 4-11 and avoid the conclusion that those who submit (freely or otherwise) to the law and its ordinances are regressing to what is childish and enslaving. They believe they are embracing something new and exciting, something progressive and fresh, something that may help them to be holy and godly, but actually they are embracing what is weak, worthless and inferior. Satan’s sardonic irony as he deludes is keen.
Neither human philosophy nor religious mysticism, nor rites, nor ascetic practices enable us to grow in grace. None enables us to know God. It’s no good claiming that these regulations were Jewish rather than Christian rules and regulations. Jewish regulations and rites were God-ordained religious observances (indeed the only God-ordained ones) and pointed to Christ but they were merely shadows not the substance (2:17). The substance was Christ. If we want shadows of the gospel rather than the substance then Jewish ceremonies is the way to go. None we invent improves on those God gave. But Paul’s criticism is not of this or that particular liturgical calendar. It is not specific Jewish days, months and sabbaths to which he objects (though sabbaths clearly shows these were law-based since none but Jews had sabbaths). It is not certain diets and ascetic techniques he objected to. He objects to the whole methodology per se. The methodology was passé, earth-bound, childish,enslaving and inadequate. Methodologically these rituals were of no value in preventing the indulgence of the flesh. Indeed, they did the very thing that was the problem – they focussed on the flesh. Law in any shape or form does not deny flesh, it excites it and promotes it (Roms 7).
Law and all human religion focus on the flesh and have confidence in it (Phil 3:3,4) This is Paul’s constant criticism of the Judaizers. They focussed on flesh, whether its status (Phil 3:2-5) or its performance (Phil 3:6). Circumcision (the symbol of the Judaizers) was all about the flesh (Phil 3:2; Gals 6:12). For Paul, circumcision epitomised the flesh because it was circumcision of the body and not the heart. It is what a man did to himself and for himself. In this circumcision was an appropriate symbol of law which was essentially a covenant of works, of human achieving. The gospel, by contrast, is ‘circumcision without hands‘ that is, it is by and of God not man (Col 2:11). The circumcision of the gospel happens at the cross when we die with Christ to the law and its ordinances (Col 2:14). It is an act of God that removes all human involvement and so all human boasting.
We need to see that self-denial programmes of ‘touch not, taste not and handle not’ are fusty and futile. The Law and Judaism was full of such prohibitions at certain times in the religious calendar yet they did no good whatever; the nation that had the law crucified its Messiah. Indeed, Messiah himself teaches that it is not what goes into a man (the food he chooses to eat or not to eat) that defiles but what comes out of his heart (Matt 15:1-20).
Artificially imposed times and programmes of repentance and ascetic self-denial and the like all focus on self. If we succeed they puff us up with pride and if we fail we feel defeated. Nowadays they tend to be about giving up chocolates or alcohol or some other luxury related to the body. For those more serious about their faith they may mean self-imposed severe bodily deprivation. But whether the dilettante denials of the modern evangelical or the more serious denials of the older ascetics the result is the same – no effect in restraining the indulgence of the flesh, merely a means of focus on it (Cols 2:23). Flesh (fallen human nature) loves to act piously (and to be seen to do so either by others or self). It loves to appear humble and focus on its achievements, religious or otherwise. So rather than subduing the flesh these ‘ordinances’ satisfy the flesh. Thus they are not merely passé, earth-bound, infantile and futile, but counter-productive. In addition,and perhaps most damning of all, they utterly fail to come to terms with the position of a believer in Christ. Those who promote them have not grasped that growth in holiness is not by looking at self and undertaking various ascetic disciplines but by looking away from self and focussing on an exalted reigning Christ.
christianity is christ
What draws me away from the world and focus on self is not my body on earth but Christ in heaven. As I love him, look at him, live in him (and he in me) then I have the power to put to death what is earthly. It is the expulsive power of a new affection. Christ, and only Christ, is our wisdom, justification, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor 1:29). Holding fast to the head is the only means of grace (Col 2:19). The moment I put something else between, whatever shape this may assume, I am not holding fast to the head. The hallmark of the ‘true circumcision’ is simply this- ‘it rejoices in Jesus Christ and makes no provision for the flesh‘ (Phil 3:3). The question for all of us is simply, is Christ all?. If Christ is not all then there is no maturity, only flesh. Fathers in the faith (the spiritually mature) are recognised by this – they ‘know him who is from the beginning’ (1 John 2:14). Paul’s cry of spiritual maturity is for Christ and yet more of Christ (Phil 3:8-16). He did not want types and shadows, rules and religious observances; he wanted Christ. He recognised in Christ he had everything and without him he had nothing. The heart of a believer is satisfied and enraptured only by Christ. In him, we have, ‘all things that pertain to life and godliness‘ (2 Pet 1:3). Toplady is one among many who has expressed this in hymn.
Compared with CHRIST, in all beside No comeliness I see; The one thing needful, dearest LORD, Is to be one with Thee. Whatever else Thy will withholds, Here grant me to succeed! O let Thyself my portion be, And I am blest indeed! Loved of my GOD, for Him again With love intense I burn; Chosen of Thee ere time began, I choose Thee in return! Less than Thyself will not suffice My comfort to restore; More than Thyself I cannot have; And Thou canst give no more.
Allow me to once again briefly regroup.
Liturgical calendars with their special seasons and ceremonies are not progress but regress. They represent a spiritual nose-dive. Far from maturing, they are a regression to the childish and enslaving. They do not lead to Christ but detract from Christ. They are for those in the flesh and not life in the Spirit. They limit our horizon to earth and do not raise our gaze to heaven. I have every sympathy for believers raised in churches where Judaistic rites and rituals are taught. Their consciences should be sensitively considered. However, I have little sympathy with those who should know better. I have little patience for evangelicals who have been free of such bondage yet now in the conceit of what they fondly call Christian freedom wish to promote and encourage what is weak and enslaving. Such teaching receives stiff opposition from Paul (Col 2) and ought to be opposed by all who love freedom in Christ.
Let me say again that freedom in Christ does not mean freedom to worship as we please. Freedom in Christ is freedom to worship in spirit and truth. It is freedom to live in Christ not shadows. There are forms of worship that are neither helpful nor appropriate for they lead us away from Christ; they disconnect us with the head. They do not lead us into freedom in Christ but into slavery. Such forms are neither commanded, commended nor condoned by the NT (Col 2). That some who profess to be teachers of God’s people do not see this is culpably irresponsible. We may rightly ask them as Jesus did Nicodemus: are you a teacher in Israel and do not know this?
My heart-felt appeal to my brothers and sisters in Christ is – do not be ‘bewitched’ by them.
a final comment
What then are we to make of fasting? Doesn’t the NT promote fasting? And for that matter, what about baptism and the Lord’s Supper? Are not these ordinances? These are good questions and I hope to address them. But not in this post. This post is already far too long. I will try to address these questions in the next post. For the moment, let me say simply this: whatever our questions, don’t allow these to undermine or relativize the plain NT teaching we have explored so far. To exhort in a specific context: do not choke the living flame of the gospel with the Lenten ashes of Judaism.