‘Lent’ used to be an innocuous word. Derived from Old English ‘lencten’ or ‘lenten’, it simply meant ‘spring’. Yet it was during this season that fasting was an obligatory practice because the church authorities instituted it. It is of course an emulation of the forty days Jesus fasted in the wilderness and resisted the temptation of the Devil. However, there is no scriptural commandment for us to repeat this, and neither is it lawful for any church to bind our conscience to an arbitrary season of fasting. Furthermore, such an observance often arises from a superstitious sense of duty and a desire for self-gratification, either to serve ourselves or in an effort to please God through our own righteousness. Works righteousness and the temptation to offer unbiblical worship to God must be put aside:
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. (Leviticus 10:1 ESV)
If we think we are pleasing God through contrived offerings, we are mistaken. However, it is worth stating that prayer and fasting is a sound biblical practice. This can be done spontaneously for the purpose of refocusing on spiritual rather than worldly matters. Reformed Christians continued to hold days of thanksgiving or fasting in response to God’s providence. Thanksgiving might arise out of a spirit of gratitude following a good harvest, for example, and fasting might arise out of a spirit of repentance following a poor harvest. Ultimately, fasting is concerned with seeking God’s will and caring for our spiritual health, not fulfilling a religious obligation to God or pleasing ourselves.
There is no harm as such in fasting during the traditional Lent season as long as it is done in Christian liberty and not to fulfill an ordinance. Bullinger wrote the following in the Second Helvetic Confession:
The fast of Lent is attested by antiquity but not at all in the writings of the apostles. Therefore it ought not, and cannot, be imposed on the faithful. It is certain that formerly there were various forms and customs of fasting. hence, Irenaeus, a most ancient writer, says: “Some think that a fast should be observed one day only, others two days, but others more, and some forty days. This diversity in keeping this fast did not first begin in our times, but long before us by those, as I suppose, who did not simply keep to what had been delivered to them from the beginning, but afterwards fell into another custom either through negligence or ignorance” (Fragm. 3, ed. Stieren, I. 824 f.). Moreover, Socrates, the historian, says: “Because no ancient text is found concerning this matter, I think the apostles left this to every man’s own judgment, that every one might do what is good without fear or constraint” (Hist. ecclesiast. V.22, 40). (Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 24)
If any church obliges or even encourages us to observe Lent fasting, it has gone beyond its remit. Biblical authority alone is the master of our conscience and not any man, church, organisation or civil government. Jesus has given us freedom from the ceremonial obligations of the Jews, so why should we wish to return to them, knowing that God’s grace working in our faith is sufficient to purify us, and we dare not add to or subtract from this. Any good fruits we bear, any religious practice (and we should indeed bear fruit if we have true faith) must come out of our freedom in Christ, out of willingness because we are a new creation, out of gratitude because of our sanctification through God’s redemptive work alone, not found in ourselves.
Concerning the observance of evangelical festivals – including the Nativity (Christmas), the Circumcision (New Year), the Passion (Good Friday), the Resurrection (Easter Day), the Ascension and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles (Pentecost) – many Reformed Christians continued to use these occasions to preach the major redemptive works of God (although others such as the Puritans wished to abolish them altogether). These festivals are not divine ordinances and we are therefore not obliged to keep them. Our conscience cannot be bound by them as it is by the Lord’s Day, but they are rather kept in liberty and because we are not constrained to worship exclusively on the Lord’s Day. These festivals, if they are observed, should not detract from the weekly sabbath and we should also not introduce into them any superstitious rites which are not commanded by God.