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Entries in lent (4)


The Big Idea of Lent: Jesus Did What I Couldn't Do

The call to fasting and repentance is as ancient as the prophets. Just read Joel 2. There's nothing like a good fast to, like a defibrillator, shock the unbeating heart of our spirit out of its complacency. However, of monumental, make-or-break importance is to recognize that the season of Lent is far more about Jesus and far less about us.

If we fast, we fast to remember the fasting of Jesus in the wilderness, to, in a tangible way, "be found in him." And it is precisely Paul's point in Philippians that being "found in him" means that we recognize that we are found not in ourselves, "not having a righteousness of my own" (Phil 3:9). This is the opposite of fasting to test or flex our spiritual muscles. Now don't get me wrong. Testing our spiritual muscles is a wonderful thing to do; it is part of the Christian's life, in response to the gospel, that we would engage in spiritual disciplines like this. But this is not the "big idea" of the Lenten fast. The big idea of Lent is to embrace this truth: Jesus did what I couldn't do.

Recall that Matthew records Jesus' 40-day temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11) in order to parallel Israel's 40-year temptation (Num 32:13). What happened with Israel? They grumbled. They made and worshiped idols. They did not rely, by faith alone, on the Word of God. In short, they failed. Matthew sets up Jesus as the new and true Israel...the kind of Israel that Israel could never be. Jesus, succeeding in the wilderness, proclaims to us, "I came to do for you what you could never do for yourselves." The Lenten fast is here to remind us that Jesus came "to fulfill all righteousness" where we crashed and burned (Matt 3:15).

What is the victorious Christian life? Lent answers: Jesus.

All this puts our fast into context—the context of the gospel. If you find yourself tempted this Lent, as we all are, to pat yourself on the back for the good and faithful work you're doing: repent. Change your mind about yourself. You aren't doing as well as you think. You need a righteousness "not of your own;" you need to be "found in him."

One great Lenten worship practice I commend is lamentation, because lamentation is the cry of one who can't find righteousness on their own. And I do mean "righteousness" here in the full-orbed sense of the Bible. The biblical language of "righteousness" certainly speaks to my personal holiness, my pursuit of just actions. And as we've said, we need to remember that we don't have a righteousness of our own. But "righteousness" in Scripture also has to do with justice in the national and global sense.

Lamentation is therefore a double-cry: Things are not right with me, and things are not right with the world. The former is lamentation in the form of personal confession. The latter is lamentation in the form of global confession. Only the victorious ChristianJesus himself—can solve these kinds of problems. Throughout Lent, therefore, I'll be offering a series of seven posts on lamentation, on what it means and how to engage it. And hopefully, even in our lament, as we groan with the Spirit (Rom 8:22-27), may it be yet another way we can find ourselves in Christ this season.


How Far Off Are We from the Reformers' Vision for Lent?

I utilize a wonderful little liturgical resource in some of my worship planning for the chapel services at Knox Seminary, where I both study and teach. This book is a devotionally-oriented compendium of the collects (the short prayers, invocations which "collect" the hearts of the people at the beginning of worship) of the brilliant liturgical reformer, Thomas Cranmer. This book presents the week's collect along with a few historical observations of how the prayer was written and then offers a page-length devotional meditation on the collect.

The Fine-Meshed Filter of the Gospel

Cranmer composed, edited, or re-purposed these historic liturgical prayers, and they have become for the Anglican tradition some of the most beautiful gems of the Prayer Book. Reformation scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch says that the collects are "one of the chief glories" of the entire tradition of Anglican worship.* Studying the origins of the collects of Cranmer would be a formative exercise for any earnest worship leader interested in how a gospel-centered thinker edited the "worship words" of his tradition to be more in line with the good news of Jesus Christ. In writing his liturgies for the English church, Cranmer took the received Roman liturgy and not only translated it into English but "gospel-ized" it. In other words, Cranmer edited out everything in the liturgy that he felt was not in line with the Gospel, and he replaced it with an enormous spotlight on the finished work of Christ's life and death. He ferreted out every last hint of works-based righteousness, and replaced it with what Paul calls "a righteousness that is by faith from first to last" (Rom 1:17, NIV).

God's Word is a fine-meshed filter, sifting out self-righteousness in parts per trillion. The Law says that our righteousness isn't really righteousness after all. And the Gospel says that God didn't need our righteousness anyway. I was reminded of all this when I opened up my book to Cranmer's collect for the first Sunday in Lent. Here it is.


The Collect for the First Sunday in Lent

O Lord, which for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the spirit, we may ever obey thy Godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thy honor and glory, which liveth and reigneth, &c.


Like the Collects of Advent III and St. Stephen's Day, this prayer is addressed directly to Our Lord Jesus Christ. The reason is clear: Hebrews 4:15. This is an original composition for the 1549 Prayer Book. Our Reformers eliminated the medieval Collect which stressed fasting and good works as a means to earn merit, a notion completely out of line with the New Testament.


It is clear from this Collect that we cannot obey God in the direction of "righteousness and true holiness" until we are "subdued." What is in mind is the self-control of a person as St. Paul commends it in II Timothy 1:7: "For God hath not given us a spirit of fear; but of power and of love, and of self-control" ("of a sound mind" in the Authorized Version). ... The older or medieval model in commending self-control was the model of warfare, the war between the "flesh" and the "spirit." It was as if we were divided between a good "spirit" and a rotten "flesh." ... What Cranmer intends here, in place of the old model of warfare between "flesh" and "spirit," is the discipline exercised upon the whole person by the Spirit of God. Through the Spirit it becomes natural rather than against nature to restrain the evil impulse for the sake of love. The "godly motion" of the Collect is the spirit of a man or woman that has been aligned into the ways of goodness by the virtue of God's grace preceding. We are not understood here as being divided in some schizoid or dualistic manner, but rather as persons to be realigned or integrated by the rod of God exercised from love and hence for love. Remember the old saw, "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak"? Cast out that thought, like the sad rag it is! Exchange it for the glad rag: "Love subdues the spirit, and the 'motions' follow and follow and follow."**


A Great Lent Makes Much of Christ

So here's what I'm thinking, friends. Liturgy and the Church Calendar are in vogue right now. And praise God for that. I happen to think the Church Calendar is much more than extra-biblical "dead traditionalism." It is rooted in a Scriptural understanding of annual Christ-centered cycles of worship, and it is therefore a quite lively tradition. Perhaps, though, we Protestants need to think more carefully about how we re-engage and appropriate these traditions, and Lent is case in point.

Lent is a wonderful season that can go all wrong if we don't, in the Spirit of the Reformers, maintain a stubborn commitment to the very Gospel that drove them to edit, redact, and overhaul their received liturgies. Lent is one of those places where works-righteousness likes to sneak in, where the Old Adam tries to reassert himself and gain a place at the table. For in a season of fasting and repentance (both thoroughly biblical ideas), we're always tempted to make it about us and what we do for God. Lent can become far more about what we give up for God and far less about what Christ gave up for God the Father on our behalf. Lent is ultimately about Christ's fasting, not ours...Christ's earning God's favor, not ours...Christ's victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil, not ours.

Jesus fasted for forty days to secure the favor of the Father, and he did this, in the words of the Nicene Creed, "for us and for our salvation." Jesus fasted in His Lenten wilderness so that our Lenten fast could be completely freed from any sense of securing the favor of God. We fast and repent from out of the favor of God, not for it. This does a marvelous relativizing work on our works, for it puts our fasting completely on the horizontal plane (between us and our fellow human beings), not the vertical (between us and God). It means that we fast for our neighbor. How is this so?

God doesn't need one ounce of our good works. He's got the King's chest...a big pile of merit secured by His Son and placed in its overflowing, eternal storehouse.  The Father looks at the Son's spoils from His war on earth and is satisfied. But though God doesn't need our good works, our neighbor does. We fast, therefore, that we may be freed up toward the types of "Godly motions in righteousness" that bless our neighbor. When I am self-controlled, my wife and my children are blessed. When I am not self-controlled, I hurt them. Though God doesn't benefit one ounce from my good works, my neighbor does a whole lot. So, we might say that a truly Gospel-centered Lent "horizontalizes" the works of the season. 

Furthermore, a truly Gospel-centered Lent understands with Cranmer, Luther, Calvin, Bucer, and the other reformers that it is only in focusing on Christ's work for us (our justification) that enables our work for the sake of our neighbor (our vocation). Therefore, Lent in the light of the Gospel remains, just like all the other seasons, all about Jesus. 

Worship planners and leaders, a great Lent makes much of Christ. 

*Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven: Yale, 1996), 417.
**C. Frederick Barbee and Paul Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 34-35. 

A Couple of Lent Albums Worth Sharing

Just in case you all haven't heard of these great albums, they will provide you with thoughtful songs for connecting with God in the season of Lent.  New York Hymns and Redeemer Knoxville are two groups of artists part of the next generation of the ever-growing retuned hymns movement.

New York Hymns, Songs for Lent


Redeemer Knoxville, Rise O Buried Lord


Worship as Fasting & Prayer: Not Popular, But Powerful

Some denominations have more “organizing documents” than others.  Presbyterians often get (many times lovingly) disparaged for being a little overkill in the organization-and-documentation department.  I guess, then, that my love of my denomination’s constitutional documents, like our Book of Order, makes me “one of those.”  Our Book of Order has a very helpful section on worship, and in Chapter 4 (“The Worship of God at Other Times”), it says this:

Days of Prayer and Fasting: The Lord Jesus Christ set the example for God’s people in a time of fasting. Throughout the New Testament there is frequent indication that Christians in the early Church practiced fasting. Therefore, the Church will do well in its spiritual life if it follows this example. The Church Session should be diligent and sensitive to those times when such a special day is called for and should be eager to order such an event. Christians individually and in particular families should observe special days when fasting is practiced.

…When the Church Session calls a day of prayer and fasting, the purpose of the occasion should be announced and adequate time given in order that members may prepare themselves. It is appropriate on such occasions for services of public worship to be conducted during the day set aside. All the members under the authority of a Church Session should make diligent effort to conscientiously participate in the day set aside.1

In a class on Christian ethics, one of my most influential professors—Douglas Groothuis—urged us to re-engage the lost art of fasting.  He reminded us that our cultural setting is not conducive to denying ourselves, because it is a now-oriented, appetite-driven environment.  (By the way, this is why our brothers and sisters in Ghana engage this Christian practice with much more regularity and effectiveness.)

Fasting is one of those things that is not popular because it does not appear to be powerful.  It makes us weak and dependent—something that is not a part of the American psyche.  Fasting, furthermore, not only makes us physically uncomfortable (something that Americans aren’t used to), but spiritually uncomfortable.  Why?  Because it is often during a fast that one’s idols, so regularly and conscientiously fed, go hungry.  The idols, in turn, rise up in our hearts and cry out for feeding, attention, and worship.  When this happens, our spirits become restless.

But here’s why fasting IS powerful. 

1)     Christ’s example shows us that fasting fills us with power (when connected to Christ, the source of that power).  Luke 4 records Jesus’ forty-day fast: “He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry” (v 2).  Then, the devil appeared and tempted Him three times.  Jesus did not succumb, and the text implies that Jesus’ victory was not due to the mere fact that He was fully God, but that, in His humanity He relied on the Father for strength because His fasting had made Him utterly weak.  Christ, the man, had the power to withstand temptation because He fasted.

2)     One of the hallmarks of Christianity is that things that seem foolish to us end up being very, very wise.  1 Corinthians 1:27 says, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”  God’s wisdom confounds ours.  This should be very instructive when we’re tempted to think that fasting is a weak, empty enterprise.

3)     God chooses to unleash His power through weakness.  2 Corinthians 12:9 records God saying to Paul and to us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  There is actually an obvious logic here.  If God is using His power through someone, it would be most apparent that it is God’s power when that someone is noticeably weak and powerless.  If God is using His power through a powerful figure, one could mistake that power as being from the person.  But if someone is obviously weak, then such power can only be attributed to the work of God.  It is backward thinking to us, but because fasting puts us in a position of physical and spiritual weakness, we become a more fitting conduit of the raw, unquestionable power of God.  Wow.

At the start of the year, our church session (our leadership team of elders) chose to heed the wise admonition of our Book of Order and call for a time of prayer and fasting.  This past Sunday, we had a special service of prayer and Communion, concluding with that call for people to fast.  We left the duration and type of fasting up to the discretion of the individual.

Here’s what I’m discovering this week.  By fasting and praying together as a church, we’ve extended our corporate worship out past Sunday.  We’ve all taken the practice home with us, but we are still engaging it as a community.  Here’s what I wait for in hopeful anticipation of the result of this period:

  • ·   A more vibrant worship service this coming Sunday morning—people more fully engaged in mind, heart, and spirit.
  • ·   A more evident hunger for the Word of God when it is preached.  (I’m preaching this Sunday, so my antennae will be up.)
  • ·   Some “breakthrough” wisdom from godly elders and congregants about how our church can fulfill our vision and mission in the near and far future.
  • ·   Some restored relationships within families and within our church family.
  • ·   Physical, psychological, and spiritual healing of individuals in our congregation.

Why do I wait in faith for this?  Because, by fasting, our church has chosen to open a box full of pulsating power (one that we haven’t opened in a while), and I can’t imagine that when that power is unleashed among us that it will do nothing.  I look forward to rejoicing when the stories come in.



1Evangelical Presbyterian Church, “Book of Worship,” in Book of Order (Livonia: Office of the General Assembly, 1987), §4-2